The Chronicle Review

Gloom and Doom in the Review

February 24, 2014

To the Editor:

Recently in these pages—oddly enough during the dark and cold clime of midwinter—we’ve been treated to revisionist advice about affective ailments. "Worry, don’t be happy!," Mari Ruti effectively exhorts in "Happiness and Its Discontents" (January 24); in "An Evolved View of Depression" (January 31), Jonathan Rottenberg brings the glad tidings that the blues are good for you. Put the two together and we’ve got a recipe to really make life interesting: A nice, anxiety-laced depression should be just the thing to keep you on your toes and ward off any bland contentment from creeping into your duly nervous, dismal soul.

I’m fed up with this kind of pseudoshocking revisionism romanticizing the alleged virtues of frazzled nerves and melancholy. Its appeal is the apparent subversion of received wisdom—yet it falls flat under the weight of careful reflection. Although Ruti and Rottenberg make some valid points (about the needs, respectively, for lively tension and self-protective downtime), they both overstate their cases. Moreover, in so doing, they elide the very real dangers of actual mood disorders such as high anxiety and major depression.

The evolutionary adaptation of "low mood," or dysthymia, for example, does not explain the debilitating horrors of severe hopelessness or the self-destructive tendencies of recurrent depressions.

Even though there are times when dancing with chaos or retreating into sorrow is apt, there is nothing small-minded or wrong-hearted in pursuing salutary equipoise in one’s life and in seeking to contain despair—indeed, when confronting maladies of affect or attitude, the contrary rings truer.

Ralph R. Acampora
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Hofstra University
Hempstead, N.Y.