bhapter6 88-148 January 20, 1990

Values and beliefs play an even more complex role in depression than do ordinary goals. For example, Warren H. believes that it is very important that each person dedicate himself or herself to the welfare of the community. But unfortunately he lacks the talent and energy to make a large contribution to the community. When he compares his actual contribution to the contribution he believes one should make, his self-comparison is negative, leading to sadness and depression.

Values are more fundamental than ordinary goals. We can think of values as goals that are based on the individual's deepest beliefs about human life and society, assessments of what is good and what is evil. Even if a person's values are obviously implicated in a depression--for example, the soldier who refuses to kill during a battle, and is therefore judged by other soldiers and himself as unpatriotic and worthless--no one would suggest that he should simply alter for convenience his belief that life is good and killing is bad.

There is nothing irrational about the soldier's thinking or that of Warren H. Nor is there any logical flaw in the thinking of the English cabinet minister John Profumo who courted danger for his country by consorting with prostitutes who were also consorting with a Soviet spy. For his actions, Profumo did penance for ten years in charity work; that choice is not irrational.

Nor is a person irrational who kills a child in an avoidable auto accident and then judges himself harshly because he has contravened his highest value by destroying human life. There is nothing irrational about the subsequent negative self-comparisons between his behavior and his ideal self which result in depression. Indeed, the guilt and depression may be seen as an appropriate self-punishment, similar to thea punishment of the person that society may inflict by sending the person to jail. And the acceptance of the punishment may be part of a process of doing penance which may result in the person finding a new and better life. In such a situation some clergymen say "Judge the sin but not the sinner", but that may not be psychologically or morally appropriate.

These are the kinds of cases that take us beyond psychology and into philosophy and religion.


Values present harder-than-usual questions about whom you should compare yourself to. Should you compare your moral behavior to a saint, or to an ordinary sinner? To Albert Schweitzer, or to the fellow next door? You cannot be as casual about this choice for comparison as when you choose a level of competitive tennis to set as your standard.

The value of meeting one's felt obligations to family, community, and society according to prevailing standards is often involved in depression (The prevailing standards usually are, however, far more demanding than is the norm of other people's actual conduct!) Another troublesome value is the relative importance of various aspects of life, for example, of devotion to family versus community, or devotion to success in one's profession versus family. Sometimes, even if you are very successful in many aspects of your life, your values may focus your attention on dimensions on which you do not excel, which can result in negative self-comparisons.

The development of a person's values and beliefs is complex, and differs from person to person. But it is clear that childhood experiences with parents and the rest of society influence one's values. And it seems likely that if your childhood was rigid, pressure-filled, and traumatic, you will be more rigid in your values, and less flexible in choosing a new set of values upon adult reflection, than a person who had a more relaxed childhood.

In particular, loss of love, or loss of a parent, must heavily influence one's fundamental view of the world and oneself. Loss of a parent or parental love is likely to make one feel that success, and the ensuing approval and love, are not automatic or easy to get. The loss likely makes one believe that it takes very high achievement, and the attainment of very high standards, to obtain such approval and love from the world. A person with such a view of the world is likely to conclude that her actual and potential achievements are, and will be, less than they must be to achieve love and approval; this implies hopelessness, sadness, and depression.

Of course childhood experiences persist in the adult not only as the objective experiences they were, but as the memory and interpretation of those experiences--which often are far from the objective facts.


Sometimes a person suddenly thinks, "Life has no meaning." Or to put it differently, you come to think that there is no meaning to, or value in, the activities which you had formerly thought were meaningful and valuable to yourself and the world. For one reason or another, you may come to cease accepting the values you had formerly accepted as the foundation of your life. This is Tolstoy's famous description of his "loss of meaning" and collapse of values, his subsequent depression, and his later recovery.

...something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do; and I felt lost and became dejected.... Then these moments of perplexity began to recur oftener and oftener, and always in the same form. They were always expressed by the questions: What's it for? What does it lead to?... The questions... began to repeat them- selves frequently, and to demand replies more and more insistently; and like drops of ink always falling on one place they ran together into one black blot.

Then occurred what happens to everyone sickening with a mortal internal disease. At first trivial signs of indisposition appear to which the sick man pays no attention; then these signs reappear more and more often and merge into one uninterrupted period of suffering. The suffering increases and, before the sick man can look round, what he took for a mere indisposition has already become more important to him than anything else in the world--it is death!

