September-October, 1998
No. 91

BAWLING ALONE
By William R. Mattox Jr.


An epidemic of clinical depression in the midst of material prosperity is related to the breakdown of family and the decline of civic virtue

Most people stay current by reading the morning paper, watching the evening news, or surfing the World Wide Web. But for procrastinators like me, the best way to stay current is to read back issues of the Futurist magazine.

I’ve been doing that a lot recently. And I am happy to report that a growing number of scholars are beginning to take seriously the study of happiness, joy, and life satisfaction. Or so the Futurist observes in a recent feature on "the science of happiness."

Now, it might be tempting to view the pursuit of happiness within academia as a sign that today’s scholars have run out of problems to consider. But the scientific interest in happiness is actually being driven in part by what University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman calls an "epidemic" of clinical depression.

According to Seligman, who was recently named president of the American Psychological Association, an American’s odds of suffering clinical depression at some point in his or her lifetime is now significantly higher than at any other time in this century. For example, only 1 percent of women born around the time of World War I experienced severe depression at some point in their lives. But with each succeeding generation, this percentage has risen steadily to the point that 12 to 15 percent of Americans born in the mid-1970s, the cohort now in the high-depression years of late adolescence and early adulthood, have already experienced at least one bout of serious depression.

That America is now in the throes of a Great (Clinical) Depression seems completely at odds with our material well-being. As Sir John Templeton notes in his latest book, Is Progress Speeding Up? Our Multiplying Multitudes of Blessings, "People today are better fed, better clothed, better housed, and better educated than at any previous time in history." Moreover, in nearly every material domain, including working conditions, food production, housing standards, quality of health care, life expectancy, environmental safety, and computer technology, Templeton says, the rate of progress is accelerating. In other words, things aren’t just getting better, they are getting better and better at a faster and faster rate.

So, if we’ve got it so good, why do so many Americans feel so bad? Most research on depression approaches this question from a nonhistorical "micro" perspective. That is, in seeking to identify causes of depression, factors like "loss of a loved one," "job loss," "serious health problems," or other adversities are commonly cited. While these correlations may explain why certain individuals in any historical period fall into depression, they do little to explain why other individuals facing the same adversities do not fall into depression. Nor do they explain why "macro" rates of depression vary over time in seemingly inexplicable ways. For example, why are rates of severe depression so much higher today than say, during the Great (Economic) Depression of the 1930s, when adversity was seemingly so much more common? Both Seligman and Templeton believe the historical rise in depression is partly attributable to the growth in a mass media culture that is tilted toward gloom and pessimism. "There is no denying that ills exist," Templeton acknowledges, but in their zeal to cover pain and conflict, the news media often overlook stories of triumph, success, and human progress.

Ironically, this bias towards bad news has been magnified by the accelerating progress in mass communications. "There is nothing particularly new about this very human tendency to focus on bad news," Templeton notes. "What has changed is that today the opportunity to read or see or hear the news is unprecedented."

So is the opportunity to read or see or hear advertising messages that encourage people to focus on what they lack rather than what they have. This is significant, because Seligman says that much of the clinical depression he sees today "is a disorder of individual thwarting" that arises when people arrive at a sorrowful resignation that they’ll never fulfill their most cherished hopes and dreams.

"Hopelessness is a disorder of the eye," Seligman told a recent academic conference in Philadelphia. And it is a disorder to which many psychologists have contributed. Indeed, Seligman believes the field of psychology has become too much like grunge rock: obsessed with despair, hopelessness, and depression. For example, a recent research survey by Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and David Myers of Hope College found that, over the last 30 years, research studies dealing with anger, anxiety, or depression have outnumbered studies examining joy, happiness, or life satisfaction by a ratio of 21 to 1.

"Modern psychology has become preoccupied with the negative side of life," Seligman says. "It has understood human functioning in a ‘disease’ model that is consumed with unresolved conflicts from childhood, with childhood trauma, and with viewing individuals as helpless victims of oppressive cultural and economic forces."

Failure Without Furniture

Seligman is not attempting to pooh-pooh human sorrow and suffering. Nor is he trying to delegitimize all "negative side" psychology. But Seligman says psychology’s preoccupation with the morose has contributed to the rise of "an ideology of victimology" in our culture that sees "human beings as puppets of their environment" and offers little more than "coping skills" to those facing adversity.

This, Seligman says, is very different from the prevailing cultural mindset that existed earlier in this century. For example, he points out that "the emblematic children’s book" in America used to be a story about overcoming adversity called The Little Engine That Could. Today, Seligman says, children are more apt to read books that seek to help them cope with negative events or books that offer a hollow "I am special" message that promotes what Seligman calls "unwarranted self-esteem." As a consequence, Seligman says, many Americans today grow up with a predisposition to abandon hope easily in the face of adversity and to pursue a life of narcissistic individualism that is often cut off from the social support networks and transcendent beliefs that previous generations found so valuable in overcoming life’s inevitable hardships.

