Friday, November 6, 2009

How Do Different Cultures Produce Or Cure Depression?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I count myself among those who believe that there is a strong social and cultural basis to depression. Link here.

If this is correct, you would expect that cultures that value social harmony over individual expression, that value agreement over uniqueness, that value getting along with others over independence and autonomy would produce less depression than their counterparts.

Happily enough, recent research from Northwestern University demonstrates the validity of this point. Link here.

In a collectivist culture, where people are taught to get along, to gloss over conflict, to cooperate with others and to value the group over the individual, there is far less depression.

In a more individualist Western culture, especially one that has been saturated with the values promoted by psychotherapy, there will be far more depression.

I would mention in passing that these collectivist cultures are also known as shame cultures and the individualistic cultures can also be called guilt cultures.

These cultural comparisons were drawn out beautifully by Ruth Benedict in: "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword." I wrote about them in my book: "Saving Face."

Writing at the behest of the United States Army during World War II Benedict set out to compare American and Japanese cultures. In a brilliant analysis she compared American guilt culture, with its emphasis on individual expression, to Japanese shame culture with its emphasis on group cohesion.

I believe, however, that Benedict draws too sharp a contrast between these cultures. The heuristic value of the comparison glosses over a strong collectivist tendency in American culture.

Beginning in the 1950s intellectuals produced a number sociological and cultural studies denouncing the United States for failing to promote individual self-expression and for producing too much conformity. These critiques, which became institutionalized in the 1960s counterculture, insisted that people became mentally ill for failing to express their unique, individual Selves creatively.

The cultural assault on American conformism and cultural uniformity persuaded far too many people that ours was a culture of individuals. In so doing it did not cure our mental illness; it produced more depression and made it more difficult for us to find our way out of it.

If depression is the problem, then cultural conformity and social harmony is the solution. That implies that when people from different parts of the world or the nation come together in a cosmopolitan metropolis they should all have access to a common set of social customs and values, and should all be welcomed according to common standards of decorum and etiquette.

As it happens that was what George Washington thought, and, it should be our standard today.

This also implies that multiculturalism is psychically counterproductive. While I agree that we should respect cultural differences and should not discriminate against people who come to the metropolis from different cultures, this should not mean that people should be absolved of the obligation to conform to local customs.

In places where people make a fetish of multiculturalism, especially universities, students are thrown together without there being anything resembling a dominant culture which they can learn and whose mastery will make them feel like part of their new community.

Surely this emphasis on radical individualism, on personal independence and autonomy, on tolerance for any and all kinds of personal behavior has helped propagate depression. After all, what is depression but a form of individuality, the feeling of being lost and alone, detached and rejected, a pariah and an outcast.

In the end multicultural practices will make more and more people feel this way. It is not a good thing.

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