The Inner Life of Julian Simon
By Bryan Caplan
To my sorrow, I missed my chance to meet Julian Simon. He lived just minutes away from me, but died during my first year at Mason. I don’t think he would have won the Nobel Prize even if he lived to 100, but he should have. What makes his work especially amazing, though, is that the legendary “doom-slayer” suffered horrible depression for over a decade. Instead of hiding his life story to avoid giving ammunition to his uncivil critics, Simon had the courage to publicly air his issues – and his solution. As he reveals in the epilogue of Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression:
As of December, 1974, my external situation was the best it had been in
thirteen years. I had just finished what I hoped would be an important
book, and I had no troubles with health, family, money, etc.
Nevertheless, there was no day that I wanted to see. Each morning when
I awoke, my only pleasant expectations were taking a nap early in the
evening, and then (after more work) finishing the day gasping with
relief like an exhausted swimmer reaching shore, then having a drink
and going to sleep. Looking ahead to each day I had no sense of
accomplishment in advance, only the expectation that I might finish a
little bit more of what I considered to be my duty.
Death was not unattractive. I felt that I had to stay alive for my
children’s sake, at least for the next ten years until the children
would be grown, simply because children need a father in the house to
constitute a complete family. At many many moments, especially in the
morning when waking, or when walking back home after taking the
children to school, I wondered whether I would be able to get through
that ten years, whether I would have strength enough to fight back the
pain and fears rather than to simply end it all.
The full story of Simon’s breakthrough is complex. His main story? Cognitive therapy taught him to avoid the root cause of depression: negative self-comparisons. The proximate solution for his depression, however, was a conscious choice to make solving his problem his number one research priority:
Starting about the middle of December, 1974, I had a special feeling
of nearing completion, and I felt that in many ways it was the best
period that I had had for the past thirteen years. Because I had no
troubles with health, family, or money, nothing pressed on me from
outside my own psychology. That certainly did not mean that I was happy
or undepressed. Rather, it meant that I was sufficiently undepressed
that I was willing to spend some time on myself and my depression.
I therefore determined that if I was ever going to rid myself of
depression, then was the time to do it… I decided to look for someone who might have the wisdom to
help me. I thought to consult some eminent psychologists in person, and
others by mail. And at the same time I went to a family physician to
ask him to refer me to someone–physician, psychologist, religious wise
man, or whatever–who might help. All this should illustrate how
desperate I was to get rid of my depression. I figured that it was my
last chance–now or never: If it didn’t work then, I’d give up hope of
There’s a lot in Good Mood that I’m tempted to criticize. He barely considers genetic theories of depression, and is quick to blame childhood experiences for adult unhappiness. Furthermore, Simon doesn’t seem to realize that “sweeping away the unpleasant thoughts” can be a lot like “trying to not think about pink elephants.” Sometimes the harder you try not to think about something, the more it keeps popping back into your head; that’s one of the key insights behind exposure therapy.
Overall, though, Simon’s personal odyssey boosts my already vast admiration for him. Most depressives accomplish little other than spreading their misery to the people around them. Simon, in contrast, was an incredibly creative and productive scholar despite his inner sorrow. For much of his life, he didn’t feel much of the good in the world, but he saw it – and helped many others see it as well. When he saw a chance to help others overcome the same demons he’d faced, he took it. What a guy. I never met you, Julian, but I miss you.