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Existential Depression in Gifted Children (davidsongifted.org)
325 points by JacksonGariety on July 21, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 177 comments

I cried a little.

I'm 18 and since 3rd grade I was in a special class for gifted children. I know this feeling so well, from my experience and from those of my classmates and friends, it literally hurts.

I'm no psychiatrist but from my nonobjective personal experience depression in gifted children and your regular "normal" teenage depression are completely different, in symptoms as well as in cause, which I think the article illustrates nicely.

I think the people criticizing the article for focusing on children and on gifted children specifically don't understand it's a whole different world. There are whole fields of study in psychology, psychiatry, education studies and other fields that focus on gifted children because they need a completely different system to thrive. People, especially family and educators, need to know about this.

Just don't get too used to thinking being gifted is particularly rare and requires a different system to thrive. Many acquaintances of mine at a certain crimson ivy university grew up with similar notions, and got into a different kind of depression once being surrounded by other 'gifted' individuals - due to having the 'world view' they've internalized so far, around the notion of them being special, getting totally crushed. Many also got used to explaining away their flaws as somehow being related to them being brilliant. This notion of specialness being crushed, they also saw those thing for what they are - failings, i.e. that they fail to connect with young people their age due to poor social skills, and not due to them gifts; and this becomes obvious now that others around them are also smart, etc. They realized that even if you're 1/1000 this means Facebook could staff the entire company with even more gifted Americans, and you'd still not make it, and so on.

These people are also crushed to learn upon graduation that people don't automatically revel in their obvious greatness, and that they need to earn their place by actually delivering / 'executing' on some of that potential.

TL;DR: Smart teenagers tend to not realize they are still 99% teenager, 1% smart. That itself is a teenager like habit.

Humans have roughly similar meta-emotional makeups and thrive in environments that cater to this. Gifted or not, children and teenagers thrive where they can expand their social, intellectual, emotional, spiritual boundaries and capabilities in a trusting, safe, encouraging environment. Thus the 'system' is the same, the gifted merely require a different mix of 'content'. They may be advanced in certain ways but normal or behind in others.

I agree that the system makes us think we're a special little snowflake and I've had the whole "I'm not that special" crushing experience, but I do truly believe that gifted children need a different environment to thrive. I wouldn't have lasted long among my peers, socially and academically.

No doubt, but unfortunately it's probably not as simple as placing the 'gifted' ones in one room and the 'ungifted' ones in another. Surely its a spectrum?

I completely agree. Your comment should be required reading for every "gifted" child.

Unfortunately, people don't learn that kind of thing from reading (or being told).

Maybe we shouldn't delay the real world lessons of "there are plenty of people better than you, just in different ways" and "yeah you are great, you'll still have to earn it" until they grow up. In my view, that's another one of the failures of modern schools.

Since you're still 18, I'll give you the advice I wish someone had told me 13 years ago:

You are not a head in a body. Your mind is intertwined with your body and your body is what connects you to reality. Keep in touch with your body.

It's easy for you to focus on things to the exclusion of everything else and it's very easy to forget about your body. Don't.

I'm fairly sure that's also why the article mentioned hugging. Just let your canary in the coal mine be that if you no longer enjoy physical touch; you're out of contact with your body.

The parent comment is absolutely correct.

I blame Descartes and his mind/body dualism for much of the "brain-centric" view of consciousness :)

The human organism needs lots of physical exercise, movement, breathing, stretching, etc. to function properly. Along with proper sleep habits, your body's environment must be taken care of if you expect to feel "good" and expect proper brain functioning.

The most demanding cognitive activities require support of all the rest of the body's systems (mood, temperament, stamina) which can be kept in shape through proper physical conditioning and nutrition.

I wish I became of this earlier as well! Great point. Somewhere in high school I lost touch with this, and it took a lot of effort in my twenties to consciously realize this & bring it to my life.

I was diagnosed as "gifted" in third grade, but switched back into "regular" school in sixth grade in response to bullying, a short temper, and a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome with Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I think the only reason I got through high school was because of the immense amount of support I got when I was placed in a partially self-contained class with roughly ten other students with Asperger Syndrome and Autism.

The thing that always bothered me (and my "gifted" classmates) is that lumping all such children together is a Bad Idea(TM). We had unique strengths and weaknesses, and having us march in lock-step in a traditional Prussian-style school at double speed just made our weaknesses that much more apparent.

The only two real issues I've got with this article are that it limits itself in scope to the "gifted" and that it limits itself to children.

As for the latter issue, I suspect that this may fit into a broader work or area that the author presumes readers are familiar with--these issues are certainly seen in teenagers and afterwards.

As for the first point, a bit of a cliche but still accurate is the saying "The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike"; at some level, everyone I've met sharp or dull, gifted or not has run up against some version of the four issues (death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness). It may take until middle age and a house and a picket fence and seventy grand in debt, but it hits eventually.

One of the best realizations I've come to is that everyone, at some level or another, faces these problems in their own way and that I should try and respect their experience--because for them, their existential conflict is at least as severe as my own, their circumstances and stakes at least as dire.

What struck me as interesting was the author's specifically calling out touch as a mechanism for grounding and comfort--this struck a chord with me when I read it. It's part of the reason I have dogs: there is a very real touchable physical presence of pet, something to hold and hug and pet when you're mulling over some of the day's shittiness.

tl,dr; life's a bitch, get a dog.

The only two real issues I've got with this article are that it limits itself in scope to the "gifted" and that it limits itself to children.

I think that can be entirely attributed to where it is published -- the website of a 501(c)3 that solely focuses on "gifted children".

> Such concerns are not too surprising in thoughtful adults who are going through mid-life crises. However, it is a matter of great concern when these existential questions are foremost in the mind of a twelve or fifteen year old. Such existential depressions deserve careful attention, since they can be precursors to suicide.

This paragraph explains why it is relevant to focus on gifted children.

I can attest to that as I still have rather vivid memories of standing on the edge of the roof berating myself for not having the guts to actually jump.

If you're knowledgeable of something, you may not know what it's like to be ignorant about it, but you do recognize the ignorance itself. But this doesn't go both ways, it's rather like a big circle contains the area of a smaller one, but not the other way around. You can see "blind" people, but they can't really see you. They hear and feel some things, and think that's all there is to it, but you know there is more. That is, after you found out about their blindness by them walking over paintings you made, maybe even made as a gift for them. Or even worse, you see them falling into manholes every day, and each time you tell them about it, especially in the blunt way of kids, they attack you for "thinking you see something they don't, thinking you're better". This is even more true for adults being showed up by kids; the people who can deal with that are rare, most use their position or power to shut the kid up, or eave it at a stupid, patronizing, insulting response.

Needless to say, this can be very confusing and painful. It's not like anyone ever tells you "I'm acting this way because I feel threatened by you", it's always some stupid mind fuck and always your fault. I still would never say it hurts more than being stupid, and let's not forget the perks that come with being gifted, either... I don't disagree with what you said, but still: "just as dire" does not mean "exactly the same".

There are, by definition, more people who can understand the most stupid, than those who who can understand the most gifted, and the sadness of seeing how the world could be, and how it is, and how third-hand many of the excuses many people make are, that is not a feature of the other extreme. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. And just consider the likely very different reactions to "I'm sad because I'm more stupid than the people around me" and "I'm sad because the people around me are more stupid than me". Both are perfectly valid reasons to be sad, but only one of them tends to get a hissy-scratchy response, especially when it's true.

I googled Dabrowski and Positive Disintegration Experience and was led to this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_Disintegration

I found the following especially interesting:

Dąbrowski also described a group of people who display a different course: an individualized developmental pathway. These people break away from an automatic, rote, socialized view of life (which Dąbrowski called negative adjustment) and move into and through a series of personal disintegrations. Dąbrowski saw these disintegrations as a key element in the overall developmental process. Crises challenge our status quo and cause us to review our self, ideas, values, thoughts, ideals, etc. If development continues, one goes on to develop an individualized, conscious and critically evaluated hierarchical value structure (called positive adjustment). This hierarchy of values acts as a benchmark by which all things are now seen, and the higher values in our internal hierarchy come to direct our behavior (no longer based on external social mores). These higher, individual values characterize an eventual second integration reflecting individual autonomy and for Dąbrowski, mark the arrival of true human personality. At this level, each person develops his or her own vision of how life ought to be and lives it. This higher level is associated with strong individual approaches to problem solving and creativity. One's talents and creativity are applied in the service of these higher individual values and visions of how life could be - how the world ought to be. The person expresses his or her "new" autonomous personality energetically through action, art, social change and so on.

