Effort-driven rewards are more meaningful than short-term pleasures
By Jacquelyn Ferguson, MS
Isn’t it odd that depression in America increased along with our affluence? Shouldn’t it work the other way around? Is there something in our relatively prosperous lifestyle that’s an actual cause of depression?
The pioneer of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of PA, described two studies conducted in the 1970s in which people of different generations reported on their lifetime episodes of depression.
One might assume that the older generation would have more incidents of depression because of experiencing far more hardships from the Great Depression and two world wars, not to mention having lived longer.
But the opposite was true. 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 ten times more likely to suffer from major depression than those born in the first third of the century.
Here are two reasons that may help explain.
Lifestyle differences: older generations were far more physically active than younger ones. Think about some differences:
- Today it’s throw-away diapers; yesterday it was cloth diapers that were soaked and washed;
- Today you buy microwavable, ready-to-eat meals; yesterday, they grew, hunted, and prepared their own food;
Why might modern life along with its hi-tech gizmos, cars and microwaves be part of the soaring rate of depression? What might we have lost when we went from labor-intensive lifestyles to our sedentary ones?
“Our brains are programmed to derive deep satisfaction and pleasure when our physical effort produces something tangible,” says neuroscientist and psychologist Kelly Lambert, writing in Scientific American Mind (and author of “Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist’s Hands-on Approach to Activating Your Brain’s Healing Power, 2008.) She calls our ancestors’ hard work “effort-driven rewards.” They had greater appreciation of their efforts producing their necessities, which very importantly gave them a greater perception of control, more positive emotions and maybe protection against depression.
Other social scientists have suggested a contributor to the greater affluence/higher depression formula has to do with modern humans taking short-cuts to happiness. With increased disposable income and leisure time we bought more things (note the past tense) that brought us pleasure. But pleasures are short term enjoyments. They are sensory experiences accompanied by strong emotions (ecstasy, orgasm, thrills, delight,) like eating your favorite foods, sex or watching spectator sports. Investing more energy into pleasures gives you frequent upticks in happiness, but they fade quickly.
It turns out that we’re happier and less depressed when we seek gratifications. These are activities you do for the sake of doing them. They:
- Involve thinking;
- Are an expression of your strengths;
- Stretch your skills to improve;
- Are often considered “flow” activities;
- Gratifications also lead to an increase in important, positive emotion boosting neurochemical releases which improves mood.
Consider fighting the blues and depression by seeking fewer short-term pleasures and more meaningful gratifications. Next week I’ll address identifying your strengths that are at the core of these gratifications.
Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., is an international speaker and a Stress and Wellness Coach. Order her book by clicking here.