Why is depression so prevalent in contemporary society?

Ignorance is bliss they say. We aren’t as ignorant as we used to be. Maybe. I don’t know.

Stress. Look up the HPA axis and it will explain all.

OK, not all, but it gives some insight into one of the major causes.

It’s complicated, of course, but I think heightened, usually unrealistic expectations play a part. We see ‘Richard Cory’ everywhere now, and told we can be him, and are bombarded with images of the beautiful people and the material wealth than can make us happy. I’m not sure the content of most of our media is doing us any favors…

I’m convinced part of it is consumerism and marketing. I’m not one of those people who hate this ARTIFICIAL CONSUMERIST CULTURE (UGH!) – trust me, I don’t mind the system that gave me all my neat gadgets.

It’s just that marketing primarily seems to work by convincing you that you have a need to fulfill when there is none. You really need this phone, wouldn’t that house extension make your life easier? That old shitty iPod? This one has GAMES, won’t that make your life so much more fun? Why are you making crappy food at home when you could eat at our restaurant? Dissatisfied with all the money you’re spending, come here to SAVE.

I imagine that all those imaginary holes in your life tend to add up and cause you to feel that you’re not worth it because you can’t get something. Or defer seeking the things that will actually make you happy in pursuit of the iGadget 17 with depression fighting Angry Birds capability (that only fights depression for about 10 minutes).

I recently learned about the concept of counterirritant. I find it interesting as it relates to pain, and I think it can be used to explain depression too.

Bear with me.

I think people were depressed “back in the day” too. Maybe even more so than today. But it wasn’t a “thing” as much because pain was currency. All types of pain. Back in the day, run-of-the-mill parenting would be considered abusive by today’s standards. Children were put to work, and work was back-breaking and ever-lasting. Food was horrible. Beds were made out of straw, and people shared living quarters with livestock. There was no toilet paper. People were constantly dying. The village was always getting raped and pillaged. There were regular famines. You got married when you were 12. You had seven children and no teeth by the time you were in your 20s. There was no chocolate, no TV, no vacation get-aways, no Straight Dope. Back in whatever day you want to pick, there was a whole heap of pain bottled up in every individual. Great pain, especially of the physical variety, was an expectation.

We don’t have the “counterirritants” that our predecessors had. When you’ve been building the pyramids all day and you just caught an evil lashing by Ramses’ overseer, or you just walked three miles with a jug of water balanced on your head and tomorrow you’re gonna wake up with small pox, you don’t have enough energy to ruminate about how cruel your mother was to you back in childhood. The physical pain distracts you from psychological pain. It acts as a counterirritant.

Despite having said all that, I think people were fucked up back in the day too. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go back to biblical days when people were stoned or lynched for no good reason at all. Maybe they weren’t depressed, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t sick individuals acting out pathologically.

The counterirritant concept monstro mentions is one of the reasons so many teens and young adults cut and burn themselves and is part of the reason tattoos are so popular with that age group. The physical pain helps relieve their mental pain.

I had never heard of the counterirritant argument but having known someone who engaged in self-harm, I was curious and looked to see if there was a link with the HPA axis. It seems that there is.

Because today’s society doesn’t have much in the way of resources for people to identify and develop their true authentic selves. Past societies however weren’t necessarily any better in said capacity.

You aren’t actually talking about secularization, what you’re really talking about it that we’re increasingly bowling alone. Yes, a church can provide a strong social network, but so can many secular activities including a weekly poker game or even just sitting out on the front stoop with the neighbors after dinner. But as a society, we don’t do those things as much as we used to.

There is much hope for you.

Have you guys never read a Thomas Hardy novel?

One theory I’ve heard is that our lifestyle is not very nurturing. We don’t get the proper fats in our diets, too much sugar which can cause blood sugar spikes/crashes, western diets cause inflammation (inflammation is tied to depression), etc. Plus we don’t exercise which can help mood. Plus we don’t get much natural light which helps produce vitamin D.

Also supposedly the death of social ties plays a role. In pre-tech civilizations people needed each other. Now we don’t, you just need money which has replaced social ties as a way to survive hard times or achieve your goals. You don’t need a close friend to babysit, you hire a babysitter. You don’t have friends to talk to so you hire a therapist. Hell whatever social ties we do have are usually work related in some way. So there is a lot of isolation going on due to that.

Does anyone have cites on how common depression is on civilizations who live a paleolithic lifestyle? I’m not talking about Chinese or African civilizations, I mean the bushmen types who have almost no contact with civilization. I have heard it is lower, but have no idea.

This claims depression is more common in wealthy than poor countries.

Even if depression is the price we pay for medicine, science, technology, etc. It is worth it. Three steps forward, one back.

I think that’s a rather idealized view. Lots of those people (not all) leave such a lifestyle if they get a chance. On the other hand, lots of Westerners sing the praises of that lifestyle, but almost none of them take it up. In other words, almost all of the defectors go in one direction :D. Reality leaves argument to find its errors by itself.

This is a good post, but are you sure that concepts like self esteem or how individualistic a society is play that big a role? The east asian cultures are more communal and less concerned with individualism and self esteem, but depression and suicide are rampant there too.

As you really should know, according to modern Egyptology, building the pyramids was a hard life, but not as bad as portrayed in The Ten Commandments.

Again, as you really should know, you don’t even have to go back to the 1950s to see people stoned or burned alive or beheaded for reasons you would not consider valid in any way. You can even see a small number of videos of those things on various video sharing sites.

Depression has always been with us, probably at the same rates as always. It has to do with brain chemistry. We have better ways to deal with it now, thank god. In the old days, the only treatment was an asylum, so most people either kept their depression to themselves, or committed suicide. People back then drank alcohol way more than now as well, so there was plenty of self-medicating going on. Plenty of those old patent medicines were touted to relieve depression symptoms as well. Those had opiates.


I think that much of the reason is that life for most people throughout most of history was so awful that it was hard to distinguish between people who were depressed for medical reasons from people who were depressed because their life was just that horrible. Back then, the typical attitude was that life was all about suffering and pain and disease and decay and despair; there were secular and religious laws against suicide because for almost everyone life was worse than death. Now we think of life as about living and accomplishment, the accumulation of property, friends and family and the enjoyment of them; with pain and suffering being aberrations, not the essence of life.

When hope becomes the norm, irrational despair becomes noticeable instead of being the equivalent of black ink on a black page at midnight.

Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy

  1. Society sucks. Being depressed is an entirely rational response to it for most people.

  2. Most people have no real connection between their day to day activities and the betterment of society or even their neighborhood. The see themselves as easily replaced cogs in a giant economic machine, and get no real sense of accomplishment from their jobs. Other than a relatively few professions like doctors, firemen, cops, and maybe even some entertainers, they know that they and their job could vanish from the face of the earth and no one but immediate family would ever even notice.