Friday, February 19, 2010

A Qualitative Analysis about Depression - Part 1

Currently anti-depressant medication is the most prescribed class of drug being taken by the American public outpacing drugs for heart conditions, cholesterol and even high blood pressure. The pertinent question then is what are people so depressed about, what in their lives is so bad that they have to take drugs to neutralize their ill feelings? Overall depression can arise from one of two causes, psychological or physiological, so the first order of business in this situation is to categorize the origin of the depression from these two avenues. Physiological mechanisms for depression will be discussed at a future time. This post will address psychological depression.

An initial mindset towards psychological depression is that it is self-induced. Such a statement makes rational sense because psychological depression occurs in those of sound mind, otherwise the depression is physiological (there is some form of abnormal brain function that induces depression). Therefore, regardless of whether or not the depression stems from general feelings or a particular event, it is in the control of the individual to neutralize any psychological depression. One of the big presumptions that foster depression is the present existence of obstacles that prevent individuals from undertaking tasks that promote happiness. Although at first glance such a statement seems to make perfect sense, many studies have been conducted which conclude that after a certain threshold point of annual earnings, usually $40,000 – $50,000, money no longer promotes happiness. Basically, more money does not increase happiness.

The interesting question is why exactly does money not seem to augment happiness to a more reasonable threshold of $500,000+? First things first, assume that these studies were not flawed in a way that eliminates their validity. An individual with greater financial resources can participate in a wider variety of opportunities allowing this individual a higher probability to engage in experiences that are fulfilling or rewarding. Basically, the individual has more choice. It seems rational to suggest that participation in fulfilling or rewarding experiences should increase the level of short-term happiness and possibly long-term happiness of an individual. So if more money increases the number of fulfilling or rewarding experiences one can undertake, why do studies contradict this basic reasonable conclusion?

One issue is the paralyzing nature of choice. When options are manageable, for instance 6 different types of computers, have the power of choice derived from wealth is a blessing. However, when possible options increase substantially, instead of 6 what if there were 34 different types of computers, then experts believe choice becomes a burden. One recalls the famous example of the donkey. A donkey is equal distance between two identical bales of hay. Without any distinguishing characteristics to dictate the decision making process, the donkey is unable to decide which bale to eat from and dies of starvation.

The sad fact of the matter is that the paralysis is silly. There is no difference between the bales, thus it does not matter which bale the donkey selects. The same goes for those with money. Money is a fantastic safety net in that even if an individual chooses poorly amongst all of the available options, that poor choice is better nullified by the remaining excess wealth that the individual possesses. So what if the millionaire purchases the wrong type of car, the purchase can simply be recorded as a failure, identify why and a new purchase of another car can be made that better fits the individual’s desires. Thus the problem is not money, but how people interact and view money.

Others would argue that the more financial resources an individual has the greater number of problems that person could come to experience as well. However, such a conclusion does not seem to hold water in that if an individual finds him/herself with more problems solely due to having more money it is the fault of that individual. For example there is no rule that an individual has to demonstrate a certain level of wealth through the purchase of a specific number of tangible elements or that character or personality automatically changes corresponding to a specific amount of wealth. In addition a person does not lose the ability to think rationally or decline certain opportunities after a certain level of financial worth is attained.

Realistically the only thing that really changes for certain in an individual's life with the acquisition of greater financial resources is the number of available opportunities and the level of personal freedom for that individual. That said, there is one problem that can be directly attributed to having excess capital, the appearance of individuals who intend to swindle or beg for money. However, despite this problem for the most part problems with ‘too much money’ arise from the fact that people make bad decisions with money. Whether or not bad decision-making should be considered when relating available capital to happiness is a question for the psychological experts, but how can money, an inanimate object with no ability to reason, be blamed for poor decisions. The fact is that even those bad decisions are muted in their severity for those with money as described above.

