Depression In An Individualistic Culture


I’ve been thinking a lot about depression lately.  Maybe it’s been my own recent experiences of trying to find happiness and meaning in life, and the ever-growing weight of not succeeding.  My increasing awareness of how the people around me seem to be going through the same thing.  The many articles on depression popping up on my Facebook feed, friends and acquaintances and strangers who just can’t keep it to themselves anymore.  Or it could be because I work as a mental health counselor and I’ve just trained myself to look at the world through a diagnostic lens.

Whatever it is, the phenomenon of depression has been heavy on my mind.  And so have a lot of other things.  Is this mass of depression a natural life state, or is it a deeper symptom of the modern world we live in?  Are we doomed to spend our lives learning little tips and tricks and coping skills and pill combinations to combat the burden of emptiness enough to make it to the next day?  Or could there be a society that equipped us for happiness from the get-go?  Surely there must be a better way.

Reflecting on this, I can’t help but think that our culture has a lot to do with our collective, so often unacknowledged, unhappiness.  We grow up being told we can do whatever and be whatever we want, and that above all we should be ourselves.  Which sounds great on the surface.  But as a result we measure ourselves by our ability to be distinctive, to accomplish great feats, to achieve self-mastery.  What if we never figure out who we want to be?  Or we form ourselves into our ideal person, only to find this creation can’t relate to anybody else?  What if we set a goal for ourselves, but find we can’t reach it?  Or worse, we do reach it and find it didn’t satisfy us after all?   What if the things we’ve always been taught matter, that we’ve convinced ourselves are important, don’t end up mattering to us that much after all?

It can really be summarized in our predominant cultural philosophy – individualism.  This word tells us to emphasize our differences over commonalities, to build our own lives from scratch, to believe our successes as well as our failures ultimately fall on us and us alone.   Our families, our cultures, our localities, even our religions and belief systems, are merely private affairs.  Not greater forces that guide us through life and connect us to others.  Instead, just little puzzle pieces we put together to help define what really matters – our self-made selves.  If you don’t feel happiness, it’s because you, personally, failed to create it for yourself.  You chose the wrong pieces.  Or put them together poorly.  And there’s nothing anybody else can do about it.  You’ve made yourself unlike the rest.  They can’t understand your special brand of pain.    

I can’t imagine a better recipe for loneliness, meaninglessness, sense of failure – in a word, depression.  When our standards for each other and ourselves revolve around our grades, our salaries, our name recognition, our tasteful yet distinctive sense of fashion, the validity and attractiveness of our collage of self-assigned labels, etc…we set ourselves up for some pitfalls.  Many of us either will either feel the sting of failing to reach (or even form) our own expectations, or decide the expectations we set weren’t that worthwhile to begin with.  Either way we’re lost.

I don’t know if this is a perfect explanation of the problem, and I don’t have a perfect solution to it.  I can only offer a few brief and unoriginal thoughts.  If we could learn to focus more on where we’re coming from and less on where we’re going – how we can contribute to our families and communities and cultural traditions, instead of standing apart from them – we might feel more connection and purpose.  If we could focus more on the kind of person each of us wants to be in relation to others, as opposed to the external and highly personal feats we aim to accomplish, maybe we would feel more fulfilled in our lives.  If we could focus more on what we do for others, not just ourselves, maybe we would be less self-absorbed.  Less fixed in our immediate emotional state and our inability to control it.  Maybe abandoning a rising career to take care of a sick relative isn’t a roadblock to our dreams, but rather what we were meant to do.  Or the people you grew up with in your neighborhood will understand and accept you in a way the residents of the Hollywood Hills never would.  In short, maybe we’re looking for happiness and satisfaction where the pickings are slim, and avoiding it where it might be plentiful.

This isn’t a new message.  It pops up sometimes in country songs, Lifetime specials, elderly reminiscences, and the like.  But it gets drowned out amidst the calls to achieve more and define ourselves better.  So we try and figure it out the best that we can, and many us struggle.  And become depressed.  And we do what we can to manage the symptoms.  But that is settling for too little.  Instead of trying to fix ourselves, we can try to fix the culture that we all share.  And in the process, we may just find we’re feeling better after all.