Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why gifted people commit suicide

Robin Williams at the Stand Up for Heroes charity benefit in 2007. Photo was taken by John J. Kruzel/American Forces Press Service, and placed in the public domain. Downloaded from Wikimedia.
I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone. 
Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) in World's Greatest Dad, 2009. Written by Bob Goldthwait.
By now I am sure you have heard that Robin Williams, a brilliant actor and comedian, took his own life on August 11, 2014. His death has sparked an incredible amount of discussion and speculation about the causes. The opinions I have seen range from the incredibly stupid (he killed himself out of cowardice), to the well meaning, but wrong (he suffered from depression, which is a disease, and it killed him).

Out of all the pieces I have read about the death of Robert Williams, only one gets it right, Why Funny People Kill Themselves, by David Wong at Cracked.

However, there is more to it. Wong focuses on comedians, but the causes apply to anyone who deviates from the norm. Humans are social animals. We need other people. If we cannot connect, we get depressed.

This means depression is not in itself a disease. It is a symptom! Depression can have many different causes. There may be organic damage, a genetic disposal to a chemical imbalance, or you may be a perfectly healthy individual getting depressed because you are in an unbearable situation.

Being isolated from other people is one of the hardest things to bear.

Your default level of happiness and energy may be very high, but if you cannot build close relations with other people, you may still get depressed.

People who are smart, dedicated and principled are often shut out and isolated. Thus, they are prone to depression. There does not have to be any disease involved, no genetic or physical damage. Just isolation will do the trick.

Why do intelligent people become isolated? Neuroscientific research has showed that the human brain is designed to save energy whenever possible. Thinking requires a lot of energy. So does diligent practice.

Thinking actually triggers the pain center of the brain. No wonder solving math problems is perceived as very unpleasant by a majority of the population.

Intelligent people tend to have active brains. They delve deep into problems. They notice inconsistencies other people pass by. They come up with solutions instead of ignoring the problems. They spend many thousands of hours practicing their skills.

Most people do not want to do that. While everyone loves their results, normal people do not want to spend time with people much smarter than themselves, at work, or in their spare time. It is mentally exhausting, and actually painful. Thus, avoiding smart, dedicated, principled people becomes an autonomous response to the pain caused by the thinking, and other activities, required to keep up with them.

Thus, intelligent people will find themselves rebuffed or ignored, over and over again. They soon learn that reaching out, at work or in their own time, is to invite rejection.

No single one of these rejections is likely to cause a significant mood change, but tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, will.

Even a very resilient mind can, over time, be bent and broken by a barrage of tiny, and not so tiny, rejections.

Having strong principles can cause the same kind of rejection as high intelligence. People with strong principles are often unwilling to go along with illegal or scatterbrained schemes because someone in authority tells them to. They may be unwilling to go along with group consensus, if the group is clearly wrong.
Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.
Steven Winterburn (often incorrectly attributed to William Gibson
Depression is a mood, and moods are, to a large extent, dependent on our surroundings. Thus, if you are depressed, the cause is likely to be external. If not in whole, at least to a significant part.

If you are highly intelligent, and depressed, you may need smarter friends and workmates. Because you spend most of your time awake at work, finding a job with better colleagues, not necessarily with a better job description, may be your best move.

Same thing with friends. Which ones lift you up? which ones bring you down? Not to forget, take a long, hard look at yourself. Are you a positive influence in their lives? Don't assume that you are. Observe! Study your interactions.

There will be good days and bad days, but on the whole, try to create feedback loops that bring you a positive mood and the energy to do things. And, don't be afraid to let your friends help you. Your real friends will do that, just as you would help them.

Actually, helping others is one of the best ways to lift your own mood. Be a bit careful though. Some people will not understand when you are doing them a favor, or going out of your way to do a kindness.

Giving a small amount of money to a beggar will generally work. Giving serious advice on process improvement when someone asks for it is far more risky. If you do not tell people what they want to hear, or force them to think, they are liable to interpret it as hostility.

If you are a highly intelligent person, if you study and practice, and hone your skills, if you do your best to be kind and thoughtful, and yet, you are often rejected. If people like you less the more skilled you become, if they reject you when you hold on to principles you thought you shared with them, if you feel depressed by it, even to the point of wanting to end it, you may be surrounded by assholes.

Try to get a job with better colleagues. Spend more time with your true friends. If you do not have any, make more of them. Surround yourself with brilliant misfits!

I am in the process of doing just that. If you are interested in how I do it, or want to share your own experiences, please do comment on this article.

7 comments:

Andrew Day said...

I think your article is interesting, and I can relate to most of it. I took it too far, and I now work with the brain surgeon level computer programmers at the largest computer company in the world. I am constantly stressed. I do not have their training and understanding, but I see things differently than most. I am intelligent, with Dyslexia.

I did a sleep study, and I have both types of Insomnia, which results in occasional Narcolepsy. That's all they could tell me, but all I needed to hear. I am incapable of shutting off my brain. It's not Schizophrenia, I am just always thinking and I cannot shut it off. It doesn't mean I am always thinking about useful things, but more often than not; I am problem solving. A dark quiet room almost scares me. At night, I need my big screen tv pumping shows from my satellite service while I surf the web, program or read tutorials on one of the 4 computers that sit on my desk. When I get sleepy, I move 2 feet to my bed, where my iPad is waiting, so I can work on my Candy Crush levels (I'm currently in the 400's). I cannot fall asleep until my body is absolutely so drained that it has to fall down. Shit, It's Xmas, and I've been watching a cool Honey Badger (also problem solvers) documentary on Netflix while I type this, do my social networking and play some games.

