General Question

Facade's avatar

What's your take on this insight into depression?

Asked by Facade (22902points) May 17th, 2010

I came across this article about depression in so-called gifted individuals and it got me thinking.
You don’t have to read the entire article to get the gist of it.

These two paragraphs sum it up nicely:
“Existential depression is a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence. Yalom (1980) describes four such issues (or “ultimate concerns”)—death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter a world which is inherently structured. We must give the world a structure which we ourselves create. Isolation recognizes that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three. If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?
Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. Other more specific characteristics of gifted children are important predisposers as well.”

I can relate to this because it seems to describe me very well, and it makes sense. I kind of wish I was dumb, so that I wouldn’t have to deal with this.


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58 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

This meme does not seem to disambiguate angst and depression.

gailcalled's avatar

It used to be called melancolia, hysteria, or the pip.

Men were melancholic, women hysterical and everyone was allowed to have the pip (or am I thinking of the megrims?)

Silhouette's avatar

I don’t think gifted people are the only people who have to contemplate death, isolation or the meaning of life. Some of us dumb asses think about it a lot were just too stupid to let it depress us…oh look shiny.

DominicX's avatar

I think it is interesting, but it can’t explain all or even most cases of depression.

It’s not like I never think about stuff like that, but I don’t dwell on it because I don’t see a point in it. And certainly, if it makes people depressed, then I really don’t see a point in it. Negativity is not what life is about, in my opinion. The goal is to avoid negativity.

I have to agree with @Silhouette on this one; you don’t have to be that “gifted” to contemplate life and death. I’m pretty sure most people are capable of it. Some just take it too far and let it make them depressed (how can that be a good thing?) and others simply move on and live life to its fullest (how can that be a bad thing?)

tinyfaery's avatar

“But what is the ultimate twist on the intellect and depression? Something very surprising. In my research, I have found an extremely high association between intelligence and the likelihood of becoming severely depressed. In fact, a high IQ is a good predictor of depression. Why? Simply because those with higher intelligence are amazingly “creative” with their inner dialogues.”

“Some of the characteristics of high intelligence are an above-average imagination, superior verbal ability, and advanced analytical skills. This is the perfect recipe for cooking-up very elaborate, and very negative, inner dialogues. And that’s exactly what happens. This helps explain the well-known phenomenon of “tormented geniuses”. Simply, their submission response is often out-of-control. And, despite their genius, they don’t know how to stop it.”


There may be a link, but I don’t think the link would be very useful for therapeutic purposes. There are so many factors, unique per individual, that lead to depression. Intelligence is probably one of the least important.

Blackberry's avatar

It is interesting; I was reading about something similar that was just discussing if more intelligent people are less happy or something along those lines.

I am sure we have all known that person that you feel does not have much intelligence, and you can not even have a decent ‘deep’ conversation with them because they just want to make dumb jokes and talk about trivial things like women all thge time. That is a big pet peeve of mine, when people never want to talk about anything that is usally deemed important like politics, religion, current events, life, death etc….

Facade's avatar

@Silhouette @DominicX I agree. I think the author was saying that increased intelligence correlates with increased awareness and curiosity that would lead to excessive concentration on the topics mentioned. But people who aren’t “gifted” can also experience this.
@Blackberry I’ve heard that too.

Blackberry's avatar

@Facade That is a good way of putting it as well.

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DominicX's avatar

Personally, I think the most intelligent people can find a way to be happy alongside their intelligence and not let existential questions consume them and oppress them. However, it’s faulty to believe that intelligence breeds unhappiness. Unhappiness is due to much more than just intelligence.

Silhouette's avatar

There is a distinction between knowledge and wisdom. To know something is not the same as being wise with respect to it.

Facade's avatar

@Blackberry I see that you edited your response That bothers me too. My SO will make a joke during every serious conversation. He says he’s trying to lighten the mood, but moods don’t always have to be light dammit!!!
@DominicX @Silhouette Good points.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Oh my Bob, I’m a genius!

I’m an existentialist. I believe that it’s up to me to give my life meaning in the face of the reality of death, and in the knowledge that I am ultimately alone. Also, if one’s basic needs are being taken care of, one has the leisure to contemplate such ideas, so I don’t think that intelligence in and of itself is the sole causal agent of existential angst.

