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How we learned to stop having fun

Barbara Ehrenreich, The Guardian
We used to know how to get together and really let our hair down. Then, in the early 1600s, a mass epidemic of depression broke out – and we’ve been living with it ever since. Something went wrong, but what? Barbara Ehrenreich unpicks the causes of our unhappiness
Beginning in England in the 17th century, the European world was stricken by what looks, in today’s terms, like an epidemic of depression. The disease attacked both young and old, plunging them into months or years of morbid lethargy and relentless terrors…

…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].” The flip side of the heroic autonomy that is said to represent one of the great achievements of the early modern and modern eras is radical isolation and, with it, depression and sometimes death.

But the new kind of personality that arose in 16th- and 17th-century Europe was by no means as autonomous and self-defining as claimed. For far from being detached from the immedithe newly self-centered individual is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others and his or her own success in meeting them: “How am I doing?” this supposedly autonomous “self” wants to know. “What kind of an impression am I making?”

…So if we are looking for a common source of depression on the one hand, and the suppression of festivities on the other, it is not hard to find. Urbanisation and the rise of a competitive, market-based economy favoured a more anxious and isolated sort of person – potentially both prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures. Calvinism provided a transcendent rationale for this shift, intensifying the isolation and practically institutionalising depression as a stage in the quest for salvation. At the level of “deep, underlying psychological change”, both depression and the destruction of festivities could be described as seemingly inevitable consequences of the broad process known as modernisation. But could there also be a more straightforward link, a way in which the death of carnival contributed directly to the epidemic of depression?

It may be that in abandoning their traditional festivities, people lost a potentially effective cure for it.

…Burton, Browne and Smith were not the only ones to propose festivity as a cure for melancholy, and there is reason to believe that whether through guesswork, nostalgia, or personal experience, they were on to something important. I know of no attempts in our own time to use festive behaviour as treatment for depression, if such an experiment is even thinkable in a modern clinical setting. There is, however, an abundance of evidence that communal pleasures have served, in a variety of cultures, as a way of alleviating and even curing depression.

…We cannot be absolutely sure in any of these cases – from 17th-century England to 20th-century Somalia – that festivities and danced rituals actually cured the disease we know as depression. But there are reasons to think that they might have. First, because such rituals serve to break down the sufferer’s sense of isolation and reconnect him or her with the human community. Second, because they encourage the experience of self-loss – that is, a release, however temporary, from the prison of the self, or at least from the anxious business of evaluating how one stands in the group or in the eyes of an ever-critical God. Friedrich Nietzsche, as lonely and tormented an individual as the 19th century produced, understood the therapeutics of ecstasy perhaps better than anyone else. At a time of almost universal celebration of the “self”, he alone dared speak of the “horror of individual existence”, and glimpsed relief in the ancient Dionysian rituals that he knew of only from reading classics – rituals in which, he imagined, “each individual becomes not only reconciled to his fellow but actually at one with him”.

The immense tragedy for Europeans, and most acutely for the northern Protestants among them, was that the same social forces that disposed them to depression also swept away a traditional cure. They could congratulate themselves for brilliant achievements in the areas of science, exploration and industry, and even convince themselves that they had not, like Faust, had to sell their souls to the devil in exchange for these accomplishments. But with the suppression of festivities that accompanied modern European “progress”, they had done something perhaps far more damaging: they had completed the demonisation of Dionysus begun by Christians centuries ago, and thereby rejected one of the most ancient sources of help – the mind-preserving, life-saving techniques of ecstasy.

This is an edited extract from Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich, published by Granta.
(2 April 2007)
A number of people have had similar thoughts:
Bill McKibben: Happiness and the deep economy
Avner Offner: The Challenge of Affluence
John Michael Greer: Faustus and the monkey trap and This faith in progress

Wouldn’t this be an underlying reason for our addictions to consumption, oil and energy in general? If the current way of life intrinsically enourages depression and unhappiness, then no amount of energy will ever satisfy us. -BA

Projecting Population, Fertility and HIV/AIDS

Staff, Worldchanging
By 2050, the world’s population is projected to increase from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion, according to a just-released United Nations (UN) assessment.

Declining fertility rates and increased longevity will lead to an aging population, the UN predicts in World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, which offers high, medium, and low projections of population change in each country. The projections are made with the assumption that fertility will continue to decline in the developing world and that efforts to both treat AIDS patients and prevent the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) will expand. ..

The UN projections also assume there will be a major increase in the proportion of AIDS patients who receive antiretroviral therapy, as well as growing success in slowing the spread of HIV. It is assumed that, by 2015, 31 of the most AIDS-affected countries will manage to provide antiretroviral treatment to at least 70 percent of those infected with HIV in each country. In countries less affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, treatment levels are expected to reach only 40 to 50 percent of those infected by 2015. Demographers also assume that patients receiving treatment will survive 17.5 years instead of the 10 years expected for untreated patients, a measure of the effectiveness of antiretroviral therapy in prolonging life.

“The big news of this report is that the international commitment to treat people with HIV/AIDS in developing countries has been successful enough that demographers have revised upward their estimates of average life expectancy in places like sub-Saharan Africa,” says population expert and Worldwatch Institute vice president Robert Engelman. “But governments will have to invest significantly in family planning programs for even the medium projection to be realized.”
(2 Apr 2007)

In BC, Life Begins At 30

Clark Williams-Derry, Sightline
BC birth rates - under vs. over 30 - 350 Here’s an interesting factoid from north of the 49th parallel: in British Columbia, birth rates for women over 30 recently overtook birth rates for women under 30. Behold, the pink line overtakes the blue!

Historically speaking, this is beyond weird: women under 30 had always been the more fertile demographic group. Always. But no longer. In fact, if current trends continue, births to women over 40 may soon outnumber births to teens. Teen births in the province have fallen an astonishing 89 percent since their baby-boom peak, and are still falling; while births to 40-somethings are steadily rising.

And while I haven’t looked at this more broadly, I’d bet that BC’s fertility patterns are similar to a number of wealthy European nations, and possibly Japan’s as well. The trends are all comparable in the US Northwest, but 20-somethings south of the 49th are still way more fertile than 30-somethings.
(27 March 2007)