‘We all need to stand still and take stock of our lives’

May 1st is the next date to visit Studio Erasmus at Theater Rotterdam, a monthly talk show about science and current events. PhD candidate Bert van den Bergh is one of the speakers. We spoke to him about his PhD research on our ‘depression epidemic’ – and why depressions occur so frequently in our society. 

According to the World Health Organization the mental disorder depression is ‘the leading cause of disability worldwide’. How come? What kind of suffering are we dealing with here? These questions are explored in Van den Bergh’s research; he obtained his PhD last April 6st at the Faculty of Philosophy (FW).

Why is this an important theme? 
‘The number of depression cases has been on the increase around the world. We suffer from a so-called depression epidemic. From Japan to the Netherlands, experts are struggling with this problem and trying to find the best way to tackle it. It seems nobody has the solution yet.’ 

Why did this subject draw your attention in a philosophical context? 
‘I find it interesting that depressions happen in every layer of society. It’s not really related to the level of wealth a person enjoys. Rich people and people with good careers also suffer from depression, maybe even more so. 
Moreover, the number of depression cases appears to have risen with the increase of prosperity. In the nineties, the booming years during the advance of ICT, depression became a hot issue and Prozac a popular drug. Intriguing - it seems our wellbeing decreases once our wealth increases. Is that true? Years ago, I ran into a book by a French sociologist about this question. Why are so many people unhappy nowadays – in an age when we have almost everything we could ever wish for?’

Did you find the answer to this bugging question?
‘My finding is that we only pretend to have an answer. We don’t know a lot about depression, we don’t truly understand it. The media tend to describe depression as a ‘disease’, a medical issue. Something you can cure with medication. It is also often marked as a ‘brain disfunction’. Is this an attempt to take depression seriously? Saying: it’s not something people fake. Or is it a misleading interpretation of the phenomenon? So far no scientist has been able to prove that depression is a brain disease. You can’t pinpoint depression in somebody’s brain.’ 

What do you think a depression is? 
‘I believe it has more to do with the way we live than with our biology. In my PhD research I state that depression is culturally rather than biologically determined. The way we live and work – how we define ‘the good life’ in our society –  is the problem. That’s what’s depressing us.’

'In my PhD research I state that depression is culturally rather than biologically determined. The way we live and work – how we define ‘the good life’ in our society – is the problem.'

Bert van den Bergh is one of the speakers of Studio Erasmus, May 1st at Theater Rotterdam.

Do you mean to say money makes us unhappy?
‘I think it’s the way we’ve organised our modern lives in the West; our careers, our social lives. There’s a level of discord. Something is fundamentally dysfunctional or missing in the lives of people in Western society.’

What could that be?
‘One of the most basic things people need to live a healthy and happy live, is elementary attunement. The process of attunement to your environment, to places, people, activities, circumstances. Because this is a process, it takes time. Often, we don’t take that time anymore. 
Another thing that really matters is the feeling of being connected to others and being part of something bigger. These days, we hardly have time to be aware of our environment. We live such fast and compartmentalized lives, offline as well as online, that there’s hardly any time to tune in. Everything is constantly changing. We also don’t align with other people, we live very isolated lives. We no longer truly connect with others; we even admire and praise those who manage to do it ‘all on their own’. You might say we’re not living our lives sustainably. Most of us need more time to stand still, take stock, and connect.’ 

Something called #trueselfie week garnered a lot of media attention about feelings of depression and how to deal with them. Do you believe sharing feelings of sadness on social media will help how we perceive each others’ lives? Social media sometimes seems like one big Happy Show. 
‘I’m not sure it will help. We’re expected to live solitary, yet great and exciting lives. Even with #trueselfie and celebrities who confessed to being depressed, you don’t put an end to the loneliness. And the focus remains on being demonstrative, whether it’s about ‘I’m great at being successful’ or ‘I’m great at being depressed’. We are constantly expected to be strong. Even in our depression we have to be ‘strong and brave’. No, you don’t have to be strong all the time.’ 

What do you think could offer a cure for society, if #trueselfie weeks won’t help?
‘I think in our society we tend to forget that the most basic human need is to feel connected. Another way to avoid depression is to stand still every now and take stock for longer than three seconds. People forget basic things like taking a pause. Most people grab their phones if they have to wait for more than a minute – because we cannot give our brains a rest, even for moment. 
We want to create and be brilliant all the time, but we forget that you need to inhale to exhale. You need to accept the ‘grey’ days every now and then, instead of longing for the next spectacular thing all the time. We should aim to find back a healthy life rhythm. The rhythm of day and night, of being ‘off’ and being ‘on’, happy and sad – it’s all part of life.’ 

What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on publishing my PhD research for the general public.’ 

Bert van den Bergh Studio Erasmus

More information

Curious about the rest of the program? Bert van den Bergh will give a speech at Studio Erasmus next to other scientists. Tuesday 1 May 2018, 8:30 PM at Foyer Theater Rotterdam (Schouwburg), free entrance. 

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