The more I travel to “third world” countries; I am simply amazed at the happiness shown by people who have the least amount of “stuff” and material wealth. Not only do these people appear happy, but when you talk to them and ask them about their lives, they are generally joyful people who are content with their lives. This started to make me question why? I had my own theories and it turns out that they were supported by research.
When I looked to the research, large epidemiological studies indicate that high-income countries tend to have higher depression and anxiety rates than middle to low-income countries (that are without wars, famine, natural disasters and conflict). The World Health Organization has found that depression and anxiety is the leading cause of disability worldwide and estimates that depression affects 121 million people worldwide. Divorce, separation, or the death of a spouse were commonly associated with depression across all countries, however on average, there are higher rates of depression among those in higher income/richer countries compared to lower income/poorer countries. This has baffled researchers as it is counterintuitive to what we think brings happiness in the western world. There are some theories behind these interesting statistics, which I think are all contributing factors.
Greater income disparities in rich countries increase depression.
Rich countries tend to have greater income disparities between the very rich and very poor, which could play a role in the development of depression and anxiety and lead to higher rates of depression/anxiety in developed countries. The reason behind this could simply be envy and jealousy, which is a natural human tendency. Jealousy and envy is usually a core feature behind wars and battles since the dawn of man kind. “I don’t have what you have, but I want it, so I will kill you to get it.” In poor countries, almost everyone is poor. In rich countries, contrastingly, the poor are constantly confronted with the vast wealth of the rich.
This is why even as a young child, when travelling to South Africa, I realized there was a difference between a poor person in the city streets/squatter camps of Johannesburg, compared to a poor person living in a rural community with a few animals, a mud hut and the basic necessities to live. The person in the rural community has no mode of comparison for their life situation and everyone else is living in the same way as them, where is the poor person in the city sees how the wealthy live everyday and it is very different to them.
This is likely to be one explanation as to why individuals of lower socio-economic classes in developed nations tend to exhibit high rates of depression and anxiety, not taking into account diet and lifestyle habits, which we know also effect mental health and tend to be worse in people of lower socio-economic status.
Obviously in poorer countries, there is always going to be an upper class that enjoys a life of luxury, however it is not as common, therefore it is not in the sight of those who are poor.
There is an old joke that highlights our tendency towards jealousy of other people’s wealth. It goes like this.
A genie granted a man whatever he wanted with the caveat that whatever he gets, his neighbors will get twice as much.
When he wished for a house, for example, his neighbour got two. When he wished for a car, the same thing happened. Finally, the man became so enraged that he wished to be blind in one eye so his neighbours would become blind in both eyes.
While the above story is comical and ridiculous, this pattern of thinking is likely to be true amongst humans and has been demonstrated in research.
A University of Warwick study, for example, found that money only makes people happy if it makes them richer than their peers. Earning a million dollars a year appears to be not enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn 2 million a year.
This research clearly demonstrates why people in richer countries may be unhappier due to jealousy and envy of the large income disparity, which is not as prevalent in poorer countries. The human tendency to think in this way means that jealousy can occur at all levels of socio-economic status, which is why people are always wanting more!
It also supports the notion that money, material things and status can’t buy/bring happiness and life satisfaction, if that is all that you are seeking in life to validate yourself. Because there will always be someone with more money, more status and cooler stuff than you – leading to jealousy and envy. This is clearly evident in wealthy and famous people who are clinically depressed and sometimes commit suicide. Money and status can’t take away feelings of jealousy, envy, as well as sadness, anxiety and inadequacy in a person.
In richer nations, we tend to define success by how much money you earn, what possessions you own and social status, which causes people to try impress others they don’t know and to work highly stressful and socially acceptable jobs (that give you status) to make lots of money to buy lots of things, that they never have time to enjoy anyway. People lead lives that they think others will look highly upon instead of doing what they really want, which leaves them feeling empty, anxious and depressed. We also know stress and long hours are correlated with depression as it predisposes a person to poor sleeping habits, poor diet choices, decreased exercise and decreased time for social connection, self care, engaging in hobbies, relaxation and having fun – which are all important aspects for maintaining physical and mental health.
