Posted by: keherenf | October 26, 2007

The Link Between Culture and Depression

Contemporary psychology tends to look at psychological disorders in terms of the biopsychosocial model. This model suggests that for a psychological abnormality, there are biological, psychological, and social factors that interplay with each other. Some disorders weigh more heavily in one area than the other. For example, schizophrenia has a very high biological basis, while eating disorders weigh heavier on the societal component.

So where does depression fit in? Depression is a huge problem in the world, and studies show that in industrialized nations the rate of depression has continually increased since post World War II. But why?

It is clear that there is a true biological basis for depression. Those who are depressed do not receive enough serotonin, a neurotransmitter which affect the mood. This affects the part of the brain that also controls sleep, sexual desire, and appetite. Thus, scientists have found that people all over the world who are affected by depression experience the somatic effects of depression; typically an increase in sleep, a decrease in sexual desire, and a decrease in appetite.

There is also some pretty clear uniformity to the psychological aspect of depression. Many of those who suffer from depression experienced some traumatic event or environment that triggers the depressive state. This is globally observed of those affected by depression.

It is in the societal faction that there are extreme differences. In Western countries, depression has people feel “blue”, sad, and even suicidal. Depression includes negative thoughts and perceptions, and general pessimism. This is something unique to Western cultures. In fact, the more Westernized a culture becomes, the more likely they are to start exhibiting the “blues” side of depression.

So why is this the case? There are many theories, but one theory by psychologist Martin Seligman seems especially compelling. He began by looking at two communities: the Amish in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and those who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. The Amish are a very communal group, whereas their Baltimore neighbors tend to follow the typical American capitalistic lifestyle. Through observing these two groups, Seligman attempted to determine whether depression was any different between the two.

His findings were rather interesting. Both groups had nearly identical rates of bipolar disease…a psychological abnormality that is highly genetic, showing that no group is immune to inheritable psychological abnormalities. But, while Baltimore held the average rates of depression in the US, the Amish had not one person with depression.

To explain his findings, Seligman described four historical components that have led to the rise in depression, which ultimately derives from the shift of the common good to the self:

1.  “Personalized” mass production– the idea that instead of having identical possessions, people have the option to customize these possessions to glorify the self as a status symbol. For example, while many people have cars, some cars symbolize much more power and wealth than others.

2.  General prosperity- Since World War II, Americans have enjoyed much more prosperity. This further fuels the desire to acquire more and more, and increases the pressure to acquire as much wealth as possible.

3. Assasination of public leaders- Most notably, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy marked a dramatic decrease in the American population’s sense of trust in the government and people in general. Because JFK was murdered by an American rather than a terrorist, historians have marked this event as acting as a catalyst for severe distrust in fellow Americans, breaking down the sense of accountability to the community.

4. Loss of faith in God and family- Before World War II, divorce was unheard of. However, after this time period each subsequent generation saw a rise in divorce rates. This produced a generation of “latchkey” kids, that is, kids who had their own key to let themselves in the home because they lived with a single parent and/or both parents worked. This shift in family structure changed the notion of faith in God and family.

Collectively, the combination of these factors led to an overall increase in the importance of “self” and led to a decrease in commitment to social institutions. Seligman describes this as the shift from the “New England Self” to the “California Self”.

The “New England Self” represents a minimal sense of self, seen most often pre- World War II. In this model, people felt a strong commitment to their family and their country, and put this commitment above their own personal pleasure. Therefore, people stayed married even if unhappy because they felt they had a stronger duty to the institution of family and their children than their own personal pleasure. Homes were much more stable as people did not put emphasis on feelings, but rather on a sense of duty. Because of this, rates of depression were incredibly low. Very few got the “blues” and laid in bed all day, because that would violate the duty to the family. Therefore, if someone felt the “blues”, they still got up, went to work, and remained faithful to the family.

Over time, this model shifted to the “California self”. With increased liberation, society started to tell Americans that personal pleasure and satisfaction should dominate everything. It encouraged people to “find themselves” and to base life solely around what makes the person happy. It is very emotional and feeling based, and puts a minimal amount of weight on personal commitments to other people, to the family, and to social institutions.  He claimed that because of this overwhelming dependence on satisfying the self, rates of depression have continued to skyrocket. He further supported this idea by showing how cognitive (thinking) therapies are often the most effective for depression.

With all of this in mind, Seligman proposed that in order to lower depression in American society, one can still focus on individualism and the self as long as they also have larger institutions to fall back on (family, religion, etc). Otherwise, if there is no buffer between beliefs and the self, the person will eventually have feelings of hopelessness and despair, because they will be too easily unsatisfied.

Although this theory is rather impossible to “prove” right or wrong, it is evident that there is a clear difference in depression in the US and every other part in the world. Undeniably, there exists cultural factors unique to America that contributes to such huge depression rates. Not only is it an emotional burden, but on a larger scale depression is a huge economic burden, contributing to missed days at work and large health care costs. Perhaps to alleviate this problem we should not only look at the biology involved, but the cultural factors that keep pushing people into this downward spiral.



  1. very interesting, i liked this article a lot…super informative and makes a lot of sense as to the source of most americans depression

  2. I think some very interesting points were made in this article…especially the transition society has made from group to individual or from we to me. Focusing on just the self might bring out too much emotion for one person to deal with. Perhaps the group mentality helped distribute one’s emotion better to prevent it from being with just one person. I wonder if that is just happening in America. Why does it seem like depression exists overwhelmingly in America? Is it because America was on the of the first to recognize and diagnose and start treating it? Or is it characteristics of our culture that make us more vulnerable for it? What role does depression play in other cultures? Is it an illness that is diagnosed and treated or is it a mood that comes then goes? Is the perception of depression actually the cause of depression in America? I don’t need to ask too many questions, but your article is very intriguing to me and got me thinking. I would love to hear your response. Also, if you don’t mind, there is one more question…What inspired you to write this article?

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