Does Advice on “Finding Joy” Help or Harm People with Depression?


According to The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, there is a simple formula for creating a life of joy: dedicating your life to compassion and service of others.

Does giving create happiness for the giver?

Does compassion lead to inner peace?

Does a life of service lead to feelings of joy?

While they come from 2 different religious traditions that teach compassion, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are both walking testimonials to the power of service and its capacity to create joy. They both emit warmth and peacefulness. But these men have devoted their lives to spiritual and religious practice. How can their advice help the rest of us? And how helpful can these ideas prove to mental health?

Many people have criticized the notion that simple practices like meditation and prayer are useful in depression. Sufferers and advocates point out that while increasing everyday happiness is lovely for most of us, the conception that self-help practices can cure depression implies that depressed people aren’t trying hard enough to get better. That increases stigma and adds to the burden of depression.

But I think creating joyfulness in daily life may have a place in the mental health world. Finding joy may help people with mild or early symptoms, or it might function as a preventive measure for some.

There are two distinct groups of people receiving mental health care services in America- the very sick who often receive too little, and the not-so-sick who often receive too much intervention. Certainly compassion and service to others wouldn’t suddenly transform the neurobiology of serious depression, but for people suffering lesser forms of unhappiness, could a life of service be part of the answer? Might such a practice even prevent the harm that comes with aggressive treatment, often not indicated in milder cases?

If non-medication practices can improve mental health for some, the benefits spill over to those with the greatest need as the system unclogs. Resources become available for those who need them most. 

Perhaps we should be advising people in mental health treatment to practice things like compassion and service. If those practices bring joy, then that’s wonderful! If compassion doesn’t offer any relief, maybe that’s further evidence that aggressive biologic treatment (like prescription medication) is indicated.


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Posted on August 28, 2017 .