In the classic 1965 film A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown seeks psychiatric help from Lucy for a five cent session. Charlie Brown has the Christmas blues. He’s feeling unpopular and wondering why he’s not in the Christmas spirit. Jonathan Rottenberg is a research psychologist at the University of South Florida who studies mood science. In my view Charlie Brown is a candidate for a low depressive mood.
In Rottenberg’s fascinating book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, he makes the case that there are evolutionary purposes for our low moods. He says, “Low moods have existed in some form across human cultures for many thousands of years.” What’s the point of feeling blue in the midst of so much holiday cheer?
People in low mood blame themselves, repeatedly turn over in their heads situations that went wrong, and are pessimistic about the future.
Sounds like Charlie Brown to me. The book argues that the good news about low moods, and why they can actually be good for us, is that a low mood slows us down enough to review the past. Rottenberg says, “A keen awareness of what has already gone wrong and what can go wrong helps a person avoid similar stressors in the future.” Feel like staying in bed and ruminating? It may not be a waste of time, says Rottenberg.
There are Charlie Browns in every family. The thing to watch out for is that this low mood, what Rottenberg calls “shallow depression” doesn’t turn into “deep depression.” The difference being that a deep depression is a major depressive episode with multiple symptoms (change in appetite, low energy, sleep disturbance, inability to concentrate, loss of interest or pleasure) and lasts for at least two weeks. Deep depressions are serious and require additional treatments for recovery (talk therapy significantly helps).
I wonder if Charlie Brown sometimes slips from low into the deep depression category. There is a rising number of us that do. More than 30 million adults in the United States suffer from depression. Despite the epidemic nature of depression, very little is known about the brain or the science of our mood systems.
New ways of thinking about mental illness are emerging. From the perspective of mood science, shallow or deep depression results from our mood system and are not viewed from a disease model. Periods of depression can be followed by periods of thriving. Charlie Brown’s own story seems to echo this pattern of mood changes. If we think of shallow depression as an invitation to contemplation, that leads to insight, then perhaps it is not such an awful thing to be like Charlie Brown at Christmas.
And it is an even better thing if we can find, in the midst of holiday blues, friends to cheer us, friends to help decorate the tree and to remind us of the real Christmas story. Psychiatric help is also an option. But for five cents, you get what you pay for Charlie Brown.
Perhaps the genius of Charles Schulz is that he didn’t shy away from exploring Charlie Brown’s low moods, and in giving a little boy a downcast spirit at Christmas, he was able to lift our own.
Merry Christmas everyone.