Knowledge and education are key to building empathy and tolerance. Dr. Neel Burton

“Depression: the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning and that modern society is absurd and alienating.”

Dr Neel Burton
Dr Neel Burton

Dr Neel Burton is a psychiatrist and philosopher who teaches in Oxford and is also a writer (“The Meaning of Madness”, “Heaven and Hell – the Psychology of Emotions”, “For better, for worse” – to mention a few), a blogger for Psychology Today, associate follow of the Green-Templeton College, and a laureate of many prizes. Amongst many beautifully rational and well backed-up viewpoints on complex issues, he has a fantastic take on depression, which is how I came to familiarise myself with his work.

P.S. He is a wine-lover.                                                                                       

Psychiatry (2006)
Living with Schizophrenia (2007)
The Meaning of Madness (2008)
Master your Mind (2009)
The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide (2010)
Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions (2015)
For Better For Worse: Should I Get Married? (2017)

At the time when I requested Dr Neel Burton’s thoughts on the topics of depression, happiness and everything else, he was right about to launch his latest book “For better or for worst – should I get married”. “I’m so sorry”, he replied to my inquiry, “I’m not going to have the time to answer your questions in full and as you would like me to. The questions are very large and wide-ranging, and it would take forever to do them justice.” With all his gentle kindness, however, Dr. Burton couldn’t fully decline my request. Despite his very limited time, he kindly went on with his response, providing me with links to the places where he’d touched upon the topics I am interested in, and a couple of words to some to some of the questions.

This gives me a fantastic opportunity to present to your attention a compilation of Dr Burton’s very insightful, factual yet juicy blog post for Psychology Today and his books, which we will hopefully see translated into Bulgarian very soon.

Depression is on the rise, as we are kindly informed by the annual reports of the World Health Organization. You define depression, as “the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning and that modern society is absurd and alienating.” It seems that the pandemic of depression is something that comes as no surprise to you. What is wrong with the modern world and why are we reacting to it with depression?

“In the past 50 or 60 years, real term incomes in countries such as the USA and the UK have increased dramatically, but happiness has not kept apace. In fact, people today are considerably less happy than back then: they have less time, they are more alone, and so many of their number are on antidepressants that trace quantities of a popular antidepressant have been found in the water supply.

Although economists focus on the absolute size of salaries, several sociological studies have found that the effect of money on happiness results less from the things that money can buy (absolute income effect) than from comparing one’s income to that of others, and in particular to that of one’s peers (relative income effect). This is an important part of the explanation as to why people today are no happier than people 50 or 60 years ago; despite being considerably richer and healthier, they have only barely managed to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.

But there is more. If I am to believe everything that I see in the media, happiness is to be six foot tall or more and to have bleached teeth and a firm abdomen, all the latest clothes, accessories, and electronics, a picture-perfect partner of the opposite sex who is both a great lover and a terrific friend, an assortment of healthy and happy children, a pet that is neither a stray nor a mongrel, a large house in the right sort of neighborhood, a second property in an idyllic holiday location, a top-of-the-range car to shuttle back and forth from the one to the other, a clique of ‘friends’ with whom to have fabulous dinner parties, three or four foreign holidays a year, and a high-impact job that does not distract from any of the above.

There are at least three major problems that I can see with this ideal of happiness. First, it represents a state of affairs that is impossible to attain to and that is therefore in itself an important source of unhappiness. Second, it is situated in an idealized and hypothetical future rather than in an imperfect but actual present in which true happiness is much more likely to be found, albeit with great amount of hard thinking. Third—and most importantly—it has largely been defined by commercial interests that have absolutely nothing to do with true happiness, which has far more to do with the practice of reason and the peace of mind that this eventually brings.

In short, it is not only that the bar for happiness is set too high, but also that it is set in the wrong place, and that it is, in fact, the wrong bar. Jump and you’ll only break your back.”


