Lifestyle as a Cause of Depression

In its August/September edition, one of my favorite magazines, Scientific American Mind, published an intriguing article (“Depressingly Easy”) suggesting that a major cause of depression concerns individuals’ lifestyles. The author, Kelly Lambert (also author of the book “Lifting depression: A neuroscientist’s hands-on approach to activating your brain’s healing power,” from which the article is based), suggests that many of our current mental health problems stem from a disconnect between how our brains are designed to receive enjoyment and our current quick-fix, fast-pace lifestyles. Specifically, she suggests that our brains are designed to benefit from “effort-driven rewards” that stimulate a particular part of the brain involved in pleasure. So, whereas in the past, people benefited both from anticipation and satisfaction of the completion of hard work (such as gardening, hunting, making our own clothes, preparing our own food from scratch, and walking or biking to a destination), nowadays we simply buy what we need and use technology to speed processes along. Because of this, we have lost much of the anticipation that comes from the completion of a project as well as the satisfaction that only comes when we are personally responsible for it. This may take much of the enjoyment out of our lives. (Compare this with the Amish, who experience hardly any depression as a community.)

Although society is not going to return completely to the days of “Little House on the Prairie,” it does seem possible for individuals to have a portion of their lives devoted to projects for which they are personally responsible. Of course, the primary reason against implementing such advice is that there is “no time” to do so. Thus, to achieve better mental health, individuals may need to consider their lifestyles and how they really want to spend their time. Time frenzy is, I believe, one of the major underpinnings of unhappiness in our culture, as I wrote in an earlier post. Achieving true happiness may require a counter-cultural commitment to carve out time for one’s self and personal projects of interest that require hard work.

I also think that many of us have “forgotten” how to enjoy efforts of our labor. Thus, it may be helpful to share ideas for doing so. I have, for the last couple of months, made an effort to go to our local farmer’s market on Saturday mornings to buy whatever looks most best. Then, I go home and find a dinner recipe that makes use of such food. Sometime during the weekend, then, I prepare dinner, often with the help of my kids, and we enjoy dinner together as a family. For example, last weekend, I made a pasta dish with fresh tomatoes and garlic croutons. My 2-year-old daughter, Annika, had a blast putting olive oil on the french bread that was to become the croutons. My 4-year-old, Ellie, helped me to cut up the tomatoes. And, the result was delicious! The pleasure, though, was not just in the food, but in the entire process of selecting the food and recipe and in the preparation with my kids.

I welcome comments with other specific suggestions for how to better enjoy “effort-driven rewards” in the context of our everyday lifes and current cultural environment, or other ideas that people have about this topic.

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