There isn’t much true happiness in our society is there? For the most part, I see people in varying states of depression rather than happiness. I’m sure I can’t be the only one who sees it. All you have to do to see what I’m getting at is pick up a newspaper, watch some TV or just take a walk around their city or town.
Through my interactions with people, both directly through personal contact and indirectly through information gained from the various forms of media, I have come to the conclusion that most of us can be categorized into three main groups based on our emotional state: the first group is a small but growing number of people who are outright depressed and seek medical or psychological assistance. The second group is much more rare and subsequently consists of a much smaller number of people. These people are truly happy and maybe make up one to two percent of the population. The last group, which makes up the vast majority of us, are mildly to moderately depressed with intermittent short periods of happiness. For this last group, even these short periods of happiness consist of not true happiness but a happiness that is tinged with slight amounts of worry or fear that are temporarily repressed. This last group of people are also very good at hiding their true depression and so are difficult to recognize as people who are affected by it.
So the question I ask about all this is, why are so many of us depressed?
Again, speaking from my own experience and from studying those few people who are truly happy, I have come to associate true happiness, which I believe is the opposite of depression, with the total freedom for a person to be who they want to be, to experience their life the way they want to experience it without fear of reprisal.
However, the vast majority of us are not living life the way we want. We are pretending to be someone that we know deep down we do not want to be and are pretending to be happy. We have given up all hope to live life the way we want or maybe relegated our hope to sometime in the future, perhaps when we get away from it all on that next holiday or when we retire from the workforce. The concept of a depression free life has almost become a sort of fantasy for us.
So how did we become this way? Why do we live life the way we do and can we do anything about it?
Not only do I believe that we can do something about it but I also believe we can do it without the mass medicating and institutionalizing that we have been turning to increasingly often, especially in the western world.
In order to solve this problem and cure our depression we must first understand it. To understand it we must find the root cause of it and see how it creates the unwanted effects in our lives.
To help illustrate the causes and effects of depression on a typical person let’s introduce a character named Sally. Sally is what most would refer to as a typical person in our society. She is middle-aged, in the middle class and is married with a child. She has experienced much depression in her life and still has not found true happiness. Let’s take a look and see how some particular experiences in different stages of her life created her sense of unhappiness or depression.
Before getting into Sally’s story I would like to state that I believe all depression is fundamentally based on a belief in one’s own worthlessness and powerlessness. For Sally, this belief was instilled in her early childhood when she quickly learned that her sense of self-worth, happiness and belonging were determined by her parents’ approval of her.
So in Sally’s world if her parents approved of her she felt like she was loved and deserving and happy. If Sally behaved well she would receive toys, eat her favourite foods and get treated very lovingly. But if she didn’t behave well and her parents did not approve of her she was told she did not deserve those things. As a result of this she would then obviously feel unloved.
Because of Sally’s need for acceptance and love from her parents and her dependence on them for physical survival, she learned to modify her behaviour in ways that were acceptable to them. This caused very little issue in childhood for her other than the odd outburst of protest against her parents’ efforts to change her behaviour. (As a side note, I believe all protest, in childhood or otherwise, is created when a party feels they are being victimized by another and are not allowed to exist in the manner they wish to. It is usually an expression of feeling powerless against the other party)
Now, most of Sally’s childhood protests were dealt with swiftly by her parents, mainly by some form of punishment. This is how Sally, feeling the bitter taste of disapproval from her parents, quickly learned to modify her behaviour to fit in with her parents’ expectations and regain that sweet feeling of acceptance and approval.
A cycle of behaviour correction was instigated in which first, Sally acted in ways that felt natural to her but were against her parents’ expectations. This was followed by her parents correcting it, many times to her utter bewilderment. This may not seem like a very big deal to some, but over time the constant correction and the corresponding beliefs Sally picked up about life have sub-consciously influenced her behaviour in a significant way into her adult life.
A couple of years later in Sally’s childhood, she entered the schooling system and was introduced to another type of influential adult, her teacher. The initial experience of school was a very influential one on Sally as she learned that there were other adults other than her parents that she must gain the approval of in order to be loved and accepted.
Most children in her class were eager to gain the approval of their teacher, but Sally again felt more stings of disapproval, this time from both her teacher and her parents, when she behaved in ways that were unacceptable to her teacher.
School and its grading system added more pressure on Sally to change her behaviour and meet external expectations. She tried very hard to finish her homework and get good grades, all of this in an effort to gain acknowledgement from her parents.
Years later, Sally grew into a teenager and entered high school. While she was there, she had her first real emotional breakdown. Through her new perspective she realized that much of her life had been and still was controlled by others and she felt powerless. She had very little say in both major areas of her life. Both school life and home life were filled with authoritative adults constantly attempting to control her.
To counteract her feeling of powerlessness, Sally started working as a sales clerk in a clothing store so that she could feel a little more independent. While she was working she enjoyed the feeling of being able to spend some money and be in control of certain aspects of her life.
