It Will Take a Political Revolution to Cure the Epidemic of Depression

Yves here. Even though we have posted before on Johann Hari’s new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions, we thought it was worth turning to it again, particularly in light of the crisis of “deaths of despair” among lower-class whites in the US. Not only is that crisis being framed unduly narrowly as a drug epidemic as opposed to a a symptom of social breakdown, but it also appears poised to spread to other cohorts as more and more Americans join the precariat.

Hari’s big point is that the rise in depression results from modern society failing to deliver the things people need to feel a measure of security, such as meaningful social engagement and control over one’s work. Another piece of the equation is that children who are subject to trauma and stresses are more likely to wind up depressed as adults. The near-end of children having unstructured play time plus the replacement of in-person relationships with smartphones bodes ill for the mental health of the next generation.

By Michael Bader, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of “More Than Bread and Butter: A Psychologist Speaks to Progressives About What People Really Need in Order to Win and Change the World” (Blurb, 2015). Originally published at Alternet

What causes depression and anxiety? I have been a practicing psychologist and psychoanalyst for almost 40 years and have seen hundreds of patients suffering from both. In my experience, some factors are obvious. People who suffer from depression and anxiety have experienced stresses and traumas in their development that predispose them to mood disorders. Garden-variety psychodynamic theory teaches us that issues involving loss, neglect, guilt, and rejection usually figure prominently in the backgrounds of people who present with significant symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In addition, over 50 years of research into the neurobiology of mood disorders strongly suggests that genetic and biological factors usually accompany, if not underlie these painful affective states. As a result of these assumptions, the treatment of depression today usually relies heavily on pharmacology, and drug companies have spent billions making sure this explanation is widely accepted. Some one in five US adults is taking at least one drug for a psychiatric problem; nearly one in four middle-aged women in the United States is taking antidepressants at any given time; and around one in 10 boys at American high schools are being given powerful stimulants to make them focus.

Since it’s well known that psychological events produce biological changes, it remains debatable whether or not disorders of our biochemistry are causes or effects. What we do know is that untold amounts of money have been spent by the pharmaceutical industry to finance research and public relations designed to enshrine biochemistry and pharmacology as primary in the diagnosis and treatment of depression and anxiety.

However, what of the social, cultural and even political contexts that contribute to emotional suffering? We owe writer and journalist Johann Hari a great debt for illuminating these broader contextual factors in his new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari first debunks the “received wisdom” that assumes the jury is in regarding the neurochemical basis of depression and the efficacy of antidepressants. He points to research based on the unpublished studies done by pharmaceutical companies on the efficacy of antidepressants, that almost unintentionally reveal a profound placebo effect underlying the clinical improvements reported. When depressed people who are being studied feel cared for by psychiatric researchers, they improve at astoundingly high rates (sometimes by as much as 40%). Thus, the pure biochemical antidepressant effect of these medications is much smaller than has commonly been assumed. In addition, when patients do get better, a commonly seen phenomenon, within a year at least half of them are again clinically depressed.

We have to acknowledge that some real people get better in real ways on antidepressants. However, it is also true that these benefits are less than advertised and results often diminish over time. Locating the cause of depression entirely in the brain and advocating a primarily pharmacological approach to its treatment is a paradigm with limited efficacy.

Hari argues that depression and anxiety should be considered two sides of the same coin. He asserts that everything that causes an increase in depression also causes an increase in anxiety, and the other way around. He points out that these two types of distress “rise and fall together.” Again, this aligns with my own clinical experience treating patients with depression and anxiety: It’s rare to see one without the other.

Most of Lost Connections presents the author’s account of the research done on the social and cultural causes of depression. For example, in the 1970s, British researchers George Brown and Tirril Harris and their team extensively interviewed 115 women living in a working-class suburb of London who were diagnosed with depression and compared their responses to a second group of 344 so-called normal—that is, not depressed—women from the same income group. Their findings were stunning at that time: The depressed women were three times more likely to have experienced certain major life stressors in the year prior to their diagnosis than the non-depressed women. The depressed women had more stressors, more trauma and fewer factors thought to provide psychological resilience, such as close friends and supportive extended family.

The notion that trauma and stressful life experience cause depression and anxiety is really no longer controversial. In the mid-1990s, Vincent Felitti of Kaiser Hospital in San Diego conducted an extraordinary and simple study, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE Study. He sent out a questionnaire to 17,000 people who were seeking healthcare from Kaiser, asking people to check off which of 10 different categories of childhood trauma they had experienced. These trauma included most of the terrible things that can happen to you when you’re a child, including various types of sexual, physical or emotional abuse. In addition, respondents filled out a detailed medical questionnaire testing for all sorts of things that could be problematic, such as obesity, addiction or depression. The results stunned even Dr. Felitti: For every category of traumatic experience someone went through as a child, that person was radically more likely to become depressed as an adult. The correlation was almost perfect: the greater the trauma, the greater the risk for depression, anxiety or suicide. For example, if you had six categories of traumatic events in your childhood, you were five times more likely to become depressed as an adult than someone who didn’t have any. If you had seven types of traumatic events as a child, you were 3,100 percent more likely to attempt suicide as an adult.

The notion that depression isn’t a disease, but a normal response to abnormal life experiences wouldn’t surprise most of us, except for the fact that we live in a culture which pathologizes psychic suffering as a disorder within individuals, rather than as suffering that makes sense given a pathological environment. The cost of such victim blaming is high. If you believe = depression is solely a result of disordered brain chemistry, you don’t have to think about your life and about what other people may have done to you. It’s painful to think along these lines, which may be one of the reasons why a biological explanation is often easier. As Hari says, quoting Dr. Robert Anda who worked on the ACE study, “When people have these kinds of problems, it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with them, and time to start asking what happened to them.”

Hari believes that the social and cultural causes of depression all involve some form of “disconnection.” He argues that people in our culture are disconnected from meaningful work, citing as evidence a huge Gallup poll about work conducted in 2011 and 2012 that included millions of workers across 142 countries. Gallup found that only 13% of people described themselves as “engaged” in their jobs, meaning that they were enthusiastic about and committed to their work and pleased with their contribution to their organization. Sixty-three percent reported themselves “not engaged” and 24% described themselves as “actively not engaged,” which in this survey, meant that they acted out their unhappiness, undermining their coworkers and even seeking to damage the companies where they work. Nearly twice as many people hate their jobs as love their jobs. The prevalence of deadening, routinized and alienated work leads people to feel unappreciated, unrecognized and frustrated, with little or no sense of contributing to something bigger and better than themselves. Disempowerment and indifferent hierarchies at work cause depression.

Hari explores another form of disconnection that is more obvious, namely being disconnected from other people. Social isolation and loneliness have been shown to have a wide range of negative physical/health consequences. Feeling lonely causes our cortisol levels to soar, a hormonal outcome that causes wide-ranging damage to the body and mind. In fact, acute loneliness is seen as every bit as stressful as being physically attacked. Human beings are wired to be in groups, and when we are alone for too long, we feel alienated and insecure.

Loneliness and social isolation is increasingly a public health epidemic in America. As sociologist Robert Putnam has shown, the percentage of Americans actively involved in community organizations has radically declined. From 1985 to ’95—just one decade—active involvement in community organizations decreased almost 50 percent. We seem to have stopped banding together and have found ourselves increasingly shut away in our own homes. We do things together less than any generation that came before us. And finally, we know that being alone changes our brains and that curing that loneliness changes our brains, so if we’re not looking at social as well as biological factors, we can’t understand what’s really going on with depression today.

