Dr. Martin Seligman put forth some interesting theories about the origins of depression in his book Learned Optimism. Here is a summary of five major points in this wonderful book. In making these points and increasing the understanding about depression, he hopes that more people can then find a pathway to optimism and happiness.
1. Generation Depressed might be a reflection of a changing theme in children’s books. He points out that the 30 years ago the symbolic children’s book of was The Little Engine That Could which encourages hard work and optimism. But, now many children’s books are “about feeling good, having high-self esteem, and exuding confidence”. Please read on.
2. Generation Depressed might be a reflection of the “self-esteem movement”. Placing more emphasis on self-esteem and less emphasis on competition and hard work may be creating problems than good. Dr. Seligman wrote, “When these children confront the real world, and it tells them they are not as great as they have been taught, they will lash out…”. Those words are disturbing if you think about the possibility that this epidemic of depression could be our own doing. This leading psychologist believes that self-esteem should merely serve as a marker of mental health, not an end point. Teaching and supporting “unwarrantedly high self-esteem” may be setting people up for a major fall.
3. Generation Depressed is dominated by women. That is right; women are more likely to be depressed than men by a ratio of 2:1. Surely, some major clues to the origins of depression lie in this statistic. Many of have postulated about role conflicts and role differences. However, I resonated with Dr. Seligman’s explanation of the gender factor in depression. One word sums it up: rumination. Women tend to chew the cud, mull things over, brood, over analyze, reflect, contemplate, and think way too much. Men quite simply act when trouble strikes. Action protects men from amplifying depression. Rumination catapults women down a wave of depression.
4. Generation Depressed is self absorbed. Years ago, consumer choice did not exist. All refrigerators were white. All shoes were black or brown. And dinner was what mother put in front of you. Accepting was expected. Now, we have an over abundance of choice. Who chooses? The individual. Dr. Seligman calls this inflated sense of individuality the “maximal self”. The “maximal self” revolves around choice and self gratification. Our grandparents had the “Yankee self” that was “less preoccupied with how it felt” and more concerned with duty. The escalation of self (the egocentric) sets the tide of depression into motion especially when life throws a little disappointment into the mix.
5. Generation Depressed has no sense of duty. Being tethered to something bigger than self can help someone ride out the storm of adversity and hold back the tide of depression. What is bigger than self: family, country, God, and a sense of purpose. Dr. Seligman calls these larger-than-self entities the “commons”. He writes, “The maximal self, stripped of the buffering of any commitment to what is larger in life, is a setup for depression”. Once again, we seem to be setting ourselves up for a fall.
These five origins of depression should serve as a wakeup call. The biomedical world would have us believe that we have experienced an extreme evolution in the brain causing an entire generation to have “chemical” imbalances that create depression. That sounds very unlikely. A majority of depression is our own doing as a society; from what we teach children, to what we value, to what we expect, and from what we have disconnected from. By understanding these origins, we now know that this epidemic of depression is a societal created phenomenon. As such, we should have the power to turn back the tide of depression. The mind is changeable. Epidemics can be stopped with knowledge. For those of you wondering what Dr. Seligman writes about antidepressant medications, here is a sample: “The antidepressant drugs are as good an example of our overmedicated society as the use of tranquilizers to bring peace of mind or hallucinogens to see beauty.” We do not want an entire generation using antidepressant medications. Something must be done to undo the origins of depression. To start this transformation process, I recommend reading Dr. Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism for anyone who finds themselves in a funk.
For more information about strategies for breaking a pessimistic cycle of thought please read my article called “Throw Eeyore From The Train”.