This post belongs to a series on depression. In this series, we’ll talk about how we think of depression, what’s scientifically researched, and possible solutions to the widely spread, modern phenomenon. In this part, we’ll focus on internalisation.
Paraphrasing the Quran, scientists worldwide and depressed people themselves;
“Depression is a natural reaction to an unnatural situation.”
Depression is the sensation that you’re stuck. In yourself, in time, in this suffering you constantly feel. When depressed, you can’t seem to get out of your head; everything revolves around your pain; you can’t imagine a future or a meaning; everything seems hopeless and worthless.
The word “depression” is, in many ways, wrong. It could be called “disconnection”, because that’s what depression is about: disconnection from ourselves, from the people around us, and from nature. An anti-depressant isn’t just a small pill you swallow to make everything better. It’s anything and anyone that helps you feel connected to the moment. Most of the time we’re unfortunately not. Constant Wi-fi connection does not count as a valuable connection.
I can’t give you a one-hit-wonder, one-size-fits-all kind of solution. But I can give you this:
Once depression kind of lifts, you start to be able to plan again. Once you can sense a future, you know the cloud is lifting. Once we connect to something in ourselves, in others or in nature again, we immediately feel better.
We don’t need miracles. We just need connections.
We might see more than four thousand ads per day (and these numbers are from four years back, so they might have spiked further). Marketing has one job only: to grab your attention for long enough to convince you that you need this particular product, but it rarely shoves it in your face. Instead, marketing expertly uses subliminal messages, discussing with your subconscious through bright colours and snazzy images. (We’ll talk more about materialism later.)
Everywhere around us we’re told the same thing: You can do what you want. You are a rock, you are and island. Be the best you. You do you.
Why don’t we say we?
When chemical antidepressants were marketed in Cambodia, the word “antidepressant” was lost in translation between English and Khmer. South African psychiatrist Dr. Derek Summerfield wondered why the drugs sold so poorly in Cambodia, and he travelled there to figure out why. He explained to the Cambodians that depression is like a sadness you can’t get rid of.
The concept was not unfamiliar to them. The Cambodians did have something like that, but that they didn’t need chemical help. They already had a solution.
A farmer had lost his leg to a hidden land mine while working in the rice fields. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg and learned to walk again. He didn’t fully recover, though, but felt anxious about his future. The doctor and his neighbours sat down with him and talked.
It turns out that life as a rice farmer was too demanding, even with his prosthetic leg, and he was unable to work through the pain. It made him want to give up.
The solution was wonderfully simple. His neighbours all pitched in, bought a cow, and voilà the man became a dairy farmer instead; using many of his old skills, but without the same physical strain and the disturbing memories of being hurt in the field. His depression went away.
The cow was the antidepressant, and she worked wonders.
The difference between Western and Asian cultures is palpable in cases of depression. Studies have shown that it correlates with cultural views of ego, of the self. If you take a picture of a person addressing a crowd, then ask a group of Westerners what they see, they’ll most likely describe the person in the front. Ask the same question about the same picture of a group of Chinese tourists passing by, and they’ll probably describe the crowd first.
Brett Ford along with her colleagues Maya Tamir and Iris Mauss, conducted research on whether trying to consciously make yourself happier actually worked. It turned out that in Russia, Japan and Taiwan it did work, while it failed utterly in the United States.
In the West, we have a more individualistic philosophy of life. In the case of the aforementioned study, this meant the Americans pursued happiness for themselves. But if you pursue happiness you in Russia, for instance, you try to make things better for the people around you.
Individualism does, to some extent, correlate with capitalism. The development of consumer culture began to bloom in the eighties, and along side of it has the amount of depressed and anxious increased; chemical antidepressants are prescribed and sold in larger numbers; even digitalisation correlates directly with the same numbers.
