Across the Western world, there is a rising epidemic of depression and anxiety—one that disfigured my life for over a decade. For years now, the United Nations has been trying to warn us that these problems are continuing to spike up in part because we have, as a culture, been responding in the wrong way. In its official statement for World Health Day last year, the UN explained that we need move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances’ to focusing on ‘power imbalances.’” At first glance, this sounds puzzling. What could they mean?
For several decades now, we have been taught to see our deepest forms of pain—our depression, our anxiety—as primarily problems with our internal brain chemistry: some missing serotonin here, some missing dopamine there. This is how I was told to think about my depression by my doctor. But the UN’s leading medical figures have warned that this view is “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “cause more harm than good” and “must be abandoned.” There is, they claim, a different way of looking at this problem—one that offers meaningful solutions.
It was in Canada, in the 1970s, that one of the keys to this new way of thinking was first discovered. The Canadian government chose a town at random –Dauphin, Manitoba, a small town on the prairies– to conduct an unprecedented experiment. A large number of the people in the town were told something surprising. From now on, it was explained, we are going to give you the equivalent of $16,000 (in today’s Canadian currency). There is nothing you have to do in return for it; and there is nothing you can do that means we’ll take it away. You are a citizen of our country, and we want you to have a good life.
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