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Nobody Has Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Several billion years ago, a cosmic accident occurred that would eventually make some of us periodically unhappy. According to scientists, an gargantuan space object hit the earth during its formation, knocking it into a tilted, wobbly spin, which is the reason there’s a summer and a winter.

Under this strange condition, Earth’s creatures evolved and thrived. Eventually, some of them became philosophers and poets, who described this condition and its meaning to the rest of us. They noticed the way the sun’s arc changed throughout the year, and mused about the flamboyant moods and cycles of nature. They admired summer’s golden daffodils and shy sumacs, and lamented winter’s specter-grey frost and northward-thronging robins, probably unaware that the changing seasons aren’t some universal system of order, but a peculiar and convoluted local side-effect of two large rocks having collided long ago.

So we have a thing we call winter, whose days tend to be low in certain mood-improving qualities (light, warmth) and high in certain mood-diminishing qualities (cold, isolation). This sends many people into a compromised state for some of the year, until their part of the planet wobbles its way back around into the thicker light. So it goes.

Not everyone gets this thing we call Seasonal Affective Disorder. I think I do, but how would I know for sure? It could be that I dislike Christmas shopping so much that my mood withers every December, or that I go for fewer walks when sidewalks are icy, or that Terry’s Chocolate Orange inflames my frontal cortex. There are a thousand variables that could potentially tilt the mood equation towards bleaker feelings during this part of the year.

Given the uncertainty implied by that many variables, I looked up how a person is supposed to determine that their mood shift is because of SAD, and not, say, because they really miss Major League Baseball, or because they’re no longer getting certain phytochemicals from their backyard-grown kale, or anything else.

Apparently the litmus test for Seasonal Affective Disorder is that “your mood suffers along with the season change.” A doctor can try to rule out other, non-calendar-associated causes with tests, but there’s no way to test for SAD.

Seldom asked about by doctors

The more I read about it, the more I get the sense that SAD isn’t really a thing, it’s just a label to describe the tendency for some people to get depressed and anxious in winter, regardless of the (perhaps untraceable) particular factors behind it. Seemingly, SAD is just what you call it when nothing particularly explains your winter funk.

I can see why they would want to give a name to a fuzzy and general tendency like SAD, even if it isn’t a categorical, testable thing, like pregnancy or gangrene is a thing. If you have a name for a group of symptoms, some of the interventions that helped one person with those symptoms might be likely to help someone else.

So there’s definitely an upside to naming things like that. Without this idea of SAD, it might not have occurred to me that sunlight exposure is something I might want to seek on purpose, or that my winter funk might be a perspective shift driven by inner chemical influences, rather than life objectively getting worse.

Miss you buddy

The downside to naming this disorder, or naming anything really, is that it gives you a narrowed view of what it is and what should be done about it. There are three main treatment recommendations for SAD: light therapy, psychotherapy, and medication. So if I think of my problem as SAD, those are the things I should do. I bought a light box thing, I’ll go back to therapy if it gets really bad, and for now I’d rather avoid medication and its side effects. So I hope the light box thing works.

However — if I drop the whole Seasonal Affective Disorder idea, and think of my winter funk as a nameless, infinitely complex product of countless variables, which it undoubtedly is, my approach would be different.

I’d get some better inputs going on in many areas of life. I’d get more social activity for one thing, which admittedly has been lacking. I know I’ve been eating fewer vegetables since my local CSA program ended in October. It’s true that I’m not walking much, I’m leaving the house later in the day, and I’ve let random items pile up on my dresser. My winter coat is a bit ratty and I don’t feel great in it. I don’t even think I’m drinking enough water, which is perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit of all. And I need a haircut.

Only option at this point

I’m pretty sure all of these things would help, and each could have knock-on effects that would also help. A haircut would absolutely improve my outlook, which would improve my interactions, which would improve my mood and lead to a greater variety of activity. Just what the doctor ordered, so to speak, at least. I don’t think a haircut is ever officially indicated for SAD.