Research shows that once one is able to provide for basic physical needs (i.e. food, shelter and so on), the correlation between happiness and worldly success quickly approaches zero. So if you are starving on the streets of India, an extra ten thousand dollars a year will affect happiness. However, if you are a middle class person in a developed country, an extra ten thousand dollars per year doesn’t mean much – meaning that you are killing yourself working overtime, neglecting everything else (i.e. family, friends, partners, your own hobbies, self care, relaxation, fun) for basically nothing. This “business” is seen as a badge of honour in our society because it is intrinsically linked with money and feelings of importance.
This is different to poorer nations, where it seems that as long as people have the basic necessities to live, they tend to be happy. Their lives tend to be simpler and happier because their social pressures to live a certain way are vastly different to richer countries.
It seems that we humans have a self-sabotaging need to compare ourselves to others. This leads us to compete to be better than our peers in order to be validated. However, if this is our mentality, we will never feel happy and validated, because no matter what, there are always going to be people who have more of what we may want.
The mere fact that income disparities can be a contributing factor to depression, anxiety and unhappiness, clearly demonstrates how wayward our values and moral compasses are. We put so much value in money and social status that we forget what is truly important in life. This is not completely our fault though as we live in a world of scarcity. This means that no matter what we do, we are never good enough, we have not achieved enough and never have enough stuff. The media is always marketing new things to us to improve our appearance, health, income, social status, or increase the amount/type possessions we have. This in turn leads to constant feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, because we are always wanting more and ultimately never feel satisfied. We are overwhelmed with options and we become anxious as a result of this.
Lastly, it goes without saying that a lot of people in developed nations are not constantly driven by money, social status, success and material things, however yet they still may find themselves in the trap of feeling unhappy, dissatisfied and inadequate due to comparison. It is not uncommon to hear people say that they are are “not where they want to be in their life.” A lot of the time, they feel like this because they are comparing themselves to other people who are in a similar life stage and believe that they should be in a similar position regarding financial success and career success. This is despite these individuals having everything they need and more, to live on a day to day basis and enjoy their lives. Yet they are still unhappy because they compare themselves to others instead of living their most authentic life. While it is natural to somewhat envy what others have (e.g. a nice house, freedom to travel), it shouldn’t make us unhappy with our own lives.
Overuse of social media in richer countries increases depression.
As mentioned above, we as humans have an innate, self-sabotaging tendency to compare ourselves to others. We use others to evaluate our own abilities and performance. In the absence of objective information about our performance, we will compare ourselves to others to see how we stack up.
Comparison is helpful when it inspires you to strive to be the best version of yourself, to maximize your potential and make the very best of what you were given in life (e.g. genes and environment). It also becomes a necessity for the functioning of society because if there is no comparison, you might be doing something silly in your life and you would think you are doing great. If we do not have benchmarks, we cannot improve our activity. Not everyone is driven by passion to do what they are doing, where they will anyway do their best. They need some benchmarks. This comparison is needed and it is not about you. It’s only about your actions. In activity, all of us are differently capable.
Comparison is an issue when it becomes obsessive and negatively affects your opinion of yourself or makes you feel inadequate, anxious and depressed. This is known as the “compare and despair” syndrome.
The human tendency of comparison is a good explanation of why statistics show that increasing use of social media seems to make people more depressed and anxious. This is because in our new age of social media, people are constantly exposed to everyone else’s lives and once again, humans get envious and jealous.
However, firstly, we must understand that social media is not real life! It is a snap shot in time of a person’s life and basically a highlights reel. People only show what they want to show because for many people, it seems the only way they can validate themselves is through a screen, a habit which is just as bad for your health as over-indulging in drink or drugs and just as addictive. No one posts their beans on toast, the fights they have with their partners, or the other 40 selfies that they took before they got the “right” one.