This leaves me tired, which affects my mood for sure. That being said, here is my mood killer. Love. I made 2 kids, a boy and a girl, then got fixed... I'm done. What is left? When I was younger I believed in romance and all of that garbage. It sounds nice, it is attractive, but it is simply chemical connections used to incite procreation. That kind of kills the dating world for me. That is okay, but as a Father, I have to be honest and explain this to my kids. I have a teen girl that says shit like, "Oh Dad, this guy at school is so cute". She has those young feelings. By telling her the truth, I am robbing her of the innocence and stupidity I got to enjoy for a while.

Long story short; from the perspective of a free thinker or other form of intelligent person... what is the point of life after procreation and raising the kids? Why do grandparents and parents exist? I am not sad or suicidal by any means. I am numb and going through the motions, with hints of laughter and sadness here and there. In the end, there is only the end... what is the need to drag it out after our jobs are done?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, I'm almost a year late but I wanted to say it helped me out today. It is very hard to find the right people to be around, especially if you live in a non-cosmopolitan city and cannot leave due to family obligations. -Ellen

Terrace said...

Thanks for this post, I'm almost a year late but I wanted to say it helped me out today. It is very hard to find the right people to be around, especially if you live in a non-cosmopolitan city and cannot leave due to family obligations.

Anonymous said...

Henrik's article caught my attention with its mention of there being some contemporary brain research (without mentioning the who or where) suggesting there could be some kind of biological or instinctual aversive response perceived the same as pain, when "normals" are exposed to people who engage in constant thinking or who live their life according to moral principles. Which came first, the thinking or the moral life?

Interesting juxtaposition of thinking having the same effect as moral action, with both causing pain in a "normal" individual who avoids thinking unless necessary.

Dichotomy of two kinds of people: 1) those who think non-stop with great pleasure, and who are therefore often ostracized by the majority population of non-thinkers; and 2) the vast majority of others who respond to thought and thinkers as if they cause pain and who therefore shun the minority constant-thinkers as pain-causing.

Hmmm. Take a step back and think about the fundamentals of evolutionary psychology. Sure, humans are social creatures. So much so that anthropologists have not yet found any instance of a human "society" consisting only of absolute loners.

Per W. Trotter, Instinct of the Herd in Peace and War, the thing that binds us to others is our instinctual gregariousness. Humans are gregarious creatures. But some of us are more gregarious than others. And some of us are smarter than others. And some of us are more equal than others.

Sure, the world is a very lonely place for those who can see through all the lies and all the stupidity of the vast majority who are content to live an entire life never having ever entertained a truly original thought or idea. Yes, we make people uncomfortable because they feel stupid when they are near us and hear our ideas.

What is the cause? Is it something inherent in the mammal brain or is it something we teach our children to do? Is it instinct or is it habit? I say that it's cultural conformity and learned behavior that makes the herd shun thinkers.

Many great thinkers have puzzled over the whys and hows of the herd's shunning of thought: Frederik Nietzsche Man and Superman is obvious just from the title.

If that shunning and the herd's aversion to thinkers (or the curious) is truly inherent in the brain, then we'd be seeing the same kind of behavior in other mammals besides humans. Call it the Jesus Reaction. Dissidents who speak truth and challenge the status quo are always crucified.

Do we see that behavior in dogs or cats? Do they shun and ostracize those who can see through the lies?

If you have a colony of bees or ants, it would be natural for the herd to ignore or even kill a worker who deviated from the behavior expected of them. Of course humans are the same.

The conundrum is that new ideas can be developed and eventually even fully adopted by the herd despite the inherent conservatism and utter rejection of new ideas that is natural.

How can this happen? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Lisa said...

Many thanks for this fantastic blog post! It was so helpful to me and I suddenly feel more hopeful and have a brighter outlook on life. In the last three to four years, I have been dealing with some kind of existential crisis and trying to find my way out of it, giving back meaning to my own life... accepting my own being different and the reasons why someone might reject me, even if I'm getting out of my way to befriend people and help them to the best of my abilities. Now it seems I have to be more patient, waiting and being on the lookout for other likeminded people... and to not give up hope just yet.

Thanks again for writing this blog post! You certainly had an impact on my life.

Unknown said...

I'm searching for new avenues for my son. He's 17, ranks in the 98% nationally in science and math. But he also battles depression. Had his first break down at age 8. Diagnosed with ODD,ADD and depression. It has been managed well until this year. He's been in hospital again for depression, anger etc.
He describes Wendt I read here. Brain never shuts off, HIGHLY emotionally sensitive, which I was told at age 8, he's almost non functioning. Failed all 1st semester classes.. Tired, angry.. I need new input.. This mom is out of resources and the school sucks for support. Thank you

Unknown said...

I'm searching for new avenues for my son. He's 17, ranks in the 98% nationally in science and math. But he also battles depression. Had his first break down at age 8. Diagnosed with ODD,ADD and depression. It has been managed well until this year. He's been in hospital again for depression, anger etc.
He describes Wendt I read here. Brain never shuts off, HIGHLY emotionally sensitive, which I was told at age 8, he's almost non functioning. Failed all 1st semester classes.. Tired, angry.. I need new input.. This mom is out of resources and the school sucks for support. Thank you