With her newly found sense of independence, she started asserting herself. However, at this point she started to clash with her parents, who didn’t approve of some of her activities or her friends and subsequently introduced a 10 o’clock curfew for her. Yet again Sally still didn’t feel in control of her life and sub-consciously turned her attention to the only thing she truly felt she was in control of: her body.
She decided to get a tattoo and some body piercings, seeing them as ways to express her uniqueness and declaring to the world that she was in control of her body. Acting under the influence of this mentality she even started experimenting with drugs and drinking while partying with friends. As a result of this she regained the feeling of being in control of something and it felt great.
Meanwhile, Sally became pretty popular at school and she gravitated to those who accepted her, while she started to ignore her parents, who argued with her constantly.
Later on in high school, Sally rebelled less as her parents relented some of their control, realizing that she will be going away to college soon anyways. However, during this period of her life, Sally and her parents began to drift apart noticeably. She became increasingly secretive with them about her life as she did not like the feeling of being judged. They would never be quite on the same page again and both parties held some hidden disappointment and resentment for each other.
Now, Sally graduated from high school and continued on to university, even though she wasn’t really sure about what she wanted to study. In high school she was required to take most of her courses and didn’t really find anything she was truly passionate about. However, she continued to university seeing it as the only choice if she wanted to be successful in life.
The first year of university was bliss for Sally. She really felt in control. For the first time she could do things that were forbidden to her previously. She could skip class, party every night or sleep in until two in the afternoon without much immediate reprisal. It was pretty awesome.
However, Sally quickly learned that she had to sacrifice her partying to focus on the studying aspect of university. As much as she loved the partying, she hated studying courses she had no real interest in. Again, she saw no real choice other than to continue studying and hopefully find her passion in the future. It would be way too costly to jump around and try different programs so she decided to stick with the one she was in.
As the years of college went by, Sally focused more heavily on studying while growing increasingly depressed. She hated that her life was still influenced by the decisions of others, this time it was her professors. She especially hated that she had to adapt to the university curriculum’s requirements and that there appeared to be no other choice for her, other than quitting and risking a life of mediocrity. She couldn’t wait to get out of college and be free from the restrictive life of studying.
After four years at university, Sally graduated with a degree in business administration. It wasn’t really her passion per se but she liked the possibility of a good paying, stable job. She looked forward with excitement at starting her job at a bank so that she could get her own apartment and pay off her debts. She was beginning to feel good again.
Some years later Sally was not enjoying her career nearly as much as before. Her job was becoming extremely tedious. She craved some sort of excitement but she continued to hang in there, due to the stability her job provided and the possibility of a promotion with greater pay. Around this time Sally also began to have a nagging feeling of loneliness and depression. The reason? Some of her friends had gotten married and started families while she couldn’t seem to find Mr. Right.
FInally, after many dates with increased desperation, Sally met a great guy and they fell in love. She felt absolutely great! She felt like she found someone who loved her and accepted her and the feeling of being loved was simply ecstatic.
Sally married her great guy and everything was great. Her new husband, David, was showering her with affection and she felt very special and loved. After some time though, it didn’t continue that way. Slowly, David and Sally got used to being married and the excitement wore off. They were mostly content, except for the occasional argument.
Their relationship almost came to an end one day when Sally had yet another emotional breakdown. The cause this time was that she felt that David didn’t love her like he used to and she started to feel worthless. While talking things out with David she decided that maybe what she really wanted was a baby.
Sally continued on her emotional roller-coaster and was now happy again. She had her baby and the feeling of being responsible for the little helpless bundle of joy was intoxicating to her and David. She felt needed and valuable. Her baby was completely dependent on her and she would make every effort to succeed in her responsibility to it. As a result of the birth Sally and David’s marriage made a turn for the better as they now had a common interest in their baby.
All the non-satisfying aspects of Sally’s life now fell away. The amount of satisfaction she got out of them (or the lack of it) didn’t matter anymore. She was a mom and that was most important to her. Even if she had a terrible day at work, coming home to a baby that was fed and content gave her instant acknowledgement of her value. It made her feel extremely valuable and appreciated. Her baby made her feel like nobody could and she soaked up all the love from it.
Now, since the baby meant so much to Sally and since she did not want to lose the source of her validation, she took every step to make sure it was safe. Even as it grew, she did not want any accident happening to it and she started correcting its behaviour, much like her parents did to her. Furthermore, her ability to control the behaviour of her child gave her a sense of power, which she did not receive from any other aspect of her life. Her sense of self-value was based on her child’s well being; she would consider herself worthy of living and being happy only if her child was healthy, happy and successful as she saw fit and so she invested all of her effort into raising it. The hopes and dreams she had for herself when she was younger were now put into the child.
Now we get back to the present day and the cycle is complete. Sally will raise her child in somewhat of a similar way to how her parents raised her. Some form of this type of cycle has occurred for generations in most every family and I believe it has caused much of the sadness and depression in our world.
