The three components of happiness
In the How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky compares the three sources of happiness to a pie with three slices. These include our genetic "set point," our life situation or environment, and our intentional activities.
The essential idea is that our "intentional activities," that is, the way we choose to think and act, can have a significant impact on our happiness. We can't do much about our genetic makeup, and changes in our external situation don't affect us as much as we suppose.
A rapidly growing quantity of scientific studies from the social and natural sciences supports this view, that our happiness is not "fixed" and that what we think and do can make a great difference.
To take two simple examples, many rigorous studies indicate that regular exercise, as well as random, but fairly frequent acts of kindness, have an enduring impact on our mood.
We don't know exactly how big this slice of the pie is, but let's call it "life skills." I prefer to use the term "life skills," instead of "intentional activities," as many intentional activities, for example, eating doughnuts for breakfast, can, on the contrary, lead to unhappiness. On top of that, the concept of "life skills" includes the idea of habits that we can cultivate. Habits that are carefully cultivated have a much greater impact on our happiness than occasional actions.
The depression epidemic
The depression epidemic is not, as some claim, a myth originating from the fact that we now have more accurate measures of depression. We have specific measures indicating an accelerating, global increase in depression rates over the last half century.
20% of children in the US now experience a major depressive episode before leaving school.(1) The silent epidemic of depression has been declared a global emergency by the United Nations.(2) The effects of this epidemic are widespread. Depressed children have a higher risk of drug addiction. In the U.S. the number of youth dying from drug addiction now exceeds the total number of deaths from gunshot wounds or car accidents.(3)
The perfect storm: multiple causes of the depression epidemic
The depression epidemic does not have a specific cause that we can point to. It appears to be the result of a "perfect storm," a convergence of multiple conditions, including:
1. The disintegration of traditional social structures and communities, especially through industrialisation. This gradual disintegration has resulted in greater isolation and loneliness. In his groundbreaking book, Bowling Alone, a carefully documented classic relying on volumes of statistical data, Robert Putman shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, and neighbors.
2. Changes in modes of communication. Following the physical upheaval of urbanization, the world has been swept by a tidal wave of electronic innovation. Many children have become heavily dependent on electronic means of communication and entertainment such as social media, TV and computer gaming. This has had a profound impact on the frequency and depth of face to face interaction. They are sadly unaware that the exchange of pixels on a screen cannot replace the multi-dimensional nature of unmediated face to face communication involving body language, tone of voice, physical contact, etc.
As a result of these differences, though they may be extremely useful and entertaining, modern electronic media are playing a major role in the impoverishment of relationships, especially if they result in dependency. Though we are still exploring the relationship, a strong correlation exists between depth of depression and time spent on social media, watching TV and especially gaming.(5)
The graph above indicates an alarming rise in depression among US youth during the period 2004–2015 (left). The sharp rise from 2011 coincides with the birth and rapid growth of smartphone usage during the same period. While this does not prove a cause effect relationship, it would seem to reinforce an urgent need to closely examine the impact of smartphone usage on the communication skills and psychological wellbeing of young people.
3. Changes in Diet. Evidence is accumulating from many sources showing that consumption of processed foods, which mostly contain a serious imbalance of omega fats, large quantities of sugar, and a lack of fermented ingredients, contributes to the rise in depression and various mental disorders. Fermentation has become a focus of attention due to the discovery of a "gut-brain axis." Certain strains of bacteria found in the human gut stimulate the production of neurotransmitters essential to our mental wellbeing, including GABA, serotonin, and BDNF. (4)
4. The intensely competitive nature of commercial and educational institutions among industrialized nations. Korea, Japan, China, and to a growing degree, Western nations, are experiencing an exponential rise in youth depression. Two leading factors are lack of personal autonomy and acute stress, catalyzed by pressure from parents and society to succeed academically. Secondary schools are now largely focused on exam-centered curricula. These curricula are specifically designed for success in the race for university entrance, and marked by a lack of content related to life skills, social-emotional learning, and wellbeing in general.
Life skills: the elephant in the room
In order to combat the rapid rise in depression resulting from the "perfect storm" described above, modern institutions have emphasized the need for two modes of treatment, the consumption of psychopharmaceuticals, and psychotherapy. These two strategies can be effective if applied with great care (in view of "black box" warnings for adolescents and children in the case of antidepressants) and expertise. The vast majority of children around the world, including the United States, do not have access to these costly and labor intensive solutions.
We have ignored the elephant in the room, life skills, which are a major piece of the "happiness pie," and essential as a long term, prevention strategy. After all, wasn't the acquirement of life skills one of the central purposes of education, as conceived both in the East and West, by Confucius and Socrates? Modern education seems to have lost its sense of priorities.
In the physiological realm, we have slowly come round to the realization that prevention is the most effective means of lowering the incidence of many serious ailments such as diabetes and heart disease. Yet the expression "depression prevention" is hardly part of our vocabulary, let alone a key strategy in dealing with the closely linked epidemics of depression and drug abuse. Not one sentence in the recently released call to action of the White House Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission mentions long-term strategy, let alone depression prevention. Is this a blind spot of modern materialism, that we do not ascribe the same urgency to invisible, as opposed to physical, forms of suffering?
Disaster control is not enough to fight depression. We need to turn our attention to preventive strategies. We need to teach life skills in schools, employing adaptable curricula that are based on a rapidly unfolding body of scientific evidence. These curricula should be sensitive to cultural values, which are rapidly disappearing in this age of cultural homogenization. This sensitivity would enhance their effectiveness, as remarkable areas of resonance exist between ancient wisdom and the modern science of wellbeing .
Finally, we need to begin early. The younger the better. The teaching of life skills is one of the only ways we can slow down and perhaps stop the silent epidemic, which is taking such a great toll in human suffering, among children and adults.