The Weather Up There

Last week in class I asked my students how many of them had friends who were taking antidepressants. This is a question I’ve asked fairly regularly over the years, and for different reasons. Without exception, whenever I ask, almost every hand in the room goes up.

It was true again.

When I asked the question this time, though, I had a different idea in mind. This was a couple of weeks after Superstorm Sandy had torn a hole in the eastern seaboard, where almost all of my students live. Many of them had stories of damage to their homes; roads and bridges washed out; favorite beaches destroyed. My own sister-in-law, I told them, had eight feet of seawater in her Long Island kitchen.

So, I asked, can any of you make a connection between depression and climate change?

Silence. I waited.

Well, one student volunteered, climate change causes intense storms, and intense storms cause a lot of damage, and that makes people depressed.

Okay, I said. But what about the other way around? How does depression cause climate change?

Silence. Again, I waited.

We had spent a few weeks reading Wendell Berry essays about how family (and national) economies have been torn asunder by endless consumption and mounting piles of debt; about our collective dislocation, as we pursue jobs promising wealth rather than meaning; about small American communities fracturing as money and natural resources are extracted by global conglomerates. All of which, Berry argues, has caused us to lose our way. We’ve lost our sense of ourselves, and of our place in the world.

And all of which bears down on us, albeit in subtle and insidious ways.

This was also a few days after Thanksgiving, and my students had spent the previous class recounting astonished stories of holiday shopping. Some had had their family feast ruined because their retail jobs required them to work Thanksgiving Day; others confessed amazement at how members of their own families had jumped up from the table early to hit the mall. One girl, following what she called an anthropological impulse, had gone to a mall “just to watch,” and witnessed a woman actually biting the arm of a competitor grabbing for the last Xbox on the shelf.

Black Friday had bled backwards into Thanksgiving Thursday, and now one more national holiday had become contaminated by a national shopping mania.

What was going on? I asked. How would you diagnose this behavior?

One student related a newspaper story he’d read claiming that people drink more alcohol on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving than any other day of the year. People get stressed out over the holidays, he said. They get depressed, so they drink before the holiday and they shop afterwards.

A young woman raised her hand. A lot of people I know, when they get depressed, they go shopping no matter what time of year it is. A murmur of recognition bubbled up from the rest of the class.

Why is that? I asked.

Well, people see advertisements all day long that promise their products will make them happy. People see pictures of happy people wearing this company’s sweater, or driving that company’s car, or wearing that company’s mascara, and they think: maybe if I buy that product, I’ll be happy.

Does buying the product make you happy? I asked.

For a little while.

What happens then?

Another hand. You buy the iPhone 4, and it makes you happy for a while, because it’s cool, and all your friends have one. But then they come out with the iPhone 5, and you’re unhappy again, because now all your friends have that one, and all you can think about is how you don’t have the iPhone 5. So now you need to buy the iPhone 5.

And does buying the iPhone 5 make you happy?

For a little while.

Again, sounds of recognition.

So what’s going on? I asked. Are you saying that it’s our unhappiness that keeps us shopping?


And as long as we are unhappy, we will keep buying?

More nods. And don’t forget the pharmaceutical companies, a student volunteered. As long as people are depressed, they can keep us hooked on their drugs.

Okay, I said. Agreed. What about pesticides? Ever wonder why people spray pesticides on their lawns, when it’s pretty clear that the minute it rains, all those chemicals will wash straight into the river down the hill?

To kill the dandelions, one student said. No way, said another. It’s because they worry what their neighbors will think if they don’t kill the dandelions.

So you’re saying social anxiety will make a suburban homeowner spray toxic pesticides on their lawn, even when they know the same chemicals will one day end up in their own drinking water?

Nervous laughter. Yes, one female student said. Same with cosmetics. People know there are chemicals in cosmetics that are bad for them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop buying them.

Right, I said. So you’re saying that as long as we are unhappy, companies will continue promising us relief from that unhappiness by selling us their stuff, even if it’s stuff we don’t really need, and even if it’s stuff that is demonstrably bad for us.

So again, what about climate change?

Someone from the back: as long as we keep buying cars and iPhones and flat screen TVs and pesticides and Xboxes, companies will keep making them. The more we buy, the more they make. The more they make, the more pollution they create. The more pollution they create, the more damage is done to the climate.

So what’s the solution to climate change? I asked.

A young woman raised her hand.

We need to remember how to be happy.

