Softening Negative Sensations

Framing

I’ve come to understand that some of my peers have more of an aptitude for fending off the temptation toward unhappiness than others. With this piece, I’ll try to explain the line of thinking that seems most responsible for this imbalance and offer a perspective designed to reduce depressive tendencies.

Before getting too deep, I should first make a few things clear. First, I’ve never suffered from any meaningful form of depression. My understanding of depression is built largely through reading and speaking with others. Second — for practical reasons alone — depression as referred to throughout this piece denotes a state of sustained demoralizing thoughts that lasts longer than a few minutes. Third — and I feel compelled to state this explicitly — this piece is distinctly not intended for mass appeal. Instead, it’s aimed at some percentage of privileged citizens. More specifically, those who are convinced their lives are hapless and perhaps even destitute. I can’t be sure what this percentage is, but a reasonable person may arrive at a conservative estimate of no fewer than ten million people. This is meant for them. And finally, this is not written to be a diatribe on the mental health industry and/or profession. The science is clear here: There are millions of people living a quality of life well above average, yet suffering immensely from mental borne illness. I am (several orders of magnitude) out of my depth to comment intelligently on any mental illness — diagnosed or otherwise. That is a task I hope the PhDs and true students of mental illness stand ready to tackle.

So to summarize, this piece is primarily addressed to the millions of us who do not have any (what we may call) earnest mental illness, who live as privileged citizens, and whose personas are tainted by melancholy and dejection.

The Privileged Distressed and the Truly Distressed

Bearing in mind humanity’s inequality predicament, it’s difficult to imagine ignoring the objective disparity in quality of life among people when considering one’s moods and behaviors. Yet far too many opinions — of those fortunate enough to be able to voice one — pretend that quality of life is too subjective to ever be objectively measured. The argument typically begins (and sometimes ends) with some variation of “Well, everyone has problems.” While the logic behind this argument is certainly sound in some respects, it fails to consider all sides of the human experience. Yes, people do become familiar with their circumstances and, with time, ascertain subjective understandings of what is good (and how good) and what is bad (and how bad). Let’s take an example: A natural citizen of Brussels who just turned 30 may perceive, (and rightly so) abruptly losing their long-standing job — with close to no savings — to be bad, really bad. Reasonable people would expect that person to become dejected for some period of time, notwithstanding Belgium’s rather palatable unemployment benefits. However, if we juxtapose this newly unemployed man with one of the over 800 million people who do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life, really bad begins to take on a whole new meaning. Surely, the concept of losing a job with little savings is as foreign to these 800 million as the thought of not having enough food is to the Belgian.

The thrust of this piece therefore is a proposed labeling and separation of the privileged distressed (in this case, the Belgian) and the truly distressed (those suffering from unforced malnutrition and the like) and to stop pretending that this disparity in anguish is too messy to tease out any analysis of its subjectivity.

The succor promised in the opening paragraph of this piece requires the privileged distressed to muster up true empathy and/or compassion (you decide) towards the truly distressed, so they may conquer their own perpetual sadness. It is foolhardy and perhaps mentally self-mutilating for the privileged distressed to not consider the truly distressed when reflecting on their own circumstances.

As a nonbeliever in all things supernatural, I find this especially sensible. As all people are anatomically the same, I can think of no scientific justification to feel otherwise. To view your circumstances through this lens is not only an excellent tool to fight depression, it’s fully compatible with secular humanist values. In other terms: it’s logical. What is more, not to feel ineffably fortunate after digesting the vast contrast in what constitutes good and bad for the privileged distressed as opposed to the truly distressed might be considered tantamount to concluding that the importance of a human life varies, with the variation based on what often amounts to a person’s randomly placed geographical location on earth. Count me out. Thankfully, well into the 21st Century, the vast majority of the privileged distressed consider all people to be created equal.

Upon acceptance of these truths, and after familiarizing oneself with what constitutes middle class status in the world’s richest country, one may quickly realize oneself to be living a life of higher quality than roughly 70% of all people. And while, admittedly, this declaration inextricably ties income and environment to quality of life, I can’t help but feel the woes of the overwhelming majority of the privileged distressed are linked to some combination of money and sphere of influence.

To be sure, subscription to this line of thinking requires one to be an egalitarian in every sense. Think about the people right now trapped in slavery (~25 million), or those with no safe place to defecate (~1 billion). Are their worlds comparable to yours in any real way? And lest you forget, it’s important when thinking of these less fortunate individuals to not only compare their explicitly mentioned plight to your lack thereof, but to also consider the entire set of circumstances that is often interwoven. For example, not having enough food probably also means not having access to the internet.

For the privileged distressed, becoming depressed over (what should hopefully now be seen as) trivial events, like not having enough money to take a vacation this year, this decade, or ever, may be viewed as a symptom of narrow-mindedness: an inability to compare oneself to the full and proper sample size. To reiterate, as I see it, the only way to not accept the proper sample size as 7.3 billion is to not consider each human life to be equal. I might go so far as to interpret refusal of this definition as some unhealthy combination of jingoism and misanthropy.

[…]

I hope the thought experiments scattered about in this piece lend perspective to its target audience, the privileged distressed, and that with this added perspective some percentage of them are able to reflect on their relatively superb quality of life with more positivity than before. That they may leave here in a better place.

Help spread this shade of reality and help create happiness.