Alone and Self-Obsessed: Why are we getting more and more depressed?

One of the better books I’ve read recently is Gerd Gigerenzer’s Risk Savvy.

He’s a German researcher who has done high-profile work in decision-making and rationality. The goal of his book is to help ordinary folks make better choices in the real world.

In this essay, I want to look at one interesting trend the book mentions: young Americans seem to be getting more and more depressed.

This is a personal subject for me, as I have a few close friends who are chronically anxious, lonely, and occasionally harbor suicidal thoughts.

Let’s explore.

A worrying trend

To see how we change over time, you kind of need to give everyone the same test across several decades. One test that does that is the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory).

In his book, Gigerenzer writes:

“The development is astounding. Between 1938 and 2007 the clinical scores of college students rose steadily, especially in moodiness, restlessness, dissatisfaction, and instability. … In the recent generations, almost all students, ninety-four out of every hundred, scored higher! The same increase in scores was observed for unrealistic positive self-appraisal, over-activity, and low self-control. Across all scales used … eighty-five out of every hundred students had scores above the benchmark: more narcissistic, self-centered, and antisocial, as well as more worried, sad, and dissatisfied.”

In other words, if I pick 1000 students off a college campus, nearly all of them will be more self-centered, more antisocial, more depressed, and more anxious than their great grandparents were.

The original data for this comes from a 2009 paper in Clinical Psychology Review, which was published by Dr. Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University.

Here’s a chart for more intuition:

I know it’s hard to measure how depression and anxiety change over time. After all, the meanings of words can change, so studies can end up measuring linguistic changes instead of real changes in feelings.

But it seems Twenge’s team has done a decent job of getting around this. From an article in The Cut:

To get around this, Twenge prefers to rely on surveys and inventories in which respondents are asked about specific symptoms which are frequently correlated with anxiety and depression (she said that there’s a lot of symptomological overlap between the two). Questions like “Do you have trouble falling asleep?” mean similar things in 1935 as compared to 1995.

You can look at the data and draw your own conclusions, but — because it’s more fun — let’s assume this trend as true and ask, “Why? Why might this be happening?”

Why are we getting more depressed?

To get an idea of what possible causes might be, it first helps to rule out what likely isn’tthe cause:

  • It’s not the rise in college attendance. You might think that college — which removes kids from their families — may be the cause. However, high school students (who tend to live at home) are still experiencing the same rise.
  • It’s not gender or location. The authors controlled for this in their experiment, and still saw the trend.
  • It’s not the economy or unemployment. Scores should follow a wave pattern in this case (because of economic cycles), but they don’t. What’s more, scores were lower (meaning less anxiety and depression) during WWII and the Cold War.
  • It’s not genetics. The changes have happened too fast for that.

Note: This doesn’t mean that these things don’t affect depression, anxiety, etc. Just not for the purposes of this trend.

So what’s left?

Well, one possibility is that the changes are cultural. Something in the way we Americans think and see the world is making us more depressed and more anxious.

Call me a nerd, but this is pretty exciting. Studying this trend can help us understand (a) how culture affects psychology and (b) how our culture has changed over 3–4 generations.

What cultural shifts?

So, what might these cultural shifts be?

One shift, says Twenge, is that we’ve gone from being more community-focused to being more individual-focused:

“…modern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, at least in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago or 100 years ago. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is higher, people get married much later in life.”

Where did this isolation come from? Sadly and ironically, this change may be in part due to our pursuit of values like freedom and equality.

Again, in The Cut:

“Smaller families and later marriage, of course, in part reflect societal advancement most of us would view as positive — people, particularly women, have a lot more autonomy over relationships and reproduction. Twenge wanted to be clear that she is for all these different types of societal progress, and that the period when people reported fewer depression and anxiety symptoms was also one where there was widespread racial and gender-based discrimination. She just also thinks we should be ‘clear-eyed’ about the fact that the the ‘potential tradeoff for our equality and freedom is more anxiety and depression because we’re more isolated.’

A theme I’ve been pushing lately is that there are rarely (if ever) positive tradeoffs unaccompanied by some shadow. One name for this freedom-depression tradeoff is “the double-edged sword of freedom“.

I like how another paper puts it:

“…freedom is certainly laudable, but it appears to be a double-edged sword, as excessive choice can lead to paralytic indecision, greater expectations, stress, and eventual dissatisfaction, blame, and regret.”

It’s pretty naive to think that more freedom is always a good thing. As we’ve seen with China, people are often happy to give up freedom if it means not having to suffering the crippling anxiety of economic instability.

A shift in values?

’Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl’
-Madonna

Another possibility, says Twenge, is a change in the values that we hold:

“There’s clear evidence that the focus on money, fame, and image has gone up, and there’s also clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame, and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious.”

There are a lot of studies that explore this, but — again — let’s focus on the intuition. Why might an obsession with money, fame, and self-image make me more depressed and anxious?

Back to Gigerenzer:

“The best explanation can be found in what young people believe is important in life: in the distinction between internal and external goals. Internal goals include becoming a mature person by strengthening one’s skills, competences, and moral values, and living a meaningful life. External goals have to do with material rewards and other people’s opinions, including high income, social approval, and good looks.”

Since the connection between external goals and depression might still be unclear, let me try to explain:

  • External goals are hard to control. You have a lot less control over how you look (genetics is huge), how much you make (luck is huge), and how others see you. Of course you have some control, but being born ugly is a pretty big disadvantage.
  • Uncertainty makes us anxious. When you feel like the important things in life are out of your control, you start to feel worried and anxious. I’ve been there many times. It’s hell.

Gigerenzer:

“During [the five decades from 1960 to 2002], children’s belief that they have control over their own destinies substantially declined. In 2002 the average child reported higher external control than 80 percent of their peers in 1960. When children experience little internal control over their lives, they tend to become anxious in the face of uncertainty: I’m doomed; there’s no point in trying.”

What now?

Well that was a lot of fun to write.

This shift to external goals might explain the revival we’ve seen in philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism. These teachings help pull us away from the external and direct our thoughts inward:

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
-Seneca

But such teachings are not enough. If everyone simply withdraws into themselves, then we — increasingly — become isolated ships sailing in dark waters.

We also need to build communities where we care more than just external goals. If you’ve been reading my essays for a while, I hope you’ve noticed this shift. I’ve been writing a lot less about money, success, fame, self-improvement-for-vanity’s-sake (my chief vice) and a lot more about what really matters.

Thanks for reading.


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Originally published here.