Merriment's avatar

I don’t agree with the assertion that it is the ability to contemplate these notions that depresses “gifted individuals”

Rather it is the grasping that all their profound thinking aside, life IS made up of the superficial day-to-day aspects. And all the highbrow thinking in the world doesn’t change that truth which the “know-nots” have already stumbled upon.

Ignorance isn’t necessarily bliss, but it can free up a good deal of time and mental energy.

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DominicX's avatar


That is a really interesting way of looking at it and I agree. Is it alright if I use that in a future discussion with a friend? :)

Coloma's avatar

Good discussion…I see many truths here, intelligence and having ones basic needs met does lend itself to a seekers journey, also, I believe a lot of depression is ones own sub-conscious screaming for shifts and changes in life areas that no longer are serving a purpose.

A situational depression due to a loss, death, divorce, job loss etc. is not the same as an existential crisis where one is not paying attention to the hidden messages of their depression.

Depression can be a powerful warning system that the times they are a changin’, wake up and accept, embrace the shift or stay stuck in the dungeon.

If depression was looked upon in a more holistic way, as a message from within rather than a ‘condition’, I think more people might look to their episodes as psychic messengers instead of prophets of doom & gloom. lol

evandad's avatar

Meaninglessness was the biggie for me. I dwelt on it for a big part of late teens. Then I decided to have meaningless fun and look out for the little ones. All better after that.

Facade's avatar

@evandad What do you mean by ” Then I decided to have meaningless fun and look out for the little ones”?

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

I am with @Merriment. I have been dealing with depression since I was 16 and I’ve always been a top student and more mature than other people my age. Part of it was situational, part of it was the fact that I was rather isolated (I grew up in a small town with only a handful of people I could call peers). Being the only one in your 5th grade class who can think about life at a high school level is rather difficult (I wasn’t that extreme, but you know what I mean).

Sure, I may have contemplated the meaninglessness of life, but that didn’t make me depressed. It was something I did once I was already depressed.

The paragraph you posted seems to emphasize that depression is a purely existential occurrence, which is not the case. There is situational depression and there is chemical depression, and they are often interlinked (My chemical depression, for example, was triggered by traumatic situations). Suddenly realizing that life is superficial and meaningless…? I’d probably put that under situational depression, and unless there is a chemical component to it, I think it can be overcome.

Facade's avatar

@ParaParaYukiko I didn’t notice the author claiming that existential depression is the only type. I figured they were adding on to the other, more common ones.

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@Facade You’re probably right. I don’t know, I just got the feeling that he was saying that smart people get this super-elite type of depression that no one else gets, which I don’t think is true.

It does seem to be the case that more intelligent people are more prone to depression, but I don’t think that’s the reason for it.

Facade's avatar

@ParaParaYukiko That’s kind of defensive… And you’re right, intelligence is definitely not the sole reason for depression.

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@Facade Didn’t mean to sound defensive. ^^; I meant to say don’t think depression should be categorized into “depression for gifted people” and “depression for normal people” thing… I dunno.

When you think about it, anyone, regardless of IQ, can have an existential breakdown and go into a depression. Your average Joe can realize they’ve wasted 30 years living a meaningless life and become depressed. But I guess he was talking about young people specifically, so I don’t know if that applies.

Kraigmo's avatar

The specific depression you are describing does seem to be a certain personality type that has come to certain unavoidable realizations. And that type of person is usually not served in any way by the mass culture except maybe showers and air conditioning; In fact the mass culture depresses them moreso.

If you… or that type of person you describe… were in a more naturalistic setting, in rhythm with the moon and sun’s movements, away from mass culture tick tock, amongst others of all ages who had similar understandings, with the ritualization of life’s changes, then the depression that is so deep here in the normal culture, would still exist, but in a form that is soothed over, more accepting in a deja vu kind of way, and less resistant.

