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Treating the Blues Could Save the Planet
Colin Beavan, 18 Feb 09

drugs-prozac.jpgI suffer, at times, from anxiety and depression. Not the worst kind of anxiety and depression. I'm talking about the kind that takes the edge off the gratitude I should be feeling for a good life — a life with kind people in it, a nice place to live, and a career of writing and environmental activism that I really enjoy.

I’m not saying I have "major depressive syndrome." What I have is not I-can't-get-out-of-bed-or-go-to-work depression. It’s not the I-need-to-swallow-some-medicine-if-I-hope-to-drag-this-body-from-place-to-place depression. The burning of neural pathways in my brain hasn’t gone that far.

At least, that is, not yet.

My problem is that I've been working my tail off night and day for a couple of years now. I ran the No Impact experiment in which my little family tried to live as environmentally as possible. I write a daily blog ( I just finished a book (which comes out next September also under the title No Impact Man). My collaboration in the making of the No Impact Man documentary just wrapped up. It's added up to a lot of work. You know, like working nights. Working weekends. Working like a dog. Working like, well, an American.

Now, we already know that the United States economy wreaks havoc on our environmental well-being, contributing some 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But it turns out that working in that same economy may also wreak havoc on our emotional well-being. Working like an American, some research implies, may be — literally — depressing.

Consider how hard we work.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the average employed American clocked 1,798 hours in 2007. That means we worked about three and a half 40-hour work-weeks more than the Brits, six more than the Irish and a whopping eleven and a half weeks more than the West Germans. We worked, in fact, more hours per year than citizens of any other Western European OECD member country.

On our side of the Atlantic, with our Protestant work ethic, we’ve made a habit of joking that our European cousins are lazy. On the other side, where Europeans enjoy long vacations and oodles of leisure, they joke that we’re crazy. Who’s right?

Let's return, first, to my own experience. What I've found over the years, is that I can manage my predisposition to the blues if I rest enough and if I take care of myself. I've found that if I take time to meditate, exercise, sleep sufficiently and joke around with friends, then my tendency to over-think and get down about life actually can transform into an asset: with space, digested worry can become some kind of worthwhile introspection.

Lately, though, I haven't taken the time to decompress — I go back to work after putting my little girl to bed — and my worry has nibbled at my life quality. This leads me to thinking about the connection between my recent, more-stressful-than-usual way of life and my anxiety and, in turn, Americans' long working hours, the associated planetary resource use of our economy, and the fact that nearly 10 percent of Americans suffer from some sort of depressive disorder, according to the World Health Organization.

I asked a psychiatrist friend if the fact that the United States sports the world’s highest rate of depression (not to mention, by the way, obsessive-compulsive or panic disorders, which together affect another 18 percent of Americans) is related to problems with our individual brain chemistries or problems with our way of life. My friend said that individual brains — like mine, for example — may have a biological tendency towards anxiety and depression. But this tendency can be triggered by the stresses a culture foists on its members.

On a personal level, in other words, if I want to feel better, I better take it a little easier. Or I could just keep barreling through and let my brain start sending me bigger signals in the form of major depression.

But to the larger point, which is the high rate of unhappiness of my fellow Americans, I can't help worrying that my somewhat unique working circumstances — I am a self-employed freelancer, after all — make my ability to work fewer hours for the sake of my emotional health unusual. For most Americans, working hours are fixed. Round pegs have to slot themselves into square holes. With no flexibility to adapt their lifestyles to ensure enough serotonin moves around their brains, too many Americans are left with only a pharmaceutical solution.

Our economy and our culture doesn't cater to lifestyle choice. Here in the United States, our policies are not about making sure we can take care of ourselves in any other way than financially. In some ways, I wonder if that puts us in the ludicrous position of having to take a pill — like Prozac — in order to tolerate the way we live.

At least one study, published in the June edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, confirms my friend the psychiatrist's suggestion that our way of life and, indeed, our high number of work hours is contributing to our national anxiety and depression. The study concluded that those who work overtime are more prone to these emotional problems than those who work less than 40 hours a week (long work hours, by the way, may also contribute to America's obesity epidemic, according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity).

What does this tell us? Maybe that we should, as individuals and as a culture, consider working less if we want to be happier. Yeah, but how does this relate to our economy’s use of planetary resources and saving the planet, as I’ve implied?

Well, since Americans are among the hardest workers in the world, we are among the highest earners in the world, which means we are among the biggest spenders in the world, and, therefore, we are among the largest users of planetary resources.

We tend to think of using fewer resources for the sake of the environment as some sort of belt tightening, a sort of deprivation. But what if using fewer resources meant needing less money, meant having to work less hard, meant less depression and anxiety? What does such a possibility tell us about how we should live our lives? What does that tell us about the possibility that living environmentally might be better for us as well as for the planet?

Of course, this begs the question of what our priorities should be on a personal level. I, for one, am going to try to let go of my attachment to achievement and take time to take care of myself. But it begs big policy questions, too. The overarching economic policy has always been to increase economic throughput — and therefore planet-destroying resource throughput — on the assumption that this would bring greater happiness to the greatest number of people.

Of course, in these times of such economic distress, we can't be cavalier about the importance of economic throughput. But at the same time, the question becomes: should it represent the be all and end all of Government policy? Perhaps — again, with the exception of those who are in economic distress — our policy should not be about getting more money into everyone's pockets but more time into their lives.

That could be one way to help deal our epidemic of anxiety and depression. It might also help us use fewer resources and save the planet.