The brag culture of social media is so that people can present a false picture of their lives to the online community; with flattering selfies and faux-glamorous images of holidays, parties and meals. It’s as if they’re starring in a movie of the life they would like to lead because they believe status and material things are what we should aspire to. Also, an underwhelming lack of shares or ‘likes’ can lead to debilitating feelings of inadequacy. People post intimate fragments of their lives to total strangers, falsely believing that a ‘friend’ online is a real friend whose opinions matter. What is also interesting about this is that we often post on social media in order to find validation in likes and comments. Social media seems intrinsically linked with our self-esteem, which is fragile and damaging.
It’s incredibly common to feel inadequate or sad about our own lives after a few minutes of social-media scrolling. Studies show that Facebook can cause feelings of depression and loneliness. A new study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that comparing our lives to the others “better than us” on social media may be what causes the depressive symptoms associated with Facebook browsing. It leads to feelings of inadequacy and loneliness.
Basically, the longer you stay on social media, the more likely you are to become envious of the things and status that you don’t posses. A person with a larger network of ‘friends’ will be more likely to experience ‘the grass is greener’ symptoms than a person with a smaller network.
Furthermore, social media and other forms of media, constantly bombard us with stories, images and videos of humans that are on the extremes of the bell curve. We are flooded with people who are exceptional and not the majority. They are the 99.999999th percentile. Media does this, because it is ultimately what brings in money, however this makes most people feel extremely inadequate as people begin to think it is the norm and it is what we should aspire to.
What most people also don’t realise is that these exceptional humans that we are bombarded with, may be exceptional in one aspect of their lives, but are usually pretty average in other aspects, as it is not possible to become exceptional in a certain area, without completely neglecting other things. As an example, this is usually why sports stars are pretty thick.
Lastly, social media use is also isolating the face-to-face human connection that is vital to our well-being and mental health, which brings me to the next topic.
Lack of social connection and good relationships increases depression.
A study with over 300,000 participants found that social support, social connection and strong, healthy relationships was a stronger predictor of survival than physical activity, body mass index, hypertension, air pollution, alcohol consumption, and even smoking fifteen cigarettes a day! Furthermore, many other studies have found that the main determining factor to a happy life is quality relationships.
Social relationships help buffer the effects of chronic stress by providing emotional support and as we know, stress can be very damaging to our health. Also, social relationships directly influence health through their effect on physiology, behavior, and mood.
Not only can social connection maintain our health and prevent disease like depression, it can also help us recover from chronic health issues.
People in poorer nations tend to have a greater sense of community and there is more of a “street culture” compared to richer countries where depression is more prevalent. In richer countries, especially within cities, people live in relative isolation and hardly know their neighbours/local communities. We tend to stick to our immediate social network and don’t really engage with others. Where in poorer nations, people have a greater sense of community. Also, people in richer countries tend to have more individualistic attitudes toward life, where as in poorer countries, people have more community-based attitudes.
People underestimate the importance of having healthy and strong relationships with our friends, family and partners. Good relationships make us feel secure, supported and also enhance our enjoyment of life. Experiences in life are always best shared with good company, no matter what we are doing.
This means that working hard to have solid relationships in our lives is one of the main keys to happiness. No matter how much money, social status or material things you may have, it can’t buy or replace great relationships. Chaotic life situations driven by unhealthy and stressful relationships, such as in divorce, can cause significant stress and unhappiness, no matter how much wealth, social status and material things that a person may have.
People in the developed world often stretch themselves financially and live beyond their financial means to keep with norms that they compare themselves too. They often do this without even realising what they are actually doing. They get stuck in a cycle of financial stress to keep up with a lifestyle that they don’t need, but feel like they should have. These financial stressors can often put unnecessary strain on important relationships (e.g. kids, partners etc).
People need to shift and re-think their priorities. Rather than stretching themselves with stress in order to keep up with the Jones’s, they should focus on building healthy and strong relationships that enhance the enjoyment of their lives. There is no denying that having enough money to go on expensive holidays, driving a fancy car, having a big house and working in a job that hold a lot of social status is all very “nice,” however if the pursuit of these of these things puts stress on key/foundational relationships in your life, they are not worth it. Because even if you do achieve these end goals, you will be left feeling empty and with the feeling of, “ok, what’s next?” It leads to a constant cycle of dissatisfaction because there will always be more things you can have and more things you can do.
