Acedia: The ADHD of the Middle Ages
John Plotz writes for The New York Times:
By some miracle, you set aside a day to tackle that project you can’t seem to finish in the office. You close the door, boot up your laptop, open the right file and . . . five minutes later catch yourself thinking about dinner. By 10 a.m., you’re staring at the wall, even squinting at it between your fingertips. Is this day 50 hours long? Soon, you fall into a light, unsatisfying sleep and awake dizzy or with a pounding headache; all your limbs feel weighed down. At which point, most likely around noon, you commit a fatal error: leaving the room. I’ll just garden for a bit, you tell yourself, or do a little charity work. Hmmm, I wonder if my friend Gregory is around?
This probably strikes you as an extremely, even a uniquely, modern problem. Pick up an early medieval monastic text, however, and you will find extensive discussion of all the symptoms listed above, as well as a diagnosis. Acedia, also known as the “noonday demon,” appears again and again in the writings of the Desert Fathers from the fourth and fifth centuries. Wherever monks and nuns retreated into cells to labor and to meditate on matters spiritual, the illness struck.
New York Times: Their Noonday Demons, and Ours
(via Adam Gurri)
Acedia was also considered a precursor to the deadly sin of sloth.
The Neuroscience of Depression – And What to Do About It
Math for Primates co-host Nick Horton wrote a personal post on how he manages his depression. Here’s a bit on the neuroscience of depression:
The Prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that deals with (among other things) the regulation of mood states. If it is atrophied, then your ability to deal with these tasks gets downgraded. This becomes particularly problematic given that without the prefrontal cortex running at full speed, you can’t dampen the negative emotions generated by the Amygdala. The amygdala is that part of your brain that deals with Fight or Flight responses. It is your brains Fear Factory. To add fuel to the fire, in depressed people the amygdala tends to be overactive.
Think of the Amygdala and the prefrontal cortex as the brains Yin and Yang. You need both to be strong and healthy to have a strong healthy brain that is in balance. Depressed folk ain’t in balance. Generally, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for saying, “Hey, Amygdala, I got your message. We’re cool here. No need to freak out, dude!” But, when your brain is broke (like mine), you can be flooded with negative emotional responses that can result in despair and overwhelming helplessness.
The Iron Samurai: Managing Depression With Weightlifting? Or, How You Feel Is A Lie
I found this part interesting as well:
Depression is so debilitating precisely because of the trick your mind plays on you. It tricks you into believing that how you feel is valid. This sparks a downward spiral of sadness that makes life impossible. The more you play into its tricks, the harder it gets to drag yourself out of it.
It gave me an idea. People of above average intelligent are known to be prone to depression, right? Could it be because smart people are better at finding reasons to be depressed, locking themselves into this downward spiral? Could people of average or less intelligence be better at talking themselves out of being depressed? I’m not sure how to test this hypothesis.
Does Religion Make People Happier – Or Conformity?
A couple months ago I linked to a story about the happiest guy in the world. One of the ways this was calculated was based on religion – religious people are typically assumed to be the happier than non-religious people. And apparently religious Jews are expected to be happiest of all.
But are religious people actually happier? According to Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist, that might not be the case. Barber writes:
Much of the research linking religiosity and happiness was conducted in the U.S. where more religious people are slightly happier. Researchers saw this as evidence for the universal benefits of religion (a perspective that interests evolutionary psychologists like myself because it helps explain why religion is so common around the globe). Yet, there is no association between religiousness and happiness in either Denmark or the Netherlands (3).
Why the difference? Religious people are in the majority in the U.S., but in a minority in Denmark and the Netherlands. Feeling part of the mainstream may be comforting whereas being in the minority is potentially stressful. Ethnic minorities around the world tend to have higher blood pressure, for example – this being a reliable index of stress.
If religion contributes to happiness, then the most religious countries should be happiest. Yet, the opposite is true.
Psychology Today: Does religion make people happier?
Could it be then that the level of happiness enjoyed by religious people in the U.S. is a result of conformity, rather than religion itself? If that were the case, we should expect religious people in more secular countries, controlled for income, to be less happy than non-religious people in those countries. Is this the case?
Here’s a recent ranking of the top 10 happiest countries in the world.
Commuting is Making Us Fat and Miserable
People who commute more than 45 minutes a day are more likely to get divorced, according to a Swedish study. And that’s just one of many studies indicating that commuting ruins lives that Slate’s Annie Lowrey shares in a recent story on the subject. “The joy of living in a big, exurban house, or that extra income leftover from your cheap rent? It is almost certainly not worth it,” she writes.
Long commutes are associated with neck and back pain, high levels of stress, obesity and a high level of dissatisfaction with one’s life and work.
Despite everything, commuting time has only increased over the past 50 years. The number of “extreme commuters,” who commute 90 minutes each way, has doubled since 1990 to 3.5 million. Why? The number one reason seems to be housing costs. People tend to want to buy larger houses, even if that adds significant time to their commute. According to Lowrey, economists have been warning us since at least the 60s that we tend not to take the value of our time into account when we buy houses far from work.