Hari goes on to talk about another form of disconnection: being disconnected from “meaningful values.” In this section, he offers a critique of our consumer culture clearly dominated by an addiction to material possessions, money and status. He points out that advertising experts have admitted since the 1920s that their job is to make people feel inadequate and to then offer their products as the solution to the very inadequacy they have created. A capitalist economy and culture that tells us that there is never enough, and that we are never enough, provides us with what Hari calls “junk values.” Materialism has never been associated with health and happiness. In fact, when people are asked to reflect on what really matters to them they usually admit to such deep values as meaningful work, community, family, or being a loving person in service to others. When we are estranged from ourselves, we suffer.
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Hari also reviews some of the usual suspects that come up in any discussion about emotional well-being, including being disconnected from status, respect and social approval by virtue of the gross and radical imbalances of income and wealth in our society, as well as being disconnected from the natural world and animals in a society in which most people live in cities and conduct most of their lives indoors. There is powerful scientific evidence that suggests societies with greater equality have less psychiatric illness and that being out in nature reduces depression and anxiety.

Hari wants to be clear that he is not saying genetics and neurobiology have no effect on depression. What he is saying is that the brain and even our genes respond to signals from the world. When scanned, the brains of London cabdrivers who have to memorize the entire map of London, reveal that the part responsible for spatial awareness is bigger than in other people’s brains. Experience changes the brain. Clearly, once changes in the brain have occurred, they gain a momentum of their own and contribute to, or reduce, emotional distress. Genes can significantly increase our sensitivity to environmental stress, but that’s a far cry from saying that they are a primary cause of depression. Hari points out that historically depression and anxiety were regarded as moral failures, and as a result, the notion that depression is primarily biological can be seen as a defense against blame and judgment. However much such a defense may help some people fend off social disapproval and private shame, the question of causation isn’t answered.

The importance of understanding the social and cultural conditions that seem to produce depression and anxiety is that it points the way toward interventions and social changes that could yield tremendous psychological benefits on a mass scale. Obviously, I’m a believer in psychotherapy and I’ve also repeatedly seen the short- and medium–term benefits of medications. However, to truly deal with the epidemic of depression and anxious suffering in the world we need to consider making more radical social and political changes. Reducing inequality is not merely in the interest of justice, but would likely produce a significant decrease in depression and anxiety. Further, experiments in cooperative, more democratic and egalitarian work arrangements have shown that such innovations, by reducing the alienation and estrangement people feel at work, can significantly decrease stress while not sacrificing success in the marketplace. Hari suggests we ask depressed people not “What’s the matter with you?” but instead, “What matters to you?”

Such “solutions” involve making radical changes in social life. However, I think that our movement acquires a greater degree of urgency and validity if we understand how much emotional suffering can potentially be remediated. Such understanding can even inform political proposals like those that call for a universal basic income, or UBI, in which people are given a fixed amount of money every year, completely without conditions, to do with whatever they wish—something that has been tried experimentally in many places in the world. Such projects not only directly address the problem of poverty and income inequality, but emotional health and welfare as well. The UBI gives people the freedom to live and work in ways aligned with their deeper non-materialistic, non-junk values. They can hold out for work that is less alienated and more safely connect with their families and communities. The research into these experiments has shown that they greatly enhance the overall levels of emotional as well as physical well-being.

When we privilege explanations of depression and anxiety that emphasize our internal biology, we let society off the hook. We privatize psychological pain even as the role that our culture contributes to that pain goes unchallenged. Johan Hari’s new book helps us tell a different story. As Hari points out, it is even a story endorsed by the World Health Organization, the leading medical body in the world, which in 2011, summarized the evidence this way: “Mental health is produced socially: the presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as if individual, solutions.” In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations explained that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “cause more harm than good, undermine the right to health, and must be abandoned.”

Hari eloquently states this case in his last chapter, when he says: “You aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values you’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things. You need to release any shame you might feel for having been mistreated.”

I think it’s fair to say that in order to achieve these things, we need a revolution.

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    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The charge of plagiarism is a hit job. Hari’s sin was not anything that would be considered plagiarism in the US (I can assure you it is done all the time in books that engage in Truman Capote-esque “You are there” efforts at reconstructing dialogue) and Hari seemed appalled and upset that he’d fallen afoul of protocol in the UK. He took quotes of individuals that had appeared in other articles but didn’t credit the author of the other piece as having first published the quote. In the US, charges of plagiarism are limited to reproducing an author’s original text without attribution, not that of a source he quotes. If what Hari did was plagiarism, NC is a victim of it all the time, since we have often broken stories (a much bigger deal than merely getting an interesting quote) and are virtually never given credit when the MSM picks them up.

      Moreover, many mental health professionals, such as the author of this post, have written approvingly of Hari’s work. It’s not hard to see that Big Pharma would be threatened by his message and would go on the attack.

      In addition, this is an ad hominem attack and a violation of our site rules. A previous transgression by a writer does not impugn his current work. For instance, Robert McNamara made significant revelation in the documentary Fog of War. You’d reject anything he said Because Robert McNamara.

      Better trolls, please.

  1. cripes

    Which is precisely why I hate Oprah and her “self-realization” bunk,
    If you ain’t rich, blame yo-self.

    And can anyone tell me what drugs Nikolas Cruz was being prescribed and beginning at what age?

    Doling out Prozac and Ritalin that were never approved for the use of millions of children as young as five years old can’t end well.

    And when all the usual subjects are bringing out the long knives to shank Jonathan Hari, I’m more interested in what he has to say.

    1. Steve H.

      Just because someone is a plagiarist doesn’t mean what the other person said isn’t important.

      The importance of the issue overwhelms the faults of the messenger.

    2. Doug Hillman

      The implicit connection between depression and anxiety and school shootings makes Hari a timely target. Instead of examining the role of poverty and it’s effect: extreme iinequality and bullying, classism, materialism, absent and exhausted parents, etc., we’re divided by guns and public education funding.

    3. Jean

      Plus, ask the question, how many of these kids had no father, no guidance, were physically, mentally and culturally mocked at school as well as being on psychotropic drugs?

      Moral relativism has its costs.

      Oh yeah, “ban the hardware, that’ll solve the problem…”

      Cripes, the more vehemently someone is attacked for their ideas by the establishment, the more credence they should be paid.

      This is very important article and gets to the heart of things in our society.

  2. kimyo

    this article claims 1 Million Kids Under Age 6 On Psychiatric Drugs

    if accurate, then ‘first do no harm’ has long ago left the building.

    in my view, hari’s voice has strengthened, perhaps as a result of his admitted mistakes. certainly, i’d prefer to base public policy on his observations rather than the multi-decade failed approaches we’ve been pursuing.

    ps: the recent ‘everything is cool’ study on anti-depressants, according to this guardian piece only followed patients for 8 weeks. the people i know who suffer from depression regularly cycle between good times and bad. 8 weeks is meaningless if you’re honestly trying to assess the success of these types of drugs.

  3. makedoanmend

    Thanks for the article. I hope that more insightful members might highlight some weaknesses in the arguments of the article, which arguments and insights that the article provides I would tend to support given my socio-economic viewpoint.

    For myself, the start of the article emphasized the importance of meaningful work but seemed to end with an emphasis on a prescription (somewhat) of UBI. UBI, to my way at looking at things, only provides respite on a purely material needs basis; though I suppose it might mitigate against anxiety. UBI seems to support the consumer portion of our activity without linking it to the more meaningful productive side of work. Jobs, retraining (including continuing education), and providing capital for individuals or cooperative to try to initiate local enterprises would provide more meaningful direction in a worker’s life, and possibly ameliorate the depressive social affects of free market ideology.

    Having said that, the importance of contextualising mental reactions within the total environment of experience instead of the current endless salve of pills and statements alluding to alienating individualistic responsibility resonates with me when reading the article.

    1. hemeantwell

      The author’s argument is sound, but let’s condense it:

      Early life experiences of loss, failure, infficacy, helplessness, abandonment etc. leave an individual with a depleted and unstable collection of internalized relationships. Where a less vulnerable person might be able to reliably evoke a sense of prospective security — the loving parents hugging and reassuring them — the vulnerable person cannot — the parents aren’t there, or they despise them. And this transpires in ways that are often not fully conscious and can take derivative forms. (For example, a person handles loneliness in a neverending succession of worries about something breaking. Reassuring themselves about the durability of their objects doesn’t do much good.) When current and recent real life circumstances are difficult and threatening, the vulnerable person has little to fall back on and is more likely to become depressed. All of this is expressed neurochemically, and those expressions may be moderated to a degree.

