Why America is depressed

Parents these days withhold their approval in order to motivate their children to do better.

March 2, 2010 21:34

SHMULEY BOTEACH. (photo credit: courtesy)


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The world’s most prosperous nation is also its most depressed. According to The Washington Post, America consumes three quarters of the planet’s anti-depressants, with one out of three women popping Prozac, Zoloft or Paxil. What makes the phenomenon even more curious is the recent study, published as a Newsweek cover story, which suggested that anti-depressants are no more effective than a placebo.

How could a nation of such wealth foster such desperate unhappiness? The question is compounded by the fact that this republic was founded as articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, as a place where “the pursuit of happiness” was paramount. By that count, America, for all its other successes, has ultimately failed.

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I believe the two are intertwined –  that the very mechanism that has made America so rich has also made Americans so miserable.

WHAT EVERYONE most wants is to be special. No one is born feeling ordinary. We all believe there is something about us that makes us different, that makes us irreplaceable, unique. Most of our lives are dedicated to proving that uniqueness. Whether it’s by getting an A in algebra or winning a race or getting into Harvard or being hired by a top law firm, our pursuits are designed to give substance to our feeling of  uniqueness. We all want to be a success because success proves we are not (and never have been) ordinary. Our successes make us stand out.

But specialness-through-success must always be balanced by specialness-through-being-loved. In other words, your parents don’t think you’re special because you aced the SAT. They think you’re special because you’re their child; for them, you don’t have to work at being extraordinary. In their eyes, you were born exceptional. No matter how unsightly your doodling with crayons, your parents still put them up on the refrigerator. And no matter how disruptive the math teacher says you are in class, your parents  still tuck you in at night, read you a story, and tell you how much they love you. The message is that there is no one in the world like you. You are given love as a free gift.

Later, this feeling of acceptance and specialness will continue as you are embraced by friends and community. It constitutes the principal reason why we Jews make a big deal of a bar or bat mitzva. We’re telling our adolescents that there is a community of which they are a part that embraces them simply because they are coming of age. This corroboration of specialness-through-love will culminate when a complete stranger chooses to devote him or herself to you unconditionally as your spouse.


This past weekend I had to be rushed to hospital for emergency gall bladder surgery. My wife had to witness me in all my ugliness, from screaming in pain to losing any vestige of personal hygiene. Yet there she was, comforting me and doing her darndest to make the pain go away.

The message behind all these actions is that you are special. There’s nothing you have to do to become that way. It’s your birthright. No person is ordinary.

BUT IN America, prosperity came about through precisely the opposite message. You’re not born special, but only become unique through achievement and acquisition. Hard work, financial rewards, a big house, elected office – these are what really make you count. Love is not something given freely. Rather, it is something earned.

Michael Jackson summed it up best when he told me: “I think all my success and fame, I have wanted it because I wanted to be loved. That’s all. That’s the real truth. I wanted people to love me, truly love me, because I never really felt loved. I said maybe if I sharpened my craft, maybe people will love me more.”

As an engine for material and national success, making people who feel unworthy work hard to prove themselves is unimaginably effective. Just look at how many Olympic athletes were quoted in Vancouver as saying that they won gold because they were told they were washed up, ordinary. But as an engine of human happiness, I can’t think of anything more depressing than the feeling that you are a big zero until proven otherwise.

This is what led Tiger Woods to feel, as he confessed, that success and a feeling of specialness was always outside him. He had to devour, first championships, and later women, to prove himself worthy. It’s also what led Vyacheslav Bykov, the Russian hockey coach, to respond to President Dmitry Medvedev’s rebuke, when his team left Vancouver without a medal, by saying: “Let’s put up a bunch of guillotines and gallows. We have 35 people on the hockey team. Let’s go to Red Square and dispatch them all.” Because in this Pax Americana world, where people are distinguished only when they win, if you lose, you’re dead.

Parents these days withhold their approval in order to motivate their children to do better. The thinking has become that too much validation leaves a child with nothing to strive for. Friendships today are likewise highly selective. We have “contacts” rather than friends.

As for community, well, the more fame you acquire, the more love you’ll get. Just look at how Canada highlighted, in the closing Olympic ceremony, a parade of Canadians who had abandoned their country to live in the United States. The message: They’re famous, so we’re proud of them even if they’re not proud of us.

America, and now the rest of the Western world, has become successful by playing on people’s insecurities. Contrary to the biblical message that every person is born with a spark of the divine, we’ve instilled within everyone the belief that they are ordinary until proven otherwise. The result is millions of people who are ambitious not because they believe they are born with a gift for singing that can bring others joy, but rather that they are faceless unless they win American Idol.

The writer has just published The Blessing of Enough, a book that seeks to remedy Western materialism and greed. www.shmuley.com

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