What accounts for misery?

by on January 27, 2017 at 2:20 am in Data Source, Medicine, Science | Permalink

Sarah Flèche and Richard Layard have a new paper on this topic, and they suggest a focus on mental illness:

Studies of deprivation usually ignore mental illness. This paper uses household panel data from the USA, Australia, Britain and Germany to broaden the analysis. We ask first how many of those in the lowest levels of life-satisfaction suffer from unemployment, poverty, physical ill health, and mental illness. The largest proportion suffers from mental illness. Multiple regression shows that mental illness is not highly correlated with poverty or unemployment, and that it contributes more to explaining the presence of misery than is explained by either poverty or unemployment. This holds both with and without fixed effects.

I don’t like the term “mental illness,” yet at the same time I reject the Szaszian rejection of the concept.  I would say that mental processes can deviate from procedural rationality in especially disadvantageous (and sometimes systematic) ways, and that this is something above and beyond merely having “different preferences.”

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

1 dan1111 January 27, 2017 at 2:38 am

Is there potentially an endogeneity problem here? A low level of life-satisfaction might cause mental illness, or at least a diagnosis of the same. Thinking especially of depression, where it isn’t easy to distinguish between “depressed because of circumstances” and “depression the medical condition”. There could be some misdiagnosis, but also a higher level of detection of genuine mental health issues because circumstances may be part of what push people to get help.

To put it another way, it’s quite hard for an individual to seek help for a mental issue. Many are only likely to do so if they are very dissatisfied with their lives.

2 Katrina January 27, 2017 at 7:20 am

I am inclined to agree with you, although you would think that would also be true of the other variables (unemployment and poverty). I don’t believe the diagnostic criteria (or coding) tend to differentiate between “depressed because of circumstances” and “depression the medical condition”. But in any case, the paper used survey data and refers to “self-reported symptomatology of mental illness” which would be different from having a diagnosis.

I think it makes sense that someone would perceive their situation (and measure their happiness lower) if they also considered themselves to have symptoms of mental illness.

The other interesting factor would be that mental health tends to be cyclical (sometimes managing OK, sometimes in crisis or unable to cope), whereas poverty and unemployment are probably more stable situations. So it would make sense that self-reported mental health would end up being more closely linked to a happiness scale than the other two factors.

Possibly an earlier version?: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/62589/1/dp1356.pdf

3 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 8:31 am

There is no such thing as ‘depression the medical condition’. (though you may find your medical condition depressing).

4 FUBAR007 January 27, 2017 at 11:16 am

You’re a Szaszian. As such, you automatically have no credibility on the subject.

5 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 3:45 pm

Doesn’t matter. Your emotional states still aren’t medical conditions.

6 Ethan Bernard January 27, 2017 at 1:42 pm

Art, can you point us to something that argues that point well?

7 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 3:49 pm

Why would you need one? Physicians write prescriptions because that’s what they do, and the utility of that for the psychiatrist is that’s a good deal less time consuming and more likely to have visible results than talk therapies. To conceive of yourself as ‘ill’ in these circumstances is a frame placed on your experiences.

8 Chairmannoriega January 27, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Szasz was critical of the concept of mental illness because he thought its widespread acceptance was a form of religious persecution. I think he would have agreed with the notion that mental illness forces adherence to a subjective reality constructed by powerful purveyors of “alternative facts.”

9 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 3:56 pm

The problem with Szasz has been identified by biographical work done by Clayton Cramer. During his residency, he gamed successfully to have almost nothing to do with schizophrenic patients.

If I’m not mistaken, people with a history of schizophreniform breakdowns number about 2 million in this country. Per Torrey, any kind of time-consuming talk with this population is a baaaaad idea. So, two million people (who do not earn well, as a rule) you write prescriptions for and see twice a month for an inventory. Pretty thin revenue stream for the mental health trade, unless you’re on staff for the hard cases confined to asylums.

10 Chairmannoriega January 28, 2017 at 8:41 am

Thank you for suggesting Clayton Cramer on Szasz. Your depth of knowledge always astounds.

