Book Review: Rethinking Depression provides existentialist path to happiness

The following is a review of an author and text of interest to MAAF readers. This is not an ad, but an objective review with no financial interest for MAAF.

Rethinking Depression is a resource by a foxhole atheist that would be helpful for foxhole atheists and for military leaders who desire to help foxhole atheists lead happier and more meaningful lives.

Eric Maisel holds a PhD in counseling psychology. He is a life coach with nearly 30 titles to his credit in the areas of happiness, creativity, mental health, and meaning. My previous experience is with his book The Atheist’s Way and the related podcast series. I was impressed with the focus on Making Meaning in life and have enjoyed hearing him speak in person. Dr Maisel is also an atheist and an Army veteran. Because Dr Maisel is one of us, a former foxhole atheist, and has been supportive of our community in his book The Atheist’s Way, I wanted to review for our community his newest book, Rethinking Depression.

Depression falls into the field of mental health and personal well-being. All branches of the military have been tackling these issues due to the rise of Post-Traumatic Stress and suicides in recent years. One primary solution they have implemented is “Spiritual Fitness.” This focus on “spirituality” has been overly-religious in nature and has alienated much of the nontheist community. Dr Maisel’s book on depression addresses the well-being of a person on the level of meaning, which falls into the area of what the military is calling “spirituality.” However, Dr Maisel’s approach, with Rethinking Depression, and several other titles, provides a more naturalistic perspective the military should consider in reforming their “Spiritual Fitness” and other programs related to mental health and well-being.

From my review of the text, Rethinking Depression approaches depression as a symptom of having 1) excessive focus on negative thoughts and 2) an lack of intentionality in creating  personal meaning. Dr Maisel articulates how these deficiencies create what we call depression and specific tools on how to overcome these deficiencies and turn them into strengths.

After covering some foundational concepts (see comments on introductory chapters below), Dr Maisel has four chapters exhorting readers to take charge of their lives by Looking Life in the Eye, Investigating Meaning, Deciding to Matter, and Accepting Obligations to be a meaning-maker. These chapters move the “locus of control” from external entities like doctors, friends, enemies, and drugs back to the individual.

By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. (p. 52)

Once you decide to take charge, the bulk of the chapters focus on creating a set of personal values upon which to create a happy and meaningful life. Among other tools, there is a “Life-Purpose Vision” that is a short or long living statement of what really matters to you in your life. The deliberate, conscious act of both creating and revising this statement over time provides a direction. As your situation, resources, capabilities, and desires change over time, you can refer to this Life-Purpose Vision to keep your bearings. Dr Maisel presents this Vision not as an unchanging definition to which you should conform, but a current statement that is expected to change as you and your reality changes. The common theme of dealing with the “changing you” and your changing reality was one of the most liberating messages in the book.

“The [Life-Purpose Vision] is not like a rule. It functions more like an existential chime”, resonating with consistent actions and ringing dissonant with actions that are inconsistent with your purpose statement and values.

The third section (and I am of course synthesizing and summarizing liberally), involved more frequent practices to make Rethinking Depression a part of your ongoing life. Dr Maisel draws from an early book, Ten Zen Seconds, to provide Meaning Incantations as one suggested part of Morning Meaning practices. These practices are not an end in themselves, but rather help to ensure that the day is properly laid out.

The book closes with several approaches to ensure the we can plan for a meaningful and fulfilling day every day, that we seize opportunities to make meaning, and that we can resolve crises of meaning as they arise. Rethinking Depression provides a wide range of tools and techniques to deliberately create an ever-evolving, personal and authentic meaningful life for ourselves.

Rooted in the simple and inspiring natural world and requiring no supernatural concepts, Rethinking Depression is a tool for the atheist and humanist community to live happier and healthier lives.

Check out Dr Maisel’s feature on Rethinking Depression here

Comments on Introductory Chapters

The first 5 chapters provide “foundational concepts” of existentialist philosophies and the failures of “Big Doctor” in mis-diagnosing depression. These seemed to be a burning platform for the need of the book and were somewhat lost on me as a reader and may not fit the skeptical and humanistic audience closely. I provide a short perspective below and encourage readers to move through these sections to the substantive and helpful tools starting with the “Look Life in the Eye” Chapter.

Existentialist Philosophy: Rethinking Depression draws not so much on a general atheist or humanist worldview but on a subjectivist, existentialist philosophy specifically. Dr Maisel summarizes his application of existentialism to meaning as:

Meaning is private, personal, individual, and subjective. Every argument for the objectivity of meaning is merely someone’s attempt to elevate his subjective experience and his opinions above yours and mine. (p. 72)

This contradiction between subjective/personal meaning may seem extreme for those espousing a more objectivist mentality. But the tools and approaches seemed to fit well for me despite my more objectivist and humanistic world view.

“Big Doctor” and Depression as a mental illness industry: The introduction and much of the “sales” of the need for this book relies on vilifying psychotherapy and pharmaceutical treatment of depression and even the term depression itself. The argument that “Depression” is just a tool to sell drugs to treat a symptom may sound to the skeptical ear like a conspiracy theory. A common excerpt of the book lays out his feelings on the matter:

“Even if you believe that there is a “mental disorder” called “depression” and that certain treatments work to minimize it or “cure” it, you must agree that you will not have cured life once you have cured your depression.”

One might ask many questions: Is depression a mental disorder? Is it treatable by medication? Is medication the best treatment? Is meaning-making efficacious in every instance of depression? Is meaning-making a valuable tool as complementary (if not alternative) therapy? These questions aren’t to be discussed or resolved here, but Rethinking Depression is a useful tool to create a more meaningful life, whatever one’s feelings are about “depressive disorder” or the medical industry.


One Response to Book Review: Rethinking Depression provides existentialist path to happiness

  1. Awesome find. I am the Resilience, Risk Reduction, Suicide Prevention R3SP Program Coordinator and just bought this for my iPAD. Indeed, the military community does not seem non theistic friendly. Yet another “closet” folks have to live in. NOT ME. Free thinking and open to the whole conversation.

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