Why is America so Depressed?

The economy is out of sight. Unimaginable luxury is all around. America rules the world. So why are Americans so unhappy?

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The United States is probably too independent-minded a country ever to trust a therapist telling it that it’s sick. That’s understandable: The paradox of mental health is that those who need help most are often least likely to recognize it.

America is the opposite of a hypochondriac: It underestimates how bad it’s hurting—even with the evidence staring it in the face. What would you say about a friend who showed the following behavior?

  • Always, always on the go, seldom if ever taking a quiet moment to reflect.
  • Willing to plunge deeper and deeper into debt to finance shopping sprees for nonessentials.
  • Unshakable conviction that happiness is as close as the next stock split, breast augmentation, or Mazatlan vacation.

Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and head of the American Psychological Association, believes that the United States is in the throes of an "epidemic" of clinical depression. An American today, he says, is significantly more likely to suffer clinical depression at some point in his or her life than at any other time in the past hundred years.

Other modernized nations are not far behind us. A nine-nation study by epidemiologist Myrna Weissman of Columbia University and a cross-cultural group of international scholars found that people born after 1945 are three times more likely to experience depression than people born before. Clinical depression may, however, simply be the tip of the iceberg of America’s mental distress. Skeptics will scoff—Crisis? What crisis?—but strip away the denial, the vested interest in the myth of sunny, can-do Americanism, and it begins to feel that something is awry at a fundamental level in many people’s lives. It’s not so much what’s happening to us as what isn’t. Something is missing. Something essential and meaningful has been displaced by something . . . hollow. The possibility that forces outside our control might be overwhelming us—changing us—is so frightening that most of us busily hunt down safe responses to our escalating anxiety. We rely in record numbers on prescription drugs. We escape into the media/entertainment pleasureplex. We pile on the amusements only to find (as Leonard Cohen sings) that "you are locked into your suffering, and your pleasures are the seal."

Situationism, an aesthetic and political movement that influenced young radicals of the 1968 Paris uprising, identified the beginnings of all of this more than 30 years ago. "A mental illness has swept the planet," wrote Gilles Ivain, an early leader in the Situationist Movement. The symptoms: "Banalization: no more laughter, no more dreams. Just the endless traffic, the blank eyes that pass you by, the nightmarish junk we’re all dying for. Everyone hypnotized by work and comfort."

No one credibly claims to have identified the precise cause of the malaise. Psychologists, sociologists, epidemiologists speculate: Is it something in the environment—electromagnetism or microwaves in the air; a chemical in our food or water? Are cultural and economic factors creating stress that’s opening us up to other kinds of problems? Answers to these questions may elude us until well into the future. But for each of us living in America, a Faustian, personal, almost religious question presents itself right now: What’s the point of living in the most dynamic and affluent nation on earth if you’re feeling sad and anxious a lot of the time? Have we, and the rest of the industrialized world, gained power and wealth at the price of—let’s just say it—a piece of our soul? The moment you confront these questions head-on, the cool, commercial facade of modern life suddenly dissolves. Behind it is a web of psycho-, socio-, and cybercultural threads. Why am I sad? Why am I anxious? Why can’t I love? The answer, perhaps, lies deep in our collective subconscious. The route to the surface passes through the postmodern hall of mirrors. The trip looks forbidding.

And yet it is a worthwhile excursion. Think of it as trying to solve the tantalizing psychothriller of your own life—the ultimate existential whodunit.

Is it a disease of modernity?

The paradox is painfully clear: America is enjoying unprecedented levels of prosperity, life expectancy, health care breakthroughs, food supply, and peace. Life has never been more rich or stimulating, yet there are similarly unprecedented rates of melancholy and anxiety.

Perhaps the puzzle is itself the answer: The modern world that brought these advances is responsible for this epidemic of sadness.

Depression in China is three to five times less common than in the West. Worldwide, depression is increasing most quickly among the young and the well-off.

Psychologists Bernardo Carducci and Philip Zimbardo claim, based on their research, that hypercommercialized contemporary life, with its speed and complications, alters the nature of day-to-day interactions: "As we approach the limits of our ability to deal with the complexities of our lives, we begin to experience a state of anxiety. We either approach or avoid. And indeed, we are seeing both—a polarization of behavior in which we see increases both in aggression, marked by a general loss of manners, and in withdrawal."

Is it social isolation?

America is still a nation of lonely wanderers—folks who are achingly anonymous in the crowd. This is the downside of fierce American "individualism."

The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that more than 26 million Americans now live alone. And that figure is expected to rise by 5 million over the next 10 years. It’s doubtful that any society in human history has experienced this kind of fundamental isolation. Living alone is hard on us. According to the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR), "depression is significantly more common among people living by themselves than among those residing in families." It’s more common still among the utter loners—folks living without any support or affinity group at all. Researchers believe that’s partly why, in Western societies—where the young are increasingly cut off from the influence of families and other support systems, and left to forge a unique identity on their own—depression rates are far higher than in countries where solid social networks are the norm.

