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A Utilitarian Soul
Exploring Antidotes to The Depression Problem
The Depression Problem is something I’ve speculated on before, but it continually returns to me. I have a generally optimistic outlook on life but it deeply troubles me when I’m reminded of the prevalence of substance abuse and the widespread use of pharmacological solutions to treat depression. From here on out, I’ll refer to the rising rates of such conditions as The Depression Problem. This essay will meander around a potential explanation for one portion of this phenomenon, existential depression, which I surmise is a large piece of the puzzle. There are other sources of depression that we will not explore today: involuntary solitude, postpartum, near-death experiences, lack of community/belonging, etc.
Perhaps this piece of The Depression Problem is a simple case of Wittgenstein’s Ruler. We may have convinced ourselves something normal is a problem due to our unrigorous methodologies. After all, depression is a fairly new concept in the clinical sense and we have no real way of scientifically determining whether someone is depressed. Sure, evaluations exist, but they are highly subjective and rely on interpretation of ambiguous feelings. Collectively, we could just be naïve children who suddenly see the ubiquity of a newly discovered a topic. I can testify to my susceptibility to this tendency - every time I read a non-fiction book, I see evidence of its tenets everywhere.
It’s equally possible that the opposite of the above Wittgenstein's Ruler theory is true. Maybe our tools for measuring depression are becoming more precise, so an increase in depression diagnoses over time is reflective of an improved ability to measure depression. In other words, we have opened our eyes to our collective depression. This collective depression stems from our primary human struggle: we have enough intellect to know we will die someday but not enough to know why we are here. We are doomed to suffer until we discover the answer to this question.
I wouldn’t be a good thinker if I wasn’t nuanced, so I believe it is a combination of the two. For some depression diagnoses, it is a case of Wittgenstein’s Ruler: the haphazard prescription of a clinical label to the natural ebbs and flows of life. However, just because the measure of depression can be misused, it can still be true that there is an increasing number of depressed individuals, as indicated by macroscopic trends rather than clinical evaluation. Despite being optimistic, I have found from personal experience that we are doomed to suffer until we find a sense of meaning, and there appears to be decreasing access to this antidote to depression.
Morrie Schwartz articulated the antidote to The Depression Problem the best: “The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to community around you, and devote yourself to creating something meaningful that gives you purpose and meaning.” In other words, there are two potential paths to meaning:
Usefulness to others - or utilitarianism
Creation of something meaningful to you - or expression of the soul
I posit that religion is a third path, but most of them weave utilitarianism and creativity into their tenets.
To the chagrin of some readers, my plan for the rest of this essay is to channel my inner luddite and bemoan that technology has made both paths less accessible to the average person. On a simple note, it has become more difficult to be useful to others when technology has made our lives so convenient. If utility is our goal, many of us compete with technology. Utility is largely gatekept to the technology developers and even they can struggle with the utility problem when they develop technology that is a double-edged sword so to speak - one that has unintended consequences or one where the jury is out on whether it has a net positive impact on civilization.
Adding a second layer, the majority of the United States’ population works for large corporations. In such an environment, most people have highly specialized responsibilities where it becomes easy to feel like a cog in a machine, especially for those that work in an office environment completely removed from customers. In such an environment of abundance and bureaucracy, we shouldn’t be surprised by a growing number of people hungry for meaning, more people dissatisfied with their jobs, and a rise in esoteric gurus promoting what’s really happening. Reality isn’t satisfying enough, so we see the manufacture of false realities through conspiracies and metaverses to find meaning amidst the abundance.
Jumping back on the luddite train to discuss the decline of the expression of the soul, there is another competition: the fight for dopamine. As you probably already know, dopamine is responsible for feeling good. Some of our brightest minds have collectively worked towards delivering this pleasure hormone at less and less effort. We have become extremely good at this since the industrial revolution or as I like to call it, since we’ve entered The Age of Abundance. We’ve created industrial foods packed with macronutrients and built social media platforms with mechanisms designed to keep you entertained.1 The natural progression of technology over time, which is largely driven by our desires, has resulted in increased access to pleasure for less effort.