"Our grandparents had their relationship to God, their belief in a nation, their belief in a community—and they had large extended families," Seligman says. "This is the spiritual furniture that our parents and grandparents sat in when they failed."

Today, of course, many Americans suffer alone. And the more alone they are, the more likely they are to suffer. According to the National Institute for Heathcare Research (NIHR), depression is significantly more common among people living by themselves than among those residing in families. And it is more common still among "Eleanor Rigbys" living apart from a larger affinity group than among singles enmeshed in a community of supportive relationships.

Yet the solution to our problem isn’t quite as simple as agreeing with Dean Martin that "everybody needs somebody sometimes." When it comes to depression, not all household arrangements and civic associations are equal. For example, never-married individuals living alone are actually less likely to experience depression than adults who have been married and divorced or who cohabitate. Children whose parents divorce are far more likely to experience a bout of severe depression than those from intact homes. Moreover, NIHR reports that people who belong to a local religious congregation are far less apt to experience depression than those who are non-religious. And a recent Duke University study shows that those who attend worship services also recover from bouts of depression far more quickly than do others.

A leading psychologist believes
it is time his profession learned
to cultivate certain virtues, such as
courage, hope, optimism,
and perseverance.

Linda George of Duke University says that "greater social support" explains only part of the relationship between frequent religious participation and better mental health. In other words, religious involvement appears to offer certain intrinsic benefits that are not typically available from participating in a bowling league, joining a garden club, or frequenting a pub, as the Cheers theme has it, "where everybody knows your name."

Sharing the Warmth

The rise in clinical depression, then, is directly related to the decline in civil society—most especially, the breakdown of family life and the demise of community-based organizations that promote civic virtue. While this means that efforts to reverse historical trends in depression must give attention to restoring these institutions, Seligman believes it is also critically important for the field of psychology to recognize and seek to cultivate certain virtues, such as courage, hope, optimism, perseverance, and honesty, that serve as "buffers against mental illness in vulnerable people."

Indeed, Seligman has devoted much of his professional life to showing that patterns of thinking do affect certain outcomes—which is why, for example, sports teams that "play to win" tend to experience greater success than those that play "not to lose." At the same time, Seligman is quick to say that pessimism and optimism are not fixed, inborn traits, but are instead "explanatory styles" or habitual ways in which people interpret and respond to failure. "One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last 20 years is that individuals can choose the way they think," Seligman says. "Habits of thinking need not be forever."

Accordingly, Seligman believes psychologists can and should devote themselves to helping individuals renew their minds and break out of self-destructive patterns of thinking and behaving. Rather than operating as detached technocrats content to merely measure human suffering or as morose pessimists who view human weakness as more "authentic" than human strengths, Seligman believes psychologists can and should work to help those who see the proverbial glass as half-empty to view it as half-full. And he says social scientists can promote virtues like resilience and tenacity without compromising their intellectual honesty, objectivity, or academic credibility.

"My vision for psychology and social science in the 21st century is that it will move from being muckraking and remedial to becoming a positive force," Seligman says. His vision is increasingly being embraced by others frustrated by the "I’m dysfunctional, you’re dysfunctional" mindset of today’s psychology. Indeed, a growing number of scholars (including those studying happiness and life satisfaction) are discovering that studying success may not only be more socially constructive than studying failure, but may also be more interesting.

"Researchers in the field of depression have focused understandably on trying to find out what makes people depressed," observes psychologist Lyn Abramson of the University of Wisconsin. "But it is equally important to try and understand what allows people to not become depressed in the face of adversity."

To illustrate, Abramson draws on an analogy to winter temperatures and home heating. "It’s kind of obvious that a house could lose its warmth in sub-zero temperatures," she says. "What we need to understand is, why is it that some houses can stay warm despite the cold climate outside?"

Don’t Worry, Be Happy?

Lest there be any doubt, Seligman isn’t interested in promoting a simplistic, Pollyannaish outlook on life. Nor does he want the field of psychology to turn into the academic equivalent of a feel-good God & Country pep rally—like those say, that the 1988 Bush for President campaign staged to the tune of Bobby McFerrin’s anthem, "Don’t Worry, Be Happy."

But, Seligman says, psychologists should not be afraid to acknowledge the role that transcendent beliefs (in God, country, community, family, virtue) play in giving people hope and in helping them overcome adversity.

This last point is important. For much of our nation’s "epidemic" in clinical depression is undoubtedly linked to nihilistic thinking. And it may very well be that one of the reasons we are witnessing a Great (Clinical) Depression in the midst of unprecedented peace and prosperity is because many Americans are gaining the whole world, but losing their soul.

William R. Mattox Jr. is an award-winning writer who serves on the board of contributors at USA Today.


 


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