Read related articles in the Worldchanging archive:
One Approach To Sustainability: Work Less
The Happy Planet Index

Colin%20Beavan_headshot_gray.jpgColin Beavan writes and administers, a meeting point for discussion of environmental issues, lifestyle redesign, political engagement and citizen responses to our planetary emergency from a "deep green" perspective. Beavan's experiment in lifestyle redesign is the subject of his book (scheduled for publication in September 2009 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and a documentary by independent filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Eden Wurmfeld.

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I wasn't expecting you to say that the reason we do more environmental damage was because we earn more, precisely because it does seem to ignore the economic travails facing so many Americans.

An equally valid argument can be made that because we have less leisure time we make unhealthy, and environmentally unsound, choices. This is the case with obesity in this country - longer hours, fewer time to shop and cook for yourself and your kids. Or, as you mentioned, people turn to drugs rather than long walks with the dog (drugs which are produced in less than environmentally friendly ways).

Posted by: Martha on 18 Feb 09

Would shortening our work week or giving us more vacation time create jobs? If people were working fewer hours, and therefore getting paid less, maybe companies could afford to hire more people. Individuals might make less money, but if it meant giving more people work then it might be worth it, especially since a lot of people, myself included, would be happier if people weren't expected to work 40 hours a week.

Posted by: John Giezentanner on 18 Feb 09

I also think about this subject a lot, and I do think that, ironically, our dedication to standard of living is detrimental to our quality of life.

Add to your list studies demonstrating that when workers are put on a shorter work week, 30-35 hours say, productivity doesn't decline. Among white-collar workers, especially, it's clear that 40 or 50 hours are not being used productively; they're being used to prove a point.

Posted by: JS on 19 Feb 09

I believe you about the overwork, and about longer work weeks not being more productive than shorter ones. Civilized countries manage quite well on shorter work weeks and more vacation time. However in my case it's not the work that's getting me down, but the lack of it. With shorter hours, there could be more jobs to go around, hence fewer people out of work.

Your article leaves out of consideration the causal factors behind Americans' overwork. We have behind us three decades of ruthless hardcore Chigago-school neo-"liberal" economics, with its emphasis on the infallible benignity of the Invisible Hand of the marketplace and other imaginary friends. As a result Americans work substantially more than they did a generation ago for less quality of life. We pay more for medical care than any nation on earth. Perhaps most importantly, the cost of housing is now easily half of many families' incomes, sometimes even more - whereas 35 years ago it was typically a quarter or less. It's no coincidence that a collapse in the housing usury market was at the heart of the current economic fiasco.

So to take the excellent advice you suggest, American will need to improve on the quality of the many stupid political decisions they've made in the past 35 years. Electing the current President was probably a step in the right direction, but we've a long, long way to go.

Posted by: Kevin Kihn on 20 Feb 09

Good article and good question about balance. The Asian nations and India work longer hours than the US. Korea recently passed Laws requiring men to take Saturdays off to spur consumer spending. Emulating Socialist countries that are battling the problem of youth raised without work ethic may not be the route we wish to go. A big part of our problem is the idea that people deserve jobs. Do they? The Los Angeles unified school district is sick with redundant jobs and a gaping shortfall. Should our children's education be made second to people deserving good jobs, redundant or not? Should the LAUSD's primary objective be to provide quality education? Life can be very hard when a rich nation starts to adopt entitlement thinking and its consequences and thats what we are facing. We would all do well to review our fairy tales for a few reminders about life. The three little fiscal pigs is a good one. We are at a crossroads of reduced prosperity(which will slowly take us out of the number one country spot. SCARRY!) in exchange for socialism. THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS IF YOU WANTED TO WORK LESS YOU CAN. What you really want is less work and the same goodies you have now. Do I pick up the difference? Do we get back to hard work and innovation or do we trade it in for political correct comfort. I deserve a well paying easy job because I am a great Guy with a family and I am tired of working harder than my socialist neighbors but I still want... GIVE IT TO ME. WAHHHHHHHHH

Posted by: william schwarz on 20 Feb 09

Regarding the environment. Certain people have done well passing stricter enviromental legislation that restricts the output of a variety of pollutants. In Los Angeles for instance we virtually shut down the furniture manufacturing sector with strict air quality regs. Not a problem though it went to China, Mexico, Vietnam and others so we can still get our furniture. My question to anyone reading this comment is did we help the environment or make it worse? Never mind the question of domestic jobs and trade balance issues only consider the ENVIRONMENT or world ecosystem. Keep in mind shipping, lower emission & manufacturing standards if any in these countries and the answer you reach is WOW it was net increase in pollution and greenhouse gases for the world! Idealism and Reality are rarely in agreement and thats why wealthy civilizations become poor ones and poor ones become wealthy and eat the squishy people. Don't be an idealist and find real solutions!

Posted by: WILLIAM SCHWARZ on 20 Feb 09

What do you mean by "West Germans"... What century (no, millenium) are we living in?

I totally agree with you point, but blunders like that do not help your cause and argument...

Posted by: Lars Schulz on 22 Feb 09

I'm a firm believer of the 80% work week. 35 hours. what a difference those 5 hours make in mental health and my family life. I think we need to push the America toward that goal. More time with the children would help them do better in school. Our time with them would be better 'quality' time. Maybe there would be more jobs created.

Posted by: Christine on 25 Feb 09
a bedtime story to save Humanity and the living planet
it free to read it is a work in progress
the kids are making an animation
Sweet Dreams

Posted by: E M Cohen on 22 Oct 09

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