Joy and Depression


Dear Rabbi,

I appreciated your article, Joy Amidst Turmoil, but I wonder about your take that “every child ever born is always happy and joyful. Joy is hardwired in our hardware and in our software. Sadness is a superimposed state that we acquire once we begin to grow and experience disappointment and duplicity. Children learn to be sad from their parents and the “mature” world that they become exposed to.”

My experience is that there are children who seem to have sadness, fear and sensitivity hardwired into their systems, more than others. Some of my own kids seemed to be that way from a very young age, at age three or even younger, and they even remembered having such feelings.

As someone who has had many very difficult challenges, and also having struggled at times with depression, I feel that despite the passing years, decades of learning Chassidus and working on trying to be in a space of menuchas hanefesh (inner peace) and joy, at times it really is not my choice. It’s like being pinned under a 10,000-pound boulder, which I cannot move even if I tried really, really hard.

Don’t you think it’s possible that some people have despondence hardwired into their moods and feelings more than others? And notwithstanding our ability to control it at times to a degree, we really don’t have much choice?


Dear  [Signed],

Your question is excellent and reflects some other comments we received to last week’s article. Being that we are in the month of joy (Adar), and preparing for the most joyous day in the year (Purim), it is very appropriate to address your words. Especially considering that many others struggle with the issue of joy in their lives, and how they can celebrate when they simply feel depression running through their veins.

The real question is this: Simcha (joy) is a mitzvah in the Torah at all times, especially on holidays in general and Purim in particular, as well as Sukkot and Simchat Torah. If some people are hardwired with sadness, how can the Torah command and expect joy from all people across the board?

A fundamental axiom in Torah thought is that every Torah obligation is something that can be expected of humans. G-d told Moses “I do not ask according to My abilities; only according to their abilities.” Torah cannot and does not demand that we do something that we are unable to accomplish. This is based on the principle that the Torah is a blueprint of life given to us by the cosmic architect of life. How can the Creator of life ask us to do something that we do not have the power and are not hardwired to do?

The Torah’s universal injunction of joy is a clear statement that every one of us has the power to be joyous. This is the basis of my article last week that joy is embedded in our souls and in our genes, even if it may be deeply concealed, and we have the power to access this reservoir.

How do we reconcile this with your observation and those of many others that depression seems to be the destiny of some people?

So let’s take a closer look at the question: Are there depressed genes? Is sadness a product of nature or nurture?

Just as some children are tragically born with various diseases, there are children who seem to be born with a pre-disposition to melancholy, if not outright chronic depression.

But it’s not that simple. Current medical research is sparse and inconclusive on the subject. Some researchers suspect that depression in preschoolers is likely biological and environmental. Some kids, they speculate, may be born with a genetic predisposition to depression, just as some children are born with autism, or Asperger’s syndrome or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But they really don’t know. Nor do they know what triggers the depression.

Pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Charles Zeanah, director of the Institute for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at Tulane University in New Orleans, says that though some depressed kids clearly come from parents who are depressed or have other psychiatric disorders, other depressed children have been abused or neglected, sometimes from infancy. But not all abused kids end up with depression. Nor do all the children of parents suffering depression end up depressed. Some preschoolers, Dr. Zeanah says, seem to be depressed for no apparent genetic or environmental reason.

Dr. Jess P. Shatkin, director of education and training at the NYU Child Study Center and assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, states the following: “The epidemiological studies that have been done on childhood depression have generally been small and too few in number to be definitive about the precise prevalence of childhood depression. Furthermore, it is often not easy to diagnose depression in a child, and as a field we are relatively new at making this diagnosis ourselves. Having said that, those studies that have been done are fairly consistent and suggest that about 1% of preschool, 2% of school age, and 4-8% of adolescents will at some point be depressed.

“We believe the causes to be multifaceted, but we don’t really have a good answer to the question of etiology. We accept that depression, like many mental illnesses, tends to travel in families and therefore has some genetic basis. However, it does not run exclusively in families, and we expect that neurodevelopment, neurochemistry, and environment all play significant roles in the final common pathway of what appears to be depression.”

