It’s sometimes said that our affluent society causes or encourages or fails to discourage depression, and that in previous eras when people actually had to earn their keep and/or fight to stay alive, they didn’t get depressed because they had more important things to worry about.

Is this true? Do people actually succumb to depression more often in our affluent society? Or are there simply more surviving depression sufferers around?

When it takes a lot of effort to stay alive, depression can drastically shorten your life expectancy, often in ways that don’t make its presence obvious. It’s really easy to miss in a culture with a higher overall death rate and less meticulous record-keeping than ours.

This is doubly true in wartime. A war offers endless opportunity for a man growing weary of his mortal coil to be relieved of it without anyone (including himself) realizing the nature of his condition.

16 thoughts on “Depression”

  1. Ever study the history of Calvin Coolidge, 30th POTUS? While Pres he never really did much, passively sitting through most meetings and interviews, hardly speaking a word.

    What is really telling is the amount of time he spent in bed. He would sometimes spend 20 hours a day in the sack, refusing to see anyone.

    A psychologist of my acquaintance once told me that these are the classic symptoms of clinical depression. She said that she would seriously consider having one of her patients hospitalized if they acted like this.

    She also said that alcoholism is frequently a symptom of depression. Nothing like the numbing effect of the grape to get you through the day. I once heard that alcohol consumption in the past was much higher than today. Poet John Keats was a famous drunk and he also famously expressed his depression by saying “I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.”

    Speaking of psychology, it has always seemed to me that a case could be made that Sigmund Freud based almost all of his theories on depression. A popular idea at the time of his researches was that of Positivism, or a good outlook will lead to a good life. Yet he came across women suffering from “hysteria”, and just about everyone he examined led him to conclude that they were suffering from “repressed desires”.

    The point to all this is that it seems to me that people in past years were conditioned to suffer in silence. Suck it up, grow a pair, and just get on with your life. Even admitting that you didn’t see the sunny side of life would carry with it a great social stigma (freakin’ crybabies!). Better to self medicate with a tall glass of gin and die of heart failure when you were 50.


  2. I suspect that James is correct.

    Also, I’m not sure that the encourage/discourage characterization is the best one to use. Some people become depressed no matter what, for reasons that appear to have a lot to do with their physiology. And is there an upside today to depression, even mild depression? I don’t see one.

    I’ll bet that in the old days a lot of people who became seriously depressed and didn’t recover spontaneously didn’t live long. Aside from the obvious possibility of suicide, there was also the possibility of death by self-medication (as James mentioned), accidents, disease and even starvation.

    We are better off now. Not only are treatments better but we recognize the existence of treatable problems that in the past would have been overlooked, misdiagnosed or dismissed as bad attitude. Widespread recognition of the existence of depression is not an artifact of the softness of the modern world.

  3. This is going to be purely speculative: I suspect there actually is an upside to depression, that is, it can be linked to some quite important & useful behaviors. At least if it is combined with intensely active periods. And it appears (certainly not always but sometimes) linked to abilities most societies need. So the Tennysons produce a generation with real problems, but out of them comes one great poet.

    I am wary of talking about this in class, not just because I was trained by the old school that talks about the works & not the writer. It also seems to me to encourage a kind of youthful craziness which is seen as artistic — that was certainly true in my youth. This was not true, chemical – as Jonathan describes – depression. It became for some of us merely self-indulgent acting out at that stage when so many of us feel a certain angst. The equation of art with craziness led to habits of mind that were counterproductive. (Mine was the generation of “Howl” & Ginsburg visited campuses throughout the sixties & seventies.) This equation led people to experiment with drugs – thinking that would lead to an artistic if unbalanced consciousness.

    We’ve got tendencies enough at that age & praising behavior always gets more of it. Many of us pushed the boundaries too much during those years because we had seen that equation too often. (The fifties & sixties were saturated with Freud; these were the yars of “Howl.”)

    But some studies have argued (I don’t have links) that a disproportionate number of artists show signs of bi-polarism. (The first time I heard that was thirty-five years ago when a friend of mine who was in psych grad school administered the Minnesota test to another friend who was already making his way as a composer and scored relativly high in that area. Since then, I’ve seen articles about it.) But it is also pretty obvious when you look at not only writers but their families (the most famous in demonstrating this was the Tennysons). It doesn’t take a psychologist to note the quantity of suicides in the families of the Melville and Hemingway (let alone their own clear problems). Frost & Faulkner, in quite different ways, seemed pursued by the demons of depression. Indeed, at the end of Russell Kirk’s book on Eliot, he remarks that if he had been happier earlier (found a good woman and his way to the faith he had at the end) Eliot might not have produced as much art. Not surprisingly, an interesting example is the poem in the middle of “The House of Usher” (pp. 284-86) which describes the mind beset by demons. The level of alcoholism among Nobel prize winners in lit is often remarked upon.