11 derek January 27, 2017 at 8:26 am

Have you lived or known someone who is mentally ill? Struggles with depression, maybe tending towards self destructive behaviors? This stuff has a continuum, from a normal dissatisfaction with an awful situation to being incapable of enjoyment or pleasure.

Have you ever managed a crew of people? Young men who didn’t have a father, women who lack self something?

I think that what we are seeing in the modern economy is a situation where the technical and structural demands in the workplace can only be met by smaller slices of the curve. Left tails in IQ for example, and similar when it comes to mental stability. There are always exceptions or unusual situations where these are advantages, for example comics seem to be depressive.

And the problem with seeking help for mental illness is that it is very very difficult to find practitioners who can actually help.

12 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 8:30 am

I think that what we are seeing in the modern economy is a situation where the technical and structural demands in the workplace can only be met by smaller slices of the curve. Left tails in IQ for example, and similar when it comes to mental stability.

There is no secular decline in the employment-to-population ratio.

13 JWatts January 27, 2017 at 8:43 am

“There is no secular decline in the employment-to-population ratio.”

I don’t know what you mean by secular decline in this context. There clearly is a decline in the US employment-population ratio down to a point not seen in over 30 years.


Whether that is truly an indicator of less available work for the less skilled or is largely a convergence of other factors is a matter of debate, of course.

14 derek January 27, 2017 at 9:16 am

But that isn’t the question. There are jobs for the less stable but they suck and pay very little.

15 JWatts January 27, 2017 at 10:01 am

“But that isn’t the question. There are jobs for the less stable but they suck and pay very little.”

Minimum wage pushes marginal workers out of the work force. I would expect a $15 minimum wage to result in a substantial reduction in employment for those with significant mental illness.

I have a brother of a friend who falls in that category. He lives with his parents and has never been self sufficient. But generally he’s been able to hold a minimum wage job for reasonably long periods of time. He’s not retarded, indeed, his IQ is probably above average, but he’s delusional and paranoid. He’s generally in and out of the work force, but he seems to be better and more cognizant when he’s working. It’s highly doubtful if employers would be willing to hire him if minimum wage doubled.

16 NatashaRostova January 27, 2017 at 10:27 am

Are you familiar with the book/argument in “Men Without Work”? There seems to be a very strong and clear retraction of population:employment for men in the US over the past half century.

Sometimes people also combine the reality of lower wages and less prestigious jobs with less employment, which is technically incorrect, but you could see why they would do that.

17 So Much For Subtlety January 27, 2017 at 3:29 am

There are very few tests for mental illness. There are no particularly hard or definite criteria either. The DSM tries but basically everyone is mentally ill according to their criteria.

I would just assume that chronically unhappy people used to think they were touched or cursed by God. Now they think they are mentally ill. What is this study proving? Cause and effect or social validation?

18 Sam The Sham January 27, 2017 at 9:36 am

You’re probably closer to the truth here by invoking that dirty word, God. I think more people have been cursed by secularism.

A young man or woman growing up, being told to follow their dreams-fine as far as it goes, that is dangerous, heady work. Then they are told they are OK just the way they are. Bwuh, what? How many people are worthy of their dreams? If you are to follow your dreams, you must become better than you are. You must study, work hard, and actually learn to control yourself. We are fed a diet of mental garbage, and wonder why we get mentally sick!

19 Thor January 27, 2017 at 10:48 am

Madonna notwithstanding, how garbage is there? But there certainly are inconsistent messages being sent, as you point out. For example, be excellent … but hey, medals for everyone.

20 Sam The Sham January 27, 2017 at 11:52 am

Could you clarify the question? Some of the modern garbage, for example, is exalting the self, or self expression. I may sacrifice my life for God or for Country or Science or even Art, but I certainly wouldn’t sacrifice my life for Me. It barely makes sense. And it is a far harder thing to live for a cause than die for it. I am a very dull person. I cannot be bothered to live for my own sake, but I can wake up to feed the dog. He at least is counting on me.

Also, denying sin. I understand people don’t like objective morality, but if nothing else it holds people to a standard. Again, that ‘perfect just the way you are’ garbage. Be better. Better exists. If I thought there was no room for self improvement in myself, waste of space that I am, I would be depressed.

It does amuse me that psychiatry is catching up to 8000 year old religion. There at least is a Hell, called depression.

