There is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal called Mental Illness and Leadership. It advances the theory that in times of crisis the best leaders are those who suffer from depression. It is another entry for the “creativity and madness” file, a topic that has been of interest since at least the era of Cervantes and Shakespeare.
Nassir Ghaemi, the author of the article, says that depression has been shown to encourage traits of both realism and empathy.
“Normal” nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.
Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is.
(A turn around on Don Quixote who saw the world not as it was, but as he thought it should be.)
…Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past. Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.
Ghaemi uses Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples of people who suffered from depression and whose strategies of nonviolent resistance were based on an assumption of empathy. Ghaemi concludes:
India was fatally divided because Hindus and Muslims could not accept each other… The politics of radical empathy proved, in the end, to be beyond the capacity of the normal, mentally healthy public.
The observation left me questioning the author’s “sanity.” That is, to say, I question his definition of the word.
It sounds as though mental health, in this context, is synonymous with conformity. Is conforming to a social structure that is filled with prejudice rather than empathy really more “sane” than refusing to conform?
Having the positive illusion of greater control over ones environment could actually be a cause of a lack of empathy. If you think you control your health through positive thinking, for example, you’re less likely to have empathy for the sick who, it follows, should be able to prevent their own illness.
The studies in the article, at least as they are explained by the author, seem to suggest that depression is the cause of greater empathy and realism. But correlation is not the same as cause. Could it be, rather, that a person who is more empathetic that usual and who does not have a positive illusion of control is more apt to suffer from a depression that evolves out of a sense of not fitting in with a culture that seems a bit heartless and which, it seems, he has no power to change?
The person who is in step with larger society is likely to have an easier time of it. That’s why most people try to do that. That is also probably why they tend to be happier— they’re not banging their heads against the wall.
But does it seem a bit backwards to anyone else to define the person who sees the truth others do not as the one who is insane? To define the person without a mild delusion of grandeur as the one who is less mentally healthy? To say that recognizing common humanity before the particular social definitions of one’s time and place is insanity?
Is sanity synonymous with happiness? Could it be rather less sane to be happy and content when the situation does not warrant it?
Is sanity synonymous with fitting in? Is being content with the way things are actually sane if things are not that great?
To quote Don Quixote (the version from the musical play Man of La Mancha), “When life itself is lunatic who knows where madness lies. Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest still, to see life as it is and not as it ought to be.”