America is both the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the history of the world. It’s also, arguably, the least happy. Never before in history has a country been more blessed, materially and intellectually. So, why are we so miserable?
High-risk drinking is on a sharp incline, the suicide rate is at a 30-year high for virtually every age group, the teen depression and suicide rate is steadily growing, it’s estimated that 40 million or more Americans “meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs,” and that an additional 80 million more Americans are “risky substance users,” and last year drug overdoses exceeded 60,000 (compared to less than 10,000 in 1980) and killed more Americans than car crashes; overdose has now become the leading cause of death for people under 50.
Americans, young and old, are more prone to anxiety, depression, addiction, and loneliness than ever before. This rarely-discussed epidemic of sadness is a silent contagion infecting virtually every aspect of American political and social life. There’s a frightening possibility that the U.S. is too fiercely proud and independent-minded a culture to ever properly trust a mass diagnosis of unhappiness. Americans value optimism and courage in the face of hardship more than almost any other virtue. But what if it’s our positivity that’s killing us? The paradox of mental health problems is well-known: those who need help most are often least likely to recognize it.
The paradox of mental health problems is well-known: those who need help most are often least likely to recognize it.
We can try to attribute this epidemic to any number of reasons: wages not keeping up with inflation, the rate of antidepressant use up 400% in the last decade, screens (internet, games, phones, TV) stunting interpersonal emotive-cognitive growth, young people being forced into stress-inducing peer competition for popularity, grades, recognition, and achievement, Americans working longer hours with less upward-mobility, increased cynicism about politics and civic-life, increasingly stressful election cycles, high-octane fear mongering in the news media, people eating alone and choosing more sugary, less nutritious food, less engagement with organized religious life, increased migration and the rise of globalism, fractured communities, the shrinking of shared public spaces, increased exposure to heavy metal toxicity, environmental degradation, increased alienation from the natural world, the empty promises of advertising, consumerism, and materialism, lack of exercise due to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, more debt, more student loans, more consumable products and experiences available to worry about not having, and on, and on, and on…
But I think these reasons—though they make for decent Buzzfeed click-bait (“Top 12 Reasons Why Americans Feel Empty Inside”)—are actually fairly superficial understandings of our profound cultural problem. There’s something about this sadness that seems to avoid attribution to any specific sociologically understandable phenomenon.
David Foster Wallace, a writer no stranger to depression, addiction, and suicide (he hung himself in 2008), put it this way: “There’s something particularly sad about [America around the millennium], something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. Whether it’s unique to our generation I really don’t know.”
If we’re lost today, what direction are we headed? Where was it that we were trying to get to in the first place?
For future generations, societal trends look pretty bleak. One day we may have to ask ourselves: what does it mean to live in a society that has the technology to fix every major medical problem yet has uncontrollable levels of stress, loneliness, anxiety, addiction, and depression? What does it say about the world we’ve created when virtual reality becomes preferable to reality itself? What should we do when suicide, overdose, and drug use eclipse every other leading cause of death?
What does it mean to live in an ingeniously engineered world that almost no one seems to like very much?