21 Sam The Sham January 27, 2017 at 11:56 am

Clarifying: by saying I might die for Art I was in no way endorsing a belief in Art Deco.

22 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 3:44 pm

Good point.

23 Li Zhi January 27, 2017 at 3:33 am

Arguments invoking Freud’s theories are generally in a less consistent and less fact based category than those invoking scripture. That is, they are much worse than useless.
Mental illness is a vaguely defined term that includes dysfunctional perception, dysfunctional processing, dysfunctional information storage, as well as ‘dysfunctional’ action. “Preferences” fail to encompass most of those areas, so it fails to be general enough. I have no idea what the difference is, or whether there really is one, between a preference and a irresistible urge – do you? The (perceived) problem of free choice, redux.

24 dearieme January 27, 2017 at 6:40 am

“a less consistent and less fact based category than those invoking scripture”: that bad, eh?

25 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 8:41 am

Psychoanalitic discourse is of interest to literary scholars, not psychologists or physicians. I was once a staff employee of a university medical center. There was one practitioner left in the psychiatry department who advertised his psychoanalytic training. He was born in 1923, joined the clinical faculty in 1955, and died in 1996. Charles Krauthammer took his board certification examinations ca. 1983. He said shortly thereafter that there wasn’t one question on the exams derived from psychoanalytic concepts. Per Joseph Adelson, the prestige of psychoanalysis among practitioners began to decline around about 1965.

26 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:51 pm

If you want to know the difference between a preference and an irresistible urge, watch a manic depressive in manic phase, or anyone with a lot of impulsiveness.

27 Doug January 27, 2017 at 5:01 am

Isn’t this somewhat begging the question? The most common mental illness category is depression. And that’s pretty much defined as chronically low life satisfaction.

It’s like saying having a big fat stomach explains more of the variance of people’s weight than diet or exercise.

28 chrisare January 27, 2017 at 7:29 am

This. It seems tautological.

29 Sam The Sham January 27, 2017 at 10:47 am

In defense of tautologies. To a mathematician 9×9=81 is a tautology. To a child learning sums it is not. And you will not reach understanding integers until you have the basics down (the mathematician would also say the integer of x dx from 0 to 1 = 0.5 is also a tautology)

In short, reality Is. It helps to divide what Is into pieces we can digest. I think this is basic human experience, but this is psychology we’re talking about.

30 Sam The Sham January 27, 2017 at 10:50 am

And it helps to know the difference between integers and integrals. I would love to blame that on autocorrect.

31 Lee January 27, 2017 at 7:49 am

Agreed — this seems circular.

The paper defines “misery” as the 10th percentile of self-reported life-satisfaction. Mental illness is touted as an “objective” measure in the paper, but it is defined as having been diagnosed for depression/anxiety; and one of the DSM diagnostic criteria for depression is a “subjective report” of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness.

32 derek January 27, 2017 at 9:25 am

But this stuff is circular by definition. Take the extreme case, addiction. You start with some feelings that you want to dampen, insecurity, the inability to connect with other people, to have satisfying relationship with the opposite sex. This stuff is a continuum for everyone, but someone who has mental stability issues finds them insurmountable and they don’t have the mental or emotional tools to get on top of them. So they drink to shut down the feelings and thoughts. They find their woman gone after a bender, or they lose their job, injure or hurt someone. More bad feelings to smother, and over time their family hates them, they are stuck in awful jobs with low demands, low pay and no satisfaction. The challenge of drying out isn’t now the feelings that started the whole chain of events, but the awful consequences of the behavior since.

If you are mentally unstable typically you make bad decisions which make your life worse.

There is a real and substantive difference between being sad because of bad decisions, and being mentally unstable, making bad decisions and accentuating the original problem.

33 Doug January 27, 2017 at 10:31 am

I don’t disagree. I’m certainly not a full Szaszian. Many people really do have biological dysfunction, which impairs normal healthy mental functioning. The problem is that there’s no real way of precisely identifying those people. All we can rely on our symptoms, most of which are still present in healthy people to some degree or another. For example if your dog dies, your wife leaves you and you lose your job, you’re very likely to meet the DSM standard for clinical depression. At least for a little bit. That doesn’t mean there’s any root biological problem, only that you’re responding in a normal way to life circumstances. The difference compared to a “true depressive” is that their symptoms are exogenous to life circumstances.