It seems that over the past decade the palette of socially acceptable emotions has shrunk to a couple of shades of happiness – judging by social media, striving towards constant happiness and frantically avoiding sadness, grief and even quite melancholy, seems to be a trend. How accurate is this observation according to you and what are the potential consequences of such tendency? Looking back in history, can we say that there is a “preferred” emotion over periods of time?

“The manic defence is the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings. A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of his time rushing around from one task to the next, and who is unable to tolerate even short periods of inactivity. For this person, even leisure time consists in a series of discrete programmed activities that he needs to submit to in order to tick off from an actual or mental list. One needs only observe the expression on his face as he ploughs through yet another family outing, cultural event, or gruelling exercise routine to realize that his aim in life is not so much to live in the present moment as to work down his never-ending list. If one asks him how he is doing, he is most likely to respond with an artificial smile and a robotic response along the lines of, ‘Fine, thank you—very busy of course!’ In many cases, he is not fine at all, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy.”


“Indeed, the essence of the manic defence is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. This is no doubt why people feel driven not only to mark but also to celebrate such depressing milestones as entering the workforce (graduation), getting ever older (birthdays, New Year), and even, more recently, death and dying (Halloween)—laughing when they should be crying and crying when they should be laughing. The manic defence may also take on more subtle forms, such as creating a commotion over something trivial; filling every ‘spare moment’ with reading, study, or chatting on the phone with a friend; spending several months preparing for Christmas or some civic or sporting event; seeking out status or celebrity so as to be a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’; entering into baseless friendships and relationships; even, sometimes, getting married and having children.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel of 1925, Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning unneeded events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites—‘always giving parties to cover the silence’. Everyone uses the manic defence, but some people use it to such an extent that they find it difficult to cope with even short periods of unstructured time, such as holidays, weekends, and long-distance travel, which at least explains why airport shops are so profitable. In sum, it is not that the manically defended person is happy—not at all, in fact—but that he does not know how to be sad and, in time, at peace and at play.

It should be noted that the manic defence is particularly prevalent in Occidental and Occidentalized societies such as the USA and the UK. (…)” 

Can we find a silver lining in this trend depression and manically running away from the problem? How can we turn this wave of depressive experience of the world to our benefit and what is it telling us about the human nature and psyche?

“(…) depression can have a silver lining. Crushing though it may be, depression can present a precious opportunity to identify and address deep and difficult life problems. Just as physical pain evolved to signal injury and prevent further injury, so depression may have evolved to remove us from distressing, damaging, or futile situations. The time and space and solitude afforded by depression encourage us to reconnect with our bigger picture, and reconsider how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world.

Your depression could be your way of telling yourself that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing, or, at the very least, processing and understanding. Sometimes, we can become so immersed in the humdrum of our everyday lives that we no longer have the perspective or opportunity to think and feel about ourselves. The adoption of the depressive position compels us to stand back at a distance, re-evaluate and prioritize our needs, and formulate a modest but realistic plan for fulfilling them.

At an even deeper level, the adoption of the depressive position can lead us to a more refined understanding of ourselves, our lives, and life in general. From an existential standpoint, the adoption of the depressive position obliges us to become aware of our mortality and freedom, and challenges us to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this difficult challenge, we’re able to break out of the mould that has been imposed upon us, discover who we truly are, and, in so doing, begin to give deep meaning to our lives.”


Over the past years we are observing tremendous social changes in Europe – on the one hand homosexual partnership has been legalized in many countries, Serbia got their first female and homosexual prime minister, TFL scrapped ‘ladies and gentlemen’ to make announcements gender-neutral, on the other hand Europe was faced with a huge wave of refugees, carriers of a completely different culture and values. How are such changes in communities affecting the psyche?

It is hard to disentangle social and cultural change from economic and technological change, but there is now a clear backlash, which, if one reads Hegel, could be interpreted as a necessary step in the historical dialectic.

Are we (humans) equipped to accommodate these (the above mentioned) rapid changes and what role does tolerance play in our ability to accept and adapt? 

Knowledge and education are key to building empathy and tolerance.

“Attitudes to homosexuality have undergone nothing short of a revolution in the past five decades.

