The Fear of Depression

We spend over 2 billion dollars a year on anti-anxiety medications. What are we so anxious about?

Three years ago, Ruth Whippman, a British writer who moved to the US, noted that Americans “taking part in ‘happiness pursuits,’ as a rule, don’t seem very happy.” Unlike her fellow Brits, it seemed we cared too much and tried too hard.

“This obsessive, driven, relentless . . . daily application of the Declaration of Independence . . . is creating a nation of nervous wrecks. Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime.”

T. M. Luhrmann, writing in The New York Times, more recently, quoted similar statistics, and commented on Pixar’s new film “Inside Out,” in which an 11-year-old girl forced to move across the country, leaving behind her old friends and her beloved hockey team, struggles between the pressure to be Joyful and the reality of Sadness. Unable to resolve the conflict, the girl is taken over by Anger, to everyone’s dismay. Eventually Joy discovers how important Sadness is for human connection.

It’s a cute movie, if a bit abstract and boring at times, and it does illustrate Luhrmann’s point about our culture. How could anyone think that the girl, dislocated from her community and struggling with the loss of friends, should possibly continue to be the happy person she had always been? The parents in the movie are alarmed by her state of mind – but what were they thinking? And they add to her anger, it seems to me, by not being able to accept or understand her unhappiness. They need her to be perpetually joyful.

To be sure, optimism is useful as it inclines us to keep on trying. If we believe we will succeed, we are less likely to give up and accept disappointment and defeat – and giving up could easily lead to depression. That may be the underlying point.

Like the family in “Inside Out,” we are afraid of unhappiness. We need others continually to affirm our optimism, our belief that things will get better, that solutions to problems will surely be found. Our happiness is a sign of our success.

Sadness is not depression. Indeed, feeling acute sadness while understanding why we are sad is quite the opposite. It is a sign of life, often an adaptive connection with reality. In fact “Inside Out” is saying something like that at the end. Luhrmann puts the underlying problem succinctly: “Americans believe that excessive sadness makes us sick.”

And we have reasons enough to be disappointed, frustrated and sad. Opportunities for success are diminishing, as the gap between the rich and poor widens. Our political system is deeply flawed, making it harder to address problems like climate change, our decaying infrastructure, human rights, and terrorism. In fact, it often seems that the levels of fear and hatred are rising, fanned by politicians looking to score points. And the world is looking increasingly dangerous.

It’s more and more of a challenge to keep from feeling helpless and depressed.