McKay Jenkins is a professor of English, journalism, and environmental humanities at the University of Delaware. His latest book is What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World, published in 2011 by Random House.


  1. I found this both profound and sobering, yet I see a glimmer of hope here. With Jenkins’s guidance, these students have found their way through the muck of commercialism to see the truth.

  2. Thanks so much for relaying this in such an eloquent way. And for giving your students voice.

    We’re sharing this story with a community of educators and parents who are promoting outdoor learning in Madison, WI, through the Madison Area GROW Coalition: Grass Roots | Outdoor Wonder. It’s the kind of teaching and learning story that we crave.

  3. The great Jungian, James Hillman, has long argued that depression often comes from our unconscious wrestling with the state of the world. In the era of potentially catastrophic climate change it is a sign of mental health to feel depressed, or anxious, or angry without knowing exactly why. Knowledge of the suffering of the world is loose in our unconscious. If you don’t feel some psychic discomfort when the world is suffering, that’s a sign of some deeper psychological problem. I agree that happiness is a big part of the solution, but happiness may not be possible if we don’t feel that our actions are healing the planet, rather than just adding to our material comfort.

  4. Bravo. As heartening as it is heartbreaking to read. So thankful to see this kind of connection being made in the classroom of our future.

  5. Well put. So how do we convince our society to change our priorities? The US transitioning to a gross domestic happiness index, unfortunately, just does not seem a likely scenario. It seems common knowledge that money [consumption/resource use] doesn’t buy us happiness, and yet since the advent of the glorious American Dream, that has been our national ethos.

    How do we make the shift to a dream that is based on happiness for the individual, the environment, and the community?

  6. Bravo.

    Next time, you might ask them to consider tanning salons. An epidemic of skin cancer is expected in another few years. I recall Terry Gross interviewing a cancer-specialist. She asked him: In the past generation, reducing smoking has probably done more to reduce cancer than new cancer treatments. What’s the next thing like smoking, a voluntary but carcinogenic activity that we cd get people to stop doing? The guy said, “Sun bathing.”

    The fact that people now sunbathe in “tanning beds” (powered by electricity) and pay for the privilege—the sun no longer does an adequate job of causing cancer? even w/ that pesky ozone layer out of the way?—seems like some ironic comment on climate change all by itself, though I suppose not the kind a medical researcher could quantify. Maybe the Freakonomics guys could.

    (Full disclosure: Terry probably didn’t say that snotty thing abt “done more to reduce cancer.” That’s probably my own invention. I start pounding keys on these themes, and the vitriol just *appears* …)

  7. I am sending this to government officials. It seems that with too many chickens in the chicken coop (over population)many are being pushed away from the trough creating psycho-socio illness. While some insist upon adding to the numbers in the coop to extend the bottom line.

  8. There is certainly an immense confusion amongst people regarding what it means to be happy. During the first term of my freshman year in college we explored this idea with an emphasis on nature and human nature. We read many essays from Native American authors, environmentalists, transcendentalists, and others to include Wendell Berry. The further our culture reaches toward a life built upon artificiality, the further we remove ourselves from wonders of life itself. Sadly, this seems even more profound in extraction zones such as the Appalachian Coalfields. A new generation of coal miners have lost touch with the natural world our ancestors once coveted. Feelings of natural belonging have been replaced with a false sense of pride surrounding a dangerous job which in turn provides an income capable of extraordinary materialistic consumerism and its inherent debts. For today’s coal miner it seems as though happiness can only come from an expensive lifestyles, not the mountains and familial bonds once contained therein.

  9. It makes a striking comment about our education system that college age people remain unconscious of how they are being manipulated by corporate marketing. Happiness = consuming. They should learn this in kindergarten.

  10. Depression is a real illness, not a tool for you to complain about consumerism. Yes, companies create advertisements in order to make people feel unsatisfied with their lives, but that is not the same thing. Some people with depression need the medication those *scary voice* evil pharmaceutical companies *scary voice* make, the same way people with diabetes need insulin. People with depression don’t just “need to remember how to be happy,” because that’s not how depression works. If you want to talk about consumerism, fine, that’s a great thing to talk about, talk about that. Just don’t turn real illnesses that people struggle with into something they just need to get over, because that’s not going to help anyone.

    (Also, asking your students to disclose other people’s medications makes me uncomfortable. If they want to disclose their own, they can, but people with both mental and physical disabilities regularly have to defend their right to keep their medical information private.)

