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Do individualism and economic growth cause depression?

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Despite tripping up in his last attempt at attacking economic growth, Ross Gittins is having another go in the SMH this morning. After talking to positive psychology guru Martin Seligman, Gittins writes:

Seligman says America and all the rich countries are facing an “epidemic of depression”. The question that interests me, however, is: why? What’s causing this deterioration in the quality of our lives? Is it happening because of, or in spite of, our obsession with economic growth? …

Seligman offers his “four best guesses”. First, the rise of individualism – what he calls “the big I and the small we”. “The more I believe that I am all that matters, and the more I believe that my goals, my success and my pleasures are extremely important, the more hurtful the blow when I fail,” he says. …

,,,economic rationalism venerates and promotes individualism, working to dismantle communitarian arrangements as “inefficient”. And much of the growth in the production of goods and services we strive for comes from ever-increasing sales of short cuts to happiness, … Rationalists are most disapproving of suggestions that the community would benefit from limiting the advertising and marketing of short cuts to happiness. That would inhibit growth.

There is of course a debate about whether depression really is rising as much as some statistics suggest. As Will Wilkinson has pointed out, it is not showing in the number of people who are saying that they are ‘unhappy’ in the happiness research. Much of the rise of depression may simply be a reclassification of other states of mind or more honesty. Initiatives like Beyond Blue have reduced some of the stigma attached to mental illness, and presumably encouraged more people to acknowledge that they have a problem. New – and effectively marketed- drugs are almost certainly part of the explanation too, providing a relatively easy chemical fix for those who are feeling down, but one that requires them to visit a doctor and say that they are ‘depressed’.

But let’s assume for the sake of argument that there has been some real increase in depression. Could individualism or economic growth be a cause? The subjective well-being research finds that both individualism and wealth contribute positively to well-being (here is an abstract of a paper on this). So at aggregate levels it is hard to see the connection. If we look within societies at who suffers from low well-being, again the evidence is not easily consistent with Gittins’ thesis. The unemployed are among the most unhappy people in society, victims of a lack of economic growth. Those who participate in the economy (and enjoy the consumerist fruits of their labour) are much happier. Women are much more prone to depression than men, again contradicting the basic thesis, since they are generally more concerned with family and relationships than men and less involved in the market economy.

There is a further problem for the economic growth leads to depression argument. Gittins, Hamilton, Layard, Eckersley et al draw much from the flat levels of average happiness over many decades to assert that money doesn’t make us happier. Yet if there is a significant minority of people who are much unhappier, but the averages are the same, then there must be a a significant minority of much happier people as well – otherwise average happiness would have been dragged down by the depressed. And perhaps the happier group are so partly because they enjoy such a high standard of living?? (Or at minimum are not made unhappy by their wealth.)

Seligman’s argument on individualism probably does have something to it, but as cited by Gittins presents only the negative. Individualism as letting people make their own decisions – about partners, careers, where and how they live etc – rather than having all these things arranged or dictated by convention is probably a positive for long-term well-being, as hypothesised by researchers in this field. Lives lived according to this conception of individualism, however, have risks less present in collectivist society. If you are less tightly bound to others, it follows logically that they are less tightly bound to you. Your social role is less guaranteed. You are more likely, for example, to suffer from marital breakdown just because your wife/husband likes someone else more or finds you boring or annoying – not valid reasons in collectivist societies. Such separations are a major cause of misery. And, as Seligman suggests in the quote above, when this happens you are falling from a greater height than in a collectivist society. So the conditions that create higher average happiness for the majority can leave a minority worse off – at least temporarily – than they may have been in a less individualistic society.

Similarly economic growth could have contrary effects. Increased wealth makes living alone more feasible – people don’t need the economies of scale of multi-person housholds as much, and women can afford to leave husbands they no longer enjoy. But economic growth also reduces unemployment, and as Bob Birrell’s research on partnering has shown, it is men with poor labour market performance who are missing out on partners – a double blow that surely contributes to depression.

I think Gittins is too pessimistic about the net effects of individualism and economic growth – on balance, they are both positives for well-being. But it is possible that hidden by the high averages are more people suffering from depression than in less individualistic times.


Written by Admin

February 22, 2006 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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