Today, we live in an age of unprecedented human prosperity and comfort. We take for granted things like being able to step out of our homes after sundown without needing to worry about thugs waiting in dark alleys as was common in medieval times. We aren’t ruled by tyrannical leaders forcing us to pick up arms and war with neighboring towns merely for the ruler’s glory and ego. Our ability to feed ourselves and our families isn’t dictated by the lottery of the rains. We aren’t subject to religious or racial persecution in the brutal ways many previous generations have been. We are living in a golden era of human prosperity. Poverty levels year on year are dropping. The number of people engaged and dying in conflict is the lowest it’s ever been and is falling. Respect for different sexual orientations, gender identities, race and religious beliefs is at a peak. Women’s empowerment continues to reach higher ground. Efforts to preserve the environment and wildlife are underway, attempting to reverse years of man-made damage. We have the technology to stay connected with anyone in any part of the world and the ability to travel across continents in mere hours. And with the swipe of our thumbs we have access to more literature, information and videos than all past generations have ever had or could even fathom of having — and most of it is free!
If we have so many reasons to celebrate our cushy lives and the remarkable times that we live in, why then as a society are we making headlines for being so depressed and unhappy? Or are we legitimately any unhappier than the generations before us?
What if it is just that the human mind, in the way that it is designed, is never fully satisfied?
Human beings have always been, and will always be, searching for more, for better, for greater. This is why there is always an undercurrent of unhappiness that stems from this yearning for more. Since the time we hopped off of trees, as a species, we’ve always been pondering how we can improve our lot. Never satisfied, we strove for more — higher yielding crops, better ways to communicate, more powerful machines, taller buildings, faster cars, cleaner fuel, longer battery life, and snazzier dance moves. As soon as we achieve something, our minds crave for the next challenge; never content with what we’ve already achieved. This is why the most ambitious of us are often the unhappiest. Sustained happiness is mostly enjoyed by the dumb. Unhappiness is the curse of the smart and ambitious.
If we accept this argument we come to realize that humans have always been slightly discontented and unhappy; thirsting for what we don’t have. But is brings us back to our question of why today does it feel that depression has become so widespread and acute that it’s often called a modern epidemic?
The answer to that is largely the effect of modern media.
Media, and social media in particular, has exacerbated the polarity of human lives.
On one hand we have social media where everyone is showcasing their best curated moments with filter-perfect Instagram posts and Facebook stories. A comparison of our lives to these curated #yolo #lit moments of our friend circle leads us to believe that our lives are too regular and mundane. At no other time in history has ‘regular’ been so despised as it is now. We all want to be ‘special’, partly because we’ve been raised with the belief that we are just that — special. And social media reveals that others may be just as ‘special’ as us, leading to angst that we have a non-special, sub-par existence. Adding to this already depressing contrast, mainstream media, needing to somehow fill a 24-hour news cycle, resorts to over-dramatizing and over-analyzing trite events. This breeds the perception that the world around us is a miserable shit-hole that’s drowning fast. As an example — Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that violent crimes have been declining year on year, for the past 25 years. Yet Gallup shows that the public perception on violent crimes is that it is increasing. Though there are fewer crimes, these fewer crimes get constant live coverage with reporters tracking every car chase from different angles, Gopro coverage from inside the crime scene, and detailed back stories on everyone the suspect encountered blowing up the event out of proportion.
This duality of comparing our lives with the glamorized social feeds of our friends and the overly dramatic 24-hour news reporting of disturbing events has falsely led us to believe that our lives are miserable and that the world is a wretched place to live in.
Our lives are amazing and the world is simply peachy. (This is not to say that the world cannot get better and there is no further room for improvement. There definitely is, and we should absolutely strive to get crime down to an absolute zero, as an example). But point here is that the source of unhappiness is not the state of the world, or the state of our lives. The source of unhappiness is largely just in our minds. And what is more important to understand is that being unhappy is not necessarily a ‘problem’. We are wired to be unhappy. We would never have evolved to where we are as a species if we were content chomping on berries and swinging from trees. We need to accept and embrace that unhappiness is an important part of what defines us as sentient homo-sapiens. Forget the Hollywood typified pursuit of happiness. Embrace living with some amount of unhappiness. Enjoy the fleeting moments of joy when they do come. Enjoy also the moments of love and laughter. But understand that all these moments will pass and may potentially be replaced by some less pleasant ones. Real life is not a Valencia filtered Instagram feed. Relish the full spectrum of human emotions, because we will experience them all — some more than others.
Inevitably there are some who experience the negative emotions more acutely and more often than the average person. For them, there may be times when things seem to spiral out of control. This may be the time to seek psychiatric help. Unfortunately psychiatric help often times is focused less on counselling and more on prescribing. The right psychiatric help however should start, not with prescribing medicines, but with prescribing the three things that are essential for a healthy mind —good food, exercise and healthy socializing. Good food does not have to mean following a faddy Keto, Paleo or Nordic diet (which are all great options, by the way). But something as simple as a home cooked meal with little, to no, processed food in it. Exercising too, doesn’t have to involve an annual membership to Soul Cycle, some fancy cross-fit class or HIIT — just being active in the outdoors is enough. For sure, it’s not enough to get you ripped abs, but it’s enough to keep the mind healthy. And meaningful social interactions with people who care for you, such as family and close friends is way more valuable than a thousand Facebook followers.
Medication should be a final attempt if and when these three fail. Medication artificially props up positive neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain, which, in the moment, has a soothing effect by reducing anxiety. However in the long run, the artificial infusion of neurotransmitters to the body reduces the body’s innate ability to synthesize these chemicals, increasing the patient’s dependency of medication. So, the patient needs to be prescribed increasing doses and is ultimately unable to be weaned off these drugs (a big win for the pharmaceutical industry, of-course). And then starts the issue of coping with all the side effects that these drugs bring — from blurred vision, to lack of concentration, to reduced sex drive, to the clincher — suicidal thoughts. What an irony! The medication that was supposed to reduce depression actually elevates it in the sense that now not only are you sad, you are also suicidal. (A couple of great reads on how Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs, have been falsely marketed by pharmaceutical companies despite the lack of conclusive clinical trials). If you dig deep you will realize that anti-depression medication is linked to most suicide deaths in America.
Let’s get back to the basics — good food, exercise and healthy socializing and keep those pills at bay.
This will keep us alive at least. Isn’t that enough for happiness?