The book that taught me to spiritually make sense of a world that is a constant let down was "The Master and Margarita" by Bulgakov. The author wrote it in secret while living with totalitarianism and meaninglessness in Stalinist Russia.

If you're not in the mood for a book, there's a great mini-series adaptation that was produced in Russia in the 2000s that takes about a week to watch. It does an almost perfect job of reproducing the book. I don't think it's available online.

I've often thought that in a warped, twisted way totalitarianism gives meaning to life for certain people. If it opression is so intense to make life worthless, then one has a cause dearer than life itself - to fight this opression. This struggle itself is meaningful. Many 'hero' movies are structured in this way, the 'good guys' have a cause, usually around defeating some kind of evil, that gives them ultimate purpose.

Likewise, I've found friends with far worse actual problems in the developing world to be existentially happier. They derive great pleasure in being able to go to a rock concert, etc. The game dynamics still work for the majority. Lots of intermediary issues to overcome, bosses to beat. Threat of destruction (socially or economically) seems to be wonderfully stimulating. Game dynamics still work.

What I find far worse is the banality of the first world. That seems to evoke and ferment existential concerns. Kind of along the lines of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98LeLZ2crZE

In a way, it is the problem one faces once more basic things are taken care of. Hard to focus on existential angst when hungry.

At the end of the day, even though the universe itself may be arbitrary and doomed, I found that the only things that infuse durable meaning into us as humans is our love for each other, our desire to understand this universe, and our appreciation of beauty in all its forms.

Man's Search for Meaning is about totalitarianism to the extreme; having no freedom except that in how you choose to react. The author was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.

And about first world banality - the book of Ecclesiastes in the the bible addresses this also:

"I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun."

I had the existential depressions when I was 19 - 24. I dropped out of college and all my parents knew to do (and did) was put me in a psych ward and 'treat' me with electroshock. That didn't work.

What worked then?

> I've often thought that in a warped, twisted way totalitarianism gives meaning to life for certain people. If it opression is so intense to make life worthless, then one has a cause dearer than life itself - to fight this opression. This struggle itself is meaningful. Many 'hero' movies are structured in this way, the 'good guys' have a cause, usually around defeating some kind of evil, that gives them ultimate purpose.

An even more disturbing take on this is that totalitarianism also gives some people a more sinister cause: the oppression itself. I think many people in the various surveillance agencies in totalitarian states actually believed in what they were doing, and many even enjoyed it.

Eric Fromm's essay "Fear of Feadom" (or "Escape from Freedom" in the US) describes this phenomenon in great detail. Well worth a read.

Gifted children are intense? Has the author ever actually been around children? They're all intense. That's the nature of children!

Of course, they may simply all be gifted until they're hammered into their little social boxes; I've often thought that. Some of us weirdos just can't be hammered as efficiently, or break before bending or something.

(Also, the guy in the picture is probably not depressed due to nihilism, but because he forgot to put a dropcloth down before painting - I know I've cursed myself for that one before.)

Perhaps a very subtle hint at the existential crises we all have of living with the corners we've painted ourselves into?

Gifted children are intense? Has the author ever actually been around children? They're all intense. That's the nature of children!

You mean adults aren't intense?

Wow, now I feel lonely.

Adults are far less intense than children, IMO.

I expect children to be intense about nearly everything. Small boo-boos and set-backs are devastating, and small wins create enormous excitement in 2 and 4 year olds. That, to me, is intensity.

It's perfectly normal for the majority of things in life to be intense in kids (and have more understanding for others' kids now), but it's entirely abnormal (and frankly inappropriate) in adults. Adults can have selective intensity and I look for that as a strongly positive quality in people I want to be around. Non-selective intensity is simply fatiguing, IMO.

Interuption: "Dude!!! Are you guys out of toilet paper in the upstairs bath?! Because if you are, I just wanted to remind you that there's a lot of it downstairs." (Silently: "No shit, I bought it and put it there; next, care to interupt my reading in five minutes to update me on the stock status of dish washing detergent?")

Ah, I had thought you were referring to unexpressed inner intensity rather than just outward loudness.

Of course, even that preference for outward "quietness" over "loudness" is quite cultural. I'm betting you're from a Northern European or Anglo culture?

There's a good point, the cultural one.

No, I really mind how excited children can get about everything - it's the first time for them! Their highs are incredibly high, and their lows are incredibly low, partly because they have no experience to know that after the high will come a low, and after the low will come a high.

But when my point was that the author seems to think only gifted children are intense, why do you immediately assume I'm telling you you're not? And feel alone? That's really kind of sad.

But when my point was that the author seems to think only gifted children are intense, why do you immediately assume I'm telling you you're not?

No, I had thought you were implying that adults are emotionally less intense than children, which made me feel alone because that's very much contrary to my experience. The big thing that freaked me out about growing up was realizing it feels much the same as being a child, except for having learned how to maintain a facade that it's totally different and I'm somehow actually as calm as I act.

Interesting. I've noticed a lot of differences between the subjective experiences of childhood and adulthood. Part of it could be thought of as less intensity, but I think it has more to do with gaining the ability to accept things as they are. I also seem to have gained greater capacity for empathy. Frighteningly, I've also developed more discomfort with the unfamiliar.

A somewhat different response is found in "The drama of the gifted child," which argues that gifted children, having been singled out for attention because of their impressive abilities, become dependent on validation from authority figures and then have trouble adapting to self-directed life as an adult: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0465016901

Well, it doesn't help that most parents want to see their child as "gifted". We as a society put a lot of emphasis on inborn qualities ("being smart"), rather than growth and hard work.

It's not surprising when the dream of many is to have it easy. Being smart is easy. Working hard is hard. I remember there being a study where successful kids who were told they worked hard ended up working harder (and over time getting better results) than kids who were told they are smart.

I guess what I'm saying is everyone has impressive abilities, but the authority figures' guidance may be what will differentiate a lazy "smart" person from a hard working (successful) one.

Giftedness is misunderstood. That even highly educated audiences don't get this is evident in some of the comments here. Giftedness is terribly named. It is more affliction than blessing. Giftedness is rare. Gifted kids are not the same as brilliant high achievers. They have high IQ's but are also underachievers (by regular standards, not some elevated bar) and often dropouts. They should be highly successful but are not and often commit suicide. Gifted children are routinely dismissed as overly privileged or advantaged kids, and usually do not get any special needs attention in schools. People see their intellectual side and ignore their emotional needs and problems. I can say from personal experience that while gifted kids are exceptional in many ways, they also tend to lead difficult lives with many challenges because they are so deeply misunderstood. Even by their own parents.

I second this. I was identified as "gifted" around 3rd grade, and from that point on, my teachers "guided me" (only allowed me access to) literature and texts they felt were "at my level". Third grade is way too young to be reading literature classics - they are all incredible tragedies, with the worse aspects of human behavior exhibited and analyzed to the extreme. By 5th grade I'd pretty much finished the entire classics section at our library, and I was as dark minded as an individual could get, with the vocabulary to support plus youthful piss and vinegar ready to debate anyone with optimism.

Thank god I discovered literary science fiction, and soon thereafter Phillip K Dick. I found reading "unhappy" literature was comforting, and U.K. post-punk bands like Joy Division also lent a sense of not being completely alone. Also reading Malcome X was hugely uplifting, as a white Iowa boy. And the cyper-punk authors were just starting then; I remember reading Neuromancer when it first came out and feeling completely at home in the reality painted by that novel.

About the only "good" thing that came out of my elementary school teachers only allowing me access to "gifted" activities was their taking me out of math class and leaving me alone with the school's first computer (this was the late 70's) for 2 hours every day.

I have one gifted son and another brilliant son, and I really understand what you mean. I can see these differences quite clearly in my sons. Giftedness is not same as having very high IQ, it has its own characteristics which are often overshadowed by the high IQ.

I faced some of these issues during my early teens. It went away after that. Now I am 29 and facing the mid life crisis that the author has mentioned. It's a confused state of big dreams and crushing reality.

Shoot me an email if you need to vent--we all need can use someone to chat with now and again.

Thanks for your kind words. It means a lot!!

Sorry to hear it. Want to tell me about it over Skype? I'm a good listener and it's good to talk.

Thanks so much for your compassion and empathy. I would love to talk to you.