      Anxiety is often separation-based. You worry about losing someone, if they are going to go, if they are never coming back, what will become of you. You worry not only about being externally vulnerable, but also being internally vulnerable in the sense that your “needyness” may somehow make you worse off.

      I’m reminded of the story of a tv show host in the Detroit area. During WW2 he was taken prisoner by the Germans. To allay his suffering he had a sweater that he would knit, then take apart, then knit again. It reminded him of his mother, it was like being with her to the point of being her. Drawing on his identification with her helped him get through his ordeal. Maybe as yet unconcocted Prozac would have helped, but it wasn’t necessary. (and, yeah, the fact that he knew how to sew says something.)

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, I should have given a caveat about a UBI. While a lot of readers like that idea, it has a lot of problems. First, it’s never going to be implemented at a level that is adequate. Way way too inflationary. Second, as unpopular as “work” has become in an era of increasingly abusive corporate overlords like Amazon, a job guarantee is the most effective way to combat the growth of the precariat. There is a ton of work that needs to be done societally that would be steady (day care, caring for the elderly, infrastructure repair and upgrades) where public sector would in fact be a less abusive employer (recall that those demonized public sector unions don’t allow for firing at will and have independent review processes that allow for complaints against employer abuses). Even more important from the Hari perspective, a JG would provide work in a settings that would provide social engagement and build skills. Finally, groups like the disabled oppose a UBI because it would replace programs that support their needs and would leave them with inadequate services and thus in a much worse position.

      1. JEHR

        Yves and others, there has been a lot of documentation on the Mincome project that took place in Manitoba in the 1970s. Not all the results were so negative as you assume. If you wish to read more, see here.

        Of course, Americans have a different cultural relationship with social welfare than Canadians do, so even the positive things may be a stumblingblock.

      2. makedoanmend

        ” Finally, groups like the disabled oppose a UBI because it would replace programs that support their needs and would leave them with inadequate services and thus in a much worse position.”

        Yes, this is a very important point which I hadn’t considered in regards to UBI. The current UK govt. is very much tracking towards this type of UBI for the disabled and the results are sickening to behold.

      3. William Neil

        Thanks Yves. I agree about the importance of work, the right to a job resting on FDR’s Second Bill of Rights from 1944, over a guaranteed income. There are important psychological and cultural dimensions to meaningful work, and Hari has shown us some. FDR seemed to realize this in his advocacy and promotion of the CCC: conservation work done out in nature for unemployed and undernourished urban youths. There is so much work to do that the private sector is not doing, and so many looking for meaning in their jobs – or lack of them for those not part of the workforce.

        That said, it will be a harder task today than it was in 1933-1941, now across age, racial and gender lines. It can be done, should be done, but it requires a lot of forethought and planning. And isn’t that last word there a dangerous one: planning.

    3. Mel

      the importance of meaningful work

      The problem word there is “meaningful”. When 87% of people with ordinary jobs report themselves disconnected from their work, and find the jobs not very meaningful, it behooves us to ask how to create genuinely meaningful jobs, so as to produce the social benefit that we want to get, above what ordinary jobs are giving.

  4. Livius Drusus

    Good piece but I have a few problems with the promotion of UBI. First, I don’t think UBI would do anything at all to reduce depression. If anything UBI would likely make the problems that cause depression even worse by reducing social connections gained at work and eliminating the increased status gained by having a job.

    As Bill Mitchell has pointed out, there is little evidence that UBI would result in an upsurge of creativity. It is more likely that people on UBI will lose social connections, be stigmatized by their fellows and probably suffer from more mental and physical problems than those in work. UBI will likely strengthen the gig economy and act as a subsidy to precariat employment.

    Bill Mitchell: “Unemployment is miserable and doesn’t spawn an upsurge in personal creativity”

    My second point is about why people hate their jobs today. UBI advocates will argue that people would rather have a UBI than a Job Guarantee or some similar program of public employment because statistics show that many people hate their jobs. The article discusses this directly with reference to the lack of meaningful work and other negative attitudes toward work.

    I would argue that these negative attitudes toward work are less about work itself and more about the rise of nasty management practices and increased job insecurity. Naked Capitalism has referenced a number of articles about workplace bullying, job insecurity and the application of dystopian neo-Taylorist technology to the modern workplace.

    If you want to make people happier they need reasonably stable jobs with some degree of power in the workplace which means no more management by terror. The Left needs to break out of the neoliberal mindset that promotes policies such as UBI (long promoted by right-wing economists such as Milton Friedman) and return to their own successful history.

    The People’s Republic of China provides some important lessons as that country’s gradual transition to capitalism supplies us with an opportunity to compare subjective well-being under different economic climates.

    There is evidence that Chinese workers benefited from the “iron rice bowl” system that provided (and to some degree still provides) Chinese workers in the state sector with job security and impressive social welfare benefits. Despite a tremendous increase in wealth, the Chinese are actually less happy than they were in 1990.

    “Feeling Good About the Iron Rice Bowl: Economic Sector and Happiness in Post-Reform Urban China”:

    “China is facing a mysterious happiness crisis despite booming prosperity”

    A similar process has taken place in the United States as the post-war social contract collapsed and was replaced with a more precarious labor market and an increase in management by terror and bullying. That is why people hate their jobs. It is not that Americans hate working per se, they just hate the conditions of the modern neoliberal labor market and workplace.

    1. FreshOH

      Livius Drusus,

      Would be an argument against a Job Guarantee, and highlight the resource stripping boom bust cycle that has and will continue to occur. Coal being an excellent example both in the U.S. and in China.
      New ideas/concepts should be debated appropriately to move forward.
      When understanding both sides of UBI for/against arguments. The tendency to be against makes sense if one is fortunate or goal oriented to have not received government assistance in any form. While those that struggle to re-organize after a termination or significant financial situation. The government assistance that currently is keeping them mentally secure, to them can understand a cultural change from poor stigma of government assistance to an accepted UBI.
      Further most U.S. citizens paying into Social Security expect to receive something in the future (probably not, I wouldn’t bank on that as a sole form of income). But if this Social Security system still exists in 50 – 75 years it may be considered UBI for seniors basics (food, shelter, transportation {costs}, and clothing). While the ability and desire to continue to be involved in ones community through some form of “work” could cover material desires beyond the basics.
      The social contract post-war needs updating. As falling prey to predatory pharma/business in working conditions will continue to erode job safety. Possibly leading back to an era similar to that of Upton Sinclair. But isn’t that the goal of deregulation?
      (keep peeling away the layers of regulation and safety {phasing out human labor} until profit can be truly maximized)

    2. a different chris

      Even hating something means you are engaged with it. Instead of basically “staring into the Abyss”.

      Now to me “having a job” doesn’t mean 40 hours, or even half that. Just something you are expected to show up for at regular intervals and perform well at.

  5. ChristopherJ

    Like many in this place, I have been on long term anti depressants, including prozac and others… Been off them for 10 years when I realized they weren’t really helping, that I needed to feel good about myself and forgive others and myself for what had caused the feelings of sadness in the first place.

    What a money maker they have been though and the doctors have embraced them as they’ve enabled them to give care, without actually giving anything of substance.

    Thanks Yves for banging on about this. 1 in 5 Americans? Sheesh!!

  6. ebbflows

    Real people get real results – sigh.

    I think it would behoove some to read up on the psychological environmental conditions and outcomes during Americas first 200 years. Additionally I read an informing book, which name escapes me, on the westward expansion from the perspective of obituaries over 10 years ago. Romantic is not a word I would use.

    I also think this is complicated by the back ground toxicity issue, which one would think could skew decadal or longer baselines. Further complicated by factors which have nada to do with psychotropic administration, absolute cornucopia of neuro toxins floating around.

