The Null Device

How we learned to stop having fun

The Guardian has an excerpt from a recent book by Barbara Ehrenreich, which postulates that the rise of subjective individual self-awareness and the decline of the collective celebrations common in mediæval times may have touched off an epidemic of depression we've been living in ever since:
And very likely the phenomena of this early "epidemic of depression" and the suppression of communal rituals and festivities are entangled in various ways. It could be, for example, that, as a result of their illness, depressed individuals lost their taste for communal festivities and even came to view them with revulsion. But there are other possibilities. First, that both the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to depression.
One approaches the subject of "deeper, underlying psychological change" with some trepidation, but fortunately, in this case, many respected scholars have already visited this difficult terrain. "Historians of European culture are in substantial agreement," Lionel Trilling wrote in 1972, "that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place." This change has been called the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the inner self and since it can be assumed that all people, in all historical periods, have some sense of selfhood and capacity for subjective reflection, we are really talking about an intensification, and a fairly drastic one, of the universal human capacity to face the world as an autonomous "I", separate from, and largely distrustful of, "them".
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 immediate human environment, the 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?"
If this hypothesis is correct, then the epidemic of depression and mental illness that began in the 1600s (which Ehrenreich provides supporting evidence for, in historical records) is a side-effect of a step in the evolution of human psychology that began at around that time, with the pressures of communication, trade and social organisation dragging the human mind kicking and screaming from a sleepy collective life to a more dynamic way of living. In this case, a lot of the anxiety, angst and low-level distress people feel routinely is not a result of human nature, but rather human nature reacting against "unnatural" circumstances. Small wonder that many have sought relief in an annihilation of the self, from hippie communes to Communist utopias, from meditation to severe religious submission, from the Arcadian pastoral utopias throughout art (Tolkien, William Morris and the Arcade Fire to name three examples off the top of my head) to the transcendental nihilism of drugs (take, for example, Lou Reed wishing he had been born "a thousand years ago" in Heroin).

So where does that leave us? Perhaps, given enough time (hundreds if not thousands of years), human psychology will evolve into depression-resistant directions, assuming that some kind of technological catastrophe doesn't cut the process short. Genetic evolution is slow, but cultural evolution is faster, and it could be argued that our technologies and cultural institutions are part of the "extended phenotype" of humanity; that the invention of antidepressant drugs is an adaptation to these changes in our environment. It's a crude, reactionary adaptation, merely treating the symptoms; though there is hope on the horizon. There has recently been a lot of focus on the study of the psychology of happiness, and what factors make for environments conducive to sustainable happiness. With any luck, this will lead to improvements in areas from urban planning to social policy to economics.

Then again, if the hypothesis is true, would it be possible to somehow get the best of both worlds? Could one have the happy, fulfilling collective connectedness people (allegedly) had before the 16th century, whilst retaining the gains made since then? Or is the very presence of subjective thought, the demarcation between the self and the collective, poisonous?

(On the other hand, L. Ron Hubbard claims that depression comes from humanity's early ancestor, the clam, and the tension between the desire to open and close its hinge.)

There are 2 comments on "How we learned to stop having fun":

Posted by: Greg Thu Apr 5 22:55:50 2007

It's an interesting idea, but it rests heavily on the premise that an epidemic of depression started at some point in history. The evidence for this is not iron-clad. The same premise, that depression is a modern phenomenon, has been used to propose other causes of depression, from industrialization to cities to diet. An alternative view is that depression, like all emotions, is a naturally selected adaptation, found in all cultures and times, designed to produce appropriate behaviour in particular circumstances. When an individual suffers a large drop in social status which is likely to be permanent, they experience depression, causing them to curb their ambition, yield to dominants, and avoid further attack (

Posted by: acb Fri Apr 6 00:16:19 2007

The rank theory of depression as an evolutionary adaptation makes sense, and it's quite likely that depression occurred throughout the history of humanity and social creatures. Though the suggestion then is: what if the rise of subjectivity caused an increase in the occurrence of depression, beyond that explicable by normal changes of social status? This could tie in with the rank theory, with the constant awareness of others' perception of oneself providing constant low-level challenges to subjective social status.

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