This isn’t really as much of an issue outside mental health, because it’s simpler to control the inputs going into other vital systems. For example non-diabetics may get blood sugar levels equivalent to diabetics after they eat a big meal. So to control for that we measure blood glucose after people have fasted overnight. Theoretically we could do the analogous for depression by bringing the dog back to life, convincing the wife to come home, and finding the patient a better job. Then see if he still exhibits depressive symptoms. It’s just simply beyond the scope of the medical system though.

Going back to the original point, it’s hard to attribute the actual impact of “true mental illness”. Like I said surveys of mental illness are mixing together people with underlying biological issues and people with bad life circumstances. We know that this group lumped together accounts for a high proportion of reported misery. But we can’t be sure exactly how much of this comes from “true” mental illness alone.

34 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:48 pm

Yes. Perhaps one day there will be blood tests– or other physical tests– that measure biological depression, or the relevant levels of the endorphin good mood chemicals that we all need to have to feel good, or something of that nature, and thus come up with how biological a depression is. But right now, we can’t do it. So right now, it ends up being guess work– guessing how much is biological and how much caused by circumstances or by never having learned good coping skills or whatever.

As a psychotherapist, I tell people this, and tell them that I can help them work on their coping skills to deal with stress– and that if they want to at some time try anti-depressants to see if that helps their mood, then I can refer them to a psychiatrist who can prescribe them.

35 The Original D January 27, 2017 at 7:02 pm

if your dog dies, your wife leaves you and you lose your job

Most people I know who are depressed are in the opposite situation. They feel like they don’t have a legitimate reason to be depressed and so put off doing something about it. They try to will themselves out of it and castigate themselves for not being able to.

In other words, they don’t run to the doctor because they’re feeling down. Rather, they avoid going to the doctor until they’re on the verge of suicide.

36 Dzhaughn January 27, 2017 at 10:36 am

Consider your local mass murderer. They have very low life satisfaction, but they are not depressed. The point is, the two concepts are not the same.

37 Doug January 27, 2017 at 10:53 am

Maybe not. It doesn’t overlap 100%. But depressives as a group have a much higher incidence of low life satisfaction. And people with low life satisfaction have a much higher likelihood of meeting the DSM criteria for clinical depression.

Going back to the obesity analogy. Not all obese people have a big fat belly. And not all people with a big fat belly have a BMI higher than 30. But still regressing obesity against having a big fat belly would produce a very high R-squared, as well as significantly reduce the magnitudes of the diet and exercise coefficients. That doesn’t really tell us anything. It certainly doesn’t tell us that we can forget about diet and exercise, and instead focus public effort on big fat bellies instead.

38 Chairmannoriega January 27, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Mass murderers are too rare for speculation about what causes them.

39 Shane M January 27, 2017 at 3:47 pm

This post reminded me of this (long) article discussing Abraham Lincoln’s decades-long depression.

quote: “Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”

40 Jon January 27, 2017 at 6:28 am

Could the research be bias by the fact that lower income people are less likely to be able to afford treatment or diagnosis for mental illness and thus attribute their unhappiness to something other than depression?

41 rayward January 27, 2017 at 7:20 am

Equating misery with mental illness would render human existence a serious malady, for misery is the default condition for many if not most people. Of course, it’s understandable: birth, infancy, childhood, puberty, adulthood, aging, and death, with lots of suffering along the way. Anyone intellectually curious and sane would be miserable, leaving it to the dull-witted and insane to celebrate life and all of its suffering. If you aren’t miserable, you are either unintelligent or insane.

42 RustySynapses January 27, 2017 at 8:00 am

It was funnier when Woody Allen said it (from Annie Hall):
“I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.”

43 anon January 27, 2017 at 8:01 am

There is the old idea that the depressed make more accurate analyses.


But the flip side is that life needs, and the healthy have, an optimism bias.

So may you all have unrealistic expectations.