  7. KPL

    “Hari goes on to talk about another form of disconnection: being disconnected from “meaningful values.” In this section, he offers a critique of our consumer culture clearly dominated by an addiction to material possessions, money and status. He points out that advertising experts have admitted since the 1920s that their job is to make people feel inadequate and to then offer their products as the solution to the very inadequacy they have created. A capitalist economy and culture that tells us that there is never enough, and that we are never enough, provides us with what Hari calls “junk values.” Materialism has never been associated with health and happiness. In fact, when people are asked to reflect on what really matters to them they usually admit to such deep values as meaningful work, community, family, or being a loving person in service to others. When we are estranged from ourselves, we suffer.”

    This really resonates with me. I feel this culture of making us wanting more (wholly created by the advertisers to sell their wares) has been detrimental to society. I have been thinking success, money, fame is made out to be far bigger than it is.

    Added to this, you have media, print and TV, providing us an account of the freshly minted billionaires, success stories, tips to make money, tips for success. The implied message is money, success and fame are all that matters, everything else be damned. Can you imagine the impact of this on society? Is it ever possible for everyone to achieve this? What happens to those that fail to do that? Can you not have a good life, with family and friends, without this? But this is never even discussed.

    Since everyone cannot or may not want to be a leader, unless society works this out, the best one can do is keep one’s family protected from this BS. I feel to have a good life, with love, understanding and laughter, you do not have to be necessarily rich or famous. If you have reasonable amount of money, a good family, a spouse with whom you can share your joy and sorrow, children with whom you share a great bond and can have lot of fun and laughter together, tons of love and understanding, then I think you are doing well in life. It is within one’s means to achieve this if one does not always want the mirage projected by the advertisers,media and society. Damn what society thinks. In what way does it matter if you are happy.

    1. jrs

      clearly it is not in many many many people’s means to achieve that or there wouldn’t be widespread poverty.

      Worrying about excessive materialism is what people mean when they use the term “first world problems”. But of course it’s an inaccurate term, if the U.S. is a first world country (hardy har har) then more suffering by far is produced by worrying about simply how to survive at all, and all that entails than by a few lucky people who have disposable income they then use in unsatisfying ways.

      1. 3.14e-9

        Yes. Thanks, jrs.

        For people struggling at or near the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, finding next month’s rent is a higher priority than finding meaning in life. One can debate theory all day, but without actually asking folks teetering on the edge what they want and need, it’s an elitist exercise.

        When someone’s got opioids in hand, they’re not likely to flush them down the toilet at the suggestion that it would be healthier to go running, eat some organic kale, or join a community group. And, when they’re that desperate, telling them that medication is no better than a placebo and that they’re just making the drug companies richer is ignorant, at best.

        This 2014 article from The Atlantic addresses the physical damage that “toxic stress” can cause to the brain, especially in children, and how those changes continue to affect them as adults. The solutions discussed in the piece are consistent with Hari, but they seem more immediate and tangible to me, and the science more solid.

        How Being Poor Makes You Sick

        Some patients are being “prescribed” bicycles and groceries as doctors attempt to treat the lifestyle consequences of poverty, in addition to its medical symptoms. Can it work?

  8. Henry Moon Pie

    Thanks very much for posting this. Hari’s book should serve as a guidepost for those looking for policy answers for what is clearly a sick society. We shouldn’t be shaping solutions merely to address symptoms. It’s interesting that psychologist Bader personally recommends UBI as a partial solution:

    The UBI gives people the freedom to live and work in ways aligned with their deeper non-materialistic, non-junk values.

    Amen. I don’t know about Bader, but for me the attraction of a UBI is that it allows people to drop out of the madness, work on what matters to them, kick the materialism addiction and live more fulfilling and meaningful lives.

    Also, while things have gotten worse and worse over the last 60 years, these are clearly not new problems. These are interesting snippets from Bader’s article:

    – advertising experts have admitted since the 1920s that their job is to make people feel inadequate

    – The prevalence of deadening, routinized and alienated work leads people to feel unappreciated, unrecognized and frustrated

    They brought to mind this 50+ year-old lyric:

    Advertising signs that con you
    Into thinking you’re the one
    That can do what’s never been done
    That can win what’s never been won
    Meantime life outside goes on
    All around you…

    A question in your nerves is lit
    Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
    Ensure you not to quit
    To keep it in your mind and not forget
    That it is not he or she or them or it
    That you belong to.

    But though the masters make the rules
    For the wise men and the fools
    I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.

    For them that must obey authority
    That they do not respect in any degree
    Who despise their jobs, their destiny
    Speak jealously of them that are free
    Do what they do just to be
    Nothing more than something
    They invest in.

    There’s a reason that Hopper put Roger Mcguinn’s shortened version of Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma” at the end of “Easy Rider.” It was the core of the 60s’ critique of the world as it was. How tragic that those who run our society have only doubled down on the sickness.

    Easy Rider Ending

  9. Louis Fyne

    in addition to the usual suspects listed above {$$$, atomization of post-wwii life, etc}, throw in the commercialization of self-actualization and self-realization movements of the 1950’s 60’s and tv movies internet for creating an unrealistic definition of life.

    the instagram ‘selfie-stars’ are a cause and effect of commercialized self-actualization.

    1. Enquiring Mind

      When I see selfie-stars the overwhelming impression is that their public-face bravado masks deep insecurity. There is a sad ‘look at me’ quality to their efforts. They need more than a hug, and that isn’t such a bad place for them to start. In this age, initiating a hug could land a person in jail.

  10. Reify99

    Amen. As someone who works with the poor in a mental health center I agree with the points the author makes. One of the “disconnections”some of my people deal with is difficulty getting across town to attend their therapy and prescriber appts due to inadequate mass transit. I’m looking forward to the epigenetic studies of poverty, mass incarceration, and trauma.

    1. Doug Hillman

      Slightly OT: corporate prisons — mass incarceration for profit, in synergy with the War on Drugs, is perhaps the ultimate perversion of our uniquely American system of injustice and rigged-market cannibalism, a.perversion followed closely by the (mandated) profiteering pharma-healthcare-rationing racket enshrined by reprobate Obama. Neither are remotely functional under free market dynamics and the intrinsic incentives are morally perverse and repugnant. Why don’t we also simply privatize the Pentagon and the.”Intelligence” industry? Oh, wait…

      The movie “Shot Caller” is a cautionary tale and stark indictment of the US justice system and the “corrections” industry it serves. Hint: it has little to do with justice and nothing to do with corrections or rehabilitation. US prisons are hardly better than Gitmo and the CIA’s gulag archipelago.

  11. David

    I’m sympathetic to the argument, but the problem goes beyond the consumer society and meaningful work, and has to take account of the difference between the overall happiness of society and the incidence of depressive illness, which are by no means the same thing. Richard Layard has produced a number of books suggesting that we should study happiness, rather than depression, and that if we do, we find that there is no particular correlation between income and happiness – it’s a lot more complex than that.
    We live in a Liberal society, which is to say according to an ethic that teaches that happiness somehow comes automatically from the rational pursuit of one’s own interests, and the maximum amount of economic freedom and personal autonomy that we can acquire. What one actually does with this freedom and autonomy is never clear. Thus property leases, one of the classic examples of liberalism, contain clauses allowing the lessee to “quietly enjoy” the property, (in French it’s the same word “jouir”) without, of course, saying what this enjoyment consists of. Until the last couple of generations, Liberal ideas were held in check, on the Right by tradition, hierarchy and a sense of national identity, on the Left by trades unions, mass political parties and an ideology of collective action for the collective good. Indeed, so powerful was the effect on the Left that it temporarily allowed some on the Left to describe themselves as liberals.
    All this has now gone, to be replaced by different flavors of liberal technocratic politics, in which everything that actually makes life meaningful is being taken away, and replaced by unending competition in all areas of existence. It’s not surprising that rates of mental illness and stress are rising steeply, when the system makes life itself much more difficult and stressful, not to say lonely and insecure, than was the case in the past.
    The Left, of course, could have profited from this and in an earlier age would have done so. But its embrace of liberal individualism, and fission into competing special-interest groups, has exacerbated the problem. Political questions are now framed in terms of exclusive rights and demands for special treatment, that by definition exclude any kind of collective action or attitude to life, and set people who should be natural allies against each other. As a tool of political mobilisation, people are encouraged to develop, nurse and express grievances against other groups and individuals, and to become angry and upset about things that happened long ago, or that they cannot now influence. (Needless to say, the Right has imitated this: they are not stupid). And so we arrive at micro-aggressions, perhaps the only sustained attempt in human history to promote an ideology intended to encourage mental illness. Motivating people to find (or invent) reasons to become furious about things they can’t influence and might not even objectively exist, is indeed such a wonderful way to encourage mental illness that you have to wonder whether drug companies aren’t behind it in some way. After all, every wisdom tradition, from the most ancient up to CBT and Mindfulness today, has stressed the need to understand and control our reactions to outside events. As Viktor Frankl famously said, you can take away everything from a person, but not their right to choose how to react to their own experiences.
    What the voters supporting Trump, Corbyn, Le Pen or Mélenchon, among others, are rather incoherently demanding is that someone help them recover a sense of meaning in their lives. This is partly economic, yes, and an end to economic insecurity would help a lot, but it’s much more to do with a recovery of a sense of community and collective effort and benefit, in place of endless, pitiless, competition in every area of our lives.