  11. Points well taken – including Ariana’s concerns.

    Given there are no physical tests for “depression”, it is time to be more rigorous in our definitions of “illness”, especially considering the astonishing increase in Antipsychotic Drugs (a billion dollar industry) prescribed for children. The complexity of biological, chemical, genetic and environmental factors contributing to depression can be overwhelming – so, too often the simple answer is “take a pill”. This is more than a vicious cycle, it is a downward spiral.

    It is time to put modernity on trial!

    Let’s follow the lead of Bhutan, a country that measures “Gross National Happiness” rather than the production of stuff, as the determining factor of “success”.

    I recommend a deeper inquiry into the effect(s) of ecological degradation, industrial foods devoid of balanced nutrients, rampant and pervasive toxicity in our air, soil, water and the hidden endocrine disrupters affecting our lack of health and well-being, not to mention microwave radiation disturbing the neurotransmitters in our brains.


    Feeling blah, is the norm, learn to be content with what is through mindfulness, and awareness. Compassion has great merit in this world of uncertainty, beauty, chaos, wonder and abundance.

  12. Glad to read Ariana’s dissenting point of view. Depression can intersect with spending habits, sure, but it certainly should not be reduced to that, nor dismissed with a glib “learn to be happy” diagnosis. Some people, myself included, have suffered from debilitating depression that has responded well to medication for some periods of time. I have never, however, lusted after a smart phone / manicured lawn / new car. I am horrified by shopping frenzies. I have spent sigificiant periods of my life living in very remote areas doing supposedly salutory, right-on things like chopping wood to keep warm (guess what – I was at my most depressed then). Now I live in a medium-sized town and appreciate the convenience and comfort of a heated home, nearby stores where I can buy most of what I need, cafes, cinemas, and friendly neighbours. I participate more in consumer culture now, just by dint of living in a urban area in a modern home, than I did then – but on the whole have fewer bouts of depression. To impute a simple causality is irresponsible – we all participate in modern life to some degree and rely on the economy’s continued growth (even the most idealist teacher usually has a TIAA-CREF retirement plan and likes to see it do well).

    Also, the mandate to find “authentic” sources of happiness is often a disguised kind of social conservatism, linked for example to the common but oppressive (for childless-by-choice people) that “only having children makes you understand what’s important in life”.

    The author is undoubdtedly an engaging and stimulating teacher. But he may unwittingly be making some students feel – well, depressed. If they have struggled with depression, and tried to “just be happy” but failed, and take medication themselves, and kind of like their smart phone even though they know it’s not an actual source of happiness – well, they might just leave that class feeling like more of a failure. (More often than not, asking students if they “know someone who …?” is dog-whistle for “do you personally …?” Which is fine – it’s up to them if they want to engage in the question, and pretending it’s about an anonymous friend makes it safe. But don’t forget that it might be incredibly personal for a lot of students).

  13. Loumac, that’s a good point on the dogwhistle. I’m just very cautious about teachers bringing up medical information as a topic when that’s not what the class is about because of my own experiences in people either disregarding my privacy, or complaining about how HIPAA keeps everyone’s medical information private, not just the information of neurotypical people.

  14. Depression can be both a real illness and related to consumerism. The two are not mutually exclusive. I had the great honor of working on psychiatric wards treating soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. This was back before PTSD was identified as diagnostic category. The fact that more soldiers commit suicide today than are killed in battle is, to my mind, a sign that our country suffers from a collective mental disease

    I am deeply aware that depression is both real and a disease, but that does not mean that diseases are not caused in part by cultural and environmental factors. What does the veteran suicide rate have to do with consumerism? In many ways, one is that our cultural values are often skewed toward consumption over caring. The country is unwilling to tax itself to the degree necessary to end veteran homelessness, or to provide necessary services for the mentally ill.

    I stand by my earlier comment that consumerism can mask depression that comes from an inability to grapple with deeper issues loose in our psyches. In the old days, these issues about caring, responsibility and entitlement were considered as issues related to the soul, not just restricted to biochemisty.

    I in no way mean to be glib, to imply that depression isn’t real, or that psychiatric medicines don’t have a central place in helping people overcome suffering (two members of my family suffered from manic depression and I am well aware of the promise, and the limitations, of psychic chemo-therapy), but it seems clear to me that Hillman’s observation can help us become less depressed, by becoming more whole: when the country as a whole fails to deal with environmental destruction, with poverty, with human suffering, you can take all the antidepressants you want and still suffer from an underlying malaise.