Merriment's avatar

@DominicX Thanks and feel free to use it any way you like :)

Facade's avatar

@ParaParaYukiko Gotcha
@Kraigmo Sounds good; GA

augustlan's avatar

Tying in to @Merriment‘s line Ignorance isn’t necessarily bliss, but it can free up a good deal of time and mental energy, I think it has to do with never having a quiet brain, too. If you’re always thinking/ruminating/talking to yourself in your head, it’s enough to drive you half-crazy. That’s me, in a nutshell. I’ve often wondered, if my little old brain can do this to me… how in the world was Albert Einstein not completely insane?

Facade's avatar

@augustlan I’m the same way. Always thinking. Couldn’t stop if I tried.

DominicX's avatar


Isn’t this where meditation comes in?

CyanoticWasp's avatar

There’s a good article that sheds some new light on this topic in the June 2010 Discover magazine (Carl Zimmer column on “The Brain”, page 26).

Unfortunately I can’t find a link to it online, and I don’t have time to write more now.

It’s worth looking up.

augustlan's avatar

@DominicX I’ve tried cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which includes relaxation exercises such as meditation, multiple times. Everything works… for a little while. Then it never works for me again. :(

I have a theory (completely unfounded in fact, btw!) that CBT doesn’t work so well in folks with higher intelligence. Maybe because it’s a way of ‘fooling’ your brain, and if you can easily see through that, it’s not as effective. I don’t know… but meds are the only thing that do the trick for me.

Gah. That sounds so… elitist or something. Perhaps I’m not smart enough to word it better!

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

I agree with @augustlan , the CBT is is way of “tricking” the mind. If one has the intellect to realize this, the whole house of cards collapses. I don’t believe that all depression can be traced to intellectual ability, much is situational or reactive. If one can see beyond the mundane day to day existence, through to ultimate pointlessness, depression would certainly be more likely. Ultimately the whole “point” of life is the continuation of life, followed inevitably by death; meaningless “tail chasing”.

DominicX's avatar

As far as I’m concerned, everyone assigns their own personal meaning to life and that there is no “ultimate meaning”. Seems to work for me.

I mean, I’m fully willing to accept that the reason I’m happy and not depressed is because I’m less intelligent than other people, but really, that’s not a bad price to pay…

MissAnthrope's avatar

I stand behind this 100%. It’s something I’ve observed amongst other intelligent people, and I have noticed it in my own life. I think a lot of my depressive episodes can be tied to the high level at which my brain functions, in addition to the four issues listed in the description of this question. I’ve long felt that while I feel there would be disadvantages to being less intelligent, I am slightly envious of those that are because I feel that there’s less of a realization/assimilation of life’s big picture. Having a higher functioning brain/IQ means that you’re able to take in, process, understand, and make connections between things on a greater scale than someone who is perhaps limited by slower brain functions.

The article is not saying all depression is caused by high intelligence, to the people who have taken it as such. Obviously there is more than one reason for depression, be it biochemical, situational, etc. What the article is talking about is a type of depression they’re calling existential depression.

I have an above-average IQ (probably several points lower now that I’ve been a pothead for over 10 years, heh) and I find this article incredibly validating. I’d say a lot of my depression stems from existential crises (death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness). I am most affected by the meaninglessness of things, in that part of me feels often that we’re living out these kind of pointless cycles of birth, surviving, reproduction, and death. Anything else in between is human-crafted, to make life feel less meaningless, but that nothing can truly negate the fact that it’s all kind of pointless. (and I’m not even depressed right now, heheh)

P.S. I really love what @Kraigmo said and I find myself in those words.

Facade's avatar

@MissAnthrope let’s be bff’s lol GA. Very well thought out.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

This may be especially true for people with high intelligence who are unable to use that intelligence to much purpose. High IQ doesn’t always come hand-in-hand with the social aptitude to make that intellect useful. High intelligence thus becomes a curse to those people.

DominicX's avatar


What if they just have a different concept of the “big picture” than you do? There are many highly intelligent religious people who believe that life is not meaningless because it’s meaning is inherently rooted in religious doctrine.

What I’m getting from this is that we are establishing that life is meaningless and it’s the highly intelligent people who have realized that and that is part of why they are more depressed and that the other people who insist that it is not meaningless are “less intelligent”. I don’t think I can agree with that.

