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?

| September-October 2000

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.

5/3/2019 2:21:23 PM

I think the answer is that we need to slow down and think and contemplate what happiness is and what it means to be happy. Is it really being rich? Is it acquiring more stuff? Is it the American dream? I don't think it is. I think it's having time for hobbies, for relationships, and for contemplation. This is lost in our American culture. In many european countries they have more time for all of the above. It's unfortunate that we don't get a clue but I think that's on us as a society and not something government can ultimately solve.

6/12/2014 4:43:13 PM

What’s happiness? Too often, we are that grasshopper trying to jump high enough to reach the stars, with nary a chance. When you ask, are we a nation who has acquired power and wealth at the price of our soul? Who are you referring to? Studies show those in middle-income category keep losing ground, and the gap between the rich & poor keeps widening. Politicians don’t seem to want to touch income inequity. There are many issues that make up the “roots” of unease in U.S. Some say that Gen-X/Y were led to believe that the world was their oyster – all paths led to happiness. But college degrees are expensive, and graduates find it hard to get a job earning enough to pay off their college loan. Meanwhile, outdated “scripts” espouse what people “should” be doing to be happy. What worked for our parents may not work for us. There’s no template for “happy,” it’s subjective according to your goals, situation. We don’t have safety nets for the poorest of poor. We don’t have services for mentally ill. We look to the private sector to solve our biggest issues because “Big Government is Bad.” A platitude that might ring true until someone you love is in need of help.

Ramon Sender
7/30/2013 12:15:44 AM

For a test, I'm posting the Youtube link here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvyW3-2QSeQ

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