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June 18, 2004

The Economics of Un-happiness

Amish_iStock_000000112426_L1Most physical health trends have improved over the past half century. But mental health trends have diverged radically, according to this article (pdf) (Summarized in my previous post.)

For reasons that no one really understands (social isolation? pollution? competitive individualism? media saturation? secularism? modern conveniences?), as societies around the world have grown richer at a galloping pace, their mental health has plummeted. Depression rates in the United States have climbed perhaps tenfold in the span of 50 years, and the incidence of anxiety disorders has also skyrocketed. Authors Ed Diener and Martin Seligman write, “the average American child in the 1980s reported greater anxiety than the average child receiving psychiatric treatment in the 1950s.” Mental illness is striking at earlier ages, as well. The average age of depression's first onset is now in the already-vulnerable adolescent years.

Mental illness is now epidemic in the United States. Roughly one sixth of Americans suffer from clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, or another mental illness during any given month. Over a year, the figure rises to almost half of the adult population. (For comparison, roughly one third of American adults suffer obesity; roughly one quarter smoke.) Measured by the number of years of normal daily life ruined by various diseases (“quality-of-life-adjusted life expectancy,” the specialists call it), depression is on a trajectory to become the worst health problem in industrial countries by 2020.

The trend is not a fluke of better reporting; psychologists have designed their methods to prevent such biases. And cross-cultural comparisons underline how real this mental-illness upsurge has been among the affluent. Consider the case of the Old Order Amish: An ultraconversative sect living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the 8,000 Amish forgo electricity and motorized transportation. They travel by horse and buggy, live the life of pre-mechanized farmers, and avoid most other amenities of industrialism. (Think of PBS’s “Pioneer House” or the children’s book Little House on the Prairie and you’ll get the picture.) It's a hard life, but it's not hard on their spirits: The Amish suffer somewhere between one-tenth and one-fifth as much depression as the “normal” Americans who dwell among and around them.

I’m not aware of Cascadia-specific mental-health data, but I’m chagrined to admit I've never looked. If anyone can assemble a reliable summary of regional trends, I’ll post your name in lights.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink


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Although the Amish are indeed an example to hold up for close inspection regarding materialism and mental health, this piece also reflects a common oversimplification about them. Although I am not Amish, my father was, and I grew up around them.

The Amish are extremely practical and diverse in their adaptation of technology. Rather than reject technology outright, they choose technology that is appropriate. These choices are determined according to how they will affect their well-being and community. Many Amish, for example, do have electricity, though only in their barns or workshops. Electricity enables them to support themselves in competition with the other "English" farmers, woodworkers, or whatever. However, those same families will not have electricity in their homes, because it is not needed and would detract from their tradition.

Many Amish communities have communal phonebooths, usually placed at the end of a designated lane for the use of nearby families. Phones are very practical for doing business and communicating with others throughout the community. However, a phone in the house would detract from family life.

Posted by: Tim Steury | Jun 18, 2004 4:20:16 PM

Thanks for straightening this out. Mea culpa for overstating the ban on electricity and the rejection of modern technologies. On reexamination of the Diener and Seligman paper, I realize I introduced the error myself. They simply noted the absence of electricity in Amish homes and the use of horse-and-buggy transportation.

Still, the larger point is undiminished. There's an astonishing difference in mental health records. It'd be good to know the cause.

I'm equally interested in divergences within the Northwest.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Jun 18, 2004 5:06:49 PM


I think the answer is pretty clear really and has been sitting under our noses for many years, but social-economic and political forces conspire to blind most people. Basically, material wealth does not equate to happiness once you've gone past the essentials. Many tribal communities around the world attest to this. In fact many materially impoverished societies did not even view themselves as poor or needy and there is evidence to show that when people feel inadequate, poor and helpless mental illness and sadness increases.

A journalist once visited a "materially challenged" country and despite what we call poverty they had a richness of communuity as circumstances demanded it for survival. The people smiled and the thought didn't even cross their minds that they were poor, inadequate and needy. Ten years later, when the same journalist returned and large corporations had outwardly stated that their marketing efforts have been geared to make the locals feel poor, and needy of non-basic material goods the same journalist witnessed begging, which he never saw before and people coming to him as a Westerner and saying things such as, "please help me I'm so poor. I need your help".

I believe the erosion of community and increasing isolation of individuals and families in our culture also strips away beneficial human interaction. Evidence exists in the sadly endangered tribal communities that challenging material conditions create community which brings social cohesion in a way that is different to social cohesion found in massive hierachical control cultures such as our own and where humans are more individualised and isolated from the political controls that shape their world. In many ways small tribal communities with closer human relationships and community have a better democracy than in our society. For example in our society where more people have feelings of helplessness this is compounded by a feeling of political weakness.

Large corporations love it that people are so isolated and share so little. It means more goods can be produced and sold. In the 1950's US corporations worked very close with the government to create the consumer society. It's interesting that Abraham Lincoln once warned about the dangers of corporations to US democracy if they became too intertwined with government. Unfortunately this warning has not been heeded and money has lubricated the process. With power held in the hands of so few and remotely - the anti-thesis of tribal community living - true happiness of the individual is not the motivating goal of politics and society. We've become blinded by money and material wealth.

Once upon a time many Americans tried to break free of the centralist yoke of British Empire power - a very undemocratic power which was self-serving. Sadly, it seems modern America has lost sight of what true democracy means and corporations have centralised power. The temple of money making and individualism has grown unchecked and doesn't really benefit the masses. In fact many people are papering over inner discomfort through retail therapy or stuffing themselves with comfort foods; a strategy that has created a generation more unhealthy and likely to live shorter than the last. If not this, many are drugged up with anti-depressants, which also makes the pharmaceutical corporations rich which leads to political lobbying for “more of the same, please”.

Today, I spoke to an unhappy person who told me their holiday plans to Mongolia were scuppered by the state of their mortgage. I told her that she should consider living in a Ger (Yurt – a very effective and traditional Mongolian home). I also told her that in the UK, the housing market is primarily driven by money making. Most homes are debt or rental collection items and boy, do people have to pay a lot for them. There is also a myriad of regulations telling you what you can and can’t do. Despite all this regulation and many times asking why don’t the politician’s do “this” to improve things it all clicks into place when you realise the property industry is making huge sums of money. I contrasted this to the Mongolians who live in simple but comfortable Gers. Their primal motive for housing is simply a place to live, a home, and they achieve it in a way that doesn’t require massive amounts of debt or rent to pay.

I also mentioned to this lady about the Amish who get together and have a festival and all help each other when they need a home or barn erected; the complete opposite to saying, “here you go kids, you’re on your own, here’s a mortgage, now start paying”.

It really isn't a mystery as to why people are less happy in our society. Perhaps Margaret Thacher was right in saying, “There’s no such thing as society”. Perhaps she should have added that, “society (real community) has been killed off or nearly so.

To finish off, I’d like to say that deep in ourselves our bodies, our very make-up, our subconscious is telling us that the way we’re living isn’t quite right. Unfortunately the rational mind is hoodwinking us, but that niggling feeling just won’t go away. Perhaps we should start listening instead of trying to cover up what’s inside?

Robert Adshead
A Brit’ who’s an old fashioned American at heart.

Posted by: Robert Adshead | Apr 21, 2005 2:44:42 PM