Coloma's avatar

I’m a pretty bright gal, a deep thinker, analytically minded, very verbally sharp, process info. very quickly, make lots of abstract, big picture connections and am not chronically depressed.

I had a depressive condition some years ago due to a divorce and death and major life changes unfolding, a situational thing obviously, although it lasted about 2 years to one degree or another.

I am truly a beleiver in training our minds HOW to think and reining in the runaway thought horses before they stampede. lol

Seriously…I practice mind power dynamics and use hypnotherapy to keep my thoughts as positive as possible.

I don’t think most people are aware that they CAN train their minds to be the tools they were intended and not some endless generator of out of control thought spin outs!

Silhouette's avatar

@DominicX DominicX I’m getting the same message and I have to disagree with it too. I think the “highly intelligent” people who are more depressed than others think their intelligence should give them an edge, more control. Death and a life void of automatic meaning are the great equalizers.

eden2eve's avatar

This article identifies nine different types of intelligence:

1. Naturalist Intelligence (“Nature Smart”)
2. Musical Intelligence (“Musical Smart”)
3. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Number/Reasoning Smart)
4. Existential Intelligence
5. Interpersonal Intelligence (People Smart”)
6. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (“Body Smart”)
7. Linguistic Intelligence (Word Smart)
8. Intra-personal Intelligence (Self Smart”)
9. Spatial Intelligence (“Picture Smart”)

I have felt that frequently there is a bit of an elitist attitude among those who have been identified as “intelligent”, and my experience is that even they have some glaring weaknesses in some facets of their “Intelligence Quotient”.

I think that nearly all persons are endowed with one, or more, of these varieties. I’m wondering if the author of this question, and others here, are speaking primarily of the fourth type, which is defined as:
“Sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence, such as the meaning of life, why do we die, and how did we get here.”

Perhaps this “Existential Intelligence” is not always a desirable quality, given how much angst it seems to cause. Unfortunately, these questions can not be answered scientifically. Therefore, unless the individual also has the capacity to believe in the unknowable and unprovable, there is a lot of opportunity for these people to become depressed because they can not resolve these questions to their emotional satisfaction.

Silhouette's avatar

@eden2eve By George I think you’ve got it. Great answer.

Coloma's avatar


I recently did some testing with a professional along those lines, can’t remember exactly but my ‘balance’ was good, something like a 4, 3, 3, 3 etc. scoring on the the different types of learning and intelligence, it was very interesting, a spread sheet of me. haha

anartist's avatar

@Facade Get a grip. Depression isn’t elitist. Sounds like you are though. Upon what do you do base your self-description as “gifted”?

anartist's avatar

@Facade Why would you think I’m not?

Facade's avatar

I never claimed to be gifted. I said I can relate to this particular type of depression. No need to be rude.

Coloma's avatar

Whats wrong with championing ones strengths?

I am not talking about raging narcissistic grandiosity, but, really…why shouldn’t we all be proud of our gifts?

Giftedness in certain areas is just a FACT, and ‘giftedness’ traits do encompass abstract and analytical thinking styles, creativity, fast brain processes, strong verbal skills and often a sensitivity to the deeper questions in life.

Infact, I once read that right brained types tend to be more attracted to the eastern philosophies as they are more ‘big picture’ oriented.

If someone tells us that they have blue eye’s, or blonde hair we accept that as fact, or said strong legs or a fast walk or a good pitching arm so why is it considered arrogant to address one’s intelligence, brain power?

There are certain traits that denote giftedness in many and there are also different levels of intelligence, these are facts too.

No one would disagree that a developmentally disabled person is not up to par by intelligence standards, this does’nt mean they are ‘less than’ as all humans are equal in their humaness and human need, but, it certainly wouldn’t be taken offensively as it is an accepted ‘fact.’

I think that there is a real sour grapes attitude when one expresses their intelligence by many and that is unfortunate, I certainly don’t want anyone dummying down to appease my fragile ego and I certainly don’t want to dummy down to appease another.

Brains are just another organ that have their strengths and weaknesses, whats the BFD about that? lol

DominicX's avatar


Yes, but who is going to admit to being “stupid”?