Send me an email. It's at the very bottom of this page: http://jacksongariety.com/resume

(sorry, to prevent spam)

When I was in the third or fourth grade, I had an extreme form of this type of depression that lasted for maybe a year or longer. Instead of just reflecting on the meaning of life, I worried reality might not be real and understood even then at my young age there's no way to prove the people around me weren't constructs of my imagination. I came to these conclusions independently without ever hearing of Brain in a Vat, Evil Genius, or watching The Matrix, and it was very terrifying back then.

As I've grown up, I still realize there's no way to prove the world around me is real, but I'm glad I encountered this theory so young because I've had a good while to be motivated by the fact that it doesn't matter if it isn't real. What matters is what I do with this experience and how much joy I get out of it.

Not sure why the emphasis is on children especially. This seems to affect thoughtful people of all ages.

Or maybe, in that thoughtful, existentially-depressed way, the author is just understatedly asserting that adults are just big children. That would probably be overthinking it.

The issues described are dramatically worse for children since they don't have any agency over their own lives or the ability to actually grapple with these issues the way an adult can (emotional maturity really helps!)

It's on a website about talent development in gifted children, they're speaking to their audience. The article has been around for a while.

Ah. This makes my comment look silly then. Sometimes that kind of context is not obvious when these things come up on a site like HN.

> This seems to affect thoughtful people of all ages.

This affects everyone sooner or later, thoughtful or not. I think this is basically just a case of the fact that everyone goes through more or less the same set of internal experiences, just in different orders and to different extents. Obviously though if you hit the dark night of the soul at age 7 then that's going to be somewhat problematic, not that it's easy at any age.

I think he author chose children to simplify the somewhat complicated theory of positive disintegration.

He's also probably assuming the reader has some background on PD and knows what it is a psychological theory not at all correlated with age.

"As intelligence goes up, happiness goes down. See, I made a graph. I make lots of graphs." - Lisa Simpson

I know this post is at least partially a joke, but if there's any correlation between IQ and happiness, it's positive.


Apart from the fact that IQ as a measure of anything is completely bullshit, sure. We can make such a correlation.

I have felt those things before but then one day I had an epiphany. Everything in this universe, living or dead, are all made of the same universe, like gems cut from the same rock. So that even when I find myself having difficulties with someone, something or even idea, I remind myself that we're all in this together. The universe is us, its what we choose to make of it. The universe isn't just one state of the universe but rather the transitions between one state after another, just like how a movie isn't just the current frame I see, but rather all the frames put together, and although the movie is going to end, we don't know how the story is going to go. That part, is up to us, so let's create something beautiful.

I also had an experience where the existential depression went away. I thought this comment on the original article described it pretty well:

The solution to existential depression is counter intuitive, which is probably why it isn't well known. Existential depression is caused by wanting to have meaning when a part of us knows that meaning doesn't exist. We grow up in a life where everyone around us jumps from one 'important' and 'meaningful' thing to another, never seeing the pointlessness of it all. We think this is normal so adopt the behavior, but we constantly fight ourselves because part of us sees how pointless it really is. Our base state is where we see how pointless everything is. However, this state does not create existential depression. It's the conflict between the pointless state and the part of us that wants meaning that creates existential depression. We enter suicidal states only when we are unable to find a solution. (i.e. we are unable to find something that has meaning.) The solution, which is now obvious, is to remove all feelings of meaning and importance so that we return to our natural state. If everything is meaningless than everything is unimportant. If everything is unimportant than nothing is more important than anything else. When the feelings of meaning and importance are removed, our existential depression disappears.

Basically it felt like the abstract notions I had been worrying over were indeed meaningless, but that the meaningful world from when I was a little kid was still around, when I could capture the same intense non-verbal awareness.

I echo all of that.

Do you not also feel that sometimes it's hard to consciously think that it is pointless and to feel yourself accidentally drifting back into a state of trying to find meaning... to feel this existential depression creeping back?

I find it takes constant awareness (not effort) to maintain an idea that it is all futile and pointless, to allow me to exist without any depression.

Well, nowadays I just try to be aware in the moment and not focus on meaning, the future, etc unless I need too. Success varies.

If I'm too hyper-focused on something (like coding) for too long though sometimes I'll still get a similar feeling. Haven't found anything to do in that case but wait it out.

I mix several things at all times to ensure the hyper-focus doesn't set in.

At the moment I code, cycle, read sci-fi, takes photos, and am just about to buy an electric piano to add something else (as the coding was dominating again).

A well written piece. The excessive use of "gifted" works against its intentions though. By referring exclusively to "gifted" children the author is throwing up a wall. Everyone has different levels of care and thought when it comes to the world around us.

Well put; thank you for not jumping on the "hurr durr look at the special snowflake language" bandwagon.

Site is giving a 500 error, here is the gcached version: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:piXqTtN...

I faced this "existential" crisis of a pretty severe nature in my college years. I kept reading stuff about psychology, philosophy, and physics in the hopes of an answer. The first breakthrough against this existential demon came in the form of a course "non-linear dynamics and chaos", the ability of chaotic equations to exhibit life and nature like behaviour, and understanding that life is chaotic, and so is nature. The second one came when I realized that philosophy and reason itself are handicapped, insufficient, powerless against this existential dilemma. The third one came while reading Carl Jung and his work, the fact that consciousness is a very small produce of the biological system that is human body. Fourth when I read Nietzsche's "On Truth and Untruth", which again showed how our speech has taken the form of animal's claws, we fight, threaten etc mostly by what we say, that's like a higher level of abstraction over the physical equivalent. Then there was Tolstoy, who pointed out that its logical that we humans, if we really want to stay true to ourselves, need a god, or something higher than ourselves to believe in, because logically, if you are going to die, there is no reason to live, yet every human and animal does. Then there was "Black Swan" by Taleb, which drilled the idea into my head that we humans don't know even a tenth as much as we think we do. And then there was programming, actually building systems that exist outside of you and do something.

Over the years, I developed the worldview that as human body is formed by numerous of organisms working together, and how futile would it be for a "red blood cell", in all its consciousness, to ask "what is my purpose ?", the same way its futile for human to ask about his/her place in the universe. I started trying to live more like animals do (or rather, how a human animal would live if it only had nature imposing rules on it), copying nature for decision-making, and general wisdom (it even helps me with my work). We humans are basically nature forming a greater system , the human society, which then again competes with many other greater systems formed by other organisms, and till now, has been doing pretty well.

I also have given up trying to control my conscious thought and efforts too much. I trust the biological system that this consciousness came out of to provide me with a better judgement than I can come up with consciously.

Its been around 2.5 years since i cleared up the existential crisis in my head, and my growth since then has even astounded me. I have become better, much better in all spheres of life, and I can't remember a time I was more happier than these 2.5 years

I loved this comment and went through a serious critical study of those domains as well.

I have a clarifying question: Isn't human consciousness and troublesome curiosity -- things you seem to be minimalizing and attempting to tone down -- just as real as everything else? Could your view that questioning your place in the universe as futile not be seen as escapist/defeatist? Why do you trust the biological system for consciousness but not how that consciousness operates?

Yes, it is a very troublesome and magnificent curiosity, but realizing the futility of thinking that "I NEED to know my purpose in this universe" takes out the troublesome part of that curiosity. The thing is, even if I waste my whole life in search for an answer, and still discover nothing, then also, I'd have played out my part as a useless prick in the universe (Read up stuff about free will, there is a paradox or something). I'm much more happier doing things that intrigue me push me, fascinate me, and overall, are in sync with the "biological system" that my consciousness developed on, than spend my time pondering on my "purpose".

Rest of this stuff is revealed when you actually do something, and push your limits in it, the patterns that are revealed, and how the system based abstractions and patterns really transcend various fields of knowledge and practice.

Anyways. This is what I think, and since I am not rich or haven't "made it big", , I won't be taken seriously by many people. And when, and if, I get rich, people would try to "dig my brain", so to say. But I don't think a lot of this stuff is "portable". Everyone needs to realize this type of stuff on their own, come up with their own explanation.

Thanks for sharing kapv89

I have two kids both starting at age4 questioned me about death. I don't believe in God so it's hard to calm them, but there is no better way to comfort them, so I say we will all go to heaven when we die.

One day we visited my grandparents cemetery,my boy started crying, and asked me why my grandparents are buried here while I said people went to heaven when they are dead. I had to say that our body remains here, but our soul/spirit go to heaven and we live there.

Then one night he tears again, then cry, when I ask, he said if it's just spirits/souls go to heaven, we won't even have a face there, our family will never be able to recognize each other, and we won't be able to re-unite in heaven.

I almost cried myself.