44 rayward January 27, 2017 at 9:24 am

Here’s David Brooks on the miserable Donald Trump and the Republican Party he is conditioning to be miserable along with him. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/opinion/the-politics-of-cowardice.html?ref=opinion If Reagan was Mr. Sunshine, Trump is Mr. Miserable. And we all know that misery loves company.

45 derek January 27, 2017 at 9:26 am

Your people created Detroit. No wonder you want to change the subject.

46 anon January 27, 2017 at 9:30 am

I didn’t do it! Lots of interesting news in the last 24 hours, but I can wait.

And now for a feel-good chaser, a goldfish driving a little car.


47 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Thanks, anon. That’s a fun invention.

48 Shane M January 27, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Cool. I assume that’s a camera over the tank monitoring the fish position to drive the motor? At first I though maybe the sides of the tank had some pressure sensitive material and the fish was bumping to move, but the fish seems more like Skinner’s pigeons in his actions

49 Sam The Sham January 27, 2017 at 9:47 am

I’m generally happy. At least, I’m certainly thankful and in awe of life. What unhappiness I have is from my own failings. Does that make me unintelligent, or crazy? To not appreciate life seems foolish to me. Rest assured, we’ll all die soon enough, and that seems to be a one way trip. Enjoy the scenery as you pass by!

50 Doug January 27, 2017 at 10:47 am

There’s not much firm evidence that life is primarily made up of suffering. Fewer than 1% of people who live choose to voluntarily end their own lives. Furthermore even the small threat of near-term death is enough to nearly overwhelm any other immediate concern. Finally we have substances, like heroin and methamphetamine, that at high doses are quite effective at blunting the feeling of suffering. The vast majority of people don’t use those substances or use them irregularly or at low doses. One of the primary reasons being fear of mortality risk associated with high doses. If life was so miserable, we’d expect many more people to trade a long sober life for a shorter life loaded to the brim with constant analgesics.

Revealed preference indicates that most people quite like being alive. The most ubiquitous negative emotion isn’t pain and suffering. It’s monotony, boredom, envy and ennui. This doesn’t mean that human existence is miserable. Quite the opposite, most people’s main concern is that they’re squandering their limited time alive, and not living life to its fullest. As an analogy, take a hobby, say ballroom dancing. Go and survey people who ballroom dance about what their biggest wants are. The majority of them say they desperately would like to ballroom dance more often, longer, better and with more focus and engagement. Does that indicate to you that ballroom dancing sucks? No, that tells me that ballroom dancing must be friggin’ awesome.

51 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Doug, you make some excellent points there. Life can, and often does, have a lot of wonderfulness in it.

52 Alex January 27, 2017 at 1:20 pm

I retain hope that you are wrong but I have not found the solution yet

53 Sam the Sham January 27, 2017 at 3:58 pm

Hope *is* the solution! Rayward is peddling some derivative of Shopenhauer.

54 Heorogar January 27, 2017 at 7:43 am

Nobody is completely sane or always happy or constantly miserable.

We have seen US combat veterans’ and active duty soldiers’ suicides averaging 22 each day.

55 anon January 27, 2017 at 7:52 am

I agree with this: “I would say that mental processes can deviate from procedural rationality in especially disadvantageous (and sometimes systematic) ways, and that this is something above and beyond merely having ‘different preferences.’”

But society doesn’t have a very good handle on it. Too often we treat sleeping (and pooping) in the park as a different preference. Possibly the bad old days of involuntary commitment were worse .. but you know, from a utilitarian perspective, I am not really sure.

(a neighborhing city is doing studies to see if bathrooms open all night in the park are net-net good or bad for public safety.)

56 Thor January 27, 2017 at 10:59 am

They better be non gendered bathrooms, or we’re all going to be miserable!

57 anon January 27, 2017 at 11:23 am

They actually had some words about designs to reduce crime. Permutations left to the reader.

58 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 8:27 am

I think Fuller Torrey might define ‘mental illness’ as a schizophreniform disorder or dementia. If they used a fuzzier definition, isn’t the observation something you might call ‘trivially true’?

59 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:28 pm

There is an entire Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which includes far more than schizophrenia and dementia. IT’s 947 pages long. It’s probably in your public library.