    But art requires a certain kind of compulsion – artists work by themselves, are unsure of rewards, need to step back from life to comment upon it, etc. I am, however, a bit tired of seeing a vision of the world that clearly comes from clinical depression seen as profoundly true (e.g., Sylvia Plath, Shirley Jackson, etc.).

  4. James,
    Most of the people I mentioned had quite unhappy lives and I’m sure would prefer to have had ones less driven. Nonetheless, I still suspect that like many bad things, depression is sometimes inextricably wound with good things.
    (And I’m sorry I screwed up & didn’t sign the entry, of course, when it is that long-winded, it is likely to be mine.)

  5. Bipolar depression goes hand in hand with mania or hypomania, and people afflicted with that sometimes achieve things normal people never could. Handel wrote “The Messiah” in three weeks, for instance. These days that’s considered to be evidence that he was bipolar.

    This may be one of those things where in terms of populations, a group of people as a whole do better if the trait is present than if it is not, even though it may cause unbelievable pain for some members.

    In the mean time, I’d like to point out that “sloth” is one of the seven deadly sins. It’s a pretty good description of major depression, if you think about it. That suggests that it was pretty wide spread even in the good old days.

  6. Less depression, but ennui or boredom I think more a problem of affluence than proverty. Inasmuch as boredom might lead to depression or make depression more an issue you may be right.

    Also of note, St Paul in Romans 5:3-5. Perverty and depression might both be considered suffering.

  7. So, if I string everyone’s comments into a sort of argument, is the conclusion that poverty is a biochemical condition?


  8. Depression could be more prevalent in modern society because of the atomization of social relationships. The lack of social support and a feeling of isolation is a major contributor to clinical depression. Smaller and more unstable families, a loss of community that was once found in churches and other community organizations and other similar trends do make people more vulnerable to depression.

    The idea that our forbearers might have simply been to busy to get depressed also has some merit. Physical activity is a powerful anti-depressent and not having the luxury of sitting around ruminating on depressive thoughts would have helped a lot of people.

    Another cultural change is that we have elevated our emotions to the central truth of our mental life. People are taught that what they feel is more true than what they think. Unfortunately, for depressives this makes them believe that their negative ideation must be true. Cognitive therapy, which is the only form psychotherapy shown to be as effective as drugs, takes the exact opposite tack and helps people by using their reason to show that their emotions they experience are false. In the past, I think we placed more emphasis on our reason and less on our emotions which made the people of the time more resistant to depression.

    So I think we could make a good case that modern life does lead to more depression, especially the kind of low grade depression that has no biological underpinnings. People with biological source depression (like manic-depressives) are much better off now, however.

  9. IMO depressives already believe that their emotions are the central truth. Alcohol, opium, absinthe, laudanum and various Victorian-era things help strengthen that. Also in earlier eras, until the advent of the Prohibitionist movement, there was evidently less social pressure against self-medication.
    Anthropologists like to classify much of that pharmacopia, “as only being used by specialists, priests and shamans” – but there’s evidence of group-use also, and consider even the Biblical tales of cities of debauchery.
    One of my Anthro professors stated a couple times that as a group they (we?) tend to have a higher alcoholism rate than other academics, and that their conventions often assumed a debauched state of revelry as well, so the admonition that, “Only specialists, priests and shamans” partook of such can be seen as a professionally reserved-right or need, or even a disclaimer.
    As far as “self-medicating” goes, psychoactive substance use has been found going back quite a ways in time and across the globe, from the Kaat chewers of N. Africa to the mushroom trippers of Central America. I imagine that living in a society where routine “Sunday Worship” commonly involved bloodletting and human sacrifice might lead to some feelings of depression…

    A relative comparison between “back then” and “now” might be suicide rates – but I think that in a way, Depression is central to the Human experience – sustaining or eradicating or depressing it may be today’s difference.

  10. Okay, depression is pretty much chemical. But is our chemistry off because our feelings are? One of the most powerful descriptions of despair & suicidal depression is Frederick Douglass’ when he learns to read and sees the sad complexity of his life in chains. It is the thought of a light at the end of the tunnel, a goal to work toward that he describes as consoling him, keeping him from suicide.

    How much is self-consciousness – our sense that we are different from others, are conscious observers of rather than unconscious parts of nature, are alienated – a necessary precursor to depression? The need for such a sense of union – and its impossibility to modern man – is often described. (See most of Frost, e.g., Desert Places.)

    Some schools of thought believe Bradstreet’s wife committed suicide after looking at the barren New England shore. Winthrop describes alienation & its solution — a religion binding its members to one another transcends it.

