Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Historical Rise of Unhappiness

Barbara Ehrinreich has published a book: Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy from which snippets of an excerpted article in The Guardian are taken from. Ehrinreich argues that beginning in the 17th century, there was an epidemic of depression across England. She points out:
The disease grew increasingly prevalent over the course of the 20th century,
when relatively sound statistics first became available, and this increase
cannot be accounted for by a greater willingness on the part of physicians and
patients to report it. Rates of schizophrenia, panic disorders and phobias did
not rise at the same time, for example, as they would be expected to if only
changes in the reporting of mental illness were at work. According to the World
Health Organisation, depression is now the fifth leading cause of death and
disability in the world, while ischemic heart disease trails in sixth place.

She talks about the plethora of books, videos, information, and research trying to identify the causes for depression as she cites evidence for a decline in ritual celebrations:

But to my knowledge, no one has suggested that the epidemic may have begun in a
particular historical time, and started as a result of cultural circumstances that arose at that time and have persisted or intensified since. The failure to consider historical roots may stem, in part, from the emphasis on the celebrity victims of the past, which tends to discourage a statistical, or epidemiological, perspective. But if there was, in fact, a beginning to the epidemic of depression, sometime in the 16th or 17th century, it confronts us with this question: could this apparent decline in the ability to experience pleasure be in any way connected with the decline in opportunities for pleasure, such as carnival and other traditional festivities?

And very likely the phenomena of this early "epidemic of depression" and the
suppression of communal rituals and festivities are entangled in various ways.
It could be, for example, that, as a result of their illness, depressed individuals lost their taste for communal festivities and even came to view them with revulsion. But there are other possibilities. First, that both the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to depression.

I think this idea in the decline of festivites in a truly intriguing one. I think of how much I love Christmas and Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July precisely because of the festivities and the gathering of people and this argument makes sense to me. Another argument has to do with an intensification of subjectivity or self awareness during the 16th and 17th centuries which I am much more skeptical of but it is still something to consider.

Historians infer this psychological shift from a number of concrete changes
occurring in the early modern period, first and most strikingly among the urban
bourgeoisie, or upper middle class. Mirrors in which to examine oneself become
popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt
painted more than 50 of them) and autobiographies in which to revise and
elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public
spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the
private spaces - bedrooms, for example - in which one may retire to let down
one's guard and truly "be oneself".

So highly is the "inner self" honoured within our own culture that its
acquisition seems to be an unquestionable mark of progress - a requirement, as
Trilling called it, for "the emergence of modern European and American man". It
was, no doubt, this sense of individuality and personal autonomy, "of an
untrammelled freedom to ask questions and explore", as the historian Yi-Fu Tuan
put it, that allowed men such as Martin Luther and Galileo to risk their lives
by defying Catholic doctrine. Which is preferable: a courageous, or even merely
grasping and competitive, individualism, versus a medieval (or, in the case of
non-European cultures, "primitive") personality so deeply mired in community and
ritual that it can barely distinguish a "self"? From the perspective of our own
time, the choice, so stated, is obvious. We have known nothing else.

I think there is truth in this given that our society lends itself to the inventions of ipods etc. But there is no such thing as a free ride:

But there was a price to be paid for the buoyant individualism we associate with
the more upbeat aspects of the early modern period, the Renaissance and
Enlightenment. As Tuan writes, "the obverse" of the new sense of personal
autonomy is "isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, a loss of natural
vitality and of innocent pleasure in the givenness of the world, and a feeling
of burden because reality has no meaning other than what a person chooses to
impart to it". Now if there is one circumstance indisputably involved in the
etiology of depression, it is precisely this sense of isolation. As the
19th-century French sociologist Emile Durkheim saw it, "Originally society is
everything, the individual nothing ... But gradually things change. As societies
become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the
moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single
human group will be that they are all [human].",,2047969,00.html

1 comment:

Sandra said...

I think this goes beyond just festivals and such. I think that the rise of depression could be linked to the skrinking of the immediate family and particularly the disasssociation from extended family. I think that happiness feeds happiness and when there is focus on communal celebration the energy of the moment transfers to the individual.
Yes, but very good blog grasshopper, keep up the positive vibes.