Reality Doesn’t Care What You Call It

I wrote this post up to the above paragraph and then ended up not writing anything for about fifteen days. I just couldn’t get into the writing headspace, which happens, especially while in a general funk of some sort. In the meantime, on a hunch I filled an entire week with social plans, and did things with a bunch of different people.

The funk improved drastically over about two days. Seeing people seemed to trigger a flood of some missing enzyme into my bloodstream, and the cloud lifted. Does this mean I don’t have SAD? I have no idea. I’m not sure the same thing would always work. Maybe it will come back as soon as I eat a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, or make eye contact with an Elf on the Shelf.

Concepts can be useful, but they mainly restrict our view of what’s happening. When you tag something as X in the mind, you stop considering things that don’t apply to X. I guess this is what Don Miguel Ruiz means when he says words are magic spells.

Potential factor

After all, nothing really has a name. Names are crude, low-resolution add-ons that only exist on the level of human thought. Reality doesn’t care what you call it; it will remain its complex and ineffable self. It isn’t relevant to an alligator, a 250-million-year-old creature, that a subgroup of a subgroup of primates started verbally referring to them as “alligators” 500 years ago.

Concepts should be held loosely, because they’re nowhere near as complex as the reality they’re supposedly explaining. Not by many orders of magnitude. They have no truth value in themselves, they just point you to some possibilities, while simultaneously pointing you away from other possibilities.

Yes, tell us more about your recently invented classification systems

Another relevant example: until about a year ago, I had always believed I was an “introvert,” because that’s what you’re supposed to call shy, reserved people who always want to go home. Because I accepted that descriptor, I tended to self-isolate when I felt bad, because that’s how my people re-energize themselves, as I understood it. It’s certainly what I felt like doing. Yet, despite my history of shyness, it turns out I’m more often re-energized by social activity, and drained by too much alone time, which is almost the definition of extrovert. I wish I had dropped the introvert label the moment I heard it.

Those kinds of concepts, which are generally accepted and traded in, are so crude and fuzzy that nobody should identify with them. Consider them, sure, but don’t think the reality to which they refer is made of categories like that. Nobody has Seasonal Affective Disorder. The term might point you to some things you should consider, but it is literally just a term, made up by some people so they could point to a vague shape they keep seeing in the murk. Just like “alligator.”

***

Photos by Showkat Chowdhury, Freepik, Erin McKenna, and Kyaw Tun

{ 50 Comments }

Sharon Hanna December 18, 2023 at 11:40 am

Ha ha. So wonderful. Love everything about this article – the photos and captions are beyond great – except for one:

kale gets ‘edible’ after a few freezes. I wrote “The Book of Kale” so know it for a fact. ;-) Sending love to all…..

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Michael Serres December 18, 2023 at 12:02 pm

Thank you, David, for so succinctly articulating a concept I’ve been twirling around in my head for some time. Also, I’m pretty sure I suffer from alligator. I always look forward to your posts.

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Patti December 18, 2023 at 12:27 pm

I’ve noticed that some individuals tend to label everything and I find it frustrating. As you state, labels limit. Thanks for putting it out there!

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Barbara December 18, 2023 at 12:43 pm

Hi David. I enjoyed your musings. My question is, did you regain your enthusiasm for writing AFTER you re-energized through social interaction? Thanks, B

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David Cain December 18, 2023 at 2:29 pm

Not exactly. Writing funk seems to be a separate thing than general funk. But improving overall well-being definitely helped.

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Kimberly December 18, 2023 at 12:51 pm

A friend once suggested to me that there is no binary between being recharged by social interaction or recharged by alone time; rather, everyone can be drained by too much of either one, and the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is how much you can handle of each before needing a break.

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David Cain December 18, 2023 at 2:30 pm

I can definitely get too much of either!

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Darcy December 19, 2023 at 11:57 am

Agree about how much recharging one needs of aloneness and presence. Also thought for years that I’m an introvert, but now think I changed or redefined myself as an extravert. My current job, where I work only with people who can’t talk and maybe can’t engage, is not good for an extravert.

