Success and High Expectations for Happiness Can Feed Depression

Henry Abbott at the ESPN TrueHoop blog writes:

The other day I talked to a guy who is close to several NBA players. I asked him to estimate the percentage of NBA players who are depressed. I guessed 60. He said more like 95.

Why are so many successful people depressed? Theories abound…

One I often think about is that people get depressed when there's an expectation that they're always supposed to be really happy and grateful, as NBA players must feel when interacting with starry-eyed fans. This effect also explains higher-than-normal depression over the holiday season: there's an expectation that you're supposed to be jolly and merry and if you are not something is wrong with you.

Anything with a strong narrative around it (like the holiday season) fosters this dynamic. Take New York City. This article about a couple leaving New York City for Buffalo, NY notes their frustration that the real New York — the one you dream about — always seemed just out of grasp to them but fully accessed by others. Or take college life. Hollywood films frequently portray college as the "best four years of your life." These expectations produce an effect similar to the NYC couple who felt the romantic, exciting New York was always just around the corner: in college, the real party is always somewhere else. Surveys of college students show that the average student perceives his peers as having more fun than him, and he wildly overestimates the drinking and sex habits of his classmates.

Bottom Line: When you're successful, like an NBA player, people expect you to be super happy, grateful, stable, and so forth, most of the time. Or, even if you're not successful, if you're thrust into certain well-mythologized environments, a similar unrealistic expectation can drag you down.

(thanks to Chris Yeh for tagging this)

6 Responses to Success and High Expectations for Happiness Can Feed Depression

  1. Scott Young says:

    I think the real problem is unrealistically comparing yourself to other people. Having high expectations is great. But only if those expectations come from within, instead of from a societal mirage.

  2. tbrooks says:

    I agree Ben. It’s all about managing expectations.

    The inverse of saying that the best four years of your life are in college is saying after college it’s all downhill. What a crock.

  3. Anonymous says:

    To understand depression, you must read Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. It won a Pulitzer. Bill Clinton points it as one of his favorite books.

    Becker claims depression is caused by lack of courage.

    book at amazon:
    link to amazon.com

  4. Adrian says:

    You assume expectations to be the cause of depression. Couldn’t it be a consequence?

    I have no degree in psychology but it would be interesting to turn the problem around. Couldn’t people with depressive tendencies actually be more likely to become successful?

    Depression being associated with a feeling of underperforming compared to others it could cause depressive people to raise their expectations and outperform most people.

    If anyone has more thoughts on this I would love to hear them.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Adrian – Definitely true. I wonder what the specific tendencies associated with depression are that would lead to success….

  6. To assert that 95 percent of NBA players are ‘depressed’ is nonsense, no matter how you define depression. If LeBron James feels a touch of ennui because he’s always expected to appear really happy and grateful, we might colloquially say he’s “depressed”, but that doesn’t mean he needs psychotherapy and should begin a regimen of SSRI meds, obviously, although he might benefit from some counseling.

    And even if he were truly depressed, it’s meaningless to say that 95 percent of NBA players are depressed. It would be more meaningful to say that 95 percent (a figure someone pulled out of his hat, anyway) of them feel oppressed, more or less, by the fans’ and management’s overbearing expectations of a player who may be so spectacularly remunerated for his game.

    Clinical depression is a medically recognized mental disorder that is a constant state. Being down because you feel pressure to live up to others’ expectations is something transitory and altogether different, and hardly qualifies as ‘depression’.

    Also, to say that “depression is caused by lack of courage” is a gross oversimplification, even for those cases in which it might generally be true.

    As for specific tendencies associated with depression that would lead to success, once again I refer to the words of my distinguished fellow psychonaut:

    “Depression is a state of high energy turned inward, negative. You will never come to terms with depression if you try to disown it or suppress it. The way to emotional freedom is to own your depressions, appreciate them, and transform them. You will then be able to use all the energy they contain.”

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