william james on melancholy

In this letter to his 13-year-old daughter, who was struggling while away at school, psychologist William James (older brother of writer Henry James) offered his insight into what he calls melancholy, or what I would characterize as mild depression, the severity of which still allows for effective self-initiated non-clinical therapy. While I think his description of depression is somewhat dated in parts—or perhaps it’s just his wording (e.g. arising from an organism’s generation of poison in the blood?)—I also think there is some merit to his advice. Here is the excerpt that struck me the most:

Now, my dear little girl, you have come to an age when the inward life develops and when some people (and on the whole those who have most of a destiny) find that all is not a bed of roses. Among other things there will be waves of terrible sadness, which last sometimes for days; and dissatisfaction with one’s self, and irritation at others, and anger at circumstances and stony insensibility, etc., etc., which taken together form a melancholy. Now, painful as it is, this is sent to us for an enlightenment. It always passes off, and we learn about life from it, and we ought to learn a great many good things if we react on it right. (For instance, you learn how good a thing your home is, and your country, and your brothers, and you may learn to be more considerate of other people, who, you now learn, may have their inner weaknesses and sufferings, too.) Many persons take a kind of sickly delight in hugging it; and some sentimental ones may even be proud of it, as showing a fine sorrowful kind of sensibility. Such persons make a regular habit of the luxury of woe. That is the worst possible reaction on it. It is usually a sort of disease, when we get it strong, arising from the organism having generated some poison in the blood; and we mustn’t submit to it an hour longer than we can help, but jump at every chance to attend to anything cheerful or comic or take part in anything active that will divert us from our mean, pining inward state of feeling. When it passes off, as I said, we know more than we did before. And we must try to make it last as short as time as possible. The worst of it often is that, while we are in it, we don’t want to get out of it. We hate it, and yet we prefer staying in it—that is a part of the disease. If we find ourselves like that, we must make ourselves do something different, go with people, speak cheerfully, set ourselves to some hard work, make ourselves sweat, etc.; and that is the good way of reacting that makes of us a valuable character. The disease makes you think of yourself all the time; and the way out of it is to keep as busy as we can thinking of things and of other people—no matter what’s the matter with our self.

As I mentioned above, this advice could be helpful even today for those who are suffering from mild depression. For the clinically depressed, of course, this advice is not sufficient. I’m also not sure how I feel about the way James lightly disparages those who embrace melancholy. On one hand, I can see his point, in that this outlook does direct inward and tends to stay there, where it can fester and corrode our “character” as he puts it. However, I also believe much can be learned from intense self-examination, and if our first instinct when feeling ourselves slip inward is to deny this and instead seek out others to “speak cheerfully” with, then I think we lose out on a possible learning experience. There is also the vast canon of visual art, music, and writing generated by so many melancholic individuals to consider. Were these people to put down their pens, brushes, and instruments whenever they started feeling blue so they could instead go chop some wood or chat with their neighbors, think of what a loss to the world that would be.

Maybe I am taking James out of context, or over-analyzing his advice; after all, he was trying to cheer up his daughter, not writing a treatise on depression. Unfortunately, he’s not here to clarify his thoughts. Interestingly, James himself suffered from chronic depression, and was at times suicidal. I wonder if he ever tried taking his own advice, or if his depression was too crippling to be helped by it.

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  1. I’ve never been so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed, though I have been suicidal. For me it was always the thought disorder that I got with it that made the depression intolerable, because I couldn’t learn anything from it or sublimate it into anything else, it just brought my life to a stop. I would walk down the street and think about throwing myself in front of cars, there really was not much higher level thinking going on. Now I take an antidepressant and don’t get depressed. I admire other people who can be articulate about their emotional lives. In me it feels as though there is just a void.

  2. Maybe making art also can be a kind of hard-work-sweat activity James would approve of?
    Maybe his own writing and research was a kind of self-medication??

    Anyway; I think he sounds rather Payson Call’ish in his good advices, having a very common sense kind of attitude to mental health, far from our contemporary post-post-post … psychoanalytical attitude. To me his everyday tone is refreshing. I do absolutely not believe it is possible to recover from grave depression by pulling-oneself-togheter, but I still think its important for all of us, ill or not-ill, to se and feel ourselves as agents – not as marionettes – in our own life. (I guess cognitive therapy is rooted in a more James-ian tradition?)

    • He wrote a lot and was published widely so I’m sure there are some answers to your questions in his more formal works. There is also a 12-volume set of his correspondence that probably reveals a lot, should you dare to wade in. :) Apparently he was well-acquainted with many of the literary and scholarly luminaries of his time, including Freud and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which means he likely corresponded with at least some of them.

      I think that at least part of his common sense tone here is due to the context, this being a letter to his teenage daughter. However, I don’t think that he ever practiced clinical psychology, which as a formal field did not really begin until near the end of his life. He taught most of his career at the university level. So one wonders if he had lived longer and had begun to take patients under his care, would he have dispensed this same type of counsel that he gave to this daughter? Given that he was at least as much if not more of a philosopher than a psychologist (with interests in mysticism and the use of various drugs to explore this), his counseling techniques would have in fact likely been quite different than those of today’s mainstream psychoanalysts.

  3. ps:
    He signed his letter W.J, do you think this was typical for this historical period?



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