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The depressed America!

By       Message Marie-Laure Rives     Permalink
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There have been many articles recently about happiness, the obsessive
and somehow "religious" pursuit of happiness in America and its
counterproductive effects. Personally, I cannot agree more with Ruth
Whippman writing in the New York Times last month: "Happiness should
be serendipitous, a by-product of a life well lived, and pursuing it
in a vacuum doesn't really work."

However, one might wonder what is a life well lived? But first of all,
what is happiness? To me, having the time to anxiously wonder if I am
happy enough, what "could I be doing more about it" is actually a
privilege, a sign that, if I had the ability to look beyond my own
navel, I am already damned lucky. So why is that, in America and in
other developed rich countries, "privileged" people are not happy? It
cannot be the quest by itself. Is it?

Depression is widespread among wealthy countries and wealthy people. A
study published last year in the journal BMC Medicine, and sponsored
by the World Health Organization, showed that a significant higher
percentage of people in high-income countries, such as the United
States and France, experienced an extended period of depression within
their lifetime. Although clinical depression is a biological condition
leading to low self-esteem and loss of interest in many otherwise
enjoyable activities, mild depression, more situational and
environmental, at cause here, seems to be a by-product of the modern
world, for "spoiled" people in developed and rich countries.
Societal expectations of what a good life is seem to trigger those
depressive disorders while many other people are just "happy" to have
enough to eat every day.

Of course, there are many factors contributing to happiness. Wealth
and economic growth might contribute to it in some cases but are
obviously not enough. Interestingly, in a recent survey published in
PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) earlier this
year, about happiness in China during the economic growth of those
past 20 years, there is no evidence that the Chinese people are, on
average, any happier. Job security and a social safety net appear more
critical to people's happiness. In a time when the country is still
recovering from the 2009 Depression, and when the need for a strong
safety net is controversially discussed, anxiety is growing in America.

People have different ways to cope with it, and as Mrs. Whippman wrote
in a very funny and somehow cynical way: "For the left there's yoga,
for the right, there's Jesus."

Talking about Jesus, or for that matter any other God or prophet one
might believe in, religious people are statistically happier than
atheists, people with "extreme" opinions and beliefs, no matter how
well-founded their beliefs are, are happier than moderates. As Arthur
C. Brooks said in his New York Times article in July "Why
Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals", they "have the whole world
figured out"; they have guidelines, religious guidelines, tradition or
any other philosophy of life.
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I wish though I could relate to it; I would be happier. I am actually
mostly happy. However, a cloud of dissatisfaction seems to be
episodically floating above my head, a feeling I had never experienced
before I moved to New York City. I love NYC, a playground for adults
with a wonderful energy, full of brilliant people in all areas, highly
educated liberal people, talented artists, an exhilarating diversity.
It seems you can never be bored, that everything is possible. However,
I had never met before so many dissatisfied, depressed people.

I agree that NYC is a very competitive place and that the economy has
not still recovered but the dissatisfaction I witness every day among
many New Yorkers seems to stand somewhere else. It seems to me they --
we? - have lost the ability to appreciate anything, we want more since
we can have more, it is right there; it happened to others. Ambition
is in appearance a positive driving force but pushed to its extreme,
it becomes toxic. Even people who in appearance have it all are
depressed. I recall that guy whose first words right after he was
introduced to me, were that he was depressed and trying to recover. He
is working in finance and is therefore quite financially comfortable. His
passion was to sing and he had the chance to give concerts once and a
while in the city.  He was depressed because he felt lost; he wished
he could make a living with music and only music but had no time to put more
effort in it. He did not want to quit his job either since now he had a
lifestyle he was used to" He also complained about the little fame
past concerts brought, how difficult after that it was to recognize
"true" friends from interested fans. I was seriously speechless. Very
Kafkaesque!

Many factors impact people's happiness in our society but I deeply
think -- and I try to remind myself often -- that a lot of them are
futile. We have the tendency to forget how lucky we are, how the
simplest things can actually make us so much happier. Human beings are
a selfish species, feeling entitled to success and happiness. New York
City has a lot to offer and we want it all. There is always better
somewhere else. As Mrs. Whippman wrote, referring to "privileged" people in
California, they "are probably less happy and more anxious than the
people of Grimsby".
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Marie-Laure Rives, PhD Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University. Assistant Research Scientist, Research Foundation for Mental Hygiene, Inc.

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The depressed America!