In other words, we really have no clue whether children are born with a “depressed” gene. We also know that often a very early-childhood experience, a trauma at birth or even in the womb, can impact the child as if it was an innate trait. Certain experiences in life, especially in the earliest formative years, etch a permanent scar in the psyche, to the point that it can even rewire our systems, so that we cannot even distinguish whether our behavior is a result of nature or nurture.

Recently I counseled a special soul who always, from her earliest memories, was repelled by her mother. And indeed, her mother confirmed the fact that almost from birth her daughter refused to be held by her and would pull away every time her mother would reach for her. The mother was convinced, as was the daughter, that the girl was pre-wired to hate her mother.

Upon further observation and analysis it turned out that from the moment of conception and throughout pregnancy the mother never wanted this child. And she made it abundantly clear in her words, feelings and actions. So: What impact did her negative feelings have on her child? If a developing fetus senses for nine months on end an incessant rejection, and then again, when the child emerged from the womb, how does that affect the child’s wiring? Is this nature or nurture, and can we even differentiate between the two?

One of the things that I incidentally emphasized to the daughter, who is now a thirty-year-old adult, is that she must be an unconventionally sensitive soul to have picked up on her mother’s rejection, causing her to recoil every time her mother would reach for her even at birth! This ultra-sensitivity, when channeled properly, can be a tremendous asset in life.

With all this being said, whether sadness, anger, depression and the range of negative feelings we carry, are inborn or acquired, natural or man-made, the fact is that the soul also contains tremendous wellsprings of joy. So even if we were to say that some more than others have sadness hardwired into our systems, we at worst have a battle on our hands: Which voice will prevail – our sad one or our happy one?

And who amongst us does not have this battle? Even if you were born with the happiest genes, into the happiest family, life itself can be quite cruel and our presenting challenges can often bring even the mightiest spirits down.

The Torah’s mitzvah of joy is a combination of a challenge, a commandment, an expectation, a gift and an empowering statement to each one of us, telling us what we are truly capable of, making us aware of our soul’s enormous potential: We have the power and ability to bring true and lasting joy into our lives, despite all circumstances.

In Tanya (chapter 17) Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains, that the mitzvah of loving G-d is not an easy one. Living in this material world, he says, most people immersed in their material desires, cannot be expected to burst with conscious love for the Divine. However, we can expect from everyone actions that are commensurate with love. Through meditating on our gifts and blessings and acting accordingly, we in effect are accessing the inherent, subconscious love in the soul that may be concealed. The same can be said of joy. Through cognitive exercises and respective positive actions, the inherent joy of the soul can be realized.

Obviously, each of us has our unique challenges in this regard, and we won’t always rise to the occasion. That too should not be cause to further sadden us. Life is a battle fraught with sudden twists and turns, and sometimes we prevail and sometimes it’s more difficult. It’s vital to learn how to navigate and pace ourselves. Not every battle has to be waged head on. At times, like a good swimmer in a stormy sea, we need to lay back and let the choppy waves carry us instead of fighting them to exhaustion.

Those born into sad homes, or even with sad genes (should that be the case), or genes that were deeply impacted by a dysfunctional environment, clearly have very particular obstacles to overcome. But they too have souls and as such, have much joy, which is inherent to every soul.

Even those souls that have severe challenges from birth (not due to anything man-made) also have other tremendous resources – if only we were able to see beneath the surface. So even if one were to argue that certain children are hardwired with sadness that they cannot control, they have other areas which they can control, and they have joy in their souls that can always be accessed.

And those of us that grew up in happy homes and have happy genes, or genes that were nourished and stimulated in a nurturing environment, have our share of challenges.

The fact is – something I have witnessed time and again – there are people who were handed the harshest “set of cards” and they have learned to become, with strenuous work, highly evolved, refined and yes, joyful human beings, who shine and illuminate everyone they meet. And there are, sad to say (and I would have preferred not to articulate it), those who grew up in very privileged homes and environments, dealt the best possible “set of cards,” and have become spoiled brats, indulgent and arrogant human beings, bitter, angry and yes, very sad, who bring gloom wherever they go.

