I had two revelations recently as I was reading Mill's revolutionary "Essay on Utilitarianism" (1863). An amazing prodigy, Mill was one of the greatest philosophers in history, and arguably the greatest philosopher in history of ethics and its relationship to happiness. I have struggled with happiness and depression my entire life, for personal reasons. But as a lifelong peace activist constantly struggling against the death of innocents these 30 years, and always gravitating to the most intractable conflicts, I have constantly veered between the exultations of episodic victories and the firestorms of war that wipe away all progress. Every important place I have worked has been devastated by war before and after I worked there, from Palestine to Syria to Afghanistan. Every decade calls more and more into question my own personal success at creating any kind of peace.
As I have been struggling recently with a series of setbacks in my life, I have been asking myself the same questions everyone asks about depression: Is depression a good thing or a bad thing? Okay, not everyone asks such questions, but serious scholars and researchers do ask this vital question. Does depression give you a more realistic take on life and is happiness, by contrast, the stuff of self-delusion, or fundamentalist manipulation? Some argue that the incessant ruminations of depression, going over things, events, past, present and future, thousands of times, has some virtue for seeing what others miss, for working through pain, and coping with loss, for example. Others argue that depressive rumination is useless, it is the brain stuck in reverse, and that new forms of positive thinking constitute a vital move away from depression toward something better.
Reading Mill was for me a way to take my mind off of my own troubles. But in doing so it proved to me the immense power of literacy to provoke less anger in myself. There is a great deal of correlation between literacy and less violence, and many theorize, as documented by Stephen Pinker, that the act of reading will very often get you out of your own skin and into someone else's. The more that you do this, the harder it is to enjoy seeing someone else suffer and die, someone of a different color, nationality, religion, identity.
What I was struck by is that in a small way it did exactly this for me so quickly. It took me beyond the obsessive thoughts about myself and into another world. It broke a pattern of self-pity that is so enticing, so intoxicating. Most people do suffer tragedy, and self-pity is often justified, but it is also very destructive, inducing great anger, depression, and destructive approaches to others. Personally speaking, I simply become a less decent person when all I can think about is my losses and the hurt that was caused me. It is exhausting, time consuming, and embittering.
What struck me as revolutionary, however, was a little known passage from Mill that runs as follows:
When people who are tolerably fortunate in their outward lot do not find in life sufficient enjoyment to make it valuable to them, the cause generally is, caring for nobody but themselves. To those who have neither public nor private affections, the excitements of life are much curtailed, and in any case dwindle in value as the time approaches when all selfish interests must be terminated by death: while those who leave after them objects of personal affection, and especially those who have also cultivated a fellow-feeling with the collective interests of mankind, retain as lively an interest in life on the eve of death as in the vigour of youth and health. Utilitarianism, chapter 2, (1879)
People are unhappy due to selfishness, according to one of the greatest thinkers on the subject. That flew in the face of every instinct I had my entire life. It was serious people who were sad about the world, it was informed people who worried, cared, talked and ruminated ceaselessly on the worst tragedies, like the Holocaust. They were depressed, but they were the responsible ones on this planet, not the fools saying happy empty things all the time. But here Mill was saying the opposite.
This struck me like a lightning bolt. I had spent decades in mourning and depression over the state of the world, and it was disguised selfishness. I was depressed about my own personal failings in human relations, and meanwhile I was too damn selfish to take delight and happiness in all the people in the world who I had helped, from family to friends, to students, to employees, to thousands who had benefited from my books or my projects. It meant nothing to me because... "I did not prevent the Intifada, or I did not prevent a Syrian war, or I did not convince Jews how to make peace with Arabs." Hogwash, says Mill.
Mill argues that opening ourselves up to what we leave after us, what happens because of us, will leave us supremely enthusiastic until the moment we die, if we truly understand the happiness and the pleasure of what we offer the world, of the life we give beyond our own personal needs. We all have supreme failings and losses; Mill certainly did as a person, as we know from his biography. But in the utilitarian sense we are miscalculating grossly if all we ruminate upon is our own personal state and do not look at the total of happiness we have delivered.
Depressed people may not be as realistic as current psychology sometimes argues, and happy people may not be as foolish as some of us see them. It very well may be the opposite. Generosity of spirit may in fact be the window into the true nature of our fluid and interdependent reality, where all of us have created much more pleasure and happiness than we can possibly calculate. Therein may lay a path to psychological recovery from the disappointments of our hard work for a better world, and a path toward that elusive thing called "happiness."