Is it the electronic environment?

Now, into this American culture of loners drops the Internet. We are the most cyber-literate nation in the world. Whether the Net will ultimately build more connections than it severs is a question that is still very much up in the air, but early returns suggest that it diminishes actual social participation. The authors of a Stanford University study released this year found that the Internet steals time normally spent with other human beings.

Even the online magazine Slate , which has an obvious interest in promoting Net culture, admitted that while it’s true that you can "stay ‘in touch’ with thousands of people," the interaction is necessarily limited. You laser in by subject, interacting with people "along a slender strand of common vocational interests." Where once the few people in our lives fulfilled many roles, now we have effectively surrounded ourselves with specialists, whom we call on briefly for one thing only.

Our species has just made a sudden leap from a natural to an electronic environment. For 3,000 generations, human beings got their cues from each other and from nature. Now we’re getting them from computer and video game screens.

"Reality" is disappearing as our navigable star. A predictable but nonetheless key culprit remains television. For 50 years, television has been the great anodyne. It lifts the mood, calms the nerves, fills the void. Like most things, it’s probably harmless enough in judicious moderation. But TV-philic America is neither judicious nor moderate, and we now have overwhelming evidence that heavy TV watching is doing harm—to kids in particular.

In a study published this year, a team of Harvard researchers added even more damning evidence to the heap. Chronic TV watching was linked to low public engagement and lack of sociability. It "even correlates positively with ‘giving the finger’ to people," said David Campbell, a member of the research team.

Television has been around long enough now that some of the most interesting writing about it no longer concerns its effects, but rather the effects of its absence. A fair number of self-experimenters have managed to give it up, and they overwhelmingly report an increase in quality of life. They speak with the passion of those who didn’t know they couldn’t see until they got glasses.

Of course, television is just one ingredient in the postmodern media bouillabaisse. Steaming forth are sex, violence, race and gender stereotypes, and about 3,000 marketing messages a day. Pop culture fully occupies the psyche of a nation. The sole purpose of this new electronic environment is to keep us entertained. The product and purpose is the "escape."

But escape from what? Danger? Confinement? Disadvantaged circumstances? Or something deeper from a self we can no longer live with? Ironically, the more anxious we get, the more we need to be distracted; the more distracted we are, the more anxious we get. It’s a closed loop. Sometimes, the way out seems to involve getting our hands on more information. If we were only more perfectly informed, all would become clear.

Yet we don’t know what to do with the vast amount of useless information we ingest. We can’t sweat it out, or excrete it, or trash it. It stays, imperfectly stored, somewhere, taking up space, forever. The result is a kind of low-level tension, as if we’re perpetually preparing for an exam that never comes. New York University communications professor Neil Postman calls the information explosion a "cultural garbage problem": "The chief function of computers," he said in a lecture in Vancouver in February 2000, "will soon be to help people filter out unneeded information."

Postman often makes the point that when a new technology is introduced into a culture, that culture is forever and permanently changed, through and through. If you drop the Internet (or the telephone, or television) into an existing culture, you don’t end up with the Internet plus that old culture; you end up with an utterly new culture.

Is it consumer capitalism?

In a consumerist capitalist system, author David Korten (When Corporations Rule the World, Kumarian, 1996) points out, we are all caught to some degree in a downward spiral of deepening alienation: Our quest for money widens the gulf between ourselves and our families and communities. Our growing alienation then creates an inner sense of social and spiritual emptiness. That’s when advertisers get into the loop by assuring us that their products can make us whole again. We go out and buy their products, which requires money. And so we’re back at the beginning, the quest for money.

The booming economy is minting new millionaires right and left. Staggering wealth at the top of the pyramid creates a psychological climate in which, ironically, everybody suffers. The "have-nots" lose, since they are seized by envy for a happiness they never knew they lacked, until they happened to peek through the hole in the wall and spied the elites enjoying unimaginable riches. The "haves" lose in a different way. "Sudden wealth syndrome" can afflict the newly rich with a sense of isolation and uncertainty, as if they had been teleported into an alien world. Uberprosperity drives a wedge down the middle of America, scattering seeds of guilt and insecurity on both sides of the divide.

Under consumer capitalism, corporations wield unprecedented power; they are sovereign, untouchable, far more powerful than any elected government. Could this power imbalance between citizens and corporations be linked to high rates of depression?

Is it an existential crisis of meaning?

Randolph Nesse, director of the evolution and human adaptation program at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, believes that there are more kinds of depression than the diagnosticians have identified. Some depression may be a useful, adaptive response to situations in which a desired goal is unattainable.

"If I had to put my position in a nutshell," Nesse has explained, "I’d say that mood exists to regulate investment strategies, so that we spend more time on things that work and less time on things that don’t work."