If you may not be able to afford a big house, a nice car and an expensive holiday, trust me, the small house, basic car and camping trip is much more enjoyable and satisfying if it is done with people you genuinely love and enjoy spending time with. As stated above, once the basic living necessities are taken care of, happiness does not exponentially grow with more money. It will grow with better relationships.
Once we realise that our unhappiness and stress is driven by comparing ourselves to what others have, we can change our priorities and start to live a more authentic life that is ours. The reality is that some people have more money than us and can do more things with their money, however we can still enjoy our lives by making the most of what we have with people we love the most.
Lastly, if you live in a developed nation and have the basic necessities to live, just realise that you are far better off than most people in the world and taking a trip to the slums of some countries may give you some perspective. While you may be worrying about the fact that you can’t always travel when you want, a lot of these people are struggling to survive on a daily basis.
A lack of life purpose increases depression.
Recently, for a subject at uni, I had to answer an online forum question, which asked students to investigate possible non-pharmaceutical treatment options for Alzheimer’s disease.
On the online forum, one student investigated the effects of curcumin supplementation on patients with Alzheimer’s. Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric, which is a spice that is commonly used in traditional Indian food. It has been shown to have various anti-inflammatory, neuro-protective and anti-cancer effects. It has also been shown to have amazing results in Alzheimer’s patients.
In his response, the student hypothesized that increased turmeric in the diet might be a likely explanation for the low rates of Alzheimer’s in rural Indian populations that eat a lot of tumeric. While this may be plausible, I thought it was unlikely. This is because curcumin is very poorly absorbed from oral ingestion of dietary turmeric. Therefore it needs to be supplemented with in order for curcumin to be absorbed into the blood and have widespread effects.
The poor absorption of dietary curcumin from turmeric causes curcumin to go into the large intestine where it acts as a potent anti-oxidant and has shown to be protective against colon cancer. This is likely to be one of the reasons as to why rural Indian populations have low rates of colon cancer.
So if it is not the turmeric, I wondered why rural Indian populations have lower rates of Alzheimer’s. One of the main hypotheses is that these people have an increased sense of ‘life purpose.’ A lot of them are farmers, so they wake up every morning and there are fields to tend to, animals to look after, structures to build and food to make. They have a purpose every morning when they wake up. Our mindset affects our physiology, which is why these people suffer less from Alzheimer’s as they feel more content with their life.
As I delved into the research more, a strong sense of ‘life purpose’ significantly decreased the risk of mental health issues like depression and increased longevity. The strong correlation between ‘life purpose’ and good mental health is particularly evident when examining people in blue zones (i.e. communities all over the world that have the highest life expectancy). Communities living in blue zones share many commonalities with each other and one is ‘increased sense of life purpose.’ These people also have a whole food diet, good sleep habits, social connection, spend lots of time outdoors, have time to relax and have fun, and are active on a daily basis, which also indicates the importance of other healthy diet and lifestyle habits for disease prevention such as depression and anxiety.
In the richer nations, statistics show that most people are severely lacking life purpose. Our societal structure is more individualistic/capitalistic, therefore our jobs are more centred around what we can gain for ourselves, rather than what we can do for our community. This already increases the risk of people lacking purpose in their lives, as it it becomes the individual’s responsibility to assign meaning to their roles in society. For most people, providing an income for their families is not enough to feel fulfilled as we spend so much of our days at work, we want to feel somewhat fulfilled.
This is what also leads to the entitlement of our generation. Everyone wants to be special and extraordinary (which is partly driven by the fact we are bombarded by extraordinary humans every day). Our generation have no idea what we want to do with our lives because we all want to be special and the endeavour towards this makes us depressed and anxious.
People are working in jobs they dislike (or feel indifferent about) to make enough money to carry on living their unfulfilling lives and working in that same job. Much of the time they are not working, but slaves to these jobs, in order to make money to keep up with lifestyles that provide superficial highs, either through substances (e.g. drugs, alcohol, food, drugs), social media, material things or socially/individually destructive behaviours, which ultimately cover up dealing with feelings of insecurities or inadequacy.
