I hate commercials with a passion.  I especially hate prescription drug commercials and if I don’t mute the TV e-fucking-mediately, the droning voiceover rambling on about the long list of side effects is enough to make me set my own face on fire.  My favorite would have to be when they tell you that antidepressants can increase your risk for suicide.  Because, really, that makes all the sense in the world, doesn’t it!? “You hate your life, take this pill!!  But watch out, it might make you feel like someone else is walking in your skin and you’ll want to eat a bullet!!  Your co-pay will be $30, thx.

Everyone is depressed.  Obese children are depressed (from being overfed like suckling pigs), teenagers are depressed and hormonal, women are depressed and psychotic, men are depressed and homicidal.  I can’t get through one fucking day without hearing about someone’s issues, and were I a weaker minded person this would, guess what?  DEPRESS ME.  So when I read this article in Scientific American Mind about depression and good old elbow grease, I was reminded that there IS light at the end of the tunnel and the world is not entirely stuffed with lazy people in shitty moods. The article is long and interesting but I’ve captured the main points for you.  Don’t be a lazy shit and skip it, your mental health is on the line, Slacker.

FAST FACTS:  The Mental Perils of Ease

1.  Rates of depression have risen in recent decades, at the same time that people are enjoying time-saving conveniences such as microwave ovens, e-mail, prepared meals, and machines for washing clothes and mowing lawns.

2.  People of earlier generations, whose lives were characterized by greater efforts just to survive, paradoxically, were mentally healthier. Human ancestors also evolved in conditions where hard physical work was necessary to thrive.

3.   By denying our brains the rewards that come from anticipating and executing complex tasks with our hands, the author argues, we undercut our mental well-being.

I began thinking about the impact our contemporary lifestyle has on our mental health more than 10 years ago, after attending a lecture by Martin Seligman, a psychologist and the pioneering creator of the Positive Psychology movement, who was then president of the American Psychological Association. Seligman described two studies conducted in the 1970s in which people in different age groups were questioned about bouts of depression they had experienced during their lifetimes. The researchers then compared the responses of different generations.  The result should be a no-brainer, I thought at the time. Of course, older people would report more bouts of depression. After all, they had lived through the Great Depression and two world wars and suffered far more hardships and loss just by virtue of having lived longer. How could their mental anguish compare with the shorter (so far), easier and much less traumatic
lives of a younger generation?  To my surprise, the exact opposite was true.  Seligman reported that younger people were much more likely to have experienced depression. In fact, one study found that those born in the middle third of the 20th century were 10 times more likely to suffer from major depression than those born in the first third of the century were. These findings were later corroborated in a second study.  What is behind this startling disparity? For one thing, earlier generations did far more physical work than we do today.

‘Tis true, we are all very accustomed to pushing buttons to cook our food, operate our cars and vend our snacks.  We have litter trays that automatically scoop the cat shit out and bag it, we buy fake mats of plastic grass and ask our dogs to squat on them because we don’t run them in fields for hours every day.  Our meat is raised, slaughtered, butchered and colored for our convenience, our vegetables are picked, washed and cleaned, our fruit is cut into bite sized pieces and wrapped in colorful plastic packaging and we program electronic devices to sweep our pork rind crumbs off the floor and tell us when we’re out of gin.  We use mouse-driven programs and platforms to interface with our friends, we order online when we need a new piece of furniture or clothing.  We create instant access to any sexually explicit image we can think of, all so we can get off faster, easier and more hands-free than ever before.  (Hello, Irony.) And we are most guilty of training our children to swing a Wii remote at a simulated baseball diamond rather than go outside and pick up a bat.

I had always complained about doing laundry, but my efforts paled in comparison to those of Ma Ingalls. She had to scrub every garment on a washboard and then hang the clothes out to dry. And she had made all the garments with her own hands! Bathing my daughters did not require collecting rainwater or drawing water from a well; I merely had to turn on a faucet. The Ingalls family had to make most of the things I simply purchased, including toys, candles, soap, honey and butter. Little House crashed this working mom’s self-pity party that evening. My life is a walk in the park compared with the lifestyles of a century earlier, I realized.  Clearly, I’m not suggesting that we go back to churning butter and tanning hides. But I do think we have to examine whether our cushy, digitally driven contemporary lifestyles—replete with SUVs, DVDs, laptops, cell phones and, yes, microwave ovens—may be at the root of the soaring rates of depression in people born in the latter part of the 20th century. Did we lose something vital to our mental health when we started pushing buttons instead of plowing fields? From a neuroanatomical point of view, I believe the answer is an emphatic yes.

Will Work for Pleasure
Our brains are programmed to derive a deep sense of satisfaction and pleasure when our physical effort produces something tangible, visible and—this fact is extremely important—meaningful in gaining the resources necessary for survival.  In fact, our brains have been hardwired for this type of meaningful action since our ancestors were dressed in pelts. After all, nature needed a way to keep the earliest humans from becoming “cave potatoes.” Hanging out all day didn’t put freshly caught game on the campfire or help maintain a safe place to live.  I call this emotional payoff “effort-driven rewards.”  There are other important benefits to this type of effort beyond a greater sense of psychological well-being. We also experience an increased perception of control over our environment, more positive emotions and, perhaps most critical, enhanced resilience against mental illnesses such as depression.  Think about effort-driven rewards as a clever evolutionary tool, a way to motivate early humans to maintain the physical activity needed to obtain the resources to live—to find food, protect themselves from the elements and procreate to continue the species. Effort-driven rewards don’t come just from physical effort, however. They also involve complex movement coupled with intricate thought processes. Imagine thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were tracking a pack of wild boars through a forest or across a plain. Because these animals are such vicious fighters, a successful strategy typically involved the coordinated efforts of a few hunters, requiring effective social communication and support.  They needed to be wily as they chased their game or lured their prey into a trap that they had built.  All their efforts were fueled by anticipation. In fact, anticipating something pleasurable creates more activity in the pleasure center of the brain than actually achieving the goal does. Once they caught their prey, our hunters were suffused with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction as they skinned the animal before dinner.

The author goes into further detail about specific activity centers of the brain and various tests and their conclusions, but we’ll sum it up here.

Our hands play a crucial role when it comes to effort-driven rewards. From an evolutionary perspective, it is easy to see why they have always been so critical to our survival: they allow us to gain control of our environment. In fact, an essential premise of the proposed effort-drivenrewards theory is that movement—and especially hand movements that lead to desired outcomes— plays a key role in both preventing the onset of and building resilience against depression and other emotional disorders.  Furthermore, we are predisposed to preferring hand movements that our ancestors needed for survival— those necessary for nurturing, cleaning, cooking, grooming, building shelter and farming.  But these days we shop at Whole Foods and drive Hummers. What does all this history have to do with our modern lives and depression? Our brains are generally the same size and have all the same parts and chemical composition as those of the earliest humans. Even though our lifestyles changed radically, we have retained the innate need for achieving effort-driven rewards.  Is it okay that we have systematically removed physical effort—and all the complexity of movement and thought processes that it implies—from effort-driven rewards? Is contemporary society actually robbing us of certain forms of pleasure so fundamental to our mental health?

Hard work with hands is a likely factor in keeping the rate of depression in Amish communities far lower than it is in the rest of the U.S.

The more the effort-driven-rewards system is humming, the greater the sense of well-being.

Credit: Kelly Lambert for Scientific American Mind Aug/Sep 2008