So many in the West are depressed because they’re expected not to be
Depression is listed as the leading cause of disability worldwide, a standing to which it has progressed steadily over the past 20 years. Yet research shows a rather interesting pattern: depression is far more prevalent in Western cultures, such as the US, Canada, France, Germany and New Zealand, than in Eastern cultures, such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China.
This shows that depression is a modern health epidemic that is also culture-specific. Yet we mostly continue to treat it at the individual level, with anti-depressants and psychotherapy. This assumes treatment lies in correcting individual biological and psychological imbalances.
Public health experts know living in an environment where fast food is readily available is a large contributor to the modern epidemics of diabetes and heart disease – we need to understand the context, not individual behaviour alone. In the same way, as depression reaches epidemic proportions, the sole focus on individuals no longer makes sense.
We have been investigating whether Western cultural values play a role in promoting the depression epidemic for several years now. In a series of experiments, we found the high value we place on happiness is not only associated with increased levels of depression, it may actually be the underlying factor.
Cultural ideas of happiness
That happiness is a highly prized emotional state in Western culture is not hard to defend. Whether it is the smiling faces on billboards, television, magazines or the internet, advertisers are constantly pairing their projects with feelings of happiness. This makes their products seem desirable and the associated positive feelings appear ideal.
Social media – or more accurately the way we have learnt to use it – is also a constant source of idealised happy faces. This leaves us with the distinct impression that what counts as an indicator of success is whether or not we are feeling happy.
Valuing feelings of happiness or wanting others to be happy is not a bad thing. The problem arises when we come to believe we should always feel this way. This makes our negative emotions – which are inevitable and normally quite adaptive – seem like they are getting in the way of an important goal in life.
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