I have to point out that a good percentage of people seem to gravitate towards religious, spiritual, mystical, or other basically non-reason-based thought patterns, I suspect to help alleviate this sense of existential hopelessness. Perhaps these "gifted children" find it harder to go down that particular route, for obvious reasons.

While I've read a fair bit of existentialist works I've never seen this term, but I think I know what it means. I also think the article would be improved by just titling itself "Existential Depression". The narrow focus is odd, even if true, and might serve better as a footnote.

There's the strangest feeling I come across from time to time, and I think "come across" is the only good way to describe it. Everyone has bouts of doubt and melancholy, I think or would like to think, but there's something much larger that creeps up that becomes harder to relate. In spite of the difficulty to describe, I could imagine anyone might feel this way, not just gifted children.

I always called it "The Cosmic Sadness", which is a name that I came up with after experiencing the feelings while I was reading about heat death of the universe (and associated articles) on Wikipedia[1]. This feeling ends up upsetting (not quite right, maybe disquieting) me much more than things like the death of a pet or a family member.

It doesn't only have to do with cosmological things, but I think it addresses the scope of the feeling, where you get this sensation of being so zoomed out, so encompassed by (perhaps) all that might be, that you have a hard time coming back down to being you.

It's like when you ponder the plight of some character in a novel you're reading, and you empathize enough to get a little upset, then you remember that none of that is real and its OK you've gone one level up now back to real life, no one is suffering like the character in the novel. You "snap out of it" - There's de-escalation, and some relief. But with the cosmic sadness there is no going up one level, it's all there to ponder and still real. No snapping out of it.

I was shocked by how this article ended because the only way of coping I have (other than mere time), to de-escalate this feeling, is literature and poetry. I tend to read several poems a day[2] as a kind of cathartic ritual, and poetry brings a comfortable way to remember (or re-realize) the very meaningful and concrete parts of experience, so I end up surrounding myself with it, finding the most comfort in it.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_death_of_the_universe

[2] For example Where to Live, by Du Fu: https://gist.github.com/simonsarris/5472121

Du Fu is a favorite of mine because he lived during a time that experienced one of the largest losses of human life on the planet (an lushan rebellion), so a lot of his poetry dithers between bleakness and hope. Somehow this makes it easy for me to reflect (perspective) and draw some inner sympathy for everything.

The article focus on gifted children because it is a particular problem since they can't share their thoughts and questions about it with friends. These questions are somehow comming up "too early" in life wrt to their capacity to cope with them. As adults we have collected enough data to be able to readjust our understanding of life in a sound way. The depression is the phase that follows the anger from not being able to cope with it. Helping these kids to go through this phase is important because risk of suicide is also higher.

I don't want to diminish the problem of existential depression in adults. I just want to point out that the problem is probably more accute and troublesome in gifted children as I think the author tried to explain.

Indeed. A thousand times this.

I had exactly what was described in the article in response to a car accident (being hit while biking) that 'should have been fatal' at age 15.

The author's recommendation of a daily hug also resonates with me since if I had to describe, 15 years later, what happened I'd say that the accident caused my mind to retreat from my body and that it wasn't until I learnt to enjoy physical touch again 7 years later that I felt I had recovered.

While my experience probably was a bit more intense than the article describes, my guess is that it points to a failure mode in gifted (or let's say 'mentally oriented') children in which they focus on their mind to the exclusion of all else and lose track of their (physical) connection to the world.

I acutely remember this issue when I was maybe 10 - 14. I tried to talk to my parents about the sadness I was feeling in these areas, but I couldn't make them understand. I had no-one around me who understood what I was saying, no-one who could guide me through. It was a very difficult time and it took me into my late teens to really put these issues to bed.

> But with the cosmic sadness there is no going up one level, it's all there to ponder and still real. No snapping out of it.

There are two mechanisms to cope with this without discarding or distorting it. Both are linked to accepting and expanding the comical (and cosmic) smallness of our existences.

The first one I actually learned recently from reading Stephensons Anathem (which made me wonder if I'm reading that into his work or whether it was put in there from the same urge to cope). It's a bit hard to relay it without spoiling the book too much, but let's say it's related to the fact that even our understanding of the heat death of the universe is based on and limited by our human brains. There is hope in understanding it as a field that may still be ripe for discovery (top-of-my-head exmples: quantum immortality, parallel universes etc.) and that, as per usual, reality is always more fascinating, weird and grand than our brains can even begin to imagine. (And maybe these short term sprints of depression stem from being unable, for a short while, to muster an appropriate sense of wonder.) We're along for a ride and that ride is awesome.

While the first one is going one step ahead, the second is taking one step back: Even the fact that we are able to form thoughts about the heat death of the universe means that we are incredibly gifted and that it's a gift we should not waste on despair. We are part of a universe that is to all appearances without inherent meaning or even sense. Fine. It's up to you to decide whether you want to dwell in and facilitate the static and the cold, or whether you want to pump your energy into showering it with the most fantastic entropy that the universe hasn't seen yet. You are here because thousands of generations of humans have found ways to cope and carry on and make today into a better tomorrow. If they figured out a way to give a damn, you can, too.

Just to play devil's advocate:

> accepting ... reality is always more fascinating, weird and grand than our brains can even begin to imagine ... We're along for a ride and that ride is awesome.

Sounds like defeatism and resignation. Why resign yourself to the "ride" and pretend that there's something nice about the long, arduous journey when you know very well that there's not much to see at the destination, or if you believe that everyone is riding in the wrong direction?

> If they figured out a way to give a damn, you can, too.

Sounds like conformism. What if all those people gave lots of damns about things that actually aren't worth a damn? Perhaps we should not waste our precious CPU cycles on caring about worthless things.

How do you convince a mind that thinks on the scale of trillions of years to care about a few thousand years of human idiosyncrasy at all? I don't think it will be that easy. Daily hugs might actually work better, because a hug doesn't even attempt to engage the intellect and therefore doesn't need to respond to counterarguments.

I know you're doing devil's advocate. I liked this part of your comment: kijin>"What if all those people gave lots of damns about things that actually aren't worth a damn?"

Because I certainly don't know if these things are worth a damn or not, and I generally don't trust people who believe that they do know.


But this uncertainty about whether "any specific thing matters" cuts both ways, and I'm not sure it is clearly stated in another part of your comment:

kijin>Sounds like defeatism and resignation. Why resign yourself to the "ride" and pretend that there's something nice about the long, arduous journey when you know very well that there's not much to see at the destination, or if you believe that everyone is riding in the wrong direction?

I think that there are 2 defeat/resignations in your hypothetical. The first defeat/resignation happens at the point where you become convinced that "you know very well that there's not much to see at the destination". The second defeat/resignation is the one that you pointed out, when you make the decision to pretend that here's some destination.

----------------------- skore>>it's related to the fact that even our understanding of the heat death of the universe is based on and limited by our human brains.

Skore is raising the question that maybe we DON'T "know very well that there's not much to see at the destination."

Some people believe that there is no way to know that "there is not much to see at the destination", and some people believe that there definitely is a worthwhile destination that is worth struggling towards. Religious people, anyone believing in transhumanism or "the singularity" to name the vast majority of humans.

Some people would lump everyone who doesn't commit suicide into this category: "If you aren't getting off the train, you're moving towards station."

I absolutely guarantee that nobody, especially not someone depressed, is actually thinking on the scale of trillions of years. At that scale we stop being able to think and have to switch to mere computation instead.

Existential despair is when your brain decides to think up some Profound Issue instead of just admitting it needs some exercise and a hug.

Uhm. "Not giving a damn" doesn't cause depression I think. It's kinda the other way around? You know, caring too much and whatnot, or caring about things you can't change in a way as if you could.

Personally, I find the heat death of the universe comforting. That is, considering human society as it is now: no matter what, there will be no boot stamping on a human face forever. Those who "become one with the dust" cannot loose, those into accumulation of power and posessions can't win. That's kinda neat, after all, like a fail-safe. It's also the only real solid argument for things like compassion and irony I know.

You are here because thousands of generations of humans have found ways to cope and carry on and make today into a better tomorrow.

You could also say I'm here because hunger feels bad and fucking feels good. "Better tomorrow" sounds so self-righteous, and while maybe people in the past were that high-minded, I'm currently not seeing it. The US can't even close Gitmo because the people they abducted and tortured might take it out on them, wtf? We still live in the stone age in so many ways, and that's the supposedly advanced west. A few years ago in Germany, a girl was raped in the inner city of a small town while people just walked by. And so on. It could be argued that even one look at a flower justifies all suffering in the world, but it could also be argued that just one kid dying in terror and pain does not justify existence of life on the planet. It really depends on the mood, and for me on wether I had breakfast yet.