It’s not always that easy, though. I don’t own a home, so I have more flexibility in where I live. But back when I was doing IT contracting I would work in one place for a couple-few months, then move on to the next gig. I worked in one northwestern suburb of Portland (Hillsboro) for six months, then in a southwestern suburb for 3 or 4 months (Tualitin) and then in a northeastern suburb (Gresham) for a month or so. Eventually I found a full-time job in the city. I could have tried moving closer to that workplace, but my wife worked on the other side of town. And really, I could have been laid off at any time and had to start commuting to another corner of the metro area. Living centrally (close-in southeast) helped – my commute was never more than about 45 minutes (by car) each way. But not everyone can live in the middle of a city.
Slate: Your Commute Is Killing You.
(photo by epSos.de)
After Middle Age, People Get Happier As They Get Older
Via the MetaFilter discussion on the happiest man in America:
Ask a bunch of 30-year-olds and another of 70-year-olds as Peter Ubel, of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, did with two colleagues, Heather Lacey and Dylan Smith, in 2006 which group they think is likely to be happier, and both lots point to the 30-year-olds. Ask them to rate their own well-being, and the 70-year-olds are the happier bunch. The academics quoted lyrics written by Pete Townshend of The Who when he was 20: “Things they do look awful cold / Hope I die before I get old”. They pointed out that Mr Townshend, having passed his 60th birthday, was writing a blog that glowed with good humour.
Mr Townshend may have thought of himself as a youthful radical, but this view is ancient and conventional. The “seven ages of man”—the dominant image of the life-course in the 16th and 17th centuries—was almost invariably conceived as a rise in stature and contentedness to middle age, followed by a sharp decline towards the grave. Inverting the rise and fall is a recent idea. “A few of us noticed the U-bend in the early 1990s,” says Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick Business School. “We ran a conference about it, but nobody came.”
Since then, interest in the U-bend has been growing. Its effect on happiness is significant—about half as much, from the nadir of middle age to the elderly peak, as that of unemployment. It appears all over the world. David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, and Mr Oswald looked at the figures for 72 countries. The nadir varies among countries—Ukrainians, at the top of the range, are at their most miserable at 62, and Swiss, at the bottom, at 35—but in the great majority of countries people are at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s. The global average is 46.
The Economist: Age and happiness: The U-bend of life
Life Without Serotonin
I had no idea the link between serotonin and depression was in doubt. Very interesting:
Via Dormivigilia, I came across a fascinating paper about a man who suffered from a severe lack of monoamine neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin etc.) as a result of a genetic mutation. [...]
Overall, though, the biggest finding here was a non-finding: this patient wasn’t depressed, despite having much reduced serotonin levels. This is further evidence that serotonin isn’t the “happy chemical” in any simple sense.
On the other hand, the similarities between his symptoms and some of the symptoms of depression suggest that serotonin is doing something in that disorder. This fits with existing evidence from tryptophan depletion studies showing that low serotonin doesn’t cause depression in most people, but does re-activate symptoms in people with a history of the disease. As I said, it’s complicated…
Neuroskeptic: Life Without Serotonin
Serotonin and Depression: A Disconnect between the Advertisements and the Scientific Literature
Researchers discover that stress isn’t a modern invention
Using modern forensic technology and a decidedly modern understanding of biochemistry, researchers from The University of Western Ontario have taken a look at stress levels in pre-Colombian Peru; their findings are summarized in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. They found that stress has plagued humanity for at least 1500 years. The researchers were able to get the dead to give up not only their final secrets, but an understanding of their life for a few years before they shuffled off this mortal coil.
When humans get stressed, our bodies release a chemical known as cortisol, which appears in our blood, our urine, and even our hair. Of those three, hair is only one stands the test of over 1000 years of time, and provides a short history of the last years that its owner had. By examining hair strands from 10 individuals at five different dig sites in Peru, the researchers were able to determine how stressed people were, using the levels of cortisol in segments of their hair.
Ars Technica: The prehistory of stress
Depression as Deadly as Smoking, Study Finds
A study by researchers at the University of Bergen, Norway, and the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London has found that depression is as much of a risk factor for mortality as smoking.
Utilising a unique link between a survey of over 60,000 people and a comprehensive mortality database, the researchers found that over the four years following the survey, the mortality risk was increased to a similar extent in people who were depressed as in people who were smokers.
Dr Robert Stewart, who led the research team at the IoP, explains the possible reasons that may underlie these surprising findings: ‘Unlike smoking, we don’t know how causal the association with depression is but it does suggest that more attention should be paid to this link because the association persisted after adjusting for many other factors.’
The study also shows that patients with depression face an overall increased risk of mortality, while a combination of depression and anxiety in patients lowers mortality compared with depression alone. Dr Stewart explains: ‘One of the main messages from this research is that ‘a little anxiety may be good for you’.
Science Daily: Depression as Deadly as Smoking, Study Finds