A possible counter-argument to the above analysis is that certain problems do not exist for an individual until reaching a certain minimum level of wealth. Some may relate such a statement to living longer because although in theory living longer is great, the longer one lives the greater the probability that certain degenerative neurological conditions arise, problems that tend not to exist for those of a younger age. These problems strip value from those additional years in that although living is better than not living, the additional years are not as joyful or productive as past years. However, such a comparison only works if one allows money to control one’s life. For example one does not need to change personality or behavior when acquiring greater wealth. An individual's personality and decision-making are the controllable and primary elements that determine the types of problems that arise due to the new found wealth unlike the currently uncontrollable degradation of telomeres and free-radical production which largely influence aging and the corresponding neurological conditions.

Now it is true that the probability that unscrupulous individuals seeking to acquire wealth through deceit or intimidation targeting a particular individual will increase with increasing financial wealth. Unfortunately such things may occur even if the individual does not change his/her behavior, but these events are unlikely and there are steps to protect from and remedy these situations. For instance if one does not flaunt wealth then the probability that these unscrupulous individuals will accost that individual will be quite low. In addition, there are legal steps that can be taken to eliminate these individuals from continuing their actions. If one desires the simplicity of life before an excess amount of money there are steps that can be taken to solve this problem as well such as donating money to a worthy charity or giving some money to close hard-working friends and associates of less financial means. Overall with all other elements remaining equal, if an individual is not being harassed or stalked then the total happiness of that individual should increase with increasing available wealth over a much higher rate than simply 40,000 dollars.

If there is a group that has reason to be depressed it is those that are impoverished. Such a lack of basic funds severely restricts the ability to overcome certain obstacles blocking positive experiences. It is these groups that better appreciate the obstacles that wealth can breakdown. Perhaps the upper-middle class and rich can learn a thing or two from that mindset. What can be done about improving happiness for these individuals? The best way is to ensure that they have a level of hope that things can get better. Basically ensure a path exists for these individuals that can be followed which will improve their lives.

Although the specifics of the biological/physiological will be left for another time, it must be mentioned that the problem of depression cannot be solely limited to a biological problem in that if certain genes facilitate depression a person with those expression patters is doomed to depression. As conscious beings with the ability to make choices in our lives, genes can only predispose certain types of action or behavior, but they cannot force action; it is the individual that consciously commits a given action. For instance an individual's genetic structure may predispose that individual to becoming an alcoholic, but it does not drive an individual to consume those first initial alcoholic beverages that could trigger alcoholism. Therefore, in addition to treating the symptoms of depression with pharmaceuticals, not surprisingly it would also be wise for an individual to place him/herself in situations that are not depressing.

Another significant driving force behind depression may be the human sense of the void and the expansiveness of time and the universe itself. At a conscious or subconscious level an individual may embrace an existentialist philosophy where nothing that is accomplished has any lasting meaning in the context of the universe or time itself because the accomplishment is small and finite. This philosophy strips joy from any type of accomplishment because if time is going to eventually destroy the accomplishment and all that benefit or remember it, why accomplish anything that is not essential to survival? Interestingly enough this existentialist philosophy realistically only affects those without real talent to accomplish anything (defense mechanism for inadequacy) or those who do not care about their place in society. Those that find their identity through comparison against others look to accomplish as much as possible to bolster their self-worth, so the ephemeral nature of accomplishment is lost on those people, ironically this may be the only positive attribute of such a shallow mindset.

Although it is true that time acts as the greater eraser the purpose of accomplishment is to provide meaning in the short-term, not the long-term. A simpler way for those with these existentialist beliefs to think about accomplishment is to return to a simple cost-benefit analysis asking the question: is the short-term gain for the individual and society worth the investment? Therefore, although the accomplishment may not last forever it still has meaning and is worth the time the individual puts into it.

In the end non-physiological depression is largely self-induced because individuals do not know how to or choose to not be depressed. Regardless of what empirical studies may report, the inability of money to directly augment happiness past a certain threshold value can largely be attributed to inefficient use and handling of said money by the individual, instead of the money itself. Overall every individual of sound mind has a state of contentment, if not happiness, that is achievable without significant access to resources. Although it can be interpreted that the last sentence was pulled from a kooky self-help book, it really is true that there are scenarios where an individual can find happiness regardless of their current environment. The appropriate strategy seems rather cliché, but individuals should aim to put themselves in good situations as much as possible without detriment to others and learn as much as possible from bad situations in order to avoid future bad situations and terminate current ones as fast as possible.

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