Remember when TV was thought to bring culture and information to people? Hah, me neither, but I take it there was a time when you could express such hope with a straight face. Then came the internet... yet the way 99% of the people talk on the web would get one hellbanned within 5 posts here. For every person with a book I see, I see 20 with their dumbification phone out. In the economy we consider shifting money to those who least deserve, but most desperately want it, as making money and admirable, and watch helplessly as our media, our food, just about fucking everything gets more and more consolidated into fewer and fewer trees of corporations and the corporations they own. All most people care about is what they need to do to get along, they just accept everything as given and go from there.

And yeah, then there's the people dreaming of actual immortality in all this mess. Just look at them. They've been creeping me out since I was a kid, not once have I seen a scientist talk about this who seemed to be a balanced human being.

Anyway, as Kafka wrote in his notebook, "Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made." But then again he also wrote this: "You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid."

But that's not what you're talking about, children dying in Africa, is it? Or people who just want to feel like they have some agency in their life playing Farmville? No, the universe is oh so exiting, it's an awesome ride... bleh. Don't get me wrong, I sometimes still stare at clouds or my hand or whatever and am simply amazed. But a sense of wonder is only one part of the story, the other part is human society, which is nowhere near the awesome complex miracle the universe is, but often rather banal, predictable, suicidal on good days and murderous on bad ones, with ads everywhere, just in case someone has an actual thought in a quiet minute.

I still agree that one should not give up, if that can be avoided. But I disagree that "if they figured out a way to give a damn, you can, too." -- so many people didn't figure anything out (how many natives are basically dying from depression in reservations?), and if they couldn't, why should I be able to? We live on a planet where Stalin and Hitler and Mao actually happened, where the US is actually a thing, and where there is no reason to believe power, control and deception will not be absolute and insubvertible one day -- until the heat death of the universe, that is.

People who don't give up do that for themselves; they don't don't owe it to anyone. Maybe to the people who love them, maybe to themselves, but not to any old random schmuck of the past. I think there is no logical argument you could make for why people "have" to be happy and not just mope or become criminals, and hugs are really as good as it gets.

Your [excellent] post was essentially written over 2000 years ago in the short old testament book of Ecclesisates. "Everything is meaningless, there is nothing new under the sun, nobody is completely righteous, etc." It is the height of folly to think that people a hundred generations ago didn't have the same frustrations.

Thanks, I was aware I was rambling more about being frustrated about society than existential depression, and probably being unfair to the poster I replied to, but I couldn't help myself. I love me some cherry picked OT, there is so much wisdom in it! I also love this:

  When people no longer fear the power of government,
  a far greater empowerment appears,
  the Great Integrity,
  which never needs to enforce itself.

  Then, we will never again be driven from our homes
  or be compelled to labor for the benefit of others.
  We will all work naturally to fulfill ourselves,
  and to meet our community needs.

  In the Great Integrity,
  we will all love ourselves and all others,
  not as compensations for ego deprivations and defilements,
  but as natural expressions of our humanity.
Laozi, "Tao Te Ching", Verse 72

"work naturally to fulfill ourselves", or "ego deprivations and defilements", those are very few words for a whole lot of issues. When I was younger I was scared out of my wits of the idea that we might lock ourselves into them via technology without even realizing it, and now I do find consolation in two facts, that even if we do, it won't be forever, and that if we manage to get out of the solar system, given enough distance, at least diversity might once again flourish, that the dice will be rolled again so to speak, and more than once.

>I was aware I was rambling more about being frustrated about society than existential depression

Actually, I think you were more on target than not, as it is very difficult to delink the two. The article discusses frustration about society or the "less-than-ideal" state of things as some of the preconditions leading up to the existential depression that some gifted kids experience.

Sure, there remain issues of our smallness, purpose, etc. However, I have often wondered what the Laozi quote you referenced crystallizes so well: what if we weren't all induced to participate in this "Matrix" of a society that pushes many of us into a life of subsistence while others profit from our efforts? What if instead we were more community than competitors and were more free to pursue what fulfills us and betters humankind? Would we feel as small and hopeless? Or would we be empowered and enlightened by our hand in creating and participating in a just society? And would the discoveries and progress that ensue as a result of so much effort and brainpower dedicated to causes other than personal economic benefit actually offset at least some of our sense of lostness and insignificance? That is, would we be more evolved and literally more significant or aware of our significance? Perhaps we humans are actually far, far more powerful and significant than any of us presently realize.

The world's resources would surely support such an arrangement if our mechanisms for allocating them were more evolved than "mere economics".

Surely, when gifted kids have such thoughts but are instead forced headlong into the Matrix, the temptation towards a more hopeless state and subsequent existential depression becomes highly possible if not probable.

Funny how nobody ever quotes the opening and closing verse of Kohelet: "Fear God, and do His commandments!"

Interestingly, besides that verse, Kohelet was considered too depressing for the Judaic Sages to canonize.

where there is no reason to believe power, control and deception will not be absolute and insubvertible one day

But neither is there a reason to believe they will be. If the universe has no teleology, that means it does not inevitably tend towards evil.

But neither is there a reason to believe they will be.

Yes, I agree with that, I just didn't know how to put it.

But still, the idea of complete autocratic slavery for a million years is such a bad scenario for me, that even just a small likelihood would be enough for me to welcome the fact that nothing lasts forever. Having that idea in a world where chickens are stuffed into dark rooms and have their beaks singed off so they don't peck each other to death doesn't help.

Maybe the universe doesn't tend towards evil, but power sure does. And newborns don't change; that is, humans get born as blank slates, but are faced with and molded by structures that can be arbitrarily old, complex and twisted. We no longer know what our parents know by the time we're 10; most of us wouldn't find out half of what is going on if we lived to be 1000. And it really only takes one sufficiently isolated generation to rewrite history into anything you want. And those who would want to do that, will make sure it's nasty and sticky. That doesn't mean it will come to that, but it really only takes one singularity event, doesn't it. So if it came to that, chances might be good it will not come to anything else ever again.

The Roman Empire didn't collapse because they thought "let's do something else instead, this is really petty and dumb", but because there was an outside, and because communication got slow as it grew in size. That communication changed a lot is obvious, and I would argue if you consider it from a class perspective, not from a nation perspective, there is no outside either, it's one huge blob. There may be an "outer lower class", but plenty of it identifies with and loves big brother dearly, and when push comes to shove, you don't really need that many faithful, you don't even need the smartest, they just need to be really dedicated and obedient and have the best weapons money can buy. And then there is robotics. I really fear that in a few hundred years tops it'll be _over_, if we keep on sleepwalking like we do.

Maybe I'm just pessimistic, and surely I read and watched too much dystopian science fiction; but I kinda think the reason we don't live on conveyor belts in a world made out of cast iron is because we're still building that world; but not because that's not exactly the world power wants, must want. Of course, such a blind lust for power is also by definition lacking in awareness, if not to say stupid. So there's that hope always, too, that it might trip over itself.

To appropriate a quote from Adventure Time: Man, your view of the universe is pretty bleak.

Not so much of the universe, but of human history, yes. We have increasingly bigger and supposedly smarter structures we are embedded in, and the individual people move into the opposite direction. We are for the most part petty, alienated and deluded, and as long as we can inject other humans to numb ourselves from seeing that, I think we will.

Well then maybe people shouldn't have deliberately dismantled social democracy to the thunderous cry of "MUH FREEDOMZ!"

Thanks for your post. Sometimes HN can be such a boring and depressing place with all of its startup lottery.

No need to thank me for indulging myself, thanks for reading it, and even more importantly, for getting something positive out of it :) And to be fair, HN is also the first place I've personally experienced on the web where breaking out into rather large ad hoc rants that go all over the place does not lead to eye rolling automatically. So instead of being frustrating and pointless, letting out a bunch of associated and bottled up thoughts in this way actually feels good, and helps me order my own thoughts as well. So I'm not just being polite when I thank you instead; I have these thoughts either way, but actually being heard means more to me than I would have thought.

"So I'm not just being polite when I thank you instead; I have these thoughts either way, but actually being heard means more to me than I would have thought."

Well, it's like a hug, having someone that really sees you and shares your feelings. :)

Hah, that's very true :)

A similar idea is the Japanese concept "mono no aware", or roughly "the awareness of things passing" -- a central, inevitable poignancy that comes from the impossible contrast of ourselves against the universe.

You said you've read a lot of existentialist literature so this might be redundant, but I'd check out Haruki Murakami's work if you haven't already: I can't think of an author who more immerses in -- and emerges from -- a sense of cosmic loneliness.