Technology isn’t the villain, but more like one factor of many that’s contributed to the infinite amount of mental trash that fills our everyday lives. The percentage of depressed was steadily increasing during the nineties; the problem already existed. We cannot attribute that to technology. When Internet became a household staple it very much reminded us of the things we’ve lost; status, online friends, connections.
Just like chemical antidepressants, our culture suggests we’d find solutions within ourselves, solutions only we can find and need no help finding.
It makes us very lonely. Scratch that – we make ourselves very lonely.
The loneliness epidemic
What depression does so well is making us feel alone in the world with our problems. And this isn’t solely about us as private people, but about us as workers, as well. With all the talk of personality tests, of extroversion and introversion, combined with a rapidly changing work landscape and the globalisation of work, it’s no wonder we’re feeling unsettled.
The work landscape has changed drastically for the past decades, and will continue to change furthermore. A fair amount of the titles and structures we know appeared after the second world war, and I think we can all agree that society has changed since then.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When the worker’s union proposed time off on the weekends, they were laughed at. When women wanted to work, to own material property, they were laughed at. Social change comes slowly, but it comes, if it’s fought for.
The problem with the modern work landscape is that it’s still in the staggering stages of development. It’s very shattered so far, and quite unstable. Instability is death (not to sound gloomy, but yeah, it is). We also spend more and more time at work, with seemingly no rewards. Longer working days are combined with a speeding tempo and demanding conditions.
If depression is no longer having the possibility to see a constructive, long-term working career, it’s surprising not more of us are falling down on the ground, unable to move out of hopelessness.
Any work won’t do, either. At the risk of sounding like a privileged millennial, I fully expect to find paid work I find, at some level, enjoyable. It’s impossible to expect having a wonderful time all day every day at work, but for the vast amount of time of our lives we spend working, we must find some aspects of it meaningful.
Michael Marmot has written a great deal about the importance of meaningfulness at work. In an interview with Johann Hari he said:
“… [the worst stress for people to endure at work] is monotonous, boring, soul-destroying; [where] they die a little when they come to work each day, because their work touches no part of them that is them.”
For something to be meaningful, it needs to give us a sense of purpose. That we’re doing something not only for ourselves, but for others. This is crucial to remember, especially when meeting people of low-paid jobs. Basic human decency, looking them in the eyes, seeing the person and not the work label, thanking them for doing what they do, is the smallest effort you can put in for the sake of another person’s welfare.
For us to find joy in our work, we must find that we make a difference, even a small one, and that we’re valued where we work.
When I worked in the bar in tropical heat, my colleagues and I were repeatedly told “no” when we asked for an air conditioner. Or even a fan. The Internet crashed and the cabinets were overheated. We asked for a working ice machine. We were repeatedly told “no”, despite these small wishes that easily could have improved our work environment. It made us feel small, insignificant, and unvalued. Safe to say, the quality and effort we put in our work suffered.
In the end, it felt hopeless to voice any concerns. I didn’t feel comfortable at work, I didn’t see any point with going there. The paycheck didn’t match the effort and the strain on my mind and body. I stopped voicing my concerns about the workplace and my own health to my co-workers. But I didn’t leave, because I didn’t see any point with going anywhere else.
Poverty is the hallway of depression. And trudging away in the swamp that is financial insecurity can make even the strongest person give in to hopelessness.
If you’ve ever suffered from depression, still do, know someone who does, or just want to feel more connected to yourself and the world, please read “Lost Connections” by Johann Hari. Everything I write in this series stems from my personal experiences combined with his immaculate research in that wonderful book. We’re lucky to have such dedicated people as him in our midst. The book is definitely worth your time. Please read it.
You can find his book on his website, or check your local bookstore (online shopping emits a lot of carbon, and it’s great to support other businessmen than Jeff Bezos).
If you feel like taking the crash course on reconnection, watch the fascinating interview with Hari by Matt D’Avella. Matt does immaculate work free from ads.
Comments and questions are welcomed and encouraged.