But the latter too have the ability to turn things around. Because the soul and its innate joy never dies. “I may be asleep, but my heart is awake.” And with the proper effort – and prerequisite honesty and humility – every one can access the deeper joy.

That is what Purim is about. Discovering the profound joy in our hearts and souls, that often emerges, as it did in the Purim story, from the brink of the abyss. And this type of joy is the greatest and most permanent: A joy born out of pain cannot be destroyed by pain.


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15 years ago

Rabbi, i appreciate your infusion of light into my world. i must say that i look at brain information every day, and agree with the person who wrote you. some people are hard wired with more depressive brain chemistry, they produce either slow frequency brainwave in the wrong places, less fast wave or any other number of circuitry patterns. They have a harder time staying up even if all is well. maybe this is part of their tikkun, but it is real.. db

15 years ago

After undergoing past life regression with a frum therapist, I learned depression may result from a past life. I learned to ask myself, Where are you coming from? Is this a current problem? Because I learned of the situations which caused depression in my past life, I can recognize when there is a trigger present:certain music;weather similarity; surroundings; colors. I learned from the Rebbe who sang and danced when Israel was in great danger. Simcha combats darkness, the Rebbe said.

Alex Goldring
15 years ago

I would suggest a distinction between happiness and joy, which I use all the time. The first is a state of being, perhaps as you described it, a hard wiring, ie it is who we are.
Joy, on the other hand, is occasion bound, as with a wedding or a bar mitzva. The former is permanent, the latter transitory.
I agree that the references in the Torah that enjoin us to be joyous during certain holidays is an empowering assertion. It tells us that we have hegemony over our emotions and is a factor to our becoming masters in our lives. I believe that mastery is the intention of the Torah for us, which comes with discipline. An excellent example of this is the command to Aaron to focus on the task at hand, despite the loss of his two eldest sons, demanding that he stay in the here and now.
As to how to be happy, we need a holy memory. We need to remember our original state, when we were pure energy and everything was fresh and new, untainted by judg-
ment. In a way it is a similar dynamic as teshuva, which is the return to an original and authentic state before we got off the tracks.
I have respectfully suggested in the past, and do again, that memory is an undiscovered ocean. It would be instructive to know whether the rabbis ever tackled the topic. For me it is not just about remembering the past. I think that there are spiritual ramifications that want exploring.
Shevua tov.

Yaakov Levy
15 years ago

valuable piece, thank you. i think it helps to include the citations (like from shir hashirim at the end) and other examples of darkness/light etc like from tehilim. yasher koach

5 years ago

Today is March 21. This, a day to be joyful, is precious to all of us, I would suggest, and one way to
“enhance” any even a tiny bit of joy is by writing down five gifts you’re thankful for… on this day.

Even if you’re depressed as hell because of some nonsense in your life, GIVE IT UP!
Sit down and pen FIVE GIFTS YOU’RE GRATEFUL FOR. Use a pencil (#2lead) with an eraser.
For example, I am grateful for decent, loving, warm parents.

Ah, joy. It’s a sticky wicket, but happiness? not so much. We all get happiness to a degree; then we learn that the feeling passes.
Ah, joy….

1 year ago

I think we all have both of those emotions- joy & sadness.. maybe they are two sides of the same coin- I remember reading in that book THE PROPHET- that our capacity for sorrow is equal to our capacity for joy- it rang true to me.. as far as we can go down- that’s how far we can go up- I guess I’ve heard a medium ground- a balance is the best way to be- but sometimes, I guess I go to extremes 🤷‍♀️. 🤔 about the nurture vs. nature.. yes, I think it can be in our nature, our DNA to lean one way or the other- but I also think – like Jews and the Zodiak- we are not slaves to it- sometimes I get lethargic- (like last night,) but with effort, I can force myself to get up and do something.. we really can control our moods and emotions- it’s not easy- and our animal soul puts up a good fight.. but we can do it- little steps at a time 💖that’s my two cents ☺️. Good Shabbos!

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