Interesting; somehow reading someone like Camus didn't provide a convincing enough argument to get out of the existential crisis like depression. Do you have suggestions on any specific Murakami work to read?

Murakami's solution is to start jogging.

edit: to answer your question, I suggest The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami is overrated. Once you've read that one, you've essentially read them all.

Yeah, I finally got out of the existential crisis by doing the mundane; jogging, living, cooking. Things that I know cognitively have no meaning in answering the ultimate question. Later, I realized that Camus's sense of rebellion although unsatisfactory was what I was doing. I was aware of the meaningless nature of existence and still progressing. That is hard; somehow it gave me more hope than it should.

I, too, share this sentiment.

"The tendency for entropy to increase in isolated systems is expressed in the second law of thermodynamics — perhaps the most pessimistic and amoral formulation in all human thought."

— Gregory Hill and Kerry Thornley, Principia Discordia [1]

As I understand, over the centuries, the usual coping mechanism for existential dread has been belief. Religion is often cynically thought to be a means to control the masses, but I think its central purpose is serving as a mental safety valve. I've chosen to believe in the power of technological progress.

"Yes, we did it, we killed the dragon today. But damn, why did we start so late? This could have been done five, maybe ten years ago! Millions of people wouldn't have had to die."

— Nick Bostrom, The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant [2]

I believe it's our duty to conquer death and bring heaven to earth, by fixing aging and developing machine intelligence. [3] [4] Once this is done, there will be time to think about reversing entropy, or breaking out of the universe.


— Isaac Asimov, The Last Question [5]

[1] http://principiadiscordia.com/

[2] http://www.nickbostrom.com/fable/dragon.html

[3] http://www.sens.org/

[4] http://intelligence.org/

[5] http://www.multivax.com/last_question.html

Wonderful comment.

    I believe it's our duty to conquer death and bring 
    heaven to earth, by fixing aging and developing machine 
    intelligence. [3] [4] Once this is done, there will be 
    time to think about reversing entropy, or breaking out 
    of the universe.
That is a beautiful thought, and a good way to overcome and deal with this 'existential crisis'.

That's nice. What if you get hit by a car tomorrow?

>The narrow focus is odd

The author gave a quick nod to the fact that it exists in adults in the form of things like mid-life crises, however, suggested that adults have a much better framework for dealing with it. I tend to agree with him, however, like you, I also found much of the author's advice applicable.

I also believe that as we get older, we understand that there are so many others out there with whom we might relate. In our teen years, it seems that all the world is monolithic and that there is only on acceptable way to "be". It is also a time when we are constantly smacking up the pressure to conform. In some ways, this reminds me of what we know of gay kids struggling with their sexuality. Many face feelings of isolation and despair. A key message to them from adult members of the community has been "Hold on. It gets better".

With regard to what you write about "cosmic despair", and especially with concepts like "having a hard time coming back down to you", I noticed that some of it seems to flirt around the edges of depersonalization. Perhaps it may be worth having a look at that and how it intersects with your experiences.

I believe it's a big mistake to use the phrase "everyone feels down every now and then" to cutify what can be a life threatening mental illness.

I'm so happy to see that I'm not alone. I've fought off depression through sheer willpower, but I frequently get anxiety attacks thinking about "Cosmic Sadness (I like your term for it)." I wrote about this a little while ago (don't mind the ramblings in the beginning) [1]. I think I could use some advice.

[1] http://nickdesaulniers.github.io/blog/2013/04/29/the-persist...

I so know this feeling! I still remember exactly how I first felt it; I was six, pondering the universe and mentally zooming into a tear in a wallpaper, down to the subatomic particles level, then I zoomed out, but for the first time didn't stop until my mind has encompassed the entire spacetime, the entire, timeless universe, with me but a infinitesimal speck in it. Interestingly though, I quite liked that feeling, in a bit perverse way perhaps; I learned to invoke it almost on demand and did it quite often, especially when I was upset with the world around me. It brought serenity uncomparable to anything else I've experienced, and, at times, welcome detachment. I have recognised it as sad, but it was serene sadness.

Years later I've found out that I'm clinically depressed and perhaps that's why I don't feel the sadness so deeply - it's not much lower than my mood set point. BTW, comparing this feeling to the sadness of a close being passing away is like apples and oranges - they both have a completely different flavor to me.

I still invoke it from time to time; for the serenity, sometimes for the detachment, and oddly, sometimes get sad to get angry and gain some motivation to change the world. I've found that attaining the state is now harder than it was when I was a child.

BTW, interesting tip about the poetry; I've been wondering why it's not as alluring as it used to be, and perhaps I don't spacetime out that often anymore.

Thanks for putting it into words, and for the term “Cosmic Sadness”. A similar feeling hits me periodically, never expected. Happens for as long as I remember myself, from early years, but is consistently rare.

Has a bit different effect on me. Somewhat like going ‘one level up’ per your literary example. The troubled character is myself—but Cosmic Sadness elevates me (other part of me? complicated!), giving an odd feeling of unreality and remoteness.

The Sadness, indeed, comes from the inability to move up completely. Continuing the analogy, you remember that the novel is not real, but you're trapped in its reality.

Myself, I treasure these moments, they are calming and meditative, and happen very rarely to me. I wish I could trigger them voluntarily.

Because apparently "Such concerns are not too surprising in thoughtful adults who are going through mid-life crises."

The narrow focus is odd, even if true, and might serve better as a footnote.

Not odd at all. The concentration or severity of existential depression in gifted children is well documented if not well known. And Jim Webb, the author, has devoted a good deal of his life (30+ years) to understanding the needs of and helping the gifted, with a focus on gifted children [1]. He also founded SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) [2].

[1] http://www.greatpotentialpress.com/authors/james-t-webb-ph-d...

[2] http://www.sengifted.org/

The concentration or severity of existential depression in gifted children is well documented if not well known.

Where is there any evidence WHATEVER that the severity of existential depression is any different for gifted people than it is for anybody else? I know Jim Webb, and I'm pickled in the writings of the gifted education movement. (I'll be spending the following two weeks presenting parent seminars on gifted education at Epsilon Camp 2013, so I keep up with all the latest literature on this subject.) I think "existential depression" is a euphemism used for "depression" among some but fortunately not all families who have gifted children--nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.

Yes, it is crucial to help people who feel depressed, and I applaud anyone on HN who does so when depression comes up in submitted stories or comment threads from time to time. But I see utterly no evidence in the professional literature on depression that the manifestation of depression is much different in gifted people from its manifestation in all other human beings. Everyone who experiences depression needs to feel connected with fellow human beings who show compassion.

"Existential depression" is not a euphemism, it has a specific meaning. While, I do not have the primary references to back up my point [so I guess you may take me to task for that] I too am very much immersed in the gifted field. There is most definitely a consensus among the people who deal with gifted children, especially their emotional needs, that existential depression hits earlier and more often in these kids than in the general population of children. I do not know about giftedness in general, including adult giftedness.

A starting point might be this article by Sue Jackson: http://psych.wisc.edu/henriques/papers/Jackson.pdf

Existentialism, could be viewed as modern, Western Buddhism. They have arrived to almost the same conclusions, rejecting any "religions" first. (absurd, lack of any meaning, life as a projection of ones mind, etc. One more step - and there is Eastern notion of Emptiness, void).

I don't agree, but why's this relevant here?

What is the name of the Du Fu poem in Chinese?


浣花流水水西头, 主人为卜林塘幽。 已知出郭少尘事, 更有澄江销客愁。 无数蜻蜓齐上下, 一双鸂鶒对沉浮。 东行万里堪乘兴, 须向山阴上小舟。

[edit] The English translation is excellent.

Second this. The translation is very good.

卜居 in Chinese

If you don't know it already, you might like a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay called Renascence.

What would happen with superconductive materials at this heat death of the universe?

For all we know, their protons would decay, so they would not be anymore.

If a mod sees this, they should change the URL to this:


The link I posted was a re-blog on a website with a nicer reading experience.

There is always an XKCD, isn't it? :-)

Hey! Thanks for reminding me of this. I really needed the smile, those surprise squirrels always cheer me up.

Yeah, I always wondered how the so-called existentialists aren't just yielding ground to ideological fundamentalists.

I really enjoyed reading that--especially the poem at the end (I remember mentally rolling my eyes the first time I read it, thinking the message was self-evident. But in this context it's just wonderful).