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Kathy December 18, 2023 at 12:53 pm

Hi David,
I’ve been reading your writings for years now and really enjoy your perspective and always get something out of what you have written.
Your current article hits a chord with me because I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about 10 years ago, and I now believe that it is a label much like SAD. I’m a lot better than I was and happily living a “normal” “aging” life. It is exactly as you described, the need to look at “it” and see it from all sides, and find new ways of seeing and being.
The two labels you’ve discussed also have described the me of the past, and now they’re just words and “me” is a whole different thing.
Thanks,
Kathy

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David Cain December 18, 2023 at 2:38 pm

They are all just words, and that’s not to be dismissive, because we are all dealing with genuine realities, and the words are an attempt to make sense of it. But the labels really argue too much — what should be happening, what can’t be happening, how we’re supposed to think about it. They can have as big an effect on our lives as whatever it is we’re trying to name.

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Louise December 18, 2023 at 2:28 pm

Avoiding unnecessary labels can really help with black/white thinking too. The introvert label can lead people to think that they ALWAYS need alone time and that they’re NEVER energized by social situations. And just flip that for those labelled extroverts. So much more enjoyable to think that I SOMETIMES like to be around people and SOMETIMES like to be alone and to think further about what each of those experiences would ideally look like. There’s a lot of play in this approach, in more than one sense!

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David Cain December 18, 2023 at 2:39 pm

Definitely. Robert Anton Wilson gave this talk once called “the universe contains a maybe,” where he argued that we’d save ourselves a lot of grief just by adding “maybe” or “sometimes” when we make a declarative statement about how things are.

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LanChi December 18, 2023 at 5:36 pm

This comment reminded of a scene in the movie Iron Man where someone asks Tony Stark, “Aren’t you Iron Man?” and Tony Stark says, “Sometimes.”

That really opened my eyes because it illustrated to me that labelling someone with a name, even a superhero name, can be limiting. Besides, a superhero isn’t a superhero all the time. Sometimes, they just like being their civilian selves.

Also, after reading your post, I am starting to doubt if I really am an introvert. Hmmm…

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David Cain December 19, 2023 at 11:40 am

I think that’s one of the great jokes of human life: language is so clunky and never captures the thing completely, only points to it. But we often treat language as though perfect accuracy is possible. What I tried to say in this article is that there is no “really am” being an introvert or anything else. We describe life using conventions, which are useful, but all we can do is agree that a term is appropriate or inappropriate for a particular case. There’s no “being” the term, ultimately, just “qualifying for it,” as determined arbitrarily by other people.

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Rocky December 18, 2023 at 2:36 pm

One of my favorite days of the year is right around the corner! Dec 21st
Winter Solstice. This is the day we begin to climb out of the frozen hellhole of short days, long nights,
Lack of sunshine, miserable weather,
And last but not least SAD…..
You can label it or not label it, any way you like, but this wintertime depression syndrome thing is a real deal.
Unless, of course, you happen to be a penguin….. Thanks for allowing me to vent a bit,
Rocky

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David Cain December 18, 2023 at 2:41 pm

We are approaching that turning point. I usually find November to be the hardest month, not because the days are the shortest but because they’re getting shorter so rapidly.

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Darcy December 19, 2023 at 12:04 pm

I used to live in the north, I could feel the Autumn Equinox come. I tried everything I could do one year to avoid the slide into depression: extra multivitamin, extra exercise, extra time with friends, SAD lamp for extra sun. By January, it wasn’t working. The next year, I got an anti depressant at Autumn Equinox and it worked wonders with no side effects! Now I live in the South and my SAD is not as bad.

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Terhie January 7, 2024 at 7:58 am

Funny (or not, depending on season) thing: I’m struggling with depression which gets better in winter months and gets really bad in spring and summer. So called “subject literature” describes why people tend to have lower mood in winter and it’s oh so logical: the light, the cold, the pressure changes. And in small print they add that there are people with “reverse SAD”, sadly not giving any reasons for it (at least I couldn’t find).