    The flip side is also true. Working together, preferably outside, in nature, to help heal the environment, and to help heal homelessness, can be very therapeutic for all concerned.

  15. Thank you for sharing this insightful discussion. You sound like the best kind of teacher and writer. Many thanks for helping to bring this into the world in visible ways. Best wishes in your teaching and writing!

  16. This blog reminds me of the shel silverstein’s childrens book the giving tree.

  17. I agree with those who insist on the reality of clinical depression. While I personally believe that our modern consumerist 24/7 culture certainly has many negative mental health effects, I think Jenkins has used the term “depressed” in a lazy way, as it is often used in everyday language, to mean discontent, unhappy, feeling down, and whathaveyou. I think it is very important to use the word “depressed” (or depression) carefully to and distinguish between depression-the-illness and other levels of stress and malaise. Clinical depression exists on a whole different scale.

  18. Thanks, McKay, for a thought-provoking essay, though I join those who argue that we need to stop using the word “depression” lightly. The opposite of happiness isn’t depression–it’s sadness. Or discontent, or malaise, or unhappiness, or any number of words. I agree that the mental illness we call depression may have multiple causes, some of then societal and cultural, just like hypertension or diabetes.

    For those interested in happiness research, see the “World Happiness Report,” published last year by the Columbia University’s Earth Institute: and Writing/2012/World Happiness Report.pdf

  19. This whole essay interested me but I will remember this idea, most of all: In order to take better care of our natural world we must remember to be happy.

    Hear hear.

    Thank you.

  20. Insightful and engaging blog and comments! Somewhat agree with the concern re: the use of the word depression. Perhaps the very old term ‘angst”‘ might be more appropriate here although
    the on-line dictionary lists “depression” as a synonym for “angst”… the definitions are similar but not exact. The initial question about anti-depressants was a lead in to the central question
    regarding CLIMATE CHANGE. I would have been happier if the comments had focused on that
    issue rather than shifting to depression. I fully understand since manipulation of direction using language is a subtile way to shift attention from a primary, uncomfortable subject to a less complex or less dangerous one. It is called a ‘ploy’ and is frequently used by debaters, advertisers and politicians As to the subject and Particularly for KAREN & HOLLY WREN may I suggest a long hike in a quiet wood; a visit to a nearby park , a day in the countryside if any of that is available or possible or failing all that several hours watching some nature programs on PBS or reading something about the Natural world every day . Our salvation from ‘Angst’ may be in real earth, with mud, grass, bugs, weather et al under our feet and in our hands. You are all correct; there are too many mice in the box and the box is as large as it is. BB

  21. Thank you Scottie for your comment – It is always fascinating how quickly people want to move away from the discussion of Climate Change – Perhaps we could shift the conversation to investigate the probability that we are living in the center of a Pollution Conspiracy – hundreds of millions are spent on propaganda to convince “the public” that Jobs and the economy are more important than the vitality of our life support system. See the book “Merchants of Doubt”.

  22. Sometimes the desire to be happy — in an idylic sense, happy all the time — drives us to consume. Doing so fails to make us happy, so we consumer more. A positive feedback loop.

    I suggest that, instead of “remember to be happy” we remember to be grateful for what we have, and take the good with the bad. The desire for consistent happiness is one of the main causes of depression.

  23. Compulsive behavior is a way that people deaden awareness of feelings they don’t want to experience.
    Shopping, like compulsive overeating, or compulsive talking, does that too.

  24. I recently finished Paul Gruchow’s “Letters to a Young Madman…A Memoir” (Levins Publishing, Minneapolis, 2012) and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting a first-hand account of what it means to have the disease of clinical depression. Superb analysis from a successful and gifted writer.

  25. A lot of people like me don’t really know how to ‘be happy’; but we do know how to feel good, how to get pleasure from some things.
    So feeling good by overeating or drinking or shopping or playing games or chatting (and lying) online becomes the focus of our life. Of course we can never be completely satisfied by just getting pleasure rather than being happy; and so we do it excessively; there’s no exit strategy.

  26. I think it’s more than being happy. We have to learn to be comfortable with ourselves. As I read your students’ comments about the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, I thought of my own 12-year-old daughter, who feels incredible middle school pressure to be a clone of her classmates. What they have, she has to have. She’s not yet comfortable enough with herself to say, “Enough!” And I guess either are many of us …
    Thanks for writing a great thought-provoking essay, McKay!
    From the “other” McKay at Amherst 🙂

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