Are you happy?
If you're an American, the odds of answering that question in the affirmative are decreasing with time. If you're a Gin and Tacos fan, it's close to nil. But I kid.
There has been no shortage of hand-wringing since the early 1990s when the diagnosis of depressive disorders – and subsequently the prescription of antidepressant drugs – exploded. The growth of medically diagnosed unhappiness is quantifiable, to say nothing of even more depressed people who avoid diagnosis or treatment.
Not only are rates of depression high among the general public, but in certain populations (the elderly, young adults, etc) it is nearly epidemic. This might say more about the company I keep than anything else, but sometimes I wonder if I know anyone who isn't on antidepressants or hasn't been on them at some point. The prescription for Cymbalta or Lexapro seems to be as popular among twenty- and thirty-somethings as PBR and Breaking Bad.
Doctors recognize a range of causes, from biological to social to psychological. There is no single reason people get depressed, but many. Some of the risk factors are things that are becoming less common; others are on the rise. One that I've been thinking a lot about lately is, as the DSM states, "feelings of helplessness and pessimism." It is not hard to imagine why a sense of helplessness could lead to general depression.
In the last thirty years, Americans have dramatically increased the number of reasons to feel helpless. Especially in terms of economics, how many of us really control our own fate these days? Young adults leave college (with loads of debt) to enter a job market and economy that, through no fault of their own, might leave them unemployed. Older working people have seen the protections that Americans once took for granted – labor unions, non-toothless enforcement of labor laws, general job security – radically scaled back as well. Employers, and the political-economic class as a whole, relish in emphasizing the lack of job security that defines the modern economy. No long term contracts, no pensions, no job security beyond day-to-day – we're nearing a full return to the At-Will Utopia that the Robber Barons of the 19th Century once enjoyed. The only right you have is the Right to Work. No matter how hard or well you work, your job may one day disappear to Mexico or India or some other low wage nirvana.
In my field, I often hear the Old Timers tell tales of job hunting in the 1970s when interviewing was more about the school convincing the applicant to work there rather than vice-versa. Even the most ordinary candidates could expect multiple job offers. Today, even the most excellent candidates often find themselves without one. This is no different than most other professions – I'd bet that whatever line of work you do, the number of applicants vastly outnumbers the available jobs these days. Combined with the constant threat of offshoring in the post-NAFTA world and the average American finds him- or herself feeling professionally powerless. Helpless, even. We find ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our control. We have little power and little choice over where we live, what working conditions we will accept, and what wages/benefits we receive.
That is, of course, exactly the way They want it. Some people benefit tremendously from this state of affairs. Most of us do not.
When we see news stories and commentaries about tens of millions of prescriptions for antidepressant being written annually in this country – other industrialized nations are catching up, too – economic and political conditions rarely enter into the discussion. But is anything more depressing than being unhappy with your situation and powerless to change it? We've successfully transitioned to a nation in which "If you don't like it, there's the door…and good luck finding anyone else who's hiring" is the zeitgeist and elected officials (from whom we are completely alienated by a system that auctions them to the highest bidder) make decisions that degrade your working conditions, job security, and chances of finding employment at all. Whatever skills or profession we have, our sense of control and agency have eroded. Can anyone be surprised that so many Americans feel hopeless and turn to drugs – from a doctor or otherwise – to cope with the growing sense that we have no control over our own economic fate?