Don't Let Chaos Get You Down

By Weil, Andrew | Newsweek, November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Don't Let Chaos Get You Down


Weil, Andrew, Newsweek


Byline: Dr. Andrew Weil

You aren't depressed; our brains just aren't equipped for 21st-century life.

In my experience, the more people have, the less likely they are to be contented. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that depression is a "disease of affluence," a disorder of modern life in the industrialized world. People who live in poorer countries have a lower risk of depression than those in industrialized nations. In general, countries with lifestyles that are furthest removed from modern standards have the lowest rates of depression.

Within the U.S., the rate of depression of members of the Old Order Amish--a religious sect that shuns modernity in favor of lifestyles roughly emulating those of rural Americans a century ago--is as low as one 10th that of other Americans.

Psychologist Martin Seligman, originator of the field of positive psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the Old Order Amish, along with other premodern cultures. He concludes: "Putting this together, there seems to be something about modern life that creates fertile soil for depression."

Another prominent researcher whose work I respect, Stephen Ilardi, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas and author of The Depression Cure, observes, "The more 'modern' a society's way of life, the higher its rate of depression. It may seem baffling, but the explanation is simple: the human body was never designed for the modern postindustrial environment."

More and more of us are sedentary, spending most of our time indoors. We eat industrial food much altered from its natural sources, and there is reason for concern about how our changed eating habits are affecting our brain activity and our moods. We are deluged by an unprecedented overload of information and stimulation in this age of the Internet, email, mobile phones, and multimedia, all of which favor social isolation and certainly affect our emotional (and physical) health.

Behaviors strongly associated with depression--reduced physical activity and human contact, overconsumption of processed food, seeking endless distraction--are the very behaviors that more and more people now can do, are even forced to do by the nature of their sedentary, indoor jobs.

This kind of life simply was not an option throughout most of human history, as there was no infrastructure to support it, much less require it.

Human beings evolved to thrive in natural environments and in bonded social groups. Few of us today can enjoy such a life and the emotional equilibrium it engenders, but our genetic predisposition for it has not changed. The term "nature-deficit disorder" has recently entered the popular vocabulary, though it has not yet made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or been accepted by the medical community. It was coined by the author Richard Louv to explain a wide range of behavior problems in children who spend less time outdoors but now is invoked as the root cause of an even wider range of both physical and emotional ailments in people of all ages who are disconnected from nature.

I believe we are gathering scientific evidence for the benefits of living close to nature, not simply for enjoying its beauty or getting spiritual sustenance but for keeping our brains and nervous systems in good working order. …

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