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?

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  1. J. Dryden Says:

    @ Gerald–You're right that others have it worse. That's almost always going to be true, just as it's always going to be true that others have it better. But the human character is elastic and adaptable–our capacity for and derivations of happiness change according to our circumstances, which is why those who suddenly become rich aren't automatically happy as a result, while those who suffer devastating plummets of fortune don't usually jump off a bridge as a result.

    The cliche is a lie: Misery is never alleviated by the knowledge that others suffer too, and worse. The problems that people have here in the first world are not the problems of the third world, or of the medieval world, to be sure, but "perspective" doesn't equal happiness–we ought, of course, to do much and more for those who suffer greatly. That we have a moral duty. But every person's happiness is his/her own to claim, or to lose, or to find unlocatable in a world where cynicism is the only rational response to our culture.

    Am I glad–more than glad–that I'm not a woman repeatedly suffering the worst kind of sexual brutality in the DRC? Yes. Absolutely, yes. But does that fact that I'm not on fire mean that I don't suffer from a migraine? No, it does not.

    In short, you're absolutely right, and you've completely missed the point.

  2. Death Panel Truck Says:

    Anti-depressants are strong mind altering drugs, and not in a good way, either. If your depression is situational, address the situation, don't take the anti-depressant. If you are broke, you can be happy without money, happier than you will be on those pills.

    My depression is clinical, and I've been taking meds since 1992. They literally saved my life. As far as being happy without money, well, your last sentence is the dumbest thing I've ever read here. We should just tell everyone who lives in the inner cities, stay away from those evil pills, now! Don't worry about abject poverty! Don't worry, be happy!

  3. John Doheny Says:


    "1. Single payer health insurance.
    2. Minimum National Income.
    3. (Substantially) free education for all ages.
    4. Actual regulation…………………………ah……it's too depressing to continue….."

    I moved here 10 years ago from Canada, and while the Great White North is not nirvana, nor perfect in every one of these areas (they still have old-style "welfare," but the payout remains around $600 a month) it actually fills most of these requirements.

    And surprise surprise, a couple of years ago Macleans Magazine (Canadian equivalent of Time Magazine) published stats showing Canadians as happier and more prosperous than Americans. On a purely anecdotal level, I knew maybe two people up there on antidepressents. Here it seems like half the people I know are on some kind of happy pill.

    I guess it would be stating the obvious to point to Big Pharma as the culprit. But insurance companies are in there too. Over the last 30 years or so, there's been increasing resistance by health insurance companies in America to pay for open-ended "talk therapy" by psychiatrists when it's way cheaper and more "efficient" to just drug people. Reason 562 why US health care stinks on ice.

  4. Southern Beale Says:

    "There is no single reason people get depressed, but there IS a single answer: pharmaceuticals!"

    This message brought to you by Big Pharma. Or to put it another way: is feature, not bug.

  5. John Doheny Says:

    @Gerald Mcgrew,

    "No, no, no….just "The 1% is making my 401(k) underperform" or "My job is boring". While we all have problems…c'mon guys, a little perspective please. Compared to the vast majority of humanity over the course of history, we've got it pretty damned good."

    Admittedly, some of my problems are "first world" problems. I was "fortunate" enough to ive in a word where the predominant trop for improving one's situation is to educate onesself, and at the age of 37, after burning out on years of playing ghetto shitholes and biker bars, i decided to do just that. Aquired three degrees (two undergraduate, one graduate) and spent a few underpaid years in academia having a ball teaching until university politics put me in the street. Now I'm back playing low dollar gigs, but with a fuckton of student loan debt.

    On the other hand, for the working poor in America who are, for whatever reason, required to live in large urban centers, the Third World lives right here in America. I have neighbors who live without electricity or potable water. Gunshots are a regular occurance. Bodies laying in the street for hours waiting for a homicide teams to arrive are also.

    Not everybody on this comments string lives in America. Some of us live in places like New Orleans.

  6. Bitter Scribe Says:

    Perspective is the key. I got thrown out of my job after two years because the company was going under and I made more than the Millennial they gave my job to. After two months of unemployment, I found another.

    I could focus on one set of facts: My new job pays $10K less, is less fulfilling and involves a long-ass commute.

    Or I could focus on another: I didn't lose ground during my unemployment (thanks to unemployment insurance and freelance work), I don't have to worry about my money running out and I have something to do all day besides sit around and fret.

    Bottom line: I've made some mistakes and bad choices (or choices that turned out badly, which is not quite the same thing), but I'm willing to forgive myself and make things work. That doesn't always make me happy and content, but it makes life livable.

  7. geoff Says:

    Just in case anybody's still looking at this, AP has a very relevant story up, "Signs Of Declining Economic Security".

  8. Gerald McGrew Says:

    To be clear, I wasn't talking about clinical depression. I was talking about the bitching and moaning about everyday first-world life that preceded my post.

    We all have problems, we all have things that piss us off, and we all have issues. But if you're one of those people for whom "my job is boring", "my retirement account is underperforming", or "my student loan payments are high" is your primary source of angst….

    …I strongly suggest you volunteer for the Peace Corps, or as someone else noted, in an inner-city poor neighborhood near you. Then do me a favor. When that mother you're helping laments how many of her children have died, are in jail, or who have simply disappeared, make sure you tell her, "Yeah, I know just how you feel. My boss made me re-write the TCP reports!"

    Seriously though, I wasn't saying if you don't live in complete shit then you have no right to complain. I'm just saying at least try and keep your problems in proper perspective. My boss *is* a dick, my job *is" mostly boring, my 401(k) isn't what it should be….but, I also have a home, a wife, kids, and regular meals. What's in my refrigerator and clothes closet would be the envy of kings a relatively short time ago. This afternoon, I'm going to go play a round of golf.

    If you dwell on only the negative things, the negative things will dwell on you.

  9. cromartie Says:

    Go read Studs Terkel's 'Working'. It's nothing but page after page of people who hate their jobs and their place within the meaningless void of existence that entails working at a thankless job in a soulless machine every day until they drop dead.

    More people and the same thankless jobs with a worse standard of living only magnifies the ennui. None of this is a surprise.