    1. Telly


      Thank you for this post, it captures what I’ve been trying to articulate myself for years. When I was at university I noticed papers and lectures that encouraged the type of thinking and behaviours that seemed to me the perfect way to give oneself depression and anxiety. Most of the thinking that came with these ideas was that when something bad happened to you it was because there was a group of people out to get you, and this other hated you no matter what you did. It was like the CBT therapy I’ve had, except instead of using positive affirmations to calm anxiety it used negative affirmations to induce anxiety. It was a maddening environment to be in.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      I’ve always thought that economic insecurity and the loss of community are very much intertwined.

      We’ve heard for years about the loss of community – small towns are hollowed out and kids grow up and leave because there’s nothing left. This is a direct result of corporate consolidation. In the town where I grew up, there were once several small local banks, to use just one example, and each had its own president. As a kid growing up in that town, you could aspire to be one of the bank presidents some day, knowing that you wouldn’t need to go far to earn a decent living if you didn’t want to.

      Well not any more – now if you aspire to that type of job, you’ll need to move to a bigger city because all the banks have been bought up and merged into the large national conglomerates. There used to be laws prohibiting certain bank mergers like that, but no longer. Same with so many other industries – if you want a good paying job, you’d better move. You can work in the local grocery store (and earn a wage where the purchasing power is far less than what it used to be), but you can’t own the local grocery store, or hardware store, etc because they’re all huge chains, and quite possibly owned by some private equity vultures somewhere, or Berkshire Hathaway, etc who don’t have much interest in seeing the company succeed at a local level.

      So many big companies these days are far more interested in rent seeking rather than doing anything useful for society like providing a quality product at a fair price. The only way to fix economic insecurity is to give a lot of these corporations the death penalty – break them up and start enforcing antitrust laws.

      Do that and communities will start to return.

  12. chuck roast

    In another life I was the principal on an environmental education project. My contractor’s staff included a woman with a young teenaged boy. The kid had been banished from a number of schools for acting out. At wits end, she tried changing his diet from the standard American-easy processed food to an all organic diet.

    I didn’t see her for many months. When our project resumed I asked her how her boy was doing. She was so happy and grateful. She said that her son had done a 180 on his new diet and was now both a good student and a pretty well-behaved kid. Then she started laughing, and told me that the week before he had a relapse into his old behavior after he broke down and went for a pizza with his buds.

    And so it goes.

  13. makedoanmend

    I really wonder if the collectivism, social solidarity or any other notion of connectedness that people express as a necessary condition to battle depression and alienation can be achieved without meaningful work being done by the individual. Would a great source of anxiety alleviation simply come from knowing that one’s contribution via the work one does is socially and economically necessary and is formally acknowledged as a contribution by the individual to herself and the wider economy? For better or worse, we are always being objectively categorised by what we do. To whatever tribe we belong and no matter how extensive the boundaries encompassing tribal objectives may be, we all seek some meaning from others in order to be seen to contribute something. In our contribution, if acknowledge, we become less atomised. The problem seems to be not only the lack of work but the desire by people of every political stripe to defenestrate work so that those at the top can claim that only their orchestrations have value, and of course since only capital management has value all value should accumulate to them.

    1. gordon

      Yes, but I think it runs deeper than “…to be seen to contribute something.” It’s more than just appearances. It’s a natural urge to do something. Whether that be social or private depends on the individual. You will organise the repair of a bridge, I’ll paint a picture and somebody else will help kids with their homework. We’re all doing something, some of it is social and some of it isn’t. But I don’t really think the fundamental urge is appearance to others.

    1. RWood

      And Jerry-Lynn’s current contribution must invite a host of demons to repress. Making apocalypse into entertainment is a consistent exercise in strengthening dehumanization. Fostering whatever rationalizations might appear to repress this insanity. Except that many are ringed with a panoply of threats.

  14. The Rev Kev

    I have been thinking about this article so now will have a go at making a few broad observations. The title is about taking a political revolution to cure depression but I think that this might be misleading. Look, depression and anxiety are toxic to any society and right now they are rampant which is actually encouraged, if not enforced by how our society works at present. The favourite course of action is to drug people to the gills which hides the problem but does not make it go away. Earlier times weren’t a bowl of cherries either so how was it that they coped with the same crap?
    Yeah, they had religion to bond them together and family and communities which would all go a long way in helping us cope but I think that something else changed in us that has left us so vulnerable. The author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen R. Covey, did a study of self-help books in his younger years and he found something remarkable. In earlier times these works were based around what he called “The Character Ethic” which means that you develop your character to change your life. The works of Benjamin Franklin were probably typical here.
    Then in the early 20th century the tone of the books changed and it became all about what he called “The Personality Ethic” which was mostly about changing the externalities of your personality. Books such as “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and “Think and Grow Rich” are probably typical of this trend. This change in the way of thinking probably left people in a very vulnerable spot and more open to manipulation. Too many people see the advancement of technology as progress with us humans but “it ain’t necessarily so” as the old saying goes. If the human race was a person I would say that we were emotionally speaking still in our early adolescence and I think that it is this that is at the heart of all the troubles mentioned in this article. So, I think that to advance we are going to have to start thinking seriously about the idea of character all over again. Just my take.

  15. nihil obstet

    It’s good to see a psychologist noting the advantages of a UBI. Anyone who thinks that money to those who have serious anxieties about being able to pay this month’s rent or buy groceries for tonight’s supper is missing the connection between stability, anxiety, and depression which is noted in the post.

    I see too many people who don’t have jobs but who have a reasonable living income enjoy a productive life to think that it leads to self-indulgent misery more than a job leads to enforced misery — parents who don’t work outside the home, retirees, students, musicians, faith community volunteers — to name the most common. And then there’s the internet, many of whose sites and features were created by hobbyists, which in my lifetime refuted the notion that people don’t lift a little finger except for money.

    As industrialists built mill villages with strict morals/sobriety rules just for the good of the worker, of course, the main fear of a UBI appears to be loss of social control over the average person of low morals. We rats have to have rat park instead of the morphine laced bottle, but we don’t need the maze.

    1. ebbflows

      You are aware that a UBI in modernist economics is premised on atomistic individualism in the free market place. Compounded by being a substitute for or mechanism to roll back government social programs. This is why discussions about rolling back democracy due to nascent fears about the plebs voting for more money occurred.

      1. nihil obstet

        Sorry, I don’t know what modernist economics are. A lot of the discussion about UBI and JG both assume that first, something that is passed that can be called the program (like ACA is about affordable health care!) and next, nirvana! Not going to happen with either one. A lot of things need to be put in place. I’d like a mechanism for rolling back a government program like medicaid — I call it a National Health Service, but I’d go with improved medicare for all. I would like people to have enough money not to need food stamps. And so on. So if the comment is saying that there are elites who want to adopt something they call a UBI to destroy social programs in the name of markets for everybody, yes there are. But the idea has been advanced by advocates of many different social views. I rather like Thomas Paine on the subject.

