The Four Reasons Why Overthinking and Depression Are on the Rise
More and more people are getting fat.
From the growing waistlines and rates of cardiovascular disease, it’s obvious.
We call it the obesity epidemic.
But there’s another epidemic that’s been spreading that’s just as bad.
Why is the rate of depression on the rise?
Why do we feel more stressed than ever before?
There’s an overthinking epidemic.
20% of Baby Boomers, 52% of Gen Xers, and 73% of Gen Yers are overthinkers. (1)
Less than 27% of people younger than 30 remain healthy!
This is part two of a three part series on overthinking. In part two, you’ll learn four of the reasons this virus has been getting worse, infecting more and more of the population.
- Quick fixes work.
- Chronic stressors are on the rise.
- Dreaming comes with a cost.
- Introspection has gone too far.
Read part one to take the Are You an Overthinker quiz and find out why overthinking is so dangerous.
1. Quick Fixes Work
Self-help articles promise that you can fix your troubles in five easy steps.
They’re lying. Unfortunately, they have little choice.
“Success will take you 40 hours spread out over 25 steps. Also, there’s a 50% chance of failure.”
Who would read that?
Compared to, “Take this course and completely change your life!” 6% isn’t so exciting. Probably why The Secret has sold 19 million more copies than The Gratitude Hack.
People purchase The Secret expecting life transformation,
If you have had thoughts of, “I have to work hard to have money,” let them go immediately. Replace those thoughts with, “Money comes easily and frequently.”
If only. That’s not how the world works. But wanting a quick fix people are willing to believe.
When the money doesn’t come rolling in they start overthinking, “Is there something wrong with me? Am I not trying hard enough? Are my thoughts too negative? Does God not like me? Should I wait longer?”
The problem isn’t that they expect quick fixes.
Quick fixes work.
- Want to be able to eat? Buy some food from your supermarket.
- Want to be able to travel to your supermarket without spending 4 hours walking? Buy a car.
- Want to be able to talk to people hundreds of miles away without writing a letter and waiting weeks for a reply? Buy a phone.
What makes the modern world different from that of a cavemen’s?
We have systems in place which mass produce quick fixes. Of course, we expect our problems to be solved easily – most of the time they are.
- Want to fix your broken bone? Buy an ambulance ride and some surgery.
- Want to know more about something? Do a google search.
- Want sanitation? Use your toilet.
The problem is that we’ve overgeneralized the lesson. Yes, quick fixes work, but most of the time, not all the time.
When a problem remains unsolved after a few days, we assume something must be wrong and start overthinking.
If we’re down or blue or upset, then there must be some quick fix. Change our job, change our relationships, stop talking to our parents. Sometimes these are the right choices, but if they are done as quick fixes for dissatisfaction, they tend to accumulate into a string of failures that gives us more to overthink about.
We forget that as yet, we don’t have a quick fix for being sad.
Worse, the human mind is attracted to trouble.
Those areas where quick fixes exist we spend almost no time thinking about – when’s the last time you’ve thought about sanitation or electricity? Those areas where they don’t exist we spend the most time thinking about – our relationships, our boring work, our desire for more happiness.
2. Our Lives Are Full of Chronic Stressors
When you feel unhappy, the explanations that come to mind are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are dozens of factors acting behind the scenes which influence your emotions. Skipping an hour of sleep once won’t have much of an impact. But skipping an hour of sleep every weekday, for weeks in a row? That’s a low-level chronic stressor.
Because the effect is gradual people don’t notice.
Like the mythical frog who’s placed in cold water and then slowly boiled to death, for six years I had a chronic headache and didn’t notice.
Because of my fibromyalgia, my headache got worse by a small fraction of a percent every day for hundreds of days in a row. Too small a change to notice. I knew I was sleepier and grouchier than other people, but neither I nor the doctors could figure out why.
Like my headache, there are many modern stressors which affect people so slowly that they aren’t noticed.
One hundred years ago the average American had a nutritious diet, spent hundreds of calories a day on physical activity and led a simple life. Now people eat junk all the time, don’t do much exercise and are often overwhelmed.
Eating junk will not make a person visibly less happy, but over the long-term it will.
These hidden stressors create and amplify negative emotions.
A rude comment from your romantic partner which would have been forgiven now triggers overthinking, leading to unmanageable anger and sadness and causing a fight.
Worse, most chronic stressors are invisible to introspection.
No matter how long you spend thinking about the anger and sadness, your attention will keep coming back to the fight – to problems with your partner or perhaps to problems with you. The idea that the anger and sadness were caused by a poor diet or your three cups of coffee a day never comes to mind.
3. Dreaming Comes with a Cost
Because I teach positive psychology you’d expect that I encourage others to think more positively.
Yes, I do encourage people to think more positively about the things in their life that they already have, but when it comes to strengths, abilities and future opportunities, I encourage brutal realism.
In American culture we respect and encourage wild dreaming, “You can become a millionaire! You can land a great job! You’ll be promoted! You can write a best seller!” Children are encouraged to imagine being superheroes and fairy princesses.
They play games where with little effort they obtain power and save the world. They read novels where handsome, funny, and romantic men compete with each other to capture the affection of the so normal protagonist that the reader can almost imagine being them. They watch tens of thousands of advertisements which promise them the world for just $10.