The various factors that may explain the differences between depression rates in poor countries compared to rich countries, provides us with valuable information. It helps us to become aware of the possible causes behind our lack of fulfilment and unhappiness within our lives, which can in turn lead to positive change. Most of us live in a society where our basic living needs are taken care of and we are safe, however we are still unhappy and anxious. These feelings of inadequacy and discomfort are also sometimes be numbed by food, alcohol, smoking, drugs, social media and material things that give us temporary highs. This further impacts our health, wellbeing and mental health.
Now this doesn’t mean we should all go live in poorer countries, however it does mean that we need to change certain aspects around the way we approach our lives.
It must first all start with our value system. We need to define better values. Good values are controllable, socially constructive or internal. A simple example is honesty, its internal, constructive and controllable. Bad values are the opposite, they are socially destructive (or require destructive means to achieve them), beyond your control or external to you. Good values will always be a work in progress and never a destination (e.g. honesty), they don’t let us fall into the cycle of “once I have/do X, I will be happy.” If they are a destination, we will always want more or feel empty once we have reached the destination. The same goes for happiness, happiness is a work in progress that comes and goes in our lives and it is internal to ourselves. It is not something that just happens on a Tuesday night as a result of external factors that are marketed to us.
And while we all want happiness, we all must realise is that sometimes life can cause hurt, pain, sadness and anxiety, which are not only normal but inevitable. Happiness is not a destination, it is rather a feeling that comes with a whole lot of other feelings in your life. We are lead to believe that happiness is an end goal that is reached once you look a certain way and have certain things, but rather happiness is pat of a spectrum of human emotions that we feel throughout our lives. While it is obviously desirable to feel happy more than sadness, we must also be ok with the fact that sadness, anxiety and uncomfortable feelings are part of life as well.
However, these feelings should be a result of problems that are worth suffering for because we have changed our value system. For example, getting anxious and sad about material things, social status and money can throw you into a cycle of constant anxiety because as shown above, chasing after these things will always lead to feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. But, feeling anxious and sad about not sticking to a value of honesty or integrity is healthy. We should get down about this because this is a good value to have and it is personally and socially constructive. Feeling anxious and sad about something we care about is normal, we just need to make sure that what we are caring about is based on a good set of values.
Also, if we come to the realisation that feelings of discomfort like sadness and anxiety are part of the human existence and we realise “happiness” is constantly marketed to us like an end goal, we become more comfortable with them and ride them out as they do eventually pass. Rather than trying to numb those feeling with food, being busy, substances, social media/technology, or buying more stuff.
After we define our values we need to prioritise them in our lives and work towards them. Addressing and reshaping our value system can be confronting and often very painful at first, which is why most people shy away from it and drown themselves in short term, superficial highs. However, those scary and anxious feelings that people seek to suppress are and live in denial of, are often what tells us what we need to work on the most. This is why the constant seeking of “superficial pleasure” can actually be quite dangerous. Far too often we seek out superficial highs to fill the void that is lurking inside of us and it is this void in which companies target to sell you more things to make you “happy.”
Lastly, you must also realise that you are not special and most of life is mundane and ordinary and in the grand scheme of things, your life really doesn’t mean anything. While this may sound bleak, it is actually quite empowering, as it alleviates all those pressures to be extra-ordinary. Once we realise this, we can start to focus on what really actually matters to us in our lives and we can derive pleasure out of the seemingly ordinary but amazing things like forming strong, meaningful, inspiring and trustworthy relationships. This will all in turn lead you to live a life that is yours and one that you want to live, not what others think you should live. And this life should be followed with passion, grit, honesty, trying your best, resilience and the openness to fail many times, because failure is the way forward.
Note: I do want to acknowledge that the reality of modern life is that money is important and can make life easier, however it should not be the primary focus behind what you do in your life as this leads to constant feelings of inadequacy and anxiety as you will never have enough. Sticking to a good value system will naturally bring money into your life, as well as good people.