1990s >> 1995 >> no-1093-september-1995

Prozac Logic

There’s an old aphorism which says that a pessimist is just a well informed optimist. According to Dr James Goodwin, the so-called “Pied Piper of Prozac”, however, a pessimist is a chemically deficient optimist!

Dr Goodwin, a psychologist in Washington state in America, claims that the anti-depressant Prozac has beneficial effects for virtually anyone who takes it, because everyone is a little depressed without realising it. He attributes this melancholy tendency to a chemical imbalance in the brain, a lack of “joy juice” if you will, and argues that everyone should be entitled to have their balance restored.

There are of course many who hold views opposed to those of Dr Goodwin, and critics have accused him of serious misconduct, ranging from incompetence to drug-pushing. Psychiatrist Dr Peter Breggin went as far as arguing against the prescribing of anti-depressants on moral grounds; he wants to see suffering remain as an acceptable and necessary fact of life, pointing out that some degree of angst and insecurity is necessary to the human condition, and is very much part of what we are.

But surely there is a much more fundamental point to be recognised when discussing whether, and if so why, people arc unnecessarily negative or unhappy. Dr Goodwin’s theory presupposes that we live in an ideal world where everyone should be happy and contented, and therefore the question is, why aren’t they? This is like asking why there is hunger in a world with the potential for abundance; the simplistic answer is there must be an imbalance between supply and demand, so let’s grow more food. Alas, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of capitalist economics is aware that food is not produced to be eaten, but instead to be exchanged for money with a view to realising a profit; if you don’t have the lolly, you don’t get the bread. So it is with Dr Goodwin’s “Prozac logic”. Problems in the emotional department? There must be a chemical imbalance, therefore add more “joy juice”. However, as anyone who has worked in the psychiatric field knows, the hunger for happiness often can only be satiated if you can “buy” the joy with satisfaction.

It can be argued that for most of us, life is a tedious existence consisting of days spent doing an often mundane, uninspiring job week in, week out, punctuated by brief spells of recreation, socialising and occasionally a holiday. Even those workers who produce useful or essential goods and services are alienated from any fulfilment because of the negative nature of the employment relationship. Work is generally regarded as a necessary evil into which we are coerced by the need to earn a “living”, and all the concomitant imperatives associated with employment—such as time-keeping, paying taxes, fear of unemployment, etc.—prevent the majority of us from enjoying the positive aspects of work and its relationships. As George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier: “A thousand influences constantly press a working man into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon.”

It’s been suggested that Dr Goodwin’s method is not unlike treating a disease such as diabetes, i.e. if a person has a chemical deficiency in any other organ it is corrected—so why not in the brain? But there is another anomaly which should also be raised concerning the prevention of ill- health. Despite the many rules, regulations and laws designed to prevent employers from exposing workers to practices or conditions that are potentially injurious to the body, there are no such requirements for protection of the conscious mind. For mental health we must rely largely on our own emotional resources with a dose of entertainment thrown in, usually in the form of sport or television. It’s also significant that taking a holiday has now become an essential part of working life, but “getting away from it all” is not done for its own sake, but as a positive, enjoyable counter-balance to the negative, disparaging drudgery endured for the rest of the year. The need to take a holiday illustrates the negative attitude most of us have towards employment; if our year-round, day-to-day lives were rewarding and consummating, a source of contentment, there would be no need to get away in the first place.

Dr Goodwin is approaching the problem from the wrong angle. He sees apathy and pessimism as a physical ailment to be treated with chemicals, like diabetes. But isn’t it possible to argue with equal conviction that a general tendency towards a negative outlook has more to do with low self-esteem and poverty (whether relative or absolute)? In the modern industrialised world, the socio-economic structure rewards the few high achievers with great economic freedom to which is attached a high degree of respect and influence. Conversely, the average citizen, though perhaps employed performing a very productive task, usually occupies a low social position and lacks any real control over his or her life; thus “basically the problem with poverty is not lack of money, but the inability to enjoy the multiple advantages associated with affluence” (Key to Psychiatry, 1973). As a riposte to the anti-drug lobby, it’s been suggested that there is a difference between Prozac and the so-called recreational drugs in that Prozac does not provide pleasure but restores the capacity for pleasure. However, does any healthy person really lack the capacity for pleasure, or is it that socio-economic circumstances prevent us from experiencing that pleasure?

If Dr Goodwin is correct and people’s negative tendencies can be “neutralised” by application of a chemical compound, it could of course have fundamental implications for the foundations of society. In contrast to the view that suffering should be a necessary fact of life, the establishment could regard a docile, optimistic population at case with itself as much more malleable; in other words the “Brave New’ World” scenario. Just imagine the benefits of removing the inconvenience of strikes, crime, environmentalism, pressure groups . . .  a ruler’s dream come true!

Nick Brunskill