Epidemic of depression

The causes of our unhappiness
How we learned to stop having fun

the rise of depression and the decline of festivities are symptomatic of some deeper, underlying psychological change, which began about 400 years ago and persists, in some form, in our own time. The second, more intriguing possibility is that the disappearance of traditional festivities was itself a factor contributing to depression.

makes the individual potentially more autonomous and critical of existing social arrangements, which is all to the good. But it can also transform the individual into a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else.

The notion of a self hidden behind one’s appearance and portable from one situation to another is usually attributed to the new possibility of upward mobility. In medieval culture, you were what you appeared to be

Hence, too, the new fascination with the theatre, with its notion of an actor who is different from his or her roles.

But there was a price to be paid for the buoyant individualism we associate with the more upbeat aspects of the early modern period, the Renaissance and Enlightenment. As Tuan writes, “the obverse” of the new sense of personal autonomy is “isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, a loss of natural vitality and of innocent pleasure in the givenness of the world, and a feeling of burden because reality has no meaning other than what a person chooses to impart to it”.

It is no coincidence that the concept of society emerges at the same time as the concept of self.

Not so with the Calvinist version of Protestantism. Instead of offering relief, Calvinism provided a metaphysical framework for depression: if you felt isolated, persecuted and possibly damned, this was because you actually were.

We do not have to rely on psychological inference to draw a link between Calvinism and depression. There is one clear marker for depression – suicide – and suicide rates have been recorded, with varying degrees of diligence, for centuries.

So if we are looking for a common source of depression on the one hand, and the suppression of festivities on the other, it is not hard to find. Urbanisation and the rise of a competitive, market-based economy favoured a more anxious and isolated sort of person – potentially both prone to depression and distrustful of communal pleasures. Calvinism provided a transcendent rationale for this shift, intensifying the isolation and practically institutionalising depression as a stage in the quest for salvation. At the level of “deep, underlying psychological change”, both depression and the destruction of festivities could be described as seemingly inevitable consequences of the broad process known as modernisation. But could there also be a more straightforward link, a way in which the death of carnival contributed directly to the epidemic of depression?

It may be that in abandoning their traditional festivities, people lost a potentially effective cure for it.

an edited extract from Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich,