September-October, 1998 No. 91
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
leading psychologist believes it is time his profession
learned to cultivate certain virtues, such as courage,
hope, optimism,and perseverance.
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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?"
Worry, Be Happy?
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."
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.
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.
R. Mattox Jr. is an award-winning writer who
serves on the board of contributors at USA Today.