Sunday, April 29, 2012

Eric Maisel Does For Mood What Michael Pollan Did For Food

"Rethinking Depression" by Eric Maisel

“In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” the 2008 bestseller by Michael Pollan challenged us to take back our food supply from the “Nutritional Industrial Complex.”

Another bestselling author, Eric Maisel, psychologist and international creativity expert, in “Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning,” urges us “make meaning” in order to take back our mood supply from the Medical Industrial Complex. [my coined phrase, not Maisel’s] 

Maisel encourages us to make a meaningful life in order to combat inevitable human unhappiness, then he tells us how. 

If this book hasn't been on the bestseller list by the time you read this review, I wish it were. It looks at life with an honesty and clarity that is rare, and much needed.

I am fortunate to be among a handful of artists, authors, and others across the globe to be asked to read and respond to "Rethinking Depression" as part of Eric Maisel's blog tour for it's launch this month.

Based on its title, at this point in my life I probably wouldn't have selected "Rethinking Depression" from a bookstore's shelves as my next read, but I'm extremely grateful to have read it.  It's true that you can't judge a book by its cover.  It arrived at just the right time to repeatedly provided insight that I'm on the right path, for me, as I work to make a meaningful life. I saw reflected back to me among its pages a philosophy and approach that rings true.

Maisel writes of his 2012 release with New World Library“I question whether ‘the mental disorder of depression’ exists or whether in contemporary times human sadness has been monetized and languaged into a ‘mental disorder.’ I follow that discussion with a plan for minimizing sadness and living life with purpose.” 

It is a book in two parts.

PART ONE: Maisel Rethinks Depression
Part One is a well-reasoned look at the medicalization and pathologization of common human experiences of emotional pain and sadness by the pharmaceutical industry and mental health establishment.  Maisel describes how our perception of these behaviors and experiences has been transformed by diagnostic lists of symptoms with an accompanying menu of approved treatments.

I find Maisel’s carefully reasoned arguments to be extremely persuasive. 

Though my reading of “Rethinking Depression”s opening chapters brought to mind many questions—I’m always one to ask, “Yeah, but what about…”—I was moved to speak aloud, “Yes!” when Maisel recommended that instead of the term “depression,” we use more specific and compassionate words such as “sadness” or “loneliness” or “disappointment” or “loss.”  These feelings are not medical conditions. They are normal human reactions to life’s harshest realities.  I won't be addressing those questions or their answers here, but in the course of writing this review I had the opportunity to interact with Eric Maisel directly. I will just say that this book represents only a small portion of a well-reasoned and compassionate conceptual edifice well worth exploring.

And there is great power in naming things as they truly are.

This is not to say that Maisel opposes prescription medication, talk therapy, or even religious practice as help for those struggling with difficult experiences and emotions. He simply wants us to recognize that these options are only that, options.

PART TWO:  We Learn to Rethink Depression
In Part Two of “Rethinking Depression”, Maisel presents another option: the reader can learn to "make meaning" by developing and acting on an "Existential Plan.”

Chapter 4, the first in Part Two, is one of the most beautifully stated explanations of a philosophical perspective—in this case existentialism—I have ever read.  With his customary pragmatic, conversational tone, Maisel lays out the ideas of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, and Camus in terms anyone can understand. Then he shows the reader how to move beyond the philosophical into the day-to-day application of these ideas to life.

To paraphrase: Life is both beautiful and extremely harsh.  No one can tell you what it all means. You have to take responsibility for yourself, decide for yourself what meaning you wish to make of life, then do your best each day to live ethically according to your own self-knowledge, values, and goals.  Even knowing that you will fall short of this ideal much of the time, Maisel asserts that this is the best way to deal with your own human unhappiness, simply by seeing life for what it is, being true to yourself, doing what you can and making what you can of your life as you go along.

For other more academic explanations of existentialism offering greater detail than I'm able, you might want to look at the following:

Here is Jean-Paul Sartre's (b. 1908, d. 1980) own explanation of existentialism given in a lecture in 1949, if you care to wade through it:

The last time I’d tried to understand existentialism was in college. I attempted to read something by Sartre, perhaps "Being and Nothingness," on the recommendation of a friend, who I later learned had selectively adopted its ideas to justify an assortment of amoral life choices.