First published in 1968, DSM-II (the American classification of mental disorders) listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. In this, the DSM followed in a long tradition in medicine and psychiatry, which in the 19th century appropriated homosexuality from the Church and, in an élan of enlightenment, transformed it from sin to mental disorder.

In those days, some therapists employed aversion therapy of the kind featured in A Clockwork Orange to ‘cure’ male homosexuality. This typically involved showing ‘patients’ pictures of naked men while giving them electric shocks or emetics (drugs to make them vomit), and, once they could no longer bear it, showing them pictures of naked women or sending them out on a ‘date’ with a young female nurse.”


“(…) Many people still think of same-sex marriage as a historical first, but this is far from being the case. Same-sex marriage was practised and accepted among precolonial peoples such as the Two-spirits, the Fa’afafine, and more than 30 African cultures; in Ancient Mesopotamia and perhaps also Ancient Egypt; and in Fujian province during the Ming dynasty.

In Ancient Rome, same-sex marriage, after three centuries on the run, was explicitly outlawed in 342 AD by the Christian co-emperors Constantius II and Constans—and it is worth noting that its return in our age corresponds with an ebbing of Christianity from the West.

In Ancient Athens, aristocratic men such as Agathon and Pausanias, who feature in Plato’s Symposium, went beyond the pederastic tradition of mentoring young males by forming lifelong partnerships. The ancient epigram Lovers’ Lips had for a long time been ascribed to Plato himself: ‘Kissing Agathon, I had my soul upon my lips; for it rose, poor wretch, as though to cross over.’


Would you comment on the importance of gender roles and their function in the structuring of society?

Human societies tend to various degrees of patriarchy, in which men hold primary power. Most anthropologists agree that there are no known unambiguously matriarchal societies. In the state of nature, man subjugated woman by being physically stronger, while the woman was frequently incapacitated by pregnancy and childrearing, which, through giving birth and breastfeeding, naturally fell upon her. In a modern society such as ours, with technology such as mechanization and birth control, the male advantage has become largely if not entirely redundant. But still the patriarchy perdures, upheld by hoary ideology and vested interests.


On the other hand,

“From Alaska to Patagonia, Native American cultures often held gender variant individuals in high regard, valuing them for their unique spiritual and artistic aptitudes and important economic and social contributions. Having been blessed with the spirits of both man and woman, these ‘two-spirits’, as they are still called, could mediate between men and women, and between this world and the other. They could accomplish the work of both sexes, meeting the need of the moment and compensating for any gender imbalances in their family or tribe. They often served as educators or guardians, taking in orphans or children from large or problem families.

European colonists saw two-spirits as ‘sodomites’, and, in 1513, the conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa infamously fed forty of them to his dogs. Unlike Europeans, who thought in fixed and binary terms, Native Americans understood gender as a continuum and sexuality as fluid. Neither did they confound gender and sexuality. Two-spirits were often males who preferred males, and sometimes even married a male, but they could also be males who preferred females, females who preferred males, and females who preferred females. This did not preclude them from sexual relations with the other gender, or make their same-sex partners into two-spirits.

(…) This brief and incomplete survey suggests that gender variation and same-sex relations, though often driven underground, or omitted from the historical record, are timeless and universal, and part and parcel of the human condition. It also suggests that concepts of gender and sexuality are, to a large extent, culturally conditioned, and that our rigid and binary concepts of male and female and heterosexual and homosexual are not necessarily the historical norm, or the best way of apprehending, supporting, and celebrating the diversity, even within a single person, of human gender and sexuality.”

3 thoughts on “Knowledge and education are key to building empathy and tolerance. Dr. Neel Burton

  1. Such a great article, thank you for sharing it! Please take some more interviews of that kind and do translate them in more languages! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Desi, for the kind words! Working on the Bulgarian translation at the moment. You are always warmly welcome to lend a helping hand with any other language of your preference!

  2. So amazing. Some of his responses made me laugh out loud in an “aha!” moment kind of way. Thanks so much for doing the interview and posting in English.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.