60 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 3:36 pm

That’s a manual of ‘disorders’, not ‘mental illnesses. It’s grown increasingly bloated with each division. It’s a collection of taxonomies to assist psychiatrists, not a description of actual diseases.

61 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 8:35 am

If I’m not mistaken, Szasz’ contention was that there are no purely psychiatric ‘illnesses’; people who suffer neurological damage (which manifests itself in cognition or behavior) are ill, but such people are the province of neurologists, not psychiatrists.

62 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:23 pm

This can shift over time. The people sent to psychiatrists may later be sent to neurologists, once the neurological underpinnings of the condition they suffer from, are better known by science.

63 cfh January 27, 2017 at 8:54 am

I think these researchers misunderstood the term “dismal science”.

64 Perovskite January 27, 2017 at 8:59 am

Is it possible that evolution has built in self destructive mechanisms for the less fit? Taking a bullet for the team, so to speak? If so that will be hard to counteract with talk therapy and pills.

65 JWatts January 27, 2017 at 9:18 am

“Is it possible that evolution has built in self destructive mechanisms for the less fit?”

No one knows for sure, but the generalized description of evolution (at least as far as it works on Earth) is that it practices fitness for survival with a high level of variance. The high level of variance is probably a negative on the short term scale during a stable environmental period, but a positive on the long term scale when from that perspective the environment is continuously changing.

Add in the aspects of human society, which makes for a far less stable environment than most organisms experience and the human race probably is selecting for a very high level of mental variance. And since we’re adaptive tool users, the human race is probably simultaneously under very little evolutionary pressure on a physical level, so again we’re probably selecting (or drifting into) a very high level of physical variance.

66 Alex January 27, 2017 at 1:01 pm

How can depression end up being selected for?

67 Chairmannoriega January 27, 2017 at 3:28 pm

Periods of inactivity due to environmental fluctuations might protect the individual by making them less likely to engage in risk. Feedback loops in our society may keep this system from self reseting and achieving the outcome which selected for it in the first place.

68 JWatts January 27, 2017 at 4:22 pm

“How can depression end up being selected for?”

Furthermore, it may be pure happenstance. There’s no design goal. Evolution will select for plenty of dead in traits that have no value. If they are intertwined with other traits that have a higher survival rate, then they will propagate, as long as their ‘drag on the survival rate’ is less than the other traits survival advantage. Depression may merely come along for the ride with a superior trait.

69 Pshrnk January 27, 2017 at 5:25 pm

Submissiveness, lack of assertiveness, lack of ambition etc. that keep you from challenging the Alpha, letting you survive as a team player, at least give you a chance to reproduce. Immediately challenging the Alpha most likely lets to immediate death and the end of your line. Go just a bit further and its depression.

Winter depression resembles hibernation in several respects.

70 Pshrnk January 27, 2017 at 5:30 pm
71 The Original D January 27, 2017 at 7:07 pm

Oftentimes weaknesses in one area are strengths in another. The gene that causes sickle cell anemia also protects against malaria.

So it’s possible depression is not what was selected.

72 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Taking a bullet for the team does occur, but it seems to have to do with instincts in lower animals like ants, and with cultural expectations in humans. But even there, that has more to do with dying off or risking your life for the team, than with being depressed, which doesn’t seem to do any good for the team at all, actually. In some cases it does lead to suicide, and then the depressed person no longer consumes resources that might be used by others. But only a small percentage of depressed people commit suicide. Many make their families and communities less adaptive, especially when they are not treated, or are inadequately treated, for depression.

73 Turkey Vulture January 27, 2017 at 9:12 am

With those saying this seems to be a tautolgical finding. I suspect that almost anyone in the bottom 10% of reported life satisfaction could be diagnosed with depression.

74 Turkey Vulture January 27, 2017 at 9:31 am

“I would say that mental processes can deviate from procedural rationality in especially disadvantageous (and sometimes systematic) ways, and that this is something above and beyond merely having “different preferences.”

A lot would seem to ride on how you define “disadvantageous.” If reproduction is taken as the end goal, then a lack of desire to have children, or anything that puts your focus on something besides children (leading you to have fewer of them) would be seriously disadvantageous. Academia as mental illness.

