Doctor Feelgood

Stricken by “vile melancholy,” the 18th-century critic and raconteur Samuel Johnson pioneered a modern therapy

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Johnson sometimes played cognitive-behavior therapist to the fretful Boswell. On one such occasion, Boswell arrived at Johnson's London home upset and uneasy. He'd had a run-in with his landlord and resolved not to spend another night in his rooms. Johnson laughed. "Consider, Sir, how insignificant this will appear a twelvemonth hence." This insight made a big impression on Boswell. "Were this consideration to be applied to most of the little vexatious incidents of life, by which our quiet is too often disturbed, it would prevent many painful sensations," he wrote. "I have tried it frequently, with good effect."

Johnson often touched on psychological matters in The Rambler, a twice-weekly pamphlet that he published between 1750 and 1752. Typical is Rambler #29, in which he used cool reasoning and striking imagery to show the folly of catastrophic thinking about future misfortunes. "Whatever is afloat in the stream of time, may, when it is very near us, be driven away by an accidental blast, which shall happen to cross the general course of the current."

He believed that idleness provided fertile ground for the melancholy that threatened to consume him. "It is certain that any wild wish or vain imagination never takes such firm possession of the mind, as when it is found empty and unoccupied," he wrote in Rambler #85. He formulated and lived by a simple mantra: "If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle."

A childless widower in midlife—his wife, Tetty, more than 20 years his senior, died in 1752—Johnson gathered an odd household of characters that became a kind of surrogate family for him. There was his young servant, Frank Barber; the blind Welsh poetess Anna Williams, whose habit of using her finger to judge how much tea to pour in a cup offended Boswell; Robert Levett, a dissolute physician to the poor, and later the penniless widow Elizabeth Desmoulins, the hapless Dr. Swinfen's daughter. They were a motley lot, but he was fond of them.

Johnson also gathered a wide support network of friends throughout London society. He filled his evenings with an endless round of dinner parties and was a founding member of the famous Literary Club—Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith and Boswell were members—in which he found sociability, amusement and a forum for displaying his rhetorical skills. "There is no arguing with Johnson," Goldsmith observed, "for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it." He loved to talk and to eat, but "most important of all," wrote biographer Joseph Wood Krutch, Johnson "won hours of freedom from his own sick mind."

But he could not escape solitude entirely. When alone he sought, as Boswell put it, "constant occupation of mind." Naturally, he was a voracious reader. He was also an enthusiastic amateur chemist, often befouling his rooms with noxious fumes. He engaged in a variety of nonchemical experiments, too, once shaving the hair around his right nipple in order to observe how long it took to grow back. A diary entry for July 26, 1768, reads: "I shaved my nail by accident in whetting the knife, about an eighth of an inch from the bottom, and about a fourth from the top. This I measure that I may know the growth of nails."

Johnson's various investigations provided occasions for what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the "autotelic experience," or "flow," a state in which the individual has "intense emotional involvement" in a rewarding, goal-directed activity. Flow "lifts the course of life to a different level," Csikszentmihalyi writes. "Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals....Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems."

What saved Johnson, time and again, was his ability to step back and view his illness objectively, a talent he exhibited notably when he suffered a stroke near the end of his life. He described the episode in a letter to a friend: "I went to bed, and in a short time waked and sat up, as has been long my custom, when I felt a confusion and indistinctness in my head, which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute. I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse. The lines were not very good, but I knew them not to be very good: I made them easily, and concluded myself to be unimpaired in my faculties."

He never lost his reason or his zest for human connection. And he kept a clear vision of what would keep him happy: "If...I had no duties, and no reference to futurity," he told Boswell, "I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation."

John Geirland, a writer based in Los Angeles, has a doctorate in social psychology.


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