And then they encounter the real world: 9 to 5 boring desk jobs, romantic partners with problems, and unchanging normality.
When the gap between expectations and reality grows too large, they become unhappy.
Their subconscious tries to fix the problem.
In an ideal world, their subconscious would say, “your dreams are crazy, I’m going to adjust your expectations to where they should be.”
In a less than ideal world a person would start to overthink and temporarily feel even more unhappy. Feeling depressed, they would give up on their crazy dreams. Now with more realistic expectations, they would bounce back and then lead a happy, overthinking free life. As crazy as this scenario seems, this is probably how things went hundreds of years ago – depression and overthinking were useful for fixing unrealistic expectations.
One of the functions of depression is to receive support from others. For example, “I am in pain, help me.”Another function is to cause a person to abandon unrealistic goals. For example, a person might want to become a billionaire. That’s unrealistic. Aspiring to accomplish a nearly impossible goal isn’t healthy. Obviously, it would be better if a person could give up on that goal without becoming depressed. But usually, the adjustment process involves some degree of sadness.
A variety of studies show that happy people suffer from what’s known as optimism bias. They repeatedly overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen, and that they are better than others (e.g. at driving). Becoming sad temporarily reduces the impact of optimism bias, allowing people to think more clearly in certain ways. I say in certain ways because being sad comes with its own set of thinking impairments.
In the even less ideal real world, we try to have more realistic expectations and cultivate an appreciation for what we already have, but modern culture and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on advertisements refuses to leave us satisfied.
Both have done such a good job of controlling our thoughts that not only do we desire things we can’t have, we feel entitled to them.
We feel entitled to have lots of money and a dream job, to have a consistently fulfilling relationship, to have our opinions listened to and respected by others, and to feel good most of the time.
When these expectations are violated, as they inevitably are, we do not easily accept it as a normal part of life and instead begin overthinking about why we are not getting what we deserve. Sometimes our ruminations focus on what is wrong with the world that it is not providing us with what we want, and sometimes our overthinking focuses on what is wrong with us that we can’t accomplish our goals…
The entitlement obsession can lead to abundant overthinking: Why am I not progressing in my job? Why am I not rich? Why haven’t I benefited from the economic boom of the last ten years?
We answer these questions, based on our sense of entitlement, by continuing to overthink even more: Maybe it’s because my boss is sabotaging my career for fear I will take his job. Maybe it’s because my parents wouldn’t pay for me to attend an Ivy League college. Maybe it’s because my family responsibilities are holding me back . Maybe it’s because I’m not as smart as everyone else.
The truth is that reality is not so kind as your dreams. It’s normal and okay to not get your promotion, to have a relationship that isn’t working out, to feel bad every now and again.
If wishful thinking was harmless I’d encourage you to dream, dream and dream some more.
But it isn’t.
A large part of happiness is expectations minus reality. Society encourages you to dream the world – you being smarter, sexier, richer, and just plain better. What happens when you compare that dream against reality?
Frustration, unhappiness and overthinking.
4. Introspection Has Gone Too Far
Emotional awareness is important – perhaps one of the most important skills a person can learn.
Unfortunately, most men seem to have ignored this public service announcement while many women have taken it too far.
Women will often sit and emote with each other, taking turns complaining about the problems in their life. A small amount of this is healthy – it feels good to let things off your chest, feel validated, and receive support from others. But more than a little is harmfully addictive.
Rather than encouraging each other towards active management of their emotions or towards problem-solving, they just stoke the fires of each other’s negative ruminations.
Catharsis often only feels good in the moment. Despite the strong sense we had that we deserved to release our distress and be heard — we are back to overthinking, trying to understand why we are still in pain and who is at fault.
Many methods of emotional processing are counter-productive, making the emotions stronger rather than weaker. Ignoring a problem is bad, but so is taking self-awareness too far.
One of the predominant themes of popular psychology and culture since the 1960s has been the importance of self-awareness and expression of emotions. This can be seen in the catchphrases of the culture (“ Get in touch with your emotions.” “Express your inner child.”), the lyrics of popular songs, and the prescriptions of popular psychology books.
But many of us have taken this self-awareness too far. We have become a belly-button culture, chronically staring at our own navels, analyzing every twist and turn of our emotions. We become totally self-absorbed in pondering the meaning of a twinge of sadness, a slight rush of anxiety, a fit of pique.
We award even minor mood swings with great significance and peer into our moods to discern their message. Sometimes our mood swings do hold messages. But they can also be the result of completely inconsequential events — a bad night’s sleep, the day’s weather, getting stuck in traffic on the way to work.
A friend makes a rude remark and we may spend hours wondering what this really means about his character. The boss is irritable one morning and we dissect every word he said, trying to determine what it means for us. Our lover is disinterested in sex for a while and we assume it has meaning for our attractiveness or the future of our relationship.
The friend could be a bum, the boss could be out to get you, and the lover may be bored. But we seldom consider simpler explanations — the friend had one of those momentary lapses we all have; the boss confronted his own traffic jam on the way to work; the lover is distracted by stresses at work.
Instead, we imbue these events with great significance and become hypervigilant for further signs of trouble. This is great fuel for overthinking. (2)
With all these different forces at work – technology spoiling us, chronic stressors on the rise, obscene expectations encouraged and idolized, and introspection gone too far – it’s no wonder that overthinking has been on the rise.