Friday, May 07, 2010

Markets, Depression, and Merry-Go-Rounds

Yesterday I watched as the stock market took an unprecedented plunge. The Dow fell something like 600 points in 15 minutes, perhaps reflecting fear of a world-wide financial collapse. I'm no fancy economist, but that sounds like a bad thing.

I have my personal retirement account built from decades of Excel work; about half of it is in stock funds. I manage the investments my mother lives off of, and those of a non-profit I volunteer for. These too have exposure to the stock market.

The problem isn't simply about losing money. That's to be expected sometimes: as a Buddhist and a poker player, I'm familiar with the roller-coaster of variance. (Variance refers to gain and loss alternating for reasons we can't understand, and in ways we can't predict -- at least in the short-term.) At this chaotic moment, the issue is: I'm responsible for dealing with several financial situations... and I have no idea what to do.

It's most likely that I'll do nothing. Doing nothing is one of my favorite things, as well as my go-to strategy in troubled times. Years ago, I read the novel The Mouse That Roared. One character was a government official who had a standard policy for any problem that reached his desk: he'd ignore it for the first week. He reasoned that most problems resolve themselves in a short time if you do nothing. Even as a child, the idea was appealing to me. It's no coincidence that I ended up doing Zen, a practice that involves a whole lot of sitting quietly and doing nothing.

Biologists debate why we human beings get depressed. Since depression doesn't seem to offer an advantage in terms of survival or procreation, you'd think that evolution would have weeded out this tendency. And yet depression remains common, across all age groups and throughout history.

When depressed, we can't find the pleasure we usually derive from activities like social interaction, sex, and eating. In short, we don't feel like doing anything. Since we're not "distracted" by the search for pleasurable activities, we have more time and energy for rumination. From the Scientific American article Depression's Evolutionary Roots:
... when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.
From the Wikipedia entry Evolutionary approaches to depression:
Another way depression increases an individual’s ability to concentrate on a problem is by reducing distraction from the problem. For example, anhedonia, which is often associated with depression, decreases an individual’s desire to participate in activities that provide short-term rewards, and instead, allows the individual to concentrate on long-term goals. In addition, “psychomotory changes,” such as solitariness, decreased appetite, and insomnia also reduce distractions. For instance, insomnia enables conscious analysis of the problem to be maintained by preventing sleep from disrupting such processes. Likewise, solitariness, lack of physical activity, and lack of appetite all eliminate sources of distraction, such as social interactions, navigation through the environment, and “oral activity,” which disrupt stimuli from being processed.
What a relief. It's not that I'm lazy. It's that I don't want to disrupt stimuli from being processed!

Life is like a carousel: it can be wonderful to enjoy the lively music, to experience the exciting shapes and colors and motions, to grab at the brass rings. But what if you spent a whole lifetime on a merry-go-round? You'd miss lots of stuff. Hell, if you never got off the merry-go-round, how would you even notice that you're on a merry-go-round?

So we've got formal Zen practice, in which we sit quietly and do nothing. It's just like stepping off the merry-go-round. This pause from the constant ups and downs, the gain and loss and striving of life, reveals an otherwise hidden wider perspective. Stopping for a moment our search for rewards... is the only way to get a clear view of the big-picture questions: what am I, and why am I alive?

Over the eons, perhaps DNA discovered that in difficult and confusing times, the optimal default strategy is to do nothing. Maybe that's why it allows depression... so we'll periodically give it all up and curl up immobile. If it's good enough for DNA, it's good enough for me.


Doug said...

One of the problems with the conversation about depression is a lack of clarity about what is meant by the word. Colloquially, people say "I'm feeling depressed," and that points to a certain state of mind; frustration or helplessness or what have you, but that is different from what is meant clinically by "depression." Everyone feels depressed from time to time, but some people almost never feel otherwise. Still others fall into such fits of despair that they contemplate hurting or killing themselves; and it's not always in reaction to something terrible or devastating, sometimes it doesn't take anything significant at all.

I can offer a few good examples from my own life. When I was very young, my mom suffered perpetually from depression (bi-polar disorder and severe depression both run in my family). She says that many days the only reason she could drag herself out of bed was to take care of my brother and me. Another person I know started contemplating that he would be spending his spring break from college alone (or so he kept telling himself) and got worked into such a state that he was seriously considering suicide. He got help, but it involved spending spring break in lockdown at the veteran's hospital alongside Vietnam vets with deeply buried PTSD. This was a month or two ago, and this guy is former military but never saw any combat or anything untoward during his service. He can't even explain why he felt like he did; today he looks back on his actions during that buildup (including saying some terrible things to people that he cares about, and breaking into fits of rage and smashing things) and can't even relate to his own mind from only a few weeks ago.

So there is "depression" of the variety that may be an evolutionary trigger that helps us overcome adversity, and then there is "depression" caused by some confluence of chemical imbalance, genetics, and probably environmental influences that can and should be thought of as a sickness. The problem with all words is their imprecision, but this one is particularly bad on that account. ;-)

It's interesting being a member of the Zen Center that I belong to; the teacher trained as a psychologist before getting into zen practice. He talks very openly about psychotherapy and encourages those who need it to pursue it first and foremost, even steering people towards medical help before allowing them to start a full time residency at the center. He thinks zazen can be helpful to those with problems like depression, but argues very strongly that it shouldn't be a substitute for medical treatment.

The Rambling Taoist said...

I really like the way you explored the issue of depression. While I agree with some of the points the previous commenter made, I also think you've stumbled upon a new way of looking at wu wei!

yomamma said...

I really need to get moving , before I can function or get anything done, really we evolved to move, sitting a lot is kind of new. I see all these clients who sit too much in their jobs and their backs are so messed up. Movement seems to override depression.
The type of depression stuart talks about is some kind of functioning while immobilized adaptation, what Doug talks about is truly debilitating, maybe something is learned in retrospect but one is not functional at the time it is occurring. so functional depression vs clinical. ?