Now, for Sally’s parents, they themselves became very depressed after Sally went to college, when they realized that their child had grown up. Being responsible for Sally meant the world to them and they now felt valueless because she no longer needed them. They turned to their marriage and realized that they did not work out their issues before Sally was born and now had grown apart. Their case is the classic “empty-nest syndrome” that many parents, mothers in particular, experience.
Obviously, the story of Sally is a highly condensed version of a typical life. The events in it may or may not be experienced by everybody but I think most people can at the least relate to the feelings Sally experienced as a result of the events.
So why did Sally feel depressed? The two core reasons that continued to cause depression throughout the stages of her life were:
- Sally was searching for validation of herself in external circumstances and relationships. She believed that she needed the approval of others in order to validate her own existence. She looked to her parents, teachers, professors, employers, her husband and finally her child for validation. Sally followed through life by changing herself to fit others’ expectations while looking for their acceptance and it hurt her tremendously when she inevitably couldn’t find it.
- Sally felt powerless over the direction of her life. Whenever she felt that decisions were made for her by others or that others had a great influence over her life she felt powerless and became depressed. This sometimes led to conflict against those she felt were in power. Conflicts also arose in Sally’s life when, as a result of feeling powerless in other aspects of her life, she tried to control others so that she could feel powerful and in control of something.
The influence of some of these events in Sally’s life and their similarity to many in our own lives leads me to believe that the cause of most of the depression affecting our lives can be attributed to experiences that leave us feeling powerless or worthless in some form.
So now that we know the cause of the depression and the effects of it on our lives, how can we fix it?
The way we can cure most forms of depression is to change our beliefs about ourselves and our lives. The people who are happy in our society are that way because their beliefs are fundamentally different than those of us who are not happy. In order to cure our depression I believe we should emulate their beliefs in our own unique way.
The most crucial among these beliefs is each person’s total acceptance and belief in themselves. This means that each person must validate themselves and accept themselves for who they are, including their desires. Each of us must stop judging ourselves by comparing ourselves with others and looking to others for validation. We must know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we belong where we are, exactly as we are and that we deserve all that we desire to experience in life, simply because we exist. I briefly talked about this belief and being our own unique selves in another post. If anyone wants to take a read, they can do so here.
(As a side note, my other post on Brene Brown’s TED talk mentions how people who live happy lives are okay with being vulnerable. Furthermore, their willingness to be vulnerable is based on a belief in their own deservability and belonging.)
The effects of the new belief would be monumental and would affect almost every aspect of life as we know it. No longer would we live our lives constantly searching for external validation of ourselves. This would allow each person to fully express themselves as they uniquely are and live their life as only they saw fit. The sole determining factor for the direction of each of our lives would be our own desired experiences rather than primarily meeting others’ expectations of us.
This does not mean that we will be a society of self-absorbed, selfish people. Rather, it means that each person will be the strongest individual they can be and will express themselves using the new belief in the completeness of who they are. As a result each person will not see the need to force others to comply with their needs and will not allow themselves to comply with others, unless it is their personal desire to do so. I believe this will lead to a stronger society made up of happy, complete and equal individuals rather than the society we have now, which is a majority of unhappy individuals constantly striving and sustaining a small, ruling group. I will describe these sociological effects in detail in my next post.
Self-validation of each person would lead to a change in the other main belief that causes depression: that we are not powerful enough to create the lives we desire. Since each person would be self-validated and would know they deserve to belong and to exist as they are, there would be little need for control of others or of situations in life in the hope of gaining external approval.
I believe this would also lead to an easing of much of the conflict in our world since most conflict is created when one individual or group does not validate themselves or their own perspective and seeks to control others and force their perspective on others as a form of gaining validation. They feel that their perspective is powerless and worthless and try to prove its strength and validity by lashing out at others.
All relationships would be expressions of unconditional love and acceptance between its members since each person would not need the other person(s) to behave in a certain way, but would rather accept them for who they are. Divorce rates would surely drop as a result of this and family bonds would remain strong as well. Even if a relationship comes to an end, it would be with no sense of loss or animosity, but rather an acceptance.
Of course, this also means many of the hierarchical structures that are rampant in our society would end. These would mostly be replaced by structures of equal sharing and participation. Relationships between groups and between individuals in groups would all be maintained in this manner.
Now, since I am learning to be confident in my own perspective and respect others’ as well, I am not proselytizing that we must live this way. But, I do believe we will inevitably be making progress in this direction, both individually and collectively. This is mainly because the consequence of not moving in this direction is pretty dire. The rate of depression would keep rising and it would become much too painful for many to live. Essentially the quality of our lives depends on these changes, but it is up to each and every one of us to realize this and incorporate the new beliefs.
In my next post I will be talking about how the same core belief of not belonging has created the current structure of our society and how the same structure helps reinforce our collective depression.
Please let me know your thoughts on any of my posts. What do you think of this one? Do you agree or disagree with my perspective?