All I remember is that it left me feeling deeply depressed—or I should say profoundly unhappy and hopeless.  My father was dieing of cancer at the time.  My dreams for myself were proving to be much more difficult that I’d expected to make real, if not impossible, under the circumstances.  And I was experiencing my first crisis of faith, as the religious beliefs I was raised with longer seemed to ring true.  Sartre’s writing echoed my own dawning awareness of life’s harsh realities, without offering any comfort, at least in its opening pages.  It was too much for me at the time.

I wish someone had placed a copy of “Rethinking Depression” in the hands of my younger self all those years ago. Though, having read this book, I now feel as if someone has.

Part Two of this book begins with the realism of existential philosophy in Chapter 4, then fleshes out an approach to life that puts the power back into our hands as we each decide for ourselves how to be true to ourselves (live an authentic life) and make that life meaningful, even—perhaps, especially—when life seems most meaningless.

In each of the chapters that follow, Maisel offers step-by-step guidance on how to do this, all the while admitting that meaning making, though worth the effort, is anything but easy.

I’m a big fan Do-It-Yourself.  I grow a garden each summer so my family, friends, and I can enjoy healthy fruits and vegetables. I bake my own bread by hand, from scratch, and even sew my own clothes when I have the time.  I entertain myself and perhaps offer the same to a few other people by creating original artwork and music from the raw materials of my imagination. And I volunteer for the causes I value most in the belief that making the world a better place is the ultimate DIY project.

Until I read “Rethinking Depression” that I had never thought to use the particular words “making meaning” to describe my DIY life. Now I realize  that’s exactly what I’ve always felt.  For me, Maisel’s use of that powerful phrase delivered a fabulous AH-HA moment, one of many provided by this book.

Maisel’s admonition to “focus on meaning, not mood” was another lightbulb moment for me. Again, this is something I attempt to do, though, for me, having the right words for it brings the practice to a higher level of awareness and choice.  In the face of life’s unavoidable unwanted experiences—and the pain, sadness, disappointment, and anger that inevitably accompanies them—I can choose in each moment to bravely, though imperfectly, turn my attention and actions toward the things I value most, toward creating the life and being the person I most wish to be.

Serendipitously, as I was writing this review, I happened to be working my way back through my personal journals from last summer, looking for bits of insight and lessons learned. After reading “Rethinking Depression,” I read the words I’d written then in a new way. 

I was taking the unavoidable difficulties of life and transforming them through choice and action into meaning.  In this way, I was able in the course of three handwritten pages to move from sadness to strength. I wrote:
I’m still feeling down this morning. What I imagine I’ve lost in the past 10 years is the optimistic boldness of belief that everything would work out as I imagined it would.  Time and again, I’ve faced emotional and physical setbacks that stripped me of my momentum….10 years ago I had no idea that all of this lay ahead.  All I saw was possibility.  I saw my own potential.  I believed that possibility and ability would come together to create the reality I envisioned.  If it were entirely up to me, then that’s exactly what would have happened.  It’s not.  It’s not entirely up to me.  My past, my body, the people I encounter and the things they choose to do, these are outside of my control.  They are the other creative forces.

All I can do is continue to show up.  When I’m tired, when I’m sad, when I’m so discouraged I want to give up, I can still show up.  I don’t have to feel it in order to continue acting on my creative vision. I start with what is, in this moment, and put my hand to it, apply my mind and emotion to it.  Even in sadness.  Even in despair of ever seeing my vision realized.

I am here.
As long as I am here there is hope for what might be.
That is enough.
I've learned along the way that life's obstacles and distractions offer some of the most meaningful adventures, as long as we can learn to walk through the unhappiness of unexpected detours and actively turn them into opportunities for learning and growth. Maisel's latest provides us with the tools and instructions we need to do this for ourselves.

"Rethinking Depression" should be required reading in the great school of living. We are each far more than a set of mental health criteria. We are far more than a diagnosis or the lack of one. Making a meaningful life is simply the best way to take back our mood supply.


Eric Maisel, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist and the author of Rethinking Depression and numerous other titles including Mastering Creative Anxiety, Brainstorm, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s San Francisco. He blogs for the Huffington Post and writes for Professional Artist Magazine. Visit him online at

February 15, 2012 •  Pychology/Personal Growth •  256 pages • Trade Paperback
Price: $14.95 • ISBN 978-1-60868-020-7