I do wish this sort of message could be part of an effective, formulaic prescription that could be doled out to web surfers who are suffering. "Depressed about things? Just keep scrolling down...watch this TED talk, heed this advice, read this article..." My friend who surfs the web all day and who tells me he has his suicide all planned out--I wish he could stumble on these things more often. Maybe instead of a "CSS Site of the Day Award" badge there could be a "Contemplating Suicide?" badge...

Another example, I wish I had learned before I became a film major that imagery is powerful, and that our brains can confuse on-screen trauma with real trauma. I suffered needlessly--and that sounds ridiculous and maybe funny, thinking about a film major with wide eyes wondering just what he signed up for--but I watched things that I will never forget, and that have become part of a mental burden I work to release now that I'm a bit more experienced in discerning what I can and can't handle.

I guess it pains me to think that while there are things we can do to ease others' pain, there are many extremely simple, almost thoughtless ways by which that existential depression worsens. Watch the wrong film. Read the wrong book. Make the wrong song lyric your mantra. (Wrong...well, maybe inappropriate is a better term; something that takes into account one's personal state) Traditions, cultures, microcultures...transcending that sort of thing is harder than most people realize, and certainly doesn't happen on autopilot.

Let's all get in a circle and talk about our experience as gifted children.

I think there are two separate issues here:

(1) Existential depression, and

(2) Gifted kids have difficulties because adults don't talk to them as equals, and their concerns and thought processes are difficult for their peers to comprehend.

"In an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion." -- Douglas Adams

Another literary cure for the Great Sadness is Isaac Asimov's [The Last Question](http://filer.case.edu/dts8/thelastq.htm).

So, the cure for the Great Sadness is basically... religion? Like a modern, high-tech version of the Wheel of Time.

You do have to believe in a cause greater than yourself. All your passions and drives die with you, so if you want life to be meaningful then you need to contribute to something that will last.

"The average person believes themselves to be above average"


Read the article before spouting off.

It was directed at the comments.

Perhaps HN attracts many gifted folks? Would that be so unexpected? The level of discourse is quite high.

Is this a joke?

The idea that the level of discourse on HN is high? Compared to say, Reddit? Or YouTube comments? No, not a joke. It's my perception that many of the folks participating on HN are, well, both gifted and engaged in the world. Do you disagree?

Not relevant here. I am not sure if you read the article.

It's relevant to the comments.

I think almost everyone struggles with this type of depression at some point in life.

I'm not sure how much being gifted has to do with it. Strangely, one of the things that has helped develop my framework for life is a fanfiction (Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality) [1], written by Eliezer Yudkowsky.

I think it's been recommended several times before on Hacker News, but it really is a great fanfiction. The protagonist is an atheist and transhumanist who wants to defeat death.

The author has also written many other essays that I find interesting and sane. I'm an atheist who has occasionally struggled with the idea of death and meaninglessness, and his essays were the first viewpoints that seemed to make sense. [2] [3]

[1] http://hpmor.com/

[2] http://yudkowsky.net/other/yehuda

[3] http://lesswrong.com/lw/sc/existential_angst_factory/

I really recommend that anyone here who has struggled with existential depression to read the above three writings. Of course, it's very possible that you'll still be depressed, in which case you'll need to look for other solutions.

But Eliezer's writing helped significantly in cleaning up my life views.

I'm not saying I was ever overly gifted, I was just a very introvert child who spent a lot of time thinking and through that became depressed about my seemingly pointless existence.

Well I just wanted to say that what helped later in adult years was discovering true love. I know it sounds corny but once you realize that life on this earth is short, and that short time can be used to experience great feelings of love and togetherness with other humans, you do feel less depressed about it.

I've only experienced this right after high school, college and PhD graduations. These were long term goals that dominated my life. There was bit of emptiness once these goals were achieved. Plus there was a dispersion of the social communities I had lived in for long time. This emptiness did not last long as there were always new projects around the corner afterwords.

I expect the same feeling after job "retirement" and expect it to last as long.

The greatest burden in life is not having a burden to carry. - Sadhu Sundar Singh.

I think this is a really pathetic reason to be depressed. And these "gifted" people have it all wrong. No, the laws of physics don't directly dictate that all governments be democratic, or that people drive on the right side of the road. But if they thought about the world on a deeper level, they would realize that there is structure, and that it's breathtakingly-beautiful (albeit subtle and not always easy to pick up on when you don't explicitly seek it). No, you don't get to be a teacher's pet for your whole life, and you don't get paid for doing well on IQ tests. But one person can have an impact on the world: sometimes, a very pervasive, meaningful one. I fail to see why some gifted children can't appreciate the world and their existence enough to at least have a good time and explore it a bit. You only get to do it once, and you won't get the chance to do everything the world has to offer, but you should consider yourself lucky to be conscious in the first place. My theory is that kids labeled "gifted" end up dwelling on their "ability" to the point where they actually think they are entitled to something outside educational institutions. Or maybe they fail to realize, to their chagrin, that IQ grossly belies proportional intelligence, especially after a certain point, and that IQ tests don't measure what it takes to make a meaningful difference in the world. People like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are unequivocally gifted, but they don't dwell on it; they don't statistically determine the probability that they will make a difference; they don't spend their time researching IQ tests or bragging about their intellect; they go out and do their best to change the world. And they do.

> I think this is a really pathetic reason to be depressed.

Who the fuck are you to judge why people get depressed? Someone I know got depressed because she was 70 and her cat died. The only other social contact she had in her life withered away. Is that a good enough reason to judge her?

> But one person can have an impact on the world: sometimes, a very pervasive, meaningful one.

Really? In the long run, how much does it matter? Oskar Schindler saved a bunch of people from the Holocaust. He died poor, broken; his saved people went on to create a state which is known for its war crimes. The cycle goes on.

> I fail to see why some gifted children can't appreciate the world and their existence enough to at least have a good time and explore it a bit. You only get to do it once, and you won't get the chance to do everything the world has to offer, but you should consider yourself lucky to be conscious in the first place.

You have never been depressed ever in your life, have you? This is like me going to a sad walmart employee and telling them they should be happy getting a job when there are people in Africa starving.

Anyone who tells someone with depression to just "appreciate the world and their existence enough to at least have a good time" doesn't understand what depression is. The very inability to do that is one of the main symptoms.

You don't need a "reason" to be depressed, and judging one as "pathetic" does nothing for anyone, least of all the depressed person.

Steve Jobs also struggled with depression.

"I admit that in the past I have become angry, or have lost my temper when things are not going right. I feel that this type of behavior happened when I was in my early twenties. I feel that I have better control of these emotions at the present times. I have also have gone through highs and lows in my life, and have felt depressed at times."


> I think this is a really pathetic reason to be depressed.

AFAIK Depression isn't something one reasons oneself into.

I fail to see why some gifted children can't appreciate the world and their existence enough to at least have a good time and explore it a bit.

Then why are you commenting?

It is a unique experience at a young age when one especially feels that there is not a soul they can truly speak to, almost to the extreme that it is a luxury to feel understood.

Since this isn't your usual teenage angst, making friends who are older than you can help a great deal.

Realizing man has pondered the same things, for hundreds and thousands of years gives you a chance, to access their thoughts in the form of books, literature, poetry.

This reminds me a bit of the short film "Kid's Story" from The Animatrix. It revolves around a teenager who is waking up to the possibility of the matrix who finds himself alone in a world full of people unaware of its existence. He seeks the help of those who are woken up, specifically, Neo. In a way he is like these children, aware of the fleeting nature of life, waking up to these issues.

I recently had a psilocybin mushroom trip that resulted in a bit of temporary derealization during which I needed one of my friends to hold me just so that I knew I was real. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life, but through it I learned that our existence in this world is entirely a perception of the mind, and that we create our reality through each and every action we take and each thought that we make. Particularly one of my most profound insights was that the concept of time is irrelevant, for there is only the now, and when one is able to perceive the now, then one can be free from the grasps of what if and can one see what is.

I find it difficult to convey these feelings with other people, as I often find them saying things like "yeah, that's interesting", but I can see that they do not truly understand. There are some that do however and for those who do I am grateful. For the children and those of you who find yourself in this "existential depression", I can only offer this...

Create. Create art, create music, create life. If you can leave something behind for the rest of the universe, then your life was not for nothing, for you created something, were a part of something. This at the very least is all that we can do, and that is okay, for even if all you can do is make someone smile, you have created a ripple in the world that will manifest itself as a wave in the lives of those who carry on.