        There are a range of issues we need to work on to get to the step before nirvana, but we need to keep thinking about the way to value everyone in our society — able and disabled, with family responsibilities and without, clumsy and adept, adventurous and cautious — sufficiently to provide dignity and reasonable personal autonomy to us all.

      2. jrs

        I’m not sure it is everywhere, Finland is running the experiment now but only with 2000 people at present. Yes in the U.S. context *everything* including decent healthcare is “the plebs voting themselves more money” at least in the eyes of the 1%. Still affordability, that is drastically reducing the cost, of basic necessities (housing, healthcare etc) may be a more direct means to a desirable end than UBI.

        1. ebbflows

          “Sorry, I don’t know what modernist economics are”.

          Sorry to say but lack of knowlage is not a great starting point, as well, a priori deductive ex ante rhetorical exercises. Just for starters search up Friedman on it, expand from there, other than that consider its highly inflationary, socially dis-powering, biggest subsidy C-corps could ever dream of and could be argued to be a bridge for NAIRU.

          I think it would behoove you or any proponent of the UBI to do their due diligence on it by researching its modern proponents entire view and not extenuate from ignorance or vacuum of thought.

          1. nihil obstet

            This is the first time I’ve encountered the term “modernist economics”. You seemed to be saying that the concept of a UBI was developed recently by academicians, and I was simply noting that it has a longer history.

            Do I understand correctly that by modernist economics you simply mean current academic economic theory primarily derived from the Chicago school, and littered with jargon to keep the ignorant masses from participating in decisions about developing and using the resources of their society? If so, you’re right. That’s what they say, and their work leads you to recoil in horror from economic democracy. It’s not the effect it has on me. And if you believe in it, you might adopt a slightly more persuasive way to keep me out of the streets and the voting booth. Just a friendly suggestion.

            1. ebbflows

              “Do I understand correctly that by modernist economics you simply mean current academic economic theory primarily derived from the Chicago school, and littered with jargon to keep the ignorant masses from participating in decisions about developing and using the resources of their society? If so, you’re right.”

              “That’s what they say, and their work leads you to recoil in horror from economic democracy.

              I fail to find the emotive you project and find it curious you deploy what you point out in the top paragraph e.g. economic democracy i.e. market based democracy.

              That still leaves the short list unresolved.

              1. nihil obstet

                It seems to me that we cannot communicate with each other sufficiently well for this to be a productive discussion.

                1. ebbflows

                  I made points of order, gave historical reference, you projected emotions and utilizing beliefs in establishing my position on UBI – rather than informed thinking.

                  Now you make claims about communication issues, as well, determine the status of productive.

                  Actually you seem the one with all the issues, when confronted with information WRT UBI that does not square with your rhetoric and gives readers an opportunity to weigh the discussion for themselves.

                  Persoanly I find the last comment a dodge where you insinuate poor form on my part and then punch out. You know you have to show how you arrive at conclusions, saying them is insufficient.

                  1. nihil obstet

                    I am commenting on a post about “It Will Take a Political Revolution” to deal with the issues that the economy of the past 40 years or so have created. I am thinking about the values the revolution should work towards and possible steps in that direction. A lot of the argument against a UBI has been the deleterious psychological effect that lack of need for a job would have on people. But this is a psychologist seeing it positively.

                    You responded in terms of “modernist economics”. I stated clearly that I didn’t know what “modernist economics” are. I’ve never encountered the term. An “-ist” ending usually refers to a particular period or approach especially as regards style and usually in term of art, such as the Mannerist period or “modernist architecture”, which flourished from WWII to Postmodernism. I’ve read a reasonable amount of economics, but I don’t know whether it’s a movement like neoclassical, Keynesian, Chicago, MMT. I even searched for it, but couldn’t find a reference. You apparently misunderstood me to be saying that I don’t know what the Chicago school said about the UBI, and said it would behoove me not to extenuate from ignorance or absence of thought. That’s when I understood you to be hiding behind jargon, using an apparently invented term to impute laziness or stupidity to others.

                    I agree with you that the Chicago school thinking on UBI has serious problems. But I don’t think Friedman et al. have had a useful approach to the serious economic issues of our times. In fact, I think it’s their economics that have created the serious problems addressed in the post. I therefore don’t think discussing the UBI purely from the stance of the Chicago school is useful.

                    To my mind, you have not engaged in discussion. To your mind, apparently, I am too uninformed to be able to discuss. That’s why I think we are not communicating well enough to have a productive interchange.

  16. a different chris

    BTW, I think strongly related:

    These people have homes in a heavenly location, and instead of thinking “woah I hit the jackpot here” they are crabby and obsessed about other people walking down what is basically, “private” or not, a road. I swear I would be tempted to run out to every person that walked by and say “hey, nice, isn’t it… *I* live here!! Me me me!”.

    But not them. What is their problem, really?

  17. Carey

    I thought Bader’s essay was outstanding, and hope to read Hari’s book soon.
    Our culture is not well, and our mental health is diagnostic of that fact.

  18. David

    Curiously enough, I was reading earlier today an article on the estimable Open Culture site about the popularity of Harvard Professor Michael Puett’s lectures on Chinese philosophy, and watching some of his talks on the importance of ritual and community, and the abolition of the idea of the self (found in other traditions as well of course). The article is here.. This tradition (like Buddhism and certain Indian teachings) is about the unreality and dissolution of the self, and so a way of combating both narcissism, and an idea of “self” which is in practice just a bundle of injunctions, fears and needs that we have picked up or had imposed on us over the years. If there is a cure for the kind of problems we’ve been discussing, part of it, at least, might lie there.

  19. .juliania

    It’s not hard to see that the national ethic has become ” You can’t win unless you forsake your humanity.”

    All the institutions of power now foster this inhuman ethic.

    Have courage, people. To be depressed about this condition not of your choosing is to be sane in an insane society. Do not be bitter but thankful you have your wits about you; treasure that.

    Shun the judgment of the capitulators. You are the ones in touch with what is real.

    This country is so far off the rails that the lead locomotive is ploughing itself into the mud. There’s lots to do. Come along behind it and plant.

    It’s time.

  20. bean counter

    If the author is reading the comments here, I wonder if he might offer his thought’s on California’s Laura’s Law, court ordered Mentally Ill ‘treatment’ under certain circumstances. Which Law clearly excludes court ordered treatment for those AMORAL who are wealthy and commit daily economic and psychological violence to millions, such as Bezos, et al? The law is clearly directed at those who’ve lost or never had Agency™ so consequently are conveniently tagged as Mentally Ill, since they have faces filled with valid fear and despair.

    Current implementation,( per Laura’s Law wiki page):

    The law is only operative in those counties in which the county board of supervisors, by resolution, authorizes its application and makes a finding that no voluntary mental health program serving adults, and no children’s mental health program, was reduced in order to implement the law.[7]

    In 2004, Los Angeles County implemented Laura’s Law on a limited basis.[8] Since the passage of the MHSA, Kern County,[9] Los Angeles County, Nevada County, Orange County, Placer County, San Diego County, San Mateo County[10] Yolo County, Contra Costa County, the City and County of San Francisco, Ventura County, San Luis Obispo County, Alameda County [11][12] and Mendocino County [13] have approved implementation of Laura’s Law.[14]

    Santa Clara County, which has an ugly national record for inequality and homelessness could be next. SVO [The Silicon Valley Organization] – which conveniently changed it’s name from the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce to that opaque title – has endorsed Pierluigi Oliverio for Santa Clara County Supervisor, even over its own female, Senior Director of Community Development, Susan Ellenberg. From Oliverio’s October post, Op-Ed: Helping the mentally ill is good for public safety:

    Implementing existing state laws locally would also help. Laura’s Law, signed by Governor Davis in 2002, has never been implemented in Santa Clara County. This law allows a judge to compel individuals deemed severely mentally ill to undergo free professional treatment. Other California counties using this law have reduced homelessness, incarceration, and hospitalization, all of which decreases the cost to local government.