I believe there are reasons for mood changes, just maybe not always the ones that goes with label.

Thanks for writing. I came here by link to Depth Year and enjoyed your articles.

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Therese December 18, 2023 at 2:59 pm

I love this post. especially the part about introverts being people who always want to go home. And I really love the idea of using names of things very loosely because they’re so limiting. Bravo. So well written. Thank you!

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Tara December 18, 2023 at 3:05 pm

I’m not a fan of labels but I am definitely affected by the lack of sunlight in winter. I tend more toward the introvert end of the scale, but sometimes crave the energizing company of others. To me everything is a matter of degree.

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Cynthia December 18, 2023 at 3:15 pm

This is your best piece ever.

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Amy Sparks December 18, 2023 at 5:31 pm

Thank you, David, for this great post! You made my day! Your examples of the alligator and the introvert are fantastic. I also thought for many years that I was an introvert, but now I realize it might have been more about the wrong people with whom I couldn’t fit in. In the right environment, I quickly turned into an extrovert :)

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CARLA December 18, 2023 at 6:05 pm

Labels is something I have been pondering lately after finding a couple new powerful ones that “fit” me. I find these words are hugely helpful to explore if you use them as a tool to assist your self awareness and understanding. Labels help me find my “tribe” and help me understand that I am not alone in some of my ways I am.
Although it’s great to be unique, it’s also good to fit in, so understanding how I think, how my brain tends to group things and separate them is super useful.
And then, once the label is understood I’m finding it’s helpful to just let the label be another word that has helped me in my search to find my authenticity. Many labels fit me, at least for a while. Some stick and some are flexible or temporary. It’s important that the idea expressed by a mere word isn’t too rigid. I hope that makes some sense.
I really liked that you wrote this and I love those oranges.

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David Cain December 19, 2023 at 10:01 am

This seems like the right middle point to me. Use them when they’re helpful, but remember that they’re just a simple tool and not the thing they refer to.

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Darcy December 19, 2023 at 12:14 pm

Love this.
Also want to be aware if I am “othering” people who are not fully in my current tribes.
Saw a Youtube asking: What bad things did you think were not really a problem until they happened to you?” Shocked to see how many bad things I did not take seriously in other people just because I didn’t have those personal experiences…yet. (Various painful illnesses, etc) Not exactly labels, but not my “tribe” yet.

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Valerio December 20, 2023 at 5:05 am

I think we humans usually worry only about what we have in front of us. That mostly keeps us sane. As long as you make space for the idea that other people might experience issues and problems you’ll never even have the faintest clue about, I think you’ll be fine.

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louise December 18, 2023 at 6:15 pm

Exactly! Figure out the circumstances that make us happy without labelling. At this stage in my life I love meeting up with people one to one or in small groups but don’t enjoy large parties. So I don’t do large parties. But maybe I will again.

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Louise December 18, 2023 at 6:17 pm

Oh, and Terry’s Chocolate Oranges need to be strategically deployed.

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Arnold December 19, 2023 at 8:00 am

Terry’s Chocolate Orange, my daughter offered me one yesterday, not for me thanks, it will probably be passed all around the family and end up as a trick or treat item to in October
Good job all is humans have different tastes.

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David Cain December 19, 2023 at 10:01 am

Writing this made me want to buy one

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Kari McBride December 18, 2023 at 6:51 pm

Thinking of you while you struggle. I know I find help in reading these reflections. I hope you are strengthened and cheered by writing them. Happy Soltice!

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Jeanette December 18, 2023 at 8:39 pm

Great essay and ideas about SAD. Thank you!!!

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Graham December 21, 2023 at 12:38 pm

I concur Jeanette.

Let’s all get through these dark cold days -feathers attached.

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Elliott December 18, 2023 at 10:02 pm

Love this David especially the introvert extrovert aspect – I feel like that could get its own article!

I’m curious about another label – ADHD – you and I both have this label. But it seems like that label has been really helpful for you.

Why do you think the ADHD label is helpful while SAD is not?

Thank you!!

