Is money (or the lack of it) invariably linked with depression? Well, although money issues can certainly be a factor when a person becomes depressed, I would argue that this is not always the case, and that depression can often have little or nothing to do with money – or its absence.
First, there’s a strong link between major or clinical depression and heredity. Depression runs in families, as does bipolar disorder, so if your parents had a history of clinical depression, chances are that you (whether you are a princess or a pauper) will have inherited a vulnerability to that condition. It’s simply a possibility, not a certainty, and it’s to do with your genes and not the condition of your wallet.
This leaves the range of mild to acute depression that most people experience from time to time but is not devastating enough, normally, to warrant medical attention. You probably know what I’m talking about, feelings ranging from a mild case of the “blues” right up to persistent sadness, muffled anger or a pervasive sense that life has no meaning.
It’s true that difficulties with money can lead to depression. A survey in the UK by the National Depression Campaign found that 88% of people rated money problems as a likely cause, 1% more than the number of people that linked depression to a death or illness in the family. And that was back in 1999. With the credit crunch and spiralling personal debt often in the news in recent times, I would not be surprised to find this percentage even higher now. It’s no wonder that for many people finances seem to be inextricably linked to anxiety and gloom.
And yet… Even without studies and surveys, common sense tells us that money troubles are not the only reason why people get depressed. Despondency often sets in when we feel helpless and unable to avoid the setbacks life sends us. Thus a bullied schoolchild, a harassed employee, a convict in an overcrowded gaol, a bereaved husband or wife and a long-term invalid all may well suffer depression as a result of adverse life conditions.
Each of them might succumb to despair and helplessness, but it would have little or nothing to do with the state of his or her bank balance, and a lot more to do with relationships and physical circumstances.
So much, then, for depression caused by not having enough money. Could it be that having too much of it is also a problem?
The Happy Planet Index, introduced in 2006 by the New Economics Foundation, makes for some interesting (if controversial) reading. Basically, it is a ranking of the world’s nations, based on happiness rather than GDP, and, for what it’s worth, some of the world’s poorer countries have high scores the top three are Vanuatu, Columbia and Costa Rica – while the wealthiest nations such as Japan and the US come in at 95 and 150, respectively. While these scores are not purely measurements of people’s levels of happiness, as they are partly based on environmentalists’ ideas of sustainability, they are nevertheless intriguing.
Is it possible, then, that being rich, or indeed living in a rich country, can tend to make you depressed?
There is some truth in that. Economist Richard Easterlin proposed in 1974 that once people have attained a certain level of financial security, their happiness does not grow in proportion to any future increases in wealth. In other words, if I have one loaf of bread I am a lot happier than if I had none at all, but if I become richer and can afford to buy two, three or four loaves, there is no great gain in happiness with each addition.
The pleasures of the consumer society also seem to be fleeting. “Hedonic adaptation” sets in, which means that the thrill of acquiring a new widescreen TV, iPod or Mercedes-Benz diminishes swiftly, as the object of desire becomes merely another thing to be stored, insured and worried about. It can make us happy only for a brief moment, and after that, we always need to strive for the next acquisition, the next temporary pleasure.
This might be why “retail therapy” only works for a while. The excitement of buying something new gives way to the muted pleasure of ownership, then perhaps to ennui and depression once more, paving the way for another repeat of the cycle.
But is the root cause of this problem money, or is it the absence of something else?
It seems to me that we are happiest when we have a purpose in life, and there are quite a few attributes and activities that can help us keep us engaged and have a meaningful existence. Positive psychologist Martin Seligman has broadly identified some of these, including being sociable, married, self-disciplined and having religious convictions. From personal experience, I have also found that creative tasks, and any absorbing activity be it gardening, writing, playing tennis, doing volunteer work – that generates what is now called “flow”, can add meaning and purpose to my life.
I suggest that it is not so much that affluence is the causeof depression, but that we have a need for meaning in our lives that money simply cannot, by its very nature, fulfil entirely. Like the man in the story, who searched for his keys under the bright streetlamp, rather than in his dark house where he had lost them, we are simply looking in the wrong place.
(I would add that being an entrepreneur and building a business are meaningful activities in themselves, which can bestow an authentic sense of purpose. The hunger to fill an inner void by acquiring money and material possessions is not the same thing, in my opinion.)
So, back to the question as to whether money and depression are invariably linked, I would answer that they are not. Our genes may give us (just) a tendency to clinical depression, no matter if we are rich or poor. Lack of money might help to make us depressed, but then so might a lot of other things, such as bad relationships or failing health.
Lastly, those of us who live in affluent societies have a choice, either to remain on the hedonic treadmill and become disappointed and depressed when money and consumer goods do not deliver all they promised or to look within ourselves, find out what fires us up and fills us with purpose, and forge a meaningful life for ourselves.
That’s the thought I would like to leave you with. When we are depressed, life seems hopeless and without meaning, but once we make a decision to find a purpose, a reason to go on living, things change. Something shifts within us, and the grey hand of depression begins to loosen its hold.
And that would seem to be true, whether we are rich, poor, or somewhere in between.
Alex Cull, 5th March 2008
(This was another article I submitted to Helium.com, adding my two cents to the debate: “Is money invariably linked with depression?” Obviously these two things are not invariably linked but there we are.)