    (A side note re Oliverio: the City of San Jose eventually paid a $10,000 settlement for sexual harassment charges against Pierluigi Oliverio made by his prior Campaign Manager, Denelle Fedor, who dropped charges against him to charge the City of San Jose instead. A legal expert said Fedor letting Oliverio off the hook isn’t an unusual move because the city is liable for the councilman’s alleged misconduct. It also helps that San Jose’s bank account is larger than Oliverio’s.)

  21. JEHR

    I have learned through my podcast listening about two really important books that will help explain the world surrounding us at this moment which very probably leads naturally to both anxiety and depression. If you wish to read them also, they are “Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence” by Timothy Morton and “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” by Timothy Snyder. I have listened carefully to interviews (and talks) about their books so I feel pretty sure that they will help alleviate some of my concerns.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Hate to tell you, I would not recommend Snyder. He has written some of the most screechy, factually challenged RussiaRussia! pieces published. He makes stuff up on that topic, which makes me question his work generally.

  22. Jamie

    The prevalence of deadening, routinized and alienated work leads people to feel unappreciated, unrecognized and frustrated, with little or no sense of contributing to something bigger and better than themselves. Disempowerment and indifferent hierarchies at work cause depression.

    In fact, when people are asked to reflect on what really matters to them they usually admit to such deep values as meaningful work…

    I don’t disagree with what is presented here… but why are “working conditions” and the “meaning” of work always treated separately? The most neurotic man I ever met was an arms dealer. I don’t think he suffered from poor working conditions. Somehow the discussion of “working conditions” always seems to assume that the work being asked to be done under whatever conditions is work worth doing in the first place. It is long past time for us to acknowledge that being asked to do “work” that is environmentally destructive, or that ‘tricks’ people into buying things they don’t want or produces things people don’t really want or need in the first place is the primary “condition”, and this recognition needs to be included in every discussion of “working conditions”. Yes, how are you treated at work? is an important question, but never more important than what are you asked to do? What you are asked to do is the first part of how you are treated. That is, are you treated as an intelligent human being with compassion and social values who takes personal responsibility for your actions and will keep the company honest? or are you treated as a desperado willing to do anything to make a buck and willing to turn a blind eye on every dubious business practice to help the company succeed, even if the basic premise of the company is do harm for profit?

    Work conditions cannot be separated from work meaning.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I disagree vehemently. In a society that didn’t denigrate humble but important tasks, being a janitor would be valued. You are basically saying janitors should be unhappy because they haul garbage and clean bathrooms. The few times I did it for money and as part of working for a not for profit, I liked cleaning bathrooms because it had a beginning and end and you could see you made a difference.

      1. rd

        My spouse teaches in an inner city primary school. A couple of years ago, the father of one of the kids in her classroom was a garbageman. The child was very proud of this for several reasons:

        1. He had a father in the house – many of the non-immigrant households don’t have a father at home, in some cases not even a mother;
        2. His father had a regular job with good wages putting food on the table and a roof over their head; and
        3. It was important work because without that job the trash would pile up on the streets.

      2. Jamie

        That is not what I am saying at all! I have great respect for “menial” labor. I have worked as a janitor and a housekeeper myself. I am talking about jobs in the extractive industries that practice such things as mountaintop removal “mining”, fracking, and other environmentally unsound practices. I am talking about jobs in the fishing industry participating in the destruction of ocean biomes, killing and discarding mountains of biomass as unacceptable “bycatch”. I am talking about jobs in advertising that, as the article notes, ask people to trick and cheat “the masses”. And just to be crystal clear, I in no way blame the people who work those jobs for doing them in a system that requires them to do something to “make a living” and offers little alternative. I am not talking about jobs that ask people to do something “unpleasant”. I am talking about jobs that ask people to do something morally dubious. There is nothing morally dubious about cleaning toilets.

      3. Jamie

        I couldn’t see how you got from “arms dealer” to garbage hauler, so I had to think a long time about that.

        You are right, I do think that garbage haulers ought to be unhappy when the waste stream is not well managed. We should not be unhappy that the job involves hauling garbage. That is not the problem. But we should be unhappy if the garbage is not properly disposed of. We should be unhappy if it is dumped in the ocean or waterways. We should be unhappy if it goes into a landfill without proper sorting and minimization. And we should be unhappy if the bulk of the “garbage” we are hauling is unnecessary waste from overpackaging or shoddy goods designed for a short life or “disposable” items that unnecessarily multiplies waste.

        We deserve to be proud of the work we do and to recognize that the company we work for is doing everything it can not just to move garbage from point A to point B, but to do it responsibly, minimizing environmental and social harm, actively working toward a future with less waste generation, and even more responsible disposal and recycling. Garbage haulers working for such a company ought to be quite happy. Haulers working for a company that takes shortcuts, dumps waste illegally, or otherwise creates environmental and social harms beyond what is inherent in the waste stream itself, ought to hate their jobs. We should be unhappy if the company we work for is not interested in managing waste properly and if we are told to shut up and just do the job without complaining when we know these things are going on. And my broader point is that whether or not we are given enough “breaks”, a decent schedule, relatively high pay, health insurance, day care, etc. etc… what we are asked to do (collect and dispose garbage responsibly, versus dump waste where people won’t notice it) is the most important “condition” of our work.

  23. rd

    Related to this discussion, Megan McArdle has an interesting piece today looking at Denmark:

    her concluding statements are interesting.

    “The American rulebook has many virtues. Americans may not have Danish levels of trust, but they do have a marvelously diverse culture that welcomes people from all over the world, turning ingenuity and hard work into the world’s biggest engine of economic innovation. All Americans are the motley inheritors of that diverse legacy, and I, for one, wouldn’t trade it for Denmark’s many fine and lovable qualities.

    I think Sanders is right that the U.S. could learn useful things from Scandinavia. He’s just wrong about which things. Danish business regulations and its welfare state can’t be successfully imported without first learning to trust one another, and to be trustworthy.

    And that’s something we’re all going to have to do together. Which means that whatever Danish-style institutions you like, you can’t get them by angrily vilifying the half of the country that disagrees with you. These institutions, it turns out, can’t be built with policy papers or political activism. They can only be built through better interactions with each other, one neighbor at a time.”

    In 1943, at the same time that the US was fighting fascism while exercising Jim Crow laws throughout society, including the military, occupied Denmark was busy saving Jews from the Nazis.

    I think this is indicative of how trust is built and retained within a society and how it is not built or retained. So I think school shootings, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street as examples all stem from the internal “villifying” (to use McArdle’s term) other groups or individuals through bullying, ostracizing, racism, inequality etc. that break down the concept of trust.

    1. sierra7

      You’ve used the one word that is anathema to our economic system ergo affects our social living….”trust”.. a word that has been completely trashed especially since the brutal economic revelations of the 2008 crash. The word has been expunged from most of our “national” lives. Do you “trust” your banker? your food provider? your insurance carriers?your doctor? your local, state or national political representative(s)?
      There was a time when that word was GOD almighty. Today it seems that what involves trust brings total anxiety and depression. It is the work of our “system”. I believe there are millions of individuals or members of families that are aching to bring about a “modern” return to the Commons. The longer we try to embrace the system of total materialistic individualism the more we will sink into the depression abyss.
      Too many people already recognize that we (they et all) are drowning in this false, as noted in the article and by other commenters, “junk society” and know it is all wrong. How not to fall into dark anxiety and depression. (There’s also other kinds of anxiety and depression such as emotional; love losses etc.) We are social animals; our system demands we be non-social, even anti-social in competition for survival while consuming idiotic products and scenarios schemed by herniated mental social changers.
      To break out of this total disability common folk need to know they have tools to wield….none easy. We have a choice to buy or not to buy either the junk goods or the emotional fabricated life-style ones. A junk society is an addictive one. The addiction can be broken. It’s up to the greater of society to rebel against those who think they have total control. (Though I don’t think they really expect to have that kind of control)
      I have been rebelling against this materialistic society my whole life. And it has been a long one (so far). But, I’m decently healthy and have been fortunate to have been born of the majority controlling race, white and live in a part of the world that is not embroiled continuously in resource wars. (That is called, “The Power of Place” a NPR special series way back in the 1970’s when NPR was a true conveyor of public notices).
      Our supposed social/economic system fosters anxiety, distrust and produces depression which then is exploited enormously by the pharma companies and those that wish to be more powerful and exercise power over those less fortunate. “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones gives a good description of all that is discussed in the article and the excellent commenters.
      We as a society are in deep trouble.
      Only the society itself, those exploited mercilessly have the power to fight back.
      The time is always now.