Most people speak in terms of themselves as being fairly intelligent. But this brings back the whole concept of “illusory superiority” where we have a tendency to overestimate our abilities in many things, especially intelligence. Having someone describe their own intelligence is generally not as credible as having it evaluated by an outside source.

If someone says “I have blue eyes”, you can easily see if that’s true. If someone says “I’m intelligent”, it’s much harder to validate, especially since most people will say that.

Silhouette's avatar

@DominicX Again we agree. “A man’s praises have very musical and charming accents in another’s mouth, but very flat and untunable in his own.”
– Xenophon

Coloma's avatar


I gotcha’ on that, and of course common sense may or may not co-exist with intelligence as well.

But..most intelligent people don’t really need to market themselves, it is usually pretty obvious in the way they speak, present themselves, manner of communication etc.

Generally speaking the more finely tuned acedemic skill sets that are measurable are still proceeded with an overall expression of intelligence IMO.

I think ‘stupid’ shows up in much the same way, usually one can get a feel for stupidity by just listening a bit. lol

le_inferno's avatar

I don’t think this point of view has any merit at all. It’s even pretentious. If people who contemplate this kind of stuff are so-called “intellectuals,” they should realize how to suck it up and enjoy their lives that yes, inevitably end, and yes, are inevitably their own. There’s no need to despair in these truths. They should strive to seek beauty and meaning. Existentialism, to me, is just the sum of some whiny, emo, misplaced, misunderstood individuals who feel their “superiority of mind” elevates them and creates the illusion that they can’t connect with people. They also overemphasize death and somehow conclude that because life ends, it must mean nothing. I think they contradict themselves. There is meaning in the constructing of our lives; there is an undeniable power in that. I also think existentialism is for the people who give up on enlightenment. If anything, they’re intellectually immature, because they have not been able to self-actualize. That’s part of the basic hierarchy of needs according to Maslow, for Christ’s sake.

It’s really not surprising that brooding, negative, pessimistic, ruminating individuals will exacerbate or bring out their vulnerability to depression. It’s not because they are “intellectual” or “gifted.” Since when are those adjectives even synonymous with “existential”? The whole theory is just completely absurd.

Coloma's avatar


I agree 100%. Wow girl…you NAILED it to the wall!

Well said!

Whoa….now thats some beefy intelligent expression!

Yes, ‘enlightenment/self actualization is the ticket for most, unless they are bi-polar. lol

DominicX's avatar

@le_inferno I think I love you…

You always have a way of taking what I’m saying to the next level. You’ve been doing that since AIROW… :P

jeanmay's avatar

You don’t need to understand something in order to feel it. Look at dogs and children, they sense and process feelings all around them that they have little or no intellectual grasp over. It doesn’t mean to say they aren’t ever melancholy.

augustlan's avatar

OK, I think we need to back up a bit, here. No one is saying that all intelligent people become depressed (if you aren’t depressed, you’re just not smart enough to be?), or that one must be intelligent in order to suffer existential depression. Of course that would be absurd! Only that there is a higher incidence of existential depression in gifted people. From what I understand, there is also a higher incidence of anxiety in such people. Would anyone be insulted by that? I take that to mean that intellectually gifted folks are more prone to it, and that’s all.

I can only speak for myself as to why I’m lumping myself in with the ‘gifted’ crowd. I was identified as such in my childhood. I’m sure I am much less gifted now, but I’m still as crazy as ever! :P

Edit: I wanted to add that my bout of existential depression didn’t last terribly long. A few years, at most. Once I had faced down the ‘meaninglessness’ of it all and accepted that, I chose to make my own meaning. It became important to me to define the overall purpose of my life. Chemical depression, on the other hand, is probably a lifetime condition for me.

Coloma's avatar


I also think some situations of depression are spiritually induced, the infamous ‘dark night of the soul’ stuff of legend that many expereince as they approach mid-life or during/after a traumatic loss.

Perhaps the more gifted personalities are more sensitive to their self realization needs as well.

I call my bout of depression my nervous ‘BREAKTHROUGH!’

As alway’s, one can find whatever words they want to put whatever spin they want in regards to one’s psychic and soul journey.

I agree, bio-chemical conditions are probably lifelong for many, but, the rest of random depression is usually a wake up call in ones developmental evoloution IMO.

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