That was what happened to me. I understood that it was no casual indisposition but something very important, and that if these questions constantly repeated them- selves they would have to be answered. And I tried to answer them. The questions seemed such stupid, simple, childish ones; but as soon as I touched them and tried to solve them I at once became convinced, first, that they are not childish and stupid but the most important and profound of life's questions; and secondly that, try as I would, I could not solve them. Before occupying my- self with my Samara estate, the education of my son, or the writing of a book, I had to know why I was doing it. As long as I did not know why, I could do nothing and could not live. Amid the thoughts of estate manage- ment which greatly occupied me at that time, the question would suddenly occur: 'Well, you will have 6,000 desy- atinas of land in Samara Government and 300 horses, and what then?'... And I was quite disconcerted and did not know what to think. Or when considering plans for the education of my children, I would say to myself: 'What for?' Or when considering how the peasants might become prosperous, I would suddenly say to myself: "But what does it matter to me?' Or when thinking of the fame my works would bring me, I would say to myself, 'Very well; you will be more famous than Gogol or Pushkin or Shakes- peare or Moliere, or than all the writers in the world-- and what of it?' And I could find no reply at all. The questions would not wait, they had to be answered at once, and if I did not answer them it was impossible to live. But there was no answer.

I felt that what I had been standing on had col- lapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.

My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the ful- fillment of which I could consider reasonable. If I de- sired anything, I knew in advance that whether I satisfied my desire or not, nothing would come of it. Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires I should not have known what to ask. If in moments of intoxication I felt something which, though not a wish, was a habit left by former wishes, in sober moments I knew this to be a de- lusion and that there was really nothing to wish for. I could not even wish to know the truth, for I guessed of what it consisted. The truth was that life is meaningless. I had as it were lived, lived, and walked, walked, till I had come to a precipice and saw clearly that there was nothing... ahead of me but destruction. It was impossible to stop, impossible to go back, and impossible to close my eyes or avoid seeing that there was nothing ahead but suffering and real death--complete annihilation.1

Some writers use the term "existential despair" to describe the same phenomenon.

A collapse in values often results from philosophical and linguistic misunderstanding of such key concepts as "meaning" and "life". These concepts seem obvious at first thought. But they are in fact often obscure and misleading, both the concepts and the words which stand for them. Making clear the confusion often reveals the implicit values.

The sense of loss of meaning is usually followed by depression, though it sometimes is followed by uncontrolled elation or by a violent oscillation between the two poles. The basic idea of this book, negative self-comparisons, explains this phenomenon: Before the event, actuality and the person's values were in balance or positive most of the time. But with the removal of one's customary values there is no longer a basis of hypothetical comparison for one's activities. Hence the result of the comparison is indeterminate but very large in one direction or the other, because there is no boundary to the comparison. The comparison is more likely to be negative than positive because the former values are likely to have been a support for, rather than a constraint of, the person's activities and life style.


The most interesting curative possibility for collapse of values is the discovery of new values, or the re-discovery of neglected old ones. This is what happened to Tolstoy, when he later came to believe that life itself is its own value, a belief which he also thought characterized peasant life.

Values Treatment for collapse of values will be discussed in detail in Chapter 18. We should here note, however, that though values are interwoven from childhood into the very foundations of a person's character and personality, they are nevertheless subject to change as an adult. That is, values can be accepted and rejected as a matter of personal choice, though one cannot do so lightly and casually.

Tolstoy and modern existential thinkers have thought that the "despair" of loss-of-meaning depression is the educated person's common condition. It seems to me, however, that most "educated" people's training, interests, and life circumstances do not lead them to question the values they accepted in childhood, for better or for worse, in such manner as to lead to loss of meaning.


Values and beliefs play an even more complex role in depression than do ordinary goals. Values are more fundamental than ordinary goals. We can think of values as goals that are based on the individual's deepest beliefs about human life and society, assessments of what is good and what is evil.

The collapse of a person's values can lead to depression. The most interesting curative possibility for collapse of values is the discovery of new values, or the re-discovery of neglected old ones. These possibilities will be discussed in Chapter 00.