Something a regular reader of this blog may have been able to guess about me: I suffer, at times, from anxiety and depression. I’m not talking about the worst kind of anxiety and depression. I’m talking about the kind that takes the edge off the gratitude I should be feeling for a good life.
Not, in other words, “major depressive syndrome.” Not I-can’t-get-out-of-bed-or-go-to-work depression. Not the I-need-to-swallow-some-medicine-if-I-hope-to-drag-this-body-from-place-to-place depression.
At least, that is, not yet.
What’s going on is that I’ve been working my tail off for a couple of years now. The No Impact project. This blog. The book. The documentary. It’s added up to a lot of work. You know, like working nights. Working weekends. Working like a dog. Working like, well, an American.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the average employed American works more hours a year than citizens of any other Western European member country. At 1798 annual hours clocked per American worker in 2007, we worked about three and a half 40-hour work weeks more than the Brits, six more than the Irish and a whopping eleven and a half weeks more than the West Germans.
That makes the Europeans lazy, right? Or, on the other hand, does it just make Americans literally sad?
Let’s return, first, to my own experience. What I’ve found, over the years, is that my predisposition to the blues can be managed if I rest enough, if I take care of myself. I’ve found that if I take time to meditate, exercise, sleep sufficiently, joke around with friends, then my tendency to over-think and get down about life actually can transform into an asset: with space, digested worry can become some kind of worthwhile introspection.
Lately, though, I haven’t taken the time to decompress, and my worry has gnawed at my happiness. This led me to thinking about the connection between my recent, more-stressful-than-usual way of life and my anxiety and, in turn, Americans’ long working hours (and associated planetary resource use) and the fact that we have the highest rate of depression in the world.
(Nearly 10 percent of Americans suffer from bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or chronic minor depression over the course of a year, according to a World Health Organization study reported in Forbes Magazine. Compare that, for example, with the less than one percent of Nigerians reporting these problems.)
I asked a psychiatrist friend if the high rates of depression in the United States (not to mention, by the way, obsessive-compulsive or panic disorders, which together affect another 18 percent of Americans) is related to problems with Americans’ individual brains or problems with our way of life. My friend said that individuals–like me, for example–may have a tendency towards anxiety and depression. But this tendency can be exacerbated by the stresses a culture foists on its members.
On a personal level, in other words, if I want to feel better, I better take it a little easier. Or I could just keep barreling through and let my brain start sending me bigger signals in the form of major depression. Hint enough for me to finally resolve to stop working nights and weekends (which is why, by the way, there was no blog post yesterday).
But to the larger point, which is the high rate of unhappiness of my fellow Americans, I can’t help worrying that I am in the incredibly luxurious position of being able to decide–as a quality of life decision–to work fewer hours. My guess is that most Americans can’t make such a decision.
Our economy and our culture doesn’t offer that flexibility. Here in the United States, our policies are not about making sure we can take care of ourselves in any other way than economically. In some ways, I wonder if that puts us in the ludicrous position of having to take a pill–like Prozac–in order to tolerate the way we live.
And the thing is, at least one study, published in the June edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, confirms my friend the psychiatrist’s suggestion that our way of life and, indeed, our high number of work hours is contributing to our national anxiety and depression. The study concluded that those who work overtime are more prone to these problems than those who work less than 40 hours a week (long work hours, by the way, may also contribute to America’s obesity epidemic, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity).
What does this tell us? Maybe that we should all, as individuals and as a culture, consider working less if we want to be happier.
Yes, you might say, but how does this relate to saving the planet, as the title of the post suggests?
Well, since we are among the hardest workers in the world, we are among the highest earners in the world, which means we are among the biggest spenders in the world, and, therefore, we are among the largest users of planetary resources.
We tend to think of using fewer resources for the sake of the environment as some sort of horsehair shirt or belt tightening, a sort of deprivation. But what if using fewer resources meant needing less money meant having to work less hard meant less depression and anxiety?
What does that tell us about how we should live our lives? What does that tell us about the possibility that living environmentally might be better for us as well as for the planet?
Of course, this begs the question of what our priorities should be on a personal level. I, for one, am going to try to let go of my attachment to achievement and take time to take care of myself. But it also begs big policy questions, too.
The overarching economic policy has always been to increase economic throughput–and therefore planet-destroying resource throughput–in order to bring greater happiness to the greatest number of people.
Now, in these times of such economic distress, we can’t be cavalier about the importance of economic throughput. But at the same time, the question becomes, should it be the be all and end all of Government policy? Perhaps–again, with the exception of those who are in economic distress–our policy should not be about getting more money into everyone’s pockets but more time into their lives.
That could be one way to help deal our epidemic of anxiety and depression. It might also help us use fewer resources and save the planet.