Daily Bulletin


The Conversation

  • Written by Brock Bastian, ARC Future Fellow, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne

Depression is listed as the leading cause of disability worldwide, a standing to which it has progressed steadily over the past 20 years. Yet research shows a rather interesting pattern: depression is far more prevalent in Western cultures, such as the US, Canada, France, Germany and New Zealand, than in Eastern cultures, such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China.

This shows that depression is a modern health epidemic that is also culture-specific. Yet we mostly continue to treat it at the individual level, with anti-depressants and psychotherapy. This assumes treatment lies in correcting individual biological and psychological imbalances.

Read more – Explainer: what is depression?

Public health experts know living in an environment where fast food is readily available is a large contributor to the modern epidemics of diabetes and heart disease – we need to understand the context, not individual behaviour alone. In the same way, as depression reaches epidemic proportions, the sole focus on individuals no longer makes sense.

We have been investigating whether Western cultural values play a role in promoting the depression epidemic for several years now. In a series of experiments, we found the high value we place on happiness is not only associated with increased levels of depression, it may actually be the underlying factor.

Cultural ideas of happiness

That happiness is a highly prized emotional state in Western culture is not hard to defend. Whether it is the smiling faces on billboards, television, magazines or the internet, advertisers are constantly pairing their projects with feelings of happiness. This makes their products seem desirable and the associated positive feelings appear ideal.

Social media – or more accurately the way we have learnt to use it – is also a constant source of idealised happy faces. This leaves us with the distinct impression that what counts as an indicator of success is whether or not we are feeling happy.

Valuing feelings of happiness or wanting others to be happy is not a bad thing. The problem arises when we come to believe we should always feel this way. This makes our negative emotions – which are inevitable and normally quite adaptive – seem like they are getting in the way of an important goal in life.

Read more – Why bad moods are good for you: the surprising benefits of sadness

From this perspective, sadness is no longer an expected feeling you have when things go wrong. Rather, it is interpreted as a sign of failure; a signal something is wrong emotionally.

image Advertisers are constantly pairing their projects with feelings of happiness. Michael Rehfeldt/Flickr, CC BY

To examine the downside of culturally valuing happiness, we developed a questionnaire to measure the extent to which people feel others expect them not to experience negative emotional states such as depression and anxiety. Our first studies showed people who scored higher on this measure had lower levels of well-being.

In follow-up studies, we found when people experienced negative emotions and felt social pressure not to, they felt socially disconnected and experienced more loneliness.

While these studies provided evidence that living in cultures that value happiness, and devalue sadness, is associated with reduced well-being, they lacked clear causal evidence these values might be playing a role in promoting depression.

Do cultural values of happiness cause depression?

Next, we selected around 100 participants who met the clinical cut-off score for depression to take part in a month-long daily-diary study. They were asked to complete a survey at the end of each day about their depressive symptoms that day, as well as whether they had felt socially pressured not to experience such feelings.

We found perceived social pressure not to feel depressed reliably predicted increased depressive symptoms the next day. However, this perceived social pressure was not predicted by prior feelings of depression. This provided evidence it was not that depressed people thought others expected them not to feel that way, but that this felt social pressure itself was contributing to symptoms of depression.

image We found the perceived social pressure not to feel depressed predicted depressive symptoms the next day. David Mello/Flickr, CC BY

We then tried to recreate the kind of social environment that might be responsible for the pressure we observed as a central feature of depression. We decked out one of our testing rooms with some happiness books and motivational posters. We placed some study materials in there, along with sticky notes with personal reminders such as “stay happy” and a photo of the researcher with some friends enjoying themselves on holiday. We called this the happy room.

As study participants arrived, they were either directed to the happy room – and told the usual testing room was busy so they would have to use the room the researcher had been studying in – or to a similar room that had no happiness paraphernalia.

They were asked to solve anagrams, some sets of which were solvable while others were largely not. Where participants had solved few anagrams (because they had been allocated the unsolvable ones), the researcher expressed some surprise and disappointment saying: “I thought you may have gotten a least a few more but we’ll move on to the next task.”

image We tried to recreate an environment we thought might be responsible for the pressure to feel happy. shutterstock.com

Participants then took part in a five-minute breathing exercise that was interrupted by 12 tones. At each tone, they were asked to indicate whether their mind had been focused on thoughts unrelated to breathing and, if so, what the thought was, to check whether they had been ruminating on the anagram task.

What we found

Participants who had experienced failure in the happy room were three times more likely to ruminate on the anagram task – the cause of their failure – than those who had experienced failure in the room without any happiness paraphernalia. Participants in the happy room who had solvable anagrams, and therefore experienced no failure, did not ruminate on the anagrams at all.

We also found the more people ruminated on the anagram task, the more negative emotions they experienced as a result. Failing in the happy room increased rumination and in turn made people feel worse. Rumination as a response to negative events has been consistently linked to increased levels of depression.

Read more – Sad music and depression: does it help?

By reconstructing a kind of micro-happiness-culture, we showed that experiencing a negative setback in such a context is worse than if you experience that same setback in an environment that does not emphasise the value of happiness. Our work suggests Western culture has been globalising happiness, contributing to an epidemic of depression.

As our understanding of depression begins to move beyond individual-level factors to include social and cultural value systems, we need to question whether cultural values are making us happy. We are not immune to these values and our cultures are sometimes responsible for our mental health. This is not to reduce individual-level agency, but to take seriously the growing body of evidence that much of what we do is often decided outside of conscious awareness.

Authors: Brock Bastian, ARC Future Fellow, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne

Read more http://theconversation.com/so-many-in-the-west-are-depressed-because-theyre-expected-not-to-be-79672

Writers Wanted

Record year of growth for Tweed based business The Electrical Co

arrow_forward

Former US presidential candidate and acclaimed Gold medalist to headline Brisbane’s 2021 Asia Pacific Cities Summit

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's interview with Ray Hadley, 2GB

RAY HADLEY: Prime Minister, good morning to you.   PRIME MINISTER: G’day, Ray.   HADLEY: Gee, you’ve had a week.   PRIME MINISTER: Well, there's been a lot of weeks like this. This time last...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Ray Hadley's interview with Scott Morrison

RAY HADLEY: I'm going to go straight to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison is on the line right now. Prime Minister, good morning to you.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Ray.   HADLEY: Just d...

Ray Hadley - avatar Ray Hadley

Defence and Veterans suicide Royal Commission

Today the Government has formally established a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide following approval by the Governor-General.   Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Royal Commi...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

Record year of growth for Tweed based business The Electrical Co

While many businesses struggled to stay afloat during the COVID-19 affected 2021 financial year, Tweed Heads based The Electrical Co. completed more than 50,000 smart meter installations across Aust...

a contributor - avatar a contributor

The Most Common Reasons why Employees End Up Leaving a Company

It is important for businesses to make sure they find the right people for their open positions. That is why a lot of companies are relying on professional outplacement services. A lot of companie...

NewsServices.com - avatar NewsServices.com

The little Aussie face sock startup is riding the personalized gift game

In a world where everybody has different desires, interests, and goals, what can be better than giving them things that meet their individual requirements. Personalized gifts have taken on the mar...

NewsServices.com - avatar NewsServices.com