{ Reply }

David Cain December 19, 2023 at 10:05 am

I think ADHD and SAD are the same kind of label, although ADHD probably refers to something more specific. Both concepts can be helpful if we remember they are just labels. For me the ADHD concept *really* helped me figure out where to look. I had no idea that many of my issues existed on the level of attention and intention. I just wouldn’t have known. SAD was also helpful to me, to help me realize how little outside time I get in winter, and that I could probably use more.

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KC December 18, 2023 at 10:27 pm

I can’t speak to SAD, but I know when I finally found out I had ADHD (in my 40’s!) it was a HUGE relief to find out there was a reason I always felt “different”. Not only did it make sense of the struggles that had dogged me all my life, but it ALSO meant there were ways to address those issues, and I was not alone.

If I had refused that “label,” I’d still be wandering around wondering what the heck was wrong with me, beating myself over my failings, and feeling hopeless.

And yet there are those who think ADHD isn’t real either. Go figure!‍♀️

It helps to remember there was a time when Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia weren’t considered “real”…. until the science caught up with what the victims were already experiencing.

I have to say, it strikes me that this post is at odds with an older post of yours that I really resonated with…(link below) because it validated my experience. And most of your writing tends that way.

So I guess it shocked that this post seems to directly invalidates the experience of those who truly are suffering from SAD. I know this isn’t your intent, but it may be the net effect.

https://www.raptitude.com/2019/01/lifelong-struggles-effort/?

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David Cain December 19, 2023 at 10:19 am

I’m not saying the things these terms point to aren’t real phenomena in the world, only that the concept is not the thing, and the phenomena itself is fuzzier and much more complex than the label implies.

There is also a danger in identifying with these terms. The ADHD concept has helped me figure out why I have always felt “different” and I’m glad we have it. It helped me figure out that my problems had something to do with intention/attention — I would have had no idea otherwise. But to believe I can’t do something because I “have ADHD” could be very limiting. I have encountered lots of people online who believe it is unreasonable for their boss to fire them for not showing up to work, because they have ADHD. These people are convincing themselves they are incapable of fulfilling any real responsibility, because of their adopted identity, and they want others to validate this belief. Identifying so strongly with a made up term could destroy their lives.

I can’t make everyone understand what life is like for me, and doing so is not a prerequisite for my happiness. If I make it one, I’m making my life much harder. So I find the ADHD concept (and the SAD concept) useful as pointers but I am trying to hold them loosely.

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Darcy December 19, 2023 at 11:52 am

“the concept is not the thing”… Is that the idea of “a finger pointing to the moon”?

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David Cain December 19, 2023 at 3:43 pm

Exactly the same. Contemplative practice depends on being able to make this distinction. The experience we live in isn’t the same as the way we describe it or think about it, not even even close to being the same kind of thing. But we depend on thought and language so much to represent reality that we overlook this distinction.

Terry December 19, 2023 at 7:34 am

It’s so satisfying to have a label that “explains” a feeling, or a chain of thoughts, or a belief. It makes you feel you are one of a group sharing something rather than a loner with a unique and unfortunate outlook. Humans evolved in simpler times when a label meant just one thing but now labels like SAD, ADHD, “Climate Change”, “Right Wing” and the like describe complex ideas but we are still conditioned to assume everyone means the same as we do by them.

Very few people prefer days like today (constant rain in England) to summer days or, in my case, the beautiful weather my daughter and her family are enjoying on their cruise in the Canary Islands. But, it’s my choice whether this makes me sad, or even gives me SAD.

One thing I do know: up to now, in my eighty years, every time I’ve looked out and wished the rain would stop and the clouds would part and the sun would come out, if I waited long enough it happened! If I felt miserable after that I would know there’s a deeper underlying cause and I might need to talk to someone about it. Same about (almost) every situation; “this too shall pass”.