    Adam in his first estate was a perfect modell of mankinde in all their generations, and in him this loue was perfected in regard of the habit. But Adam, rent himselfe from his Creator, rent all his posterity allsoe one from another; whence it comes that every man is borne with this principle in him to loue and seeke himselfe onely, and thus a man continueth till Christ comes and takes possession of the soule and infuseth another principle, loue to God and our brother, and this latter haueing continuall [Page 42] supply from Christ, as the head and roote by which he is vnited, gets the predomining in the soule, soe by little and little expells the former. 1 John 4. 7. loue cometh of God and every one that loueth is borne of God, soe that this loue is the fruite of the new birthe, and none can have it but the new creature. Now when this quallity is thus formed in the soules of men, it workes like the Spirit upon the drie bones. Ezek. 39. bone came to bone. It gathers together the scattered bones, or perfect old man Adam, and knitts them into one body againe in Christ, whereby a man is become againe a living soule. – Winthrop

  11. I think Shannon’s point about the self-absorption of our society is on the mark.

    How many times have we been told some variation of “Modern society is damaging to its members because…” I’m surprised that there haven’t been mass marches in which the participants chant this phrase like a yoga mantra.

    It is an axiom of the anti-modernist chatterers that industrial, technological society is impersonal, alienating, atomizing, dehumanizing, cancer causing, polluted, unsafe, fragile, precarious, artistically sterile, greedy, uncaring, lacking compassion, lonely, disconnected, unnatural, and unhealthy, both physically and emotionally.

    And, of course, the solution to all these terrible problems is to stop demanding so much autonomy and individualism and, all together now, restructure our society, economy, culture, communities, families, personalities, and life in general, according to the theories of whatever spirit filled guru our betters have discovered this week.

    Let’s face it—people are more depressed today because we have identifed something called depression, and we have the time, money, medical and therapeutic resources, and self-centered infatuation to label and worry about every hiccup and butt boil to a degree unknown to our so much better, happier, healthier, well balanced, and generally better adjusted ancestors.

    Of course some people get depressed. I’ll bet they got depressed in the past, too, especially when their whole family just died of starvation, the black plague, a raid by the Visigoths, or one of several hundred other causes they didn’t understand and couldn’t prevent.

    My hunch is that today, the major cause of unease is the frustrating knowledge that we live in what any past age would consider a paradise on earth, and still can’t figure out how to be happy and content with all the goodness that has been showered on us in a flood never known before in all of human history.

    Self-absorption itself should be considered a symptom of psychological disturbance. The therapists would never run out of patients to milk–er, help—at least as long as the baby boomers were still alive.

  12. Ann Althouse linked a good good post on reward and happiness. Everything is relative, people need varience to be happy. When things are too stable, many people can’t be happy. Frequency also seems to be more important than intensity.

  13. “Another cultural change is that we have elevated our emotions to the central truth of our mental life. People are taught that what they feel is more true than what they think.”

    HELL-O. Goddamned right, I say.

    It might get boring to some to hear me say it, but I think this is largely traceable — in America, certainly — to Pragmatism and other technical philosophies in combination/logical-trail over the past hundred twenty-five years or so. The broad stroke has been anything & everything that corroded peoples’ confidence in the efficacy of the mind, and/or elevated emotions over reality and its grasp with reason. It has taken quite a little while to drive what were once the most reality-oriented people on earth to this — a bit over half the nation’s history (although it’s not so long at all in the grand sweep of things) — but I must say that the results are spectacular.

    Anyway, I always find Ayn Rand’s various remarks on rational/emotional hierarchical integration quite valuable along these lines.

    Rummel“She also said that alcoholism is frequently a symptom of depression. Nothing like the numbing effect of the grape to get you through the day. I once heard that alcohol consumption in the past was much higher than today. Poet John Keats was a famous drunk and he also famously expressed his depression by saying ‘I am in that temper that if I were under water I would scarcely kick to come to the top.’

    “If the river was whiskey
    I’d be a divin’ duck
    I’d swim to the bottom
    And drink my way back up”

    (“Louisiana Blues”, Savoy Brown)

    You could probably find the same sentiment scratched out in ancient cuneiform.

  14. When Keats was writing, there was quite a fashion for melancholy, as they called it then. It was one of the many destructive aspects of Romanticism (maybe some day I’ll get around to writing about the cult of the hero and the anti-Enlightenment). There was the spectacle of young men making a pilgrimage to Young Werther’s grave before killing themselves; there was also the postuhumous glorification of Thomas Chatterton, a failed poet and a suicide. Keats in particular was a Chatterton advocate. The conflation of talent and depression dates from that era.

Comments are closed.