Putting Two Things Together

There is good reason to believe that the world is getting more depressed. T.M. Luhrmann, Professor of Anthropology at Stamford travels a lot, frequently to the third world, so she has a chance to sample what people say and note how that changes over time. But she also cites data such as the World Health Organization’s report that “suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world.”

Writing in The New York Times, she notes the report predicts: “by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.” She adds: The British medical journal, The Lancet, “found a 36.7 percent increase in the ‘burden’ of mental illness and substance abuse disorders across the globe.” And then: “In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of antidepressant use in the United States rose by 400 percent between 1988 and 2008.” (See, “Is the World More Depressed?”)

None of this is proof of the trend, but it is highly suggestive – and worrisome.

How does she account for it?

She mentions the usual suspect, urbanization: “cities . . . break traditions and fracture families, and they breed psychiatric illness.” But then she adds an interesting thought. “It turns out that your sense of relative social rank — where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others — predicts many health outcomes, including depression.” In the Facebook Age, where “friends” are constantly checking each other out, “It may truly be a depressing reflection.”

But it takes more than a comparison to make one depressed. A more plausible explanation is the comparisons with others when you feel stuck and helpless yourself. If we put together the impact of social media and the world-wide phenomena of growing income inequality, we may have the answer.

In his new book, the French economist Thomas Piketty makes a convincing case that, over the long haul, growth in the return from capital outstrips growth from productivity. This is the explanation for our explosive and growing disparity in wealth. In other words, the rich get richer simply because they have more money to invest.

There are huge exceptions, of course, but that is the trend shown by the economic data that Piketty and his colleagues have exhaustively examined.

In an inverview with Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, Piketty responds to the argument that the rich in the U.S. have earned their money by creating new products, services and technologies: “This is what the winners of the game like to claim. But for the losers this can be the worst of all worlds: They have a diminishing share of income and wealth, and at the same time they are depicted as undeserving.”

He adds: “History suggests that this kind of inequality level is not only useless for growth, it can also lead to a capture of the political process by a tiny high-income and high-wealth elite.” (See, “Thomas Piketty on the Wealth Divide.”)

This might be the reason to be depressed. Even if you haven’t figured it out, you are still affected by it. We don’t know we know it, but we do.