Men’s Health Magazine recently released a survey of America’s most depressed cities. “Criteria for the rankings included information on antidepressant sales from NDC Health, suicide rates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and information from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.”
Seattle received a “D”. As in, “D-pressed”.
Of course, there are a few things one might tick off about life in the Northwest that tend to make folks depressed: excessive rain (at least most years; this season we’ve had about 20% of our normal rainfall, and thinking of the drought-stricken summer ahead just makes me more depressed), a sluggish economy, ridiculous housing prices despite the aforementioned sluggish economy, traffic congestion, etc.
But local talk-radio host Dori Monson thinks he has unearthed the real reason that Seattleites are depressed, namely, our bent toward liberal politics, combined with the fact that Seattle has one of the lowest levels of church attendance in America.
This is not the first time this has come up on the air. About a year ago Michael Medved was crowing about the 1998–2002 NORC General Social Survey showing that extreme convservatives report being “very happy” in much higher numbers than extreme liberals.
The conclusion being drawn here, of course, is that we godless liberals are too busy whining about the state of the world to relax and enjoy life like rational adults.
I am perhaps not the best person to tackle this issue dispassionately since I am, in fact, prone to depression. But I think I speak for a lot of liberals when I say that I am neither surprised nor disappointed that I lag behind extreme conservatives (whatever “extreme conservative” means—I’ve got a picture in my mind of a fat white guy in a business suit bungee jumping off a bridge somewhere in New Zealand) in the happiness department.
In pondering this deficit, two old sayings come to mind: “Ignorance is bliss” and “If you’re not angry, then you haven’t been paying attention”.
Take current events, just for example. An “extreme conservative” might find our nation’s path since September 11 to be the just and, dare I say, righteous one. He might support our efforts in the War On Terror. (Why is it “Terror” rather than “Terrorism” or “Terrorists”? How can we wage war against an emotion? Criminy, we have yet to force even a holding action in the War on Drugs, despite the fact that drugs, unlike terror, actually occupy physical space in the universe.) He might stand firmly behind the USA PATRIOT Act. He might applaud the invasion of Iraq—hell, he might be among the third of Americans who believed back in 2003 that our troops had actually discovered weapons of mass destruction there (not sure how many remain that staggeringly uninformed). He might believe that exporting “terror suspects” to countries that have no laws against torture for their interrogation is not only acceptable during a time of war, but in fact no big deal.
To him I say, mazel tov. I’m happy you’re happy. But I don’t share your happiness.
If we liberals are guilty of “sabotaging” our own happiness, I think it’s because we tend to try to see things from too many angles. A can of tuna can simultaneously represent a tasty sandwich, a drowning dolphin, a fisherman’s livelihood, a dose of mercury and a startlingly high representative sample of rat feces, all in one six-ounce container. There’s something to be said for the mellowing effect of obliviousness. Though there isn’t much data to suggest that higher levels of education or intelligence affect happiness either way, one can imagine that simply being unaware of the turmoil around you would tend to lighten the load a bit. Facing your own problems can be problematic enough, without adding the weight of the world to your shoulders.
As foibles go, thinking too much about cause and effect goes somewhere after failing to pressure-wash our front steps once a year on my list of Unforgivable Character Flaws. I’m not going to feel bad about not feeling great about the state of the world. And I’m sure as hell not going to feel guilty about it.
Upon further reflection, I’m not at all certain that what we’re talking about here is actual “happiness” per se. Politics aside, is anyone really simply thrilled at the way everything in their lives—from their last dental checkup to the value of the dollar—is going? Where are the lines drawn? Do conservatives dislike fewer things in life than liberals, or do they just assign different things higher levels of priority on the love/hate scale? If you love your family but hate your job, are you happy? How about if you hate your job, love your new car, like your Congressman, feel indifferent toward your spouse and actively despise one of your three children?
I think what we’re talking about is more like complacency, or at best contentment. You can be complacent regarding your problems, you can be content with what you have, and still not be “very happy”.
The church part, on the other hand, is hard to argue with. Nothing has really grown to fill the void in people’s lives left by the decline in participation in organized religion, which is too bad because a certain sense of community has definitely been lost in the process. And to be certain, there’s nothing like knowing that God loves you to give your life a sense of purpose. I think even the most devoutly religious among us would admit that, in an epistemological pissing match, pulling the “well, I’m cherished by the Supreme Creator of the Universe!” card is kind of cheating.
On the other hand, I think that the question of one’s spiritual underpinnings is too important to be influenced by—or subsumed in—one’s craving for feelings of self-worth. It’s one thing to decide that you feel good about Life, The Universe And Everything because you have a deep and abiding belief in the Almighty. It’s another thing entirely to strive to believe in the latter in an effort to improve your outlook on the former. Personally, I would feel like a complete horse’s ass attending an institution dedicated to something in which I have no inherent belief, just so I could enjoy the benefits of a ready-made emotional support structure.
Basically, I think that concepts such as “happy” and “depressed” are far too complex and multi-dimensional to be easily interpreted through as myopic a medium as a social survey, much less conservative Talk Radio.
And, though I tend to be dissatisfied with my level of complacency, I’m content being unhappy. 😐