75 John January 27, 2017 at 9:33 am

Wouldn’t it be wealth as a mental illness as the relationship seems to be increasing wealth in the society having a strong relationship with declining fertility/birth rates?

Not sure I would agree with the inference in either but I think there’s something to what you’re getting at.

76 anon January 27, 2017 at 9:39 am

We are not beasts in the fields, we have higher potential, but greater fears. We need a philosophy (and/or religion) to cope.

77 Turkey Vulture January 27, 2017 at 9:41 am

Pursuit of wealth/career as ends-in-themselves as mental illness, yes.

Both would also fit Tyler’s “mental processes can deviate from procedural rationality in especially disadvantageous (and sometimes systematic) ways”: it can be beneficial to successful child-rearing to achieve a certain level of material well-being to try to make your children more likely to survive and reproduce. But over-pursuing that level of well-being such that you forego having children (or as many children) would be an “especially disadvantageous” deviation from that procedural rationality.

78 Turkey Vulture January 27, 2017 at 9:46 am

And I guess perhaps wealth-in-itself as mental illness: even with a comparatively low level of income/wealth, my thoughts of “should I have more kids?” fight with “but I want to do fun stuff.” Had I never experienced the leisure and hedonism available with even a minimum of material well-being in our society, I would almost certainly seek to dutifully turn out more sons for the kingdom. That is highly disadvantageous to the goal of reproducing.

79 Alex January 27, 2017 at 12:58 pm

I thought “disadvantageous” here just meant leading to unhappiness or low life satisfaction.

80 John January 27, 2017 at 9:31 am

My first reaction was largely, Wow, is it surprising that we find a big connection between what we call a negative mental state and how we are classifying the health of a person’s mental state?

However, I also get that the findings are also reflective of other folk knowledge type views — like the saying money cannot by happiness, which I do agree with. Similarly, we know there are functional alcoholics and many who are successful with various types of depression and psychosis (wasn’t a study done showing that a significant — possible a majority? — of CEOs in large corporates were largely sociopathic).

What might be a good sister inquiry here would be to study the flip side here — what about the “mental illness” status of people who are not miserable but those that are largely happy and optimistic? Unless there’s something that shows a negative relationship here, or at least strong independence, then I’m not sure that approach goes far.

81 anon January 27, 2017 at 9:43 am

By a utilitarian definition of mental illness, you have to be harming someone. Though as you say, high functioning types can be a cypher.

82 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:15 pm

There’s quite a bit written on positive psychology, the study of human strengths, happiness, flourishing etc.


83 Dave Smith January 27, 2017 at 11:36 am

How much good could we do in the world if we’d focus more on mental health as opposed to reproductive health, especially when reproductive health is code for “others must pay for my birth control.”

Condoms are cheap or free everywhere. Birth control pills are also easy to get. But how many people languish in mental illness (again, for lack of a better word) as the health care debate focuses issues like Hobby Lobby. The loony tactics and concerns of the left drive the right away from the debate and nothing helpful gets done.

84 anon January 27, 2017 at 12:00 pm

The left wants no coercion, the right wants to spend no money. Combine those things and we have US homeless policy (surely the extreme of both misery and mental illness).

If you want to institutionalize the bums who yell at kids at bus stops, you need a little of both.

85 Dave Smith January 27, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Mental illness is not just bums who yell at kids. Mental illness wrecks many lives of people who on the outside look like they are functioning. And research shows that mental illness treatment works yet there is a large lack of supply of treatment even for those who have the ability to pay. This could be helped by better policy yet we waste our public dialog energy worrying about issues like Hobby Lobby, whose insurance pays for a vast majority of available birth control method yet was not good enough for those on the left. It is my belief that this tires our national debate and results in missed opportunities for helpful reforms.

86 anon January 27, 2017 at 4:57 pm

Maybe they should rename it Hobby Horse.

People can play “don’t fund this, fund that,” all day long.

How much mental health would “the wall” buy? Doesn’t matter. We never do “this not that” swaps. We fund what has the support, for instance women’s health, and “extra wall” for declining ROI.

