Attempting Solutions for a Society That Sets the Stage for Depression

by Jim Geraghty

Also from today’s Morning Jolt:

Attempting Solutions for a Society That Sets the Stage for Depression

Read John Tabin.

For better or worse, last night’s article on NRO stirred up a hornet’s nest.

A few accomplished mis-readers seemed to think I was arguing that any of the aspects of modern society were responsible for Robin Williams’ suicide. No, I merely wondered aloud — er, in pixels — if some aspects of our modern society help set the stage for depression.

Keep in mind, as the National Institute of Mental Health puts it, “Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors.” Everybody’s mind is different, and everybody’s biochemistry is different. For some folks, brain chemistry may not be a factor at all; for some folks, it may be their body doesn’t produce enough serotonin. (“Although it is widely believed that a serotonin deficiency plays a role in depression, there is no way to measure its levels in the living brain.”) If that’s the case, the circumstances of your life don’t matter very much to your mood; you could have a career and life as seemingly happy as . . . well, Robin Williams and still feel depressed. It’s easy to imagine that circumstance seeming even more maddening – everything seems fine, but the feeling of sadness won’t go away, so what’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m destined to be unhappy . . .

It’s good that everyone has touted the suicide-prevention hotline for the past 48 hours. But there was the uncomfortable fact that Robin Williams had been in rehab recently – and had in fact spent quite a bit of time in rehab over the course of his life. He sought professional help, and received it, many times over. Yet all of that couldn’t steer him away from this path. This isn’t to say people shouldn’t seek professional help, just a recognition that it isn’t a sure-fire path to healing.

To the extent depression is not biological, we know there are certain behaviors that are either contributors or symptoms: social withdrawal and isolation; self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, junk food, etc.

I picked out some elements that would be included in a dystopia deliberately designed to sow depression in its inhabitants:

  • a constant technological connection
  • online interactions replacing in-person ones
  • public instantaneous gut-level reactions to news and events, fueling a perception that the general population was stupid, hateful, racist, etc.
  • the perception of children as a burden
  • an obsession with youth and fear of aging
  • an obsession with appearances and attractiveness

I could have tossed in materialism, and the faith that some higher salary or material goods will make us happier people.

For what it’s worth, notice these trends and factors are not inherently political. I don’t think either party has a lock on obsessing over appearances and attractiveness, and I don’t think liberals or conservatives are inherently more likely to be spending too much time on the Internet.

I was recently told – in another context – that I’m great at identifying problems, and not such a great guy when it came to solving them.

I don’t want to get up on a soapbox and tell people, “here’s how you should live your life!” I get irritated enough when other people do that and tell me how to live my life. But if you find that list above resonating with you in a disturbing, all-too-familiar way . . . here’s my advice.

That constant technological connection? Turn off the computer every once in a while. Wait, NOT NOW! Finish reading the Jolt! Er, then go check Campaign Spot, read the rest of NRO, order The Weed Agency from Amazon, and then go turn off the computer. Go for a walk. You can bring your phone, but don’t check it. Determine you’re going to go have some fantastic off-line experience that you can later showcase on your on-line social networks.

Those online interactions replacing in-person ones? Think of somebody near you who you haven’t seen in a while, who you’ve been meaning to talk to, and schedule a lunch or coffee or happy hour or dinner or some other get-together. Face-to-face.

Those public instantaneous gut-level reactions to news and events, fueling a perception that the general population was stupid, hateful, racist, etc.? Make sure that your perception of “people” is driven more by the people you interact with in person than the teeming mobs on Twitter or other online forums. You’ll find some fools and malcontents in your off-line travels, too, but generally people are politer and nicer in person.

That perception of children as a burden? Spend time around a kid. Any age will do, but I’m finding four and six full of fascinatingly bizarre questions and conclusions about the world. Think about them as protégés, sidekicks, students, someone to carry a torch that you will pass on someday. We’re all capable of creating amazing and wonderful things, but the only amazing and wonderful thing that we can create that can go on to create additional, new and different amazing and wonderful things is a child. It makes all the dirty diapers and spilled milk and Lego pieces under your feet and OH FOR GOD’S SAKE WHO WAS MESSING WITH THE BLINDS IN DADDY’S HOME OFFICE?!? I TOLD YOU KIDS NOT TO–

I mean, they’re worth it.

That obsession with youth and fear of aging? Presuming you’re older than your high school years . . . would you really want to go back to that? Acne? Cliques? Awkwardness around the opposite sex? Algebra (or insert your least favorite class here)? Isn’t there some part of yourself you like more now than you did then? As you look at your life today, isn’t there some part of your life that you can take pride in, and acknowledge that your younger self never could have accomplished that?

That obsession with appearances and attractiveness? Look, you’re going to have your good days reflected in that photo you use as your profile picture, and you’re going to have your bad days. Everybody’s a mess when they get out of bed in the morning. Trust other people to like you for more than your appearance.