As a gifted child, I had a lot of this. It was finally in my 30s when I realized that existentialism for me was really the only way forward. I really wish I had been exposed to these ideas earlier (However I'm not sure I could have absorbed them as a young adult)

Over the years I've become somewhat of a shill for the Teaching Company, which offers college-level courses on CD and DVD. Robert Soloman's "No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life" is an excellent introduction to existentialism. Highly recommended. http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.asp...

In my mind, if we are going to encourage and nurture kids at both ends of the spectrum -- highly functioning and less functioning -- we should provide some kind of intellectual bedrock to allow the gifted an anchor to succeed.

Very thoughtfully written piece. One would wonder what this has to do with HN, but the content is universally applicable, therefore not only in regards to children. Plus, we could suppose that the majority of HN's users consider themselves gifted :) Anyway, read the article folks, you won't regret your spent minutes.

I posted it because I think HN attracts people who have the traits expressed in the article:

- high potential for development - innately aware of problems in the world - over-exciteable - drawn towards 'escapes' that help them grow

Really? Here I thought HN mostly attracts white or East Asian mostly-male, mostly-20-30-something computer programmers who live in orbit around the Silicon Valley start-up industry.

In the end all psychology boils down to our brain circuits. It is interesting that nature has shaped us so that we have a constant existential anxiety, maybe it even served some evolutionary purpose (or maybe not, and it's just a side effect that becomes more evident to the few gifted children)

> 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.

What elitist garbage.

Really? I read it nodding, thinking of how many of my friends/family/cow-orkers, and if I'm being honest with myself - me a lot of the time, could be described perfectly as "simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life."

1/4 of middle aged women in this country are on antidepressants. Is that 'existential' depression or some kind I don't know about, I don't know, but that's a pretty sad stat.

Day-to-day life isn't superficial to everyone.

I assure you: everyone else is having the same Special Snowflake Thoughts as you.

Probably something about being special, yes. But it's not the same thing. The OP is referring to a kind of critical thinking.

If you don't believe in qualitative differences in thought, then we might as well just abandon education as a whole.

I wonder how the "gifted children" whom were raised on religious believes react to the same sort of "ultimate concerns"

Yes, it's the same. Any "gifted children" can see also the "problems" in the belief system that they were raised, it's part of the conflict.

I'd encourage statistics check.

It is common that many of the "containment regimes" that are supposed to motivate children are more ruthlessly enforced on gifted children to "help them reach potential". And it is known that overly harsh rules induce depression too.

Great article. Sadly, I wish it wasn't focused on the gifted. I bet a lot of children suffer with existential depression and I also can imagine how hard it is to have to listen to the bullshit answers they will inevitably receive to their deep questions.

When I started to read this, I felt embarrassed and exposed, maybe little taken aback. But I'm really glad I came across this article. I'm in a weird place between a cynical bastard and depressed kid, and this kind of helped. Thanks.

The article says that freedom refers to the absence of external structure, as if it's a grim state of confused aimlessness. I say that freedom refers to the absence of external coercion, which is a happy state of purpose and possibility.

It has been my experience that gifted and talented persons are more likely to experience a type of depression referred to as existential depression.

is there any evidence (beyond the author's "experience") that this is true?

The fact there's something rather than nothing. 'Nothing' - like absolute zero - is only a referential concept. Beware of introspective traps. Light, breezy and not trying too hard.

From the article, which is about a topic I discuss frequently in other online communities (including online communities hosted by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that operates the website hosting the submitted article):

"In essence, then, we can help many persons with existential depressions if we can get them to realize that they are not so alone"

And this is why I strenuously oppose the term "existential depression" as a supposed designation of something that is rare in most people and more common among people who are "gifted." There is no evidence of such a thing. Rather, treating giftedness as a condition of life different from what most of our fellow human beings experience magnifies the sense of aloneness that too much of the gifted education literature promotes among people identified as gifted.

When I was young, I read a science fiction story by author Philip K. Dick in which he made a statement I have seen made in much the same form by many of the lousier authors on gifted education: that if your IQ is high, you are as different from above-average people as retarded persons are from normal people. That's baloney. The social distance hypothesis of IQ has little empirical support, and seems mostly to be a cultural hang-up of twentieth century America. When I lived in east Asia (after majoring in Chinese language at university) as a young adult, I discovered a new cultural perspective, the cultural perspective that if a person is smart, there is hardly anything better to do with the smarts than to learn how to get along with other people. As Confucius said, 三人行,必有我師焉 ("wherever three persons are walking, my teacher is surely among them"). Whatever my IQ score, I have plenty to learn from essentially everyone, and plenty of reason to feel kinship with my fellow human beings.

There is, however, a kind of isolation of the gifted that must be specifically counteracted. And that is the isolation of the gifted education literature, like the article kindly submitted here (by an author I have met at several conferences on gifted education) from the mainstream literature of psychology. Most gifted education gurus, and the author of this article is a salient example, have their highest formal degrees in education, from schools of education (such as from a "directional state university" that historically was a "normal school" for training teachers). The most rigorous research on human psychology--and psychologists have recently been painfully aware that all too little research on psychology is rigorous at all--



is gained by persons whose highest formal degree is in psychology, from a major research university. Very little of the best insights gained from recent decades of psychological research seeps into schools of education, especially those schools of education that have programs in gifted education.

The late author Dabrowski mentioned promptly in the article kindly submitted here and in much gifted education literature is an admittedly obscure writer (as acknowledged in the only book that collects commentary on his ideas,


which I read part of recently) who produced essentially no testable hypotheses. Dabrowski's ideas are vague and open-ended enough to allow making up dozens of anecdotes when speaking at conferences on gifted education, but provide no guidance whatsoever to help young people face tough issues in personal development.

The bottom line: the term "existential depression" is a euphemism used in the gifted education community for the same depression experienced by many people of varied IQ levels. The correct statement in the article submitted here is the statement that you help people experiencing depression by encouraging them to feel less isolated from the rest of humankind. And one of the best ways to do that for gifted people is to emphasize their commonality with the rest of humankind, rather than their IQ scores or poor fit age-graded school programs.


that's interesting. can you link to any research supporting the claim that depression doesn't fundamentally differ for people with varied IQ levels?

parts don't make a lot of sense, not every gifted child is trying to spend every waking hour on improving their talents. I don't know a child that doesn't enjoy play..

I find that a lot of gifted children are opposed to authority, which causes frustration with non-stimulating class work assigned by poor teachers.

Woody Allen already covered this in a scene in Take The Money And Run.

Aaaaaand it's down.

ok, I'm gifted and depressed, how can I get a job ?

Having some experience in this area:

Gifted children are aware just how dysfunctional this society is.

They aren't fooled by shiny things. They look at the structure of things and analyze them.

Thus they're a high-risk group because while most people see a few scattered small problems, gifted kids see one big problem.

Naturally, there are solutions to that including contexting and acceptance therapy, but those are never provided.

I bet they'll find gifted kids have a higher suicide rate, too, especially as an empire nears its collapse.

I remember thinking these 'existential' thoughts that cause depression my first day of pre-school. I am not as intelligent as a lot of people, but I know that I'm not unintelligent. I began failing my classes in school when I was 9, and my depression was beginning to really develop. I would walk around the playground, by myself, thinking. By 15, I had renounced my belief in God and refused to be brainwashed by anyone who wanted to tell me otherwise.

I'm 25 now and after a lot of drugs and alcohol, I believe in God, again. I read the Bible, not as often as I should, but at least I read it. It makes me feel better.

For those of you who are 'former Christians', I recommend you try to bring it back into your life. It does help, I promise.

Thank you so much for sharing that, and I second your suggestion.

I was born again at age 24, after swearing it off for years due to the evil and hypocrisy I saw growing up in it. But I had just hit another near suicidal rock bottom - even though my life was very monetarily successful - and I finally stopped fighting God's call and being so stuck on myself.

I went to church and was blessed to meet my kind, flexible, and giving wife who is truly my better half. (PS guys, odds of meeting flexible and giving women is much improved there) It's been 9 years later and we have two wonderful sons. Even if God takes me home tomorrow, I know he made some good out of my life.

Fantastic to hear... I'm interested to know what you meant by "being so stuck on myself"? I like to hear stories of how God has changed people!

The French philosophy of the last century said nothing about children.) In some sense a realization of absurd and meaninglessness require some experiences of ageing adult which children simply cannot have. They cannot realize the attractiveness of youth and meaninglessness of that attraction. Time to reread Age of reason or something.

TIL: Children can be Nihlists too? Does it really take a gifted child to see the futility in the majority of life or to understand our insignificance? This is something that should be fairly obvious to anyone without privilege, not only children.

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