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David Cain December 19, 2023 at 10:29 am

Agreed. Conceptual labels have become especially damaging in the last ten years or so, as rapid-fire internet content becomes a greater influence on people’s worldview. Many, many young people now understand the world in only terms of extremely reductive concepts. The identity politics movement is based entirely on this tactic, equating complex phenomena to simple phrases, assigning moral status based on skin color and other superficial traits, as though they are complete identities. Once people begin equating entire groups to single words, the complexity of a person or a population is overlooked. Moral complexity is lost. Atrocities are easily justified.

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jacqui December 26, 2023 at 1:02 pm

It seems from history (subjective opinions?) that identity politics has been around since time immemorial (tribal, caste, religious systems, geographical assumptions etc). I totally agree that the “rapid-fire internet content” has amplified conceptual labels to a frightening level. Irshad Manji’s amazing book, “Don’t Label Me”, highlights the absurdity and the dumbing-down of human thought-processes and how we engage with the world around us.

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Karen December 19, 2023 at 10:15 am

I do understand, and to an extent agree, with your point about labels. They can be pernicious and dividing. But whatever anyone wants to call it, shorter days, day after day of rain, and weeks of grey skies depress me. I am always amazed by my rapid change in mood when the sun breaks through the clouds on a grey day. It feels like magic, it’s so sudden.

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David Cain December 19, 2023 at 10:30 am

There’s no question weather and light has a major effect on mood for some of us. I believe I am particularly sensitive to it. But there is more at play and simplistic concepts can blind us to that.

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Pipsterate December 20, 2023 at 4:25 am

It’s maddeningly difficult to sort out how much is reality and how much is just labels. Is SAD real? Is fibromyalgia? Is long covid?

What about old diseases like neurasthenia? Nobody gets diagnosed with that today, so how do we classify people who were diagnosed with it in the past? Were they actually perfectly healthy, or were they sick with another condition? Or does neurasthenia still exist, under new names, perhaps even including SAD, fibromyalgia, or long covid, which don’t necessarily describe the real condition any better?

All we can really do is try to live our lives as best we can, using labels only insofar as they’re helpful.

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David Cain December 20, 2023 at 9:10 am

I don’t think it’s a dichotomy between reality and labels. I’m not saying SAD or any other designation doesn’t point to a real thing. It’s that the real thing is much more complex and boundaryless than the label implies, so we should not mistake the label for the thing it is referring to. The map and the territory are very different but we often take one for the other.

Those old labels were referring to something, but they were just a mental model of whatever the real thing is. Sometimes these models get updated. What is now called depression used to be called melancholy. Psychiatrists still don’t know what it is exactly. We don’t say anybody has melancholy anymore, not because nobody experiences it, but because the concept has changed.

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Valerio December 20, 2023 at 4:50 am

Very good point. In fact, my mind immediately rushed to label this as an article on “signlessness” – one of the three doors of liberation in Buddhism – instead of appreciating the liberating insight contained in it.
Those are the tricks our mind or rather our ego sometimes plays on us. :-)

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David Cain December 20, 2023 at 9:11 am

Buddhism is one perspective that really emphasizes the distinction I’m trying to make here. There are lists and lists of Buddhist concepts, but they also emphasize not mistaking the concept for the phenomenon. And ultimately you have to drop all the concepts to see the phenomena clearly.

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Nate December 21, 2023 at 11:29 pm

The “potential factor” made me laugh out loud :D

I thought of you and this post today as I found myself doing something I often do in the winter – carrying a chair from the dining room into my back bedroom. You’ve been to my house in the summer, when it was nice and sunny inside, with the sun in the north. But in the winter, with the sun far to the south, the only sunlight that enters my house is through one window by the closet in my back bedroom. So I drag a chair in there and sit in front of it to eat my lunch, with the plate on a bookshelf.

I do this without really thinking about it, and it may look a little sad from the outside, but on the inside I quite like it. It feels like a little winter ritual I get to do once or twice a week if it’s a sunny day. It feels like I’m an early human, instinctively getting my sun vitamins as I can during the dark and cold months.

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David Cain December 22, 2023 at 10:06 am

Something in us craves the big bright ball in the sky for sure. Also chocolate treats :)

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