The Problem of Depression

Most Americans are fairly happy, and nearly a third of them are very happy. Yet while the share of Danes calling themselves “very happy” increased by 22 percent from 1975 to 2005, the American results, as pointed out earlier, have been roughly stable for half a century.22

Even then, the scores sometimes seem removed from the mood in the land. Indeed, while overall life satisfaction in the United States is very high, Americans rank far down the list when it comes to measures of negative emotions. According to Gallup-Healthways, people in 144 other countries report being less stressed than Americans, people in 88 countries report less worry, people in 68 countries report fewer periods of sadness, and people in 74 countries are less angry than we are. A quarter of Americans report feeling the blues each day, while two fifths are stressed out.

John Graham, a former diplomat who founded the Giraffe Heroes Project, which honors Americans who “stick their necks out for the common good,” warns of desperation beneath all the smile buttons.

There was a brawl in a major league baseball game between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals. Fights happen in sports, and the only thing special about this one was the reaction on sports talk radio the following morning. The consensus among hosts and guests was that the brawl was a good thing, not just because it had helped revive flagging interest in baseball, but that it added juice to fans' lives. It became clear, listening, that both pundits and fans agreed that violent anger in sports generated excitement in fans when so little else in their lives did. Nobody expressed the thought quite this way, but the point of these commentators and their call-in guests was clear: we Americans have lost the passion and energy that makes life fun and exciting, and watching others lash out (and presumably lashing out ourselves) can pull us back from the land of the living dead.23

American rates of anxiety and depression have increased substantially during the past half century. Roughly a quarter of Americans suffer from mental illness, and some 16 percent will experience a major episode of depression during their lifetimes. These figures are among the highest in the world, and double to triple those in most other wealthy countries (about double the European average, for example).24

Treatment of depression costs the U.S. economy roughly $80 billion a year. Most treatment is pharmaceutical: Americans consume a staggering 66 percent of all the antidepressants used in the entire world each year — isn't that a depressing thought! For those who suffer, the pain is acute. Many cannot afford treatment and do not receive it.25

In all of our major cities, one sees this human catastrophe: lonely people mutter to themselves or curse others; many of them are homeless and consumed by drugs or alcohol, wasting away, desperate, and of little value to a society obsessed with market transactions. Indeed, Derek Bok suggests that one of the most important things we could do to increase American happiness levels would be to devote more resources to providing mental health services to those who need them.

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