As you might suspect, this technology competes with free expression of the soul. Novel technologies like television and social media make us feel good without any effort. The creative activities required to express the soul also make us feel good, but can require years of dedication before they satisfy us. Both compete for our limited free time and like invasive species, the novel technologies have dominated this attention ecosystem for obvious reasons.
What are the consequences of this preference for quick dopamine over delayed gratification?
Primo, inspiration is upstream to what the mind and soul expresses. Technologically derived dopamine tends not to provide inspiration that feeds the soul with the nutrients necessary to sprout creativity. 10 second Tik Toks and 280 character Tweets tend not to be provocative, especially considering the context they reside within. Anything you consume can be a source of inspiration, but their context factors into whether they inspire or merely entertain.
Secundo (and ancillary to the first point), it prevents people from listening to their soul. The author has belabored this issue time and time again but it is worth repeating. When technology has made instant, customized entertainment so accessible, there is no time left to process your emotions and ponder what is important to you. It becomes quite easy to be stuck on autopilot and deafen your heart’s voice. To state the obvious, you cannot express your soul if you know not what it says. And what you consume cannot inspire you if you do not reflect on it.
Tertio, the accessibility of instant gratification distracts people from devoting themselves to a craft that enables free expression of the soul. If you have no skills to express yourself with, it becomes difficult to express yourself. If you can’t elegantly maneuver a paintbrush or create the music for your words to dance to, how can you expect to adequately capture the language your soul speaks?
Postremo, it inhibits the dopamine associated with progression towards a goal, ideally one bigger than yourself. When you find yourself snacking all day, a meal becomes less appetizing. Progression towards a goal larger than yourself and the satisfaction associated with it synergizes nicely with the other antidote: usefulness to others. When you pursue the noble goals of improving your ability to express yourself better or be most useful to others, technological dopamine generally becomes a distraction - unless it serves as a source of relaxation. The balance between relaxation and ambition towards a goal is a separate rabbit hole to explore in a future essay.
Pair our technological woes with an environment of cancel culture2 - where sharing an opinion that does not fit within the confines of the current paradigm can lead to ruin for years to come. This may be a fine way to place checks and balances on toxic speech and harmful sentiment, but our collective ethics are not static throughout time. Expressing today’s harmless opinion could be tomorrow’s bigotry. In an environment like this, I may not feel compelled to share anything publicly for fear of “cancellation” or more realistically, fear of ridicule from my peers. After all, I can’t tell what opinions will be a source of mockery today or in years to come. Perhaps this “cancel culture” is nothing new - expressing yourself has always been a risk after all. Maybe this is the natural consequence of a newly interconnected world, and public expression of the soul requires greater bravery today because of an increased risk of public humiliation.
Of course, with great risk comes great reward. Those that express themselves freely also have more opportunity to earn a living on their art through network effects. However, this overshadowing possibility of internet fame and money can corrupt many artists. They may find themselves creating content for the sake of attention or hopes of riches rather than for the sake of its own enjoyment or because they truly have something to say and share with the world. It is easier to become a sellout so to speak.
To truly express the soul, we need provocative inspiration, time to contemplate our sources of inspiration, the skills necessary to outwardly radiate the soul, and a nurturing environment. These technological and cultural factors web together to disincentivize people from expressing themselves freely, which contributes to The Depression Problem.
If we wish to fight our existential meaning crisis, my humble recommendation is to find a meaningful goal to pursue that requires you to both express your soul and be useful to others. Find that North Star that combines your passion and your skills. Of course, this isn’t law. Perhaps you could find a balance by chasing one goal that is useful to others and a side hustle where you express your soul. Maybe you need to explore some activities to find your passion or develop your skills. Your balance and path is yours to discover.
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Note that I’m not claiming these to be evil technologies. They started with noble intentions like reducing the cost of food and connecting people over long distances. Their evolution into dopamine traps seems to be an unintended consequence likely caused by the fact that most of us desire more pleasure for less effort.
I know - I hate that I just said this as much as you