87 anon January 27, 2017 at 5:35 pm
88 Mine Is the Only Virtuous Political Tribe January 27, 2017 at 1:12 pm

Of course, all the loons are on the Left, LOL. No problem with the Right, or Trump, or gag rules that keep health clinics from even saying the word abortion, even if they don’t offer abortion at their clinic. And no problem when young women are forced to have babies that they are not emotionally or financially equipped to handle, and when the resulting kids live in misery, neglect and abuse. Not a problem at all.

89 Dave Smith January 27, 2017 at 1:43 pm

I suspect your screen name is not irony to you. I know there are loons on the right yet I get the sense that you think there are none on the left. The Hobby Lobby case, which was just my example of something that way too much public energy was spent debating, had nothing to do with forcing young women to have babies. Those who work for Hobby Lobby have excellent pay and benefits compared to the rest of those who work in retail. (I’d wager that is all employers treated employees as good as Hobby Lobby, we’d live in a better world.) Anyway my point was that 1) mental health treatment can have great benefits to those who need it, 2) it is in short supply, 3) better policy could help, and 4) we can’t get good policy due to the nature of the debate.

90 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 3:38 pm

“Mental health” is a vague, half-baked idea.

91 Alex January 27, 2017 at 12:41 pm

I don’t know what “procedural rationality” has to do with this since you can be “rational” at pursuing goals but still feel awful.

The idea that some genetic/congenital determinant of mood is more important than the environment seems true to me. I have been in many environments, but the only times I remember right now when I was happy are vacations, and this one stretch of about a year right after I moved to a new location. The vast majority of my life has been a stretch of dysthymia.

92 Alex January 27, 2017 at 12:48 pm

Although frankly it’s also possible I just need more sex

93 Post-Truth Politics January 27, 2017 at 1:08 pm

If you’ve ever had a psychotic friend, relative or associate, then you know that mental illness is a real thing. However, it is a complicated real thing, with different forms of it, degrees of it, causes of it, treatments that work for it etc. Those who reject it– as well as those who accept that it exists– often have oversimplified views of it.

Being in the mental health field, it is fascinating to me how so many people feel certain that they know everything there is to know about stress and coping, mental health, mental illness etc. In this area of life perhaps more than in any other, the Dunning-Krueger effect reigns supreme. It makes you realize how politics and economics and everything else that involves human groups and civilization, can sometimes get so dysfunctional.

People are often very certain of things that we don’t actually know. This reminds me of a saying that has been attributed (perhaps falsely) to Mark Twain

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

And this also makes me think about an excellent book on that subject, here below.

On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not Paperback – March 17, 2009
by Robert A. Burton


94 Alex January 27, 2017 at 1:44 pm

Whether we call it “depression” or “feeling sad”, if you can go to a shrink and there is an effect of therapy, then this paper still has a consequence that more folks should see shrinks.

95 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 6:35 pm

this paper still has a consequence that more folks should see shrinks.

In the non-profit sector, drumming up business is called ‘outreach’.

96 Vl January 27, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Psychiatrist here. What term would you prefer to ‘mental illness’? Szasz is wrong in his wholesale rejection of mental illness, even if most ‘psychiatric illnesses’ can truly be described as ‘problems with living.’ It is extremely difficult to argue that schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness do not represent an abnormality at the cellular level, not simply 3-4 standard deviations from the norm.

97 Art Deco January 27, 2017 at 3:40 pm

Psychiatrists do not make their living taking care of schizophrenics.

98 byomtov January 28, 2017 at 11:38 am

What difference does that make to VI’s point?

Mental illness is real. Schizophrenia is real. Depression is real, and life-threatening. The pretensions of the GMU Econ department on the subject are just that – ill-informed pretensions. They need to get over themselves.

99 byomtov January 28, 2017 at 11:32 am

I don’t like the term “mental illness,” ….

Too bad.

100 Kareem January 28, 2017 at 4:17 pm

It’s always sad to see people struggling mentally especially related to unemployment, but it all can change easily if we are sensible. I do Forex trading and through that, it’s easy to make healthy amount of money. I find it ever easy with broker like OctaFX, as they are awesome with having low spreads from 0.1 pips to high leverage up to 1.500 while there is also 50% bonus on deposit which is use able too, so all this works pretty nicely.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: