Yesterday I found a fascinating article in Psychology Today:
Epidemiologic evidence also points to the major role of contagion factors in depression. The rate and nature of depression vary dramatically from culture to culture—unlike with schizophrenia, where roughly 1 percent of the population is affected no matter the culture sampled. The World Health Organization recently declared depression the fourth leading cause of human disability and suffering and predicted that by the year 2020 it will be the second leading cause. That's not biology run amok; it reflects the social spread of the kinds of cultural values and social conditions that give rise to depression.
It's funny to think about depression-proneness as a cultural value, but this really isn't all that surprising. Having lived in four countries now, I'm endlessly amazed at how each culture collaborates to create rules and circumstances that actively prevent their citizens from finding happiness.
Long-term epidemiologic studies show that depression intensifies from one generation to the next. Today's parents represent the largest group of depression sufferers raising the fastest-growing group of depression sufferers. We are on average four times more depressed than our parents and ten times more than our grandparents.
Shit, that's dire, and I never would have expected it. You want to read that and say 'what do young people have to be depressed about?! They have it better than any previous generation!' But of course that's not the point. Depression is the telescope, not the view.
[Depression largely] comes from the ways we learn to regulate our own internal experience, which includes our explanatory style (the meaning we attach to life experiences), our cognitive style (how we think and use information), our coping style (how we manage stress and adversity) , our problem-solving style, and our relational style.
All of these are acquired through socialization forces in the family.[...] Every time a child asks, "Why, Mommy?" or "Why, Daddy?" the explanation provided invariably embodies a particular style of thinking and attributions of causality. [...]
"Why didn't Uncle Bob come to the picnic, Mom?" There's a world of difference between "He must be mad at me" and " I don't know, the next time we talk to Uncle Bob let's ask him." There are also the kinds of attributions that reflect a permanently negative perspective: "Mom, I tried to do this and couldn't, would you help me do it?" "No, you'll never be able to do it, it's too hard."
There's a cultural component to this phenomenon, too. Think of how a British person is expected to react to a job loss, for example, compared to how an Italian or a German or an American is expected to react. Think of the support structures built into those societies. Our cultures, to an extent I think we don't realize, are built into our explanations of routine experiences.
Studies show that such a pattern in interpreting experience is established early in life. In one study, children 8 years old were asked how they would respond if they were out shopping with their mother in a crowded department store 30 miles from home and suddenly found themselves separated from their parent. The anxious children generated scary scenarios of never seeing their parents again and being adopted into families of strangers. But the nonanxious kids said they'd simply go to the store manager and ask that an announcement be made on the public address system. In short, free of inner emotional turmoil, they could focus on and think their way through to solving the problem.
In other words, you shouldn't be telling your kids 'be good' or 'treat others how you want to be treated.' You should be saying 'chill the fuck out' and 'handle your shit'.
Another important element of socialization that operates in families (and other groups) is whether emotions can be expressed or not, what kinds of emotions can be expressed, and to what degree. Children learn quickly from the affective displays within a family or community what will be tolerated and what will not. Many families, for example, prohibit expressions of anger and so teach their children to suppress the emotion. Being devalued with no means of expression modeled, anger can too easily become explosive, a common theme in depressed relationships.
This is another cultural component. I'm consistently amazed at the marathons of emotionally bereft conversations that seem to take place in Danish and British families. Americans, who endlessly focus-group every molecule of their emotional experience, are amazed at how skilled northern Europeans are at inhibiting this impulse. We all learned these strategies somewhere.
It is possible to make people less susceptible to depression by teaching children social and cognitive skills. But there's growing evidence that social skills are deteriorating and that people are less available and less deliberate about building quality relationships. Studies show that young people are becoming more impulsive, more aggressive, more narcissistic, more self-absorbed. The more self-absorbed people are, the more negative feedback they absorb from others, the worse they feel, and the less skilled they are in building relationships.
I'm really skeptical of this. In what way are we 'less available' than we were before we had free, instant, constant communication? The fact that we're less deliberate about building relationships doesn't necessarily mean we have fewer, or that our social skills are deteriorating. Maybe it just means we have access to a much wider range of acquaintances, and we don't have to be as deliberate.
I could be totally wrong about this. But everything in that paragraph sounds like it's just recycling the conventional wisdom.
Nonetheless, this article makes me wish governments would be a bit more ambitious in experimenting with 'soft' social engineering. We know more about the human experience, and human happiness, now than at any previous time in history. We know that the social structures our traditions have built around us, like our obsession with class-based behavior norms, or our systematic abandonment of our elderly, are making us all less happy and less productive.
Our cultures have changed drastically in the last 50 years, for the better and for the worse. It would be nice to begin a discussion of where we want this to lead, and how our cultures can build values that help us cope with each other in an emotionally sustainable way. Otherwise, we're all just that kid in the grocery store, waiting for our foster parents to rescue us.
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