Many Americans use antidepressants to pull them back to "normal," but this may be precisely the wrong response. If, as Nesse and others theorize, depression is a defensive response, one that tells us something important about ourselves or our culture, it makes no sense to clip its alarm wires with drugs.

Enter the young, urban, modern, fabulously "successful" Americans who are nonetheless disconnected from things they, at the most profound level, want: nature, intimacy, a quiet, unmediated environment. There’s nowhere they can immediately go to find these things. The desired goal seems unattainable. So depression sets in as the organism adapts to the problem, searching for a way out. Searching for meaning.

Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who died in 1997, believed that there is an existential dimension to much mental illness—as distinct from, but sometimes in addition to, psychic or social or physical dimensions.

Specifically, he identified people caught in what he called the "existential vacuum." It’s not a mental affliction, but a spiritual one: Your life seems utterly devoid of purpose. No path beckons. Eventually, a kind of paralytic cynicism sets in. You believe in nothing. You accept nothing as truthful, useful, or significant. You don’t value anything you’re currently doing and can’t imagine doing anything of value in the future.

Frankl believed that the existential vacuum he described was a modern condition. Carl Jung identified it in about a third of his patients, and he and his contemporaries noted that it was different from any neuroses they had seen before.

We pump for meaning. We hope to find it in malls. As Daniel Boorstin, retired Librarian of Congress, has pointed out, Americans shop not to get what they want (as Europeans, say, do) but to discover what they want. This may tie into modernity’s new, heroic explanation about the meaning of life, which has swept aside older spiritual teachings and cosmologies. We now place our faith in a grand narrative of consumer choice, of never-ending economic growth and technological progress. But this largely excludes the spiritual dimension of human existence.

Is it postmodernism?

And so now we find ourselves in the postmodern hall of mirrors. It’s difficult to talk about postmodernism because nobody really understands it—it’s elusive to the point of being impossible to articulate. But what this philosophy basically says is that we’ve reached an endpoint in human history, that the modernist traditions of advancement and ceaseless extension of the frontiers of innovation are now dead. Originality is dead. The avant-garde artistic tradition is dead. All religions and utopian visions are dead. And resistance to the status quo is impossible because revolution, too, is now dead. Like it or not, we humans are stuck in a permanent crisis of meaning, a dark room from which we can never escape.

Postmodernism pulls the philosophical carpet out from under us and leaves us in an existential void. And it poses an intellectual challenge to the next generation of thinkers who we hope will show the way to a post-postmodernism—a place where everything isn’t relative, where all meaning isn’t just a social construct, where faith means neither a sexy country singer nor slavish devotion to a monotheist myth, but a belief that there are things worth living for, and that those things are simpler and closer at hand than we imagine.

The Cure

How do Americans deal with mood disorders? We pop a pill or escape into frenzied activity that keeps us from dwelling on how we feel.

But here’s the thing. No one can count on these things to restore in them what they never had in the first place. We want our problems to be solved without ever having to trouble ourselves with investigating their root causes—or, worse, having to entertain the idea that some problems simply have no solutions.

Two centuries of philosophers stand in opposition to the modern American recipe for happiness and fulfillment. You can’t buy your way in. You can’t amuse yourself in. You can’t even expect falling in love to deliver you. The most promising way to happiness is, perhaps, through creativity, through literally creating a fulfilling life for yourself by identifying some unique talent or passion and devoting a good part of your energy to it, forever.

The trouble with being passive ticketholders in the media/entertainment pleasureplex is that we’re standing in a "happiness" line that isn’t moving. Receiving rather than acting, we insure that we will never feel a unique creative spark, much less nurture one. We forestall the moment of asking the big question: What am I doing here?

The way forward begins—it must begin—with voluntarily taking a step back and then looking around for clues.

There are parts of the world not yet thoroughly saturated with postmodern culture, places that still have some lush mental wilderness. Places where people still connect—not electronically, but physically and emotionally—with one another. There are intact communities where vital human juices still flow. There are countries where people do things differently than mainstream North Americans and, lo and behold, the sun still comes up in the morning.

We can learn from these places and cultures before they disappear. Their very existence challenges the American idea that there is a single right way for human beings to live—that the lone choice is either the grand narrative of consumer capitalism or the highway to benighted misery. At the very least, such places prompt questions, about their culture and ours. Can they possibly "develop" without suffering the same sort of psychological homogenization we have? Can we develop as a culture when millions of us live with minimal human interaction—when reality has become just one of many options? Has our own "progress" been worth it?

Kalle Lasn is the author of Culture Jam: The Uncooling of America (HarperCollins, 1999). Bruce Grierson is a Vancouver-based writer and editor. From Adbusters (June-July 2000). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (4 issues) from Adbusters Media Foundation, PMB 658, 250 H Street, Blaine, WA 98231.