Depression is epidemic in the United States today, especially among young people.
Every large-scale study of mental illness across the 20th century finds that contemporary Americans are more than 10 times as likely to have a major bout of depression as were their grandparents.
Worse, depression now claims its victims at a much younger age: In the 1950s, the average age of the first major depression was about 30, now it is in the teens.
Almost 10 percent of high school students have already suffered severe depression. Since depression becomes a template for looking at troubles, the earlier it starts, the more of a person’s lifetime it will swallow up. An epidemic of depression among America’s young people is a paradox.
The danger of nuclear war has receded, fewer soldiers are dying on the battlefield than in almost a century, fascism and communism have been dealt near-mortal blows, there is a global web of instant communication, there is more education than ever.
True, we have serious problems.
But one has to be blinded by ideology to view a stagnant economy, AIDS or racial turmoil as tantamount to Stalin or to looming nuclear catastrophe.
Yet our children - with such extraordinary prospects within their reach - have become depressives, and the cost is not just mental.
Depression undermines trying, fuels helplessness and promises lowered economic productivity in the long run.
What has caused this epidemic? It is easier to say what has not: It is not biological, for our chromosomes and hormones have not changed that much in 50 years.
It is not ecological, for the Old Order Amish have a tenth as much depression as their neighbors.
But there has been a sea change in American schooling and child-rearing values over this 50 years that might have done it: The change from doing well to feeling good.
The dominant theme until the 1960s was achievement, discipline and ambition. “The Little Engine That Could” was emblematic.
This has been overtaken by the value of feeling good, as embodied in the self-esteem movement. California has made it official. In “Toward A State of Esteem,” a set of recommendations made by a task force sponsored by the California Legislature, poor self-esteem is claimed to cause academic failure, drug use, teen-age pregnancy, dependence on welfare and other ills.
Teaching self-esteem is touted as the “most likely social vaccine” to inoculate children against these ills.
Shirley Maclaine urged the president to add a secretary of self-esteem to the Cabinet.
This movement is not content with having our children mouth mantras like “I am special” or with encouraging minorities to believe that racial pride, rather than individual accomplishment, brings personal satisfaction.
This movement has teeth. It has helped lead to:
The abolition of tracking, lest those on lower tracks suffer damaged self-esteem.
Massive grade inflation, lest those who earn Ds feel bad.
Teaching aimed at the very bottom of the class in order to spare the feelings of the children slower to learn (now that they are untracked).
And to competition’s becoming a dirty word.
Now, there is nothing wrong with self-esteem. It is a pleasant state to be in. The problem is with the claim that it causes anything.
It is true that many school dropouts feel low self-esteem, many pregnant teen-agers feel sad, many drug addicts feel self-loathing and many people on welfare feel unworthy.
But what is cause and what is effect? The research literature shows that low self-esteem is a consequence of failing in school, of being on welfare, of being arrested. It is not the cause. Self-esteem is the consequence of the whole panoply of successes and failures in the world.
Self-esteem and feeling good are best viewed as state-of-the-system indicators. When work, friendship and play go well, we feel good. When they go badly, we feel bad.
Messing with the indicator light without changing the underlying state of the system is like disconnecting the oil light from the motor. In the long run, the motor burns out.
This is how the epidemic of depression may have come about: Our feelgood ethic urges parents and teachers to minimize feeling bad in children and, if possible, to banish it altogether.
But there are three good things about feeling bad that arm children against depression.
First, dysphoria - anxiety, depression and anger - has a long evolutionary history. Anxiety warns us that danger is around. Sadness informs us that a loss threatens. Anger alerts us to trespass.
All these messages, of necessity, carry pain - and it is this very pain that goads us to act to remove the threat.
Bad feeling, as an alarm system, is far from flawless. Many of its messages, perhaps even most, are false alarms. But its primary virtue is that most of the time, dysphoria is our first line of defense against danger, loss and trespass.
The second good use of bad feeling is “flow.”
When time stops for you, when you feel truly at home, wanting to be nowhere else, you are in “flow.”
Researchers have been studying it - who has it, when does it come, what impedes it - for two decades. Flow occurs when your skills are used to their utmost - matched against a challenge just barely within your grasp.
Too little challenge produces boredom. Too much challenge or too little skill produces helplessness and depression.
The cushioning of frustration, the premature alleviation of anxiety and avoiding the difficult challenges all impede flow.
The final good use of bad feeling involves persistence.
In order to feel masterful, it is necessary for a child to fail, to feel bad and to try again repeatedly until success occurs.
This process cannot be cut short. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for habits of persistence to develop.
Almost all of life’s most challenging tasks abound in subfailure. If they did not, someone else would have gotten there first.
Children need to fail. They need to feel sad, anxious and angry.
When we systematically protect our children from feeling bad, we deprive them of learning to fight off depression.
If we leap in to bolster self-esteem and soften the blows by distracting them with congratulatory ebullience, we make it harder for them to achieve mastery.
And if we deprive them of mastery, we weaken self-esteem just as certainly as if we had belittled, humiliated and physically thwarted them at every turn.
So I speculate that the American self-esteem movement in particular, and the feel-good ethic in general, had the untoward consequence of producing depression on a massive scale.
By cushioning feeling bad, it has made it harder for our children to feel good. By circumventing feelings of failure, it made it more difficult for our children to feel masterful. By blunting warranted sadness and anxiety, it created children at high risk for unwarranted depression.
And by encouraging cheap success, it has produced a generation of very expensive failures.
MEMO: Martin E.P. Seligman is professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of “The Optimistic Child” (Houghton Mifflin).