So Salon published an article by psychologist-author Jonathan Rottenberg yesterday. It’s a perceptive, eloquent piece about the evolutionary underpinnings of depression, and how western society’s impatient, demanding Serenity-Now! standards for happiness can actually work against our efforts to live more peaceful, contented lives. The article and the recently published book from which it’s excerpted offer insights that could be very helpful to a lot of us who struggle with depression. In other words, Rottenberg’s work can be used—to powerful effect—for self-help purposes.
That makes it all the more ironic that the bamboozling title Salon editors slapped up above this article slams self-help books as not merely pointless but damaging for people with depression. The headline reads, “You’re making your depression worse: Self-help is bringing us down.” The tag below the title explains that “We’ve never had so much advice about how to feel better. But all the self-help books only make us feel worse.”
You get that, mate? All the self-help books are mood-sinking shite!
Talk about your sweeping generalizations. That headline is as casually cabbage-headed as an assertion that all self-help books are brilliant and beneficial. It must be really maddening to thoughtful authors like Rottenberg, authors who write stuff designed to help people who are suffering, when editors cynically mislead their audience by capping such articles with titles that don’t reflect what the articles really say—even, as in this case, titles that go against the spirit of the piece. This headline makes about as much sense atop Rottenberg’s article as that pizza did atop Walter White’s roof.
Yesterday I started reading the article, prepared to hate it under the naive impression that the headline actually reflected the content below. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there wasn’t a trace of that message in the article. So I went ahead and posted this comment:
Nice article. It’s beautifully written and nuanced in its examination of counterintuitive truths about the interplay of moods and cognition. I wish I could find something to compliment in the title, which I’d bet Rottenberg didn’t write. It’s the worst kind of irresponsible, misleading click-bait.
The article is persuasive in defending its claims that shooting for apex levels of bliss (or even for middling happiness when we’re depressed) can backfire. But that doesn’t mean that all self-help books, or all literature that one might use for self-help purposes like finding paths out of depression, are unhelpful or counterproductive. The article never makes such a bald, simplistic claim. And in fact, the best self-help books around today take many of Rottenberg’s points into account. Some of them acknowledge hedonic adaptation, for instance, and caution against the old New Age bromides that you can bootstrap yourself out of depression by thinking positive thoughts. Many of the the recent, more sophisticated books emphasize the need to abandon the culture’s manic, muscular approach to happiness.
A headline like the above one risks making depressed people feel worse when they have a strong, accurate sense that certain books have actually helped them. They might question their sense that they’ve judged the books perceptively, not because they haven’t, but because they’re down so low they’ll question any perceptions that might seem positive.
It would be great if the Salon editors would change that headline. Smart, discriminating bibliotherapy works. Please stop telling people it doesn’t.
About an hour after I posted that comment, I checked back to see if anyone had responded. And someone had—the author’s article, Jonathan Rottenberg. He said, “Thank you for your wise observations.”
I’m not quoting that to trumpet my own shofar. I just thought it was really interesting what Rottenberg implied with that comment—that he hadn’t written that headline, that he agreed with me about its deceptive, demagogic spin, and that he was probably pissed about it. But he has a contract and these are the terms—he doesn’t get to write the headline and has to just put up with Salon‘s venal click-bait horseshit if he wants his article published there.
This morning I checked and my comment had been deleted. No surprise there, I guess. I’m angry less that they rubbed out my critique than that they decided to keep that hoodwinking title up there. But there it will remain for days or weeks or more, inapt and putrescent as the pizza on Walter’s roof, likely misleading some poor souls who’ve benefited from the better self-help books, making them second-guess themselves in very unhelpful ways.
UPDATE: This is strange. When I checked this morning, I saw the message “This comment has been deleted” in the place where my original comment had been. Oddly, Rottenberg’s response to my comment was still posted there below the message about the deletion, along with my comment thanking him. But now Salon has actually re-posted my original comment. I’d still prefer they change the headline rather than merely restoring the comment criticizing it, but hey, I’ll take what I can get. Thanks for throwing me a bone, Salon.