Category Archives: Depression

How Hard is Life? Here’s What the Numbers Say

Scott Alexander just wrote one of the more important posts I’ve read this year (HT Tyler Cowen).

Please do read the full post.

After Scott gave qualitative information about human suffering in America, he ran some numbers to come up with what a random sample of 20 Americans might be dealing with.

Here’s what he came up with (NP = no problem in terms of the narrow ailments he ran):

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In sum, only 9 out of 20 Americans have escaped some combination of chronic pain, alcoholism, sexual abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and depression.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that these people can’t lead happy and meaningful lives (I personnaly am very close with three alcoholics who have kicked drinking and are thriving).

But this is also a narrow list of ailments: I could think of numerous other sufferings that could make life very, very difficult.

A few takeaways, most of which are pretty obvious:

  1. Things were probably harder back in the day. This seems to definitely be true during the agriculture and early industrial ages, and was probably true in the hunter and gather age as well.
  2. The United States is amongst the richest nations in the world. It also has fairly high levels of happiness and meaning rates. So if the numbers are grim here, they are most likely worse for much of the world.
  3. So while things are indeed better, they are not amazing. Declaring that things are amazing is ignorant at best and destructive at worst, as the policy regime for “things are amazing” is likely to be different than the policy regime for “things are still pretty tough for a lot of people.”
  4. Of course, humans brains were not evolved to be happiness machines, so suffering will always be with us so long as we retain our humanness. But I hope there doesn’t need to be this much suffering.

It is interesting to think about what this might mean for education.

I’ll try to tackle that in a later post.

Explain the Correlation: National Happiness Rates and Anti-Depressant Use

I found the following interesting: the happiest countries in the world take the most anti-depressants.

Top 10 Countries Ranked by Self-Reported Happiness Surveys 

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OECD Countries with Most Anti-Depressant Use (ranked from least to most)

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Possible Explanations

1. Nothing to see here: it’s just a random correlation.

2. Anti-depressant use is correlated with something else that makes societies happy: More societal awareness and openness of mental well-being? Better healthcare systems? More trust between citizens? Wealth?

3. Anti-depressant use has a multiplier effect: If emotions are “contagious” – perhaps helping relieve the mental suffering of people who struggle with depression not only helps these people but those around them – and so on.

4. Happiness surveys are meaningless: Different cultures respond differently; scale rankings don’t tell us much about objective emotions; etc – so we should be very hesitant in using survey data to draw causation to anything.

5. High ratings of happiness increase depression: You could imagine a happiness status / inequality effect, whereby, due to social comparisons, sad people in really happy countries feel worse than sad people in moderately happy countries.

Related, Speculative Thoughts

Between now and the time the robots take over, how to mentally thrive in material abundance may end up being the major issue for most of humanity. Of course, global poverty is still a massive, massive problem, but that could end over the next couple hundred of years.

If it does, the chief concern of humanity may move from material well-being to mental well-being.

My instinct is that the science of positive psychology will continue to illuminate the foundations of meaning and happiness, but there will be genetic limits to what we can achieve.

At that point, the effectiveness of mental drugs may be the only source for increased meaning and happiness.

As such, in three hundred years, it would not shock me if there exists high levels of causation between mental drug use and happiness.