      1. rd

        Over the years, I have been fortunate to work in some high-performing teams but also some inevitable low-performing teams. I would say that universally the big distinguishing factor between the differences was the level of trust within the teams. The high-performing teams implicitly learned to trust the other team members while on the low performing teams it was all-for one-and one-for-one with a low level of trust, especially towards the team leaders.

        In my experience, trust allows for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts while the low trust environments squandered opportunities and generally never achieved anything close to what was possible. It is likely that the missing productivity that the economists are baffled about is readily available, but locked away behind gates of bad management philosophies and poor trust within both corporations and society as a whole. I think the current gun culture fad is a symptom of that general lack of trust. Societies that have a high degree of internal trust don’t need guns except as defense against outside threats and recreational hunting etc.

  24. Chauncey Gardiner

    After visiting the FDR Memorial in DC, I suspect economic despair is one reason why “The Great Depression” of the 1930s was labeled such.

    I’ve read that a woman in the U.S. today is six times as likely to suffer from clinical depression as a man in China. Remarkable statistic that causes one of ask why this is so (economic uncertainty, social and cultural factors, diet, etc?). But I wonder if there won’t be a profound shift in the incidence rate underlying that report as China itself experiences its own speculative neoliberal asset price bubbles and related debt busts, rising economic and social inequality, and related stress and anxiety.

    Recalled reading about the increased mortality rates, rates of alcoholism among young and middle aged men, and rise of organized crime that accompanied the social disorder, high unemployment, rise of the oligarchs and privatization of Russia’s public assets following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Also noticed the unsurprisingly high rates of depression in the war-torn, socially and politically divided, and traumatically stressed and chaotic nations of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa. Seems the social and economic issues that can lead to anxiety and depression transcend national boundaries.

    1. rd

      I think the CCC and PWA were some of the most important aspects of the New Deal. People were doing important work and getting food, shelter, and dignity in return. We have a state park near us that was built by the CCC. I hope some of the workers were able to visit it after WW II with their families to say “I did this”.

      People are looking for meaning more than handouts. But if they are just lost in a soulless machine, then they will look to get handouts and game the system.

    2. djrichard

      I suspect a good chunk of that comes from China having a higher labor participation rate. Which is particularly striking when considering that China has a lower age of retirement: … “In China, men currently can retire at 60 years of age, while women who work in factories can retire as early as 50. Female public-sector workers can retire at 55.”

      And I suspect that in turn comes from a policy which is related to China’s policy on “harmony”. I tend to give short shrift to that policy as simply being about obedience to the party line that comes out of Beijing. But I’m guessing that there’s a flip side to it as well. That the quid-pro-quo deal is that China leadership attempts to make sure that segments of their society aren’t left behind when it comes to disruptive changes. That is, that there aren’t losers, or if there are, that a way is found to make sure to compensate that. That is, it’s not everyone for themselves.

      In fact, I’m wondering if China even really allows their media to treat losers as their plaything like the media in the US does. Or perhaps this isn’t as critical in China’s culture as it is in US culture, where US culture is much more focused on popularity. What is popular in US culture = US culture. What is not popular = “the remainder” to coin Baudrillard’s expression. = “the deplorables” to use Hillary’s expression. And maybe the reason that it’s more important in US culture is because our “democracy” is basically a popularity contest. I get to talk to Chinese mainlanders every now and then (when I ride greyhound of all places). I’ll have to ask them about this when I bump into one again.

  25. gordon

    And let’s not forget old Michael Marmot, who’s been banging on about this problem for years:

    From a related Wikipedia article: “Michael Marmot chaired the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health (CSDH), which was established in 2005 and launched its final report in August 2008.[7] The Commission sought to engage with policy makers, global institutions, and civil society on the issues around health inequalities within and between countries, the social determinants of health, and act to address those issues. The CSDH acted as a catalyst for change, working with countries, academics, and civil society to bring health inequalities to the fore in the national policy dialogue. The overarching goals of the CSDH were to improve population health, to reduce health inequities, and to reduce disadvantages due to ill health.”

  26. Jim

    “Hari believes that the social and cultural causes of depression all involve some form of disconnection” The article maintains that these disconnections happen primarily in three areas: from other people (social isolation and loneliness), from meaningful work and from meaningful values– but what exactly are the social and cultural causes of such anomie?

    Lisa Greenfeld in a book entitled “Mind, Modernity and Madness,” develops the hypothesis that the emergence of psychiatric disorders like manic depression are the result of a human consciousness dramatically transformed (over 350 years) by three particular characteristic of nationalism (popular sovereignty, equality and secularism) which she maintains significantly affect the nature of the way individual life is felt.

    Supposedly, from the days of its origins, nationalism has remade the notion of individual identity, putting the individual in charge as the ultimate decision-maker and the architect of individual destiny, with this way of “feeling life” being both empowering and overwhelming–often resulting in a biological predisposition to mental illness meeting up with the pressure of self-authorship as well as resulting in what she calls diseases of the will provoked by a malformation of identity and involving different degrees of disintegration.

    She argues that it is this specific cultural framework of modernity (nationalism) that has made the formation of individual identity problematic(with the problem growing more severe as national consciousness penetrated deeper into the social strata and reaching larger and larger populations as the choices for self-definition increased and thus led to ever increasing rates of functional mental disease.


  27. dbk

    Thank you for posting, Yves, much appreciated.

    Other commenters have already said much of what I’d have said, so to avoid repetition, I’ll note some “connections” that came to mind.

    (1) Janus v. AFSCME. The value of a strong, united union goes even beyond the fight for pay, benefits, working conditions, worker safety: if you read about labor struggles, there are certain words that recur often in successful labor battles, “solidarity” being one. A union gives men and women a sense that they are not alone. They’re part of something bigger than themselves.
    (2) The work of garbageman was mentioned above. We might recall MLK’s final campaign here, working with the Memphis sanitation workers. Their slogan: “I am a man.” That really speaks to me somehow.
    (3) Regular readers may recall that NC has published a couple long pieces by labor historian Toni Gilpin; one of these was about a strike in Louisville, KY at the International Harvester plant. Blacks and whites at the plant united, and sought to end the company’s standard practice of paying southern workers less than their colleagues in the North.
    (4) WVa’s 20,000 K-12 teachers have been out on strike since late last week. I was moved at the solidarity shown by parents and communities towards the teachers of West Virginia (they’re the 48th-worst paid in the US), but also by the teachers’ proactive stance in ensuring that students who depend on their schools for a meal each day were being fed during the strike: churches and food banks have stepped in to provide meals/food.
    (5) Apropos of (4), we often see urban residents saying things to the effect of “If they can’t find a job in the Heartland/Rust Belt/ Flyover Country, let them move to a city.” We’ve noted the stark financial realities of this advice – many people can’t afford to move; they couldn’t afford rent in a city; they can’t afford childcare in a city. But there are non-economic benefits to staying in one’s home, despite poverty and its associated ills: the sense of place, the knowledge that family and friends are always there, in good times and bad, of knowing that you are not a stranger/estranged.
    (6) I listened to the Real News Network’s interview by Paul Jay of the history professor at the Univ. of Houston; it was very good. Amid all the calls for “gun control” and “mental illness” on both sides, what’s not being talked about much are the underlying societal causes – the ultimate causes, which manifest at the individual level – of mass shootings and mental illness.

    I think this is because it’s too threatening to even begin to explore, let alone address the underlying societal causes.

    As Yves said, doing so would require a revolution.

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