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The Great Disappointment

American culture now drives a new kind of depression.

I have been a family doctor for 29 years. I am seeing something new, something I rarely saw 10 or 20 years ago.

A young woman called the office to ask whether I can sew up a cut. Of course our doctor can sew up a cut, the receptionist told her. That’s what family doctors do. So the young woman came in.

She had cut herself with a razor blade on her upper thigh, six times. She was an experienced cutter. But this time she had cut too deep, and three of the six lacerations wouldn’t stop bleeding.

Sewing up three long lacerations provides plenty of time to talk. She told me that she wasn’t suicidal. She didn’t want to die. She just felt anxious. “When I do it [cutting], the anxiety goes away. For a little while.” I noticed that she looked compulsively at her phone, several times even as we were talking.

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What does she hope to find on her phone?
Source: CCO/Creative Commons

I am seeing that a lot these days – that compulsive glance at the phone – especially with young people. Many people have written about FOMO, the fear of missing out. But FOMO doesn't really capture what I am seeing.

What’s going on with this girl – and with the other people I see, who are anxious, who are simultaneously hopeful and despairing? Most aren’t cutting themselves with razor blades, but they all look at their phones with that same expression on their faces. They are looking at their phones in the hope that something marvelous is going to happen. Maybe my YouTube video will go viral. Maybe someone amazing will realize how special I am. Maybe the next email will change my life.

I see so many of these people now, their hope mixed with despair. Or more precisely, their hope is driving their despair. Their dreams of fame and success, coupled with their growing awareness that they are unlikely ever to be famous or enormously successful, are exactly the engine that is driving them down into the darkness.

 CCO/Creative Commons
Phones fuel our hopes and our fantasies
Source: CCO/Creative Commons

Why is this happening? And why is it happening so much more now?

Researchers at UCLA looked at the most popular television shows marketed to young people, from 1967 through 2007. They studied what the shows were teaching about what is important and what is valuable. They found great consistency from 1967 through 1997, whether it was The Andy Griffith Show in 1967 or Sabrina the Teenage Witch in 1997. For those 30 years, what was important – as communicated by the most popular TV shows – was being a good person, being kind to others. Being famous was not important: It ranked at or near the bottom of 16 different parameters from 1967 through 1997. But between 1997 and 2007, American culture flipped: Being famous went from being the least-important thing to being the most important. Between 1997 and 2007, being kind to others went from being the most-important thing (#1 out of 16) to being much-less-important (#11 out of 16). And it’s only gotten worse: Being kind won’t get you very far on Survivor or Billions or Empire or Succession.

The poet Robert Bly and the psychotherapist Marion Woodman wrote a book together about how young people become mature adults. They noted that some young people have the feeling that something amazing is going to happen to them — that they will be discovered, that they will become famous. Then, at age 19 or 24 or 29, that young person experiences what Bly and Woodman called The Great Disappointment — the realization that their big dream isn’t going to come true. The result is often an existential collapse into anxiety and depression.

Today I am seeing many more young people encountering the Great Disappointment. At some level, hard to admit even to themselves, they hoped to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, the next Beyoncé or Bruno Mars, the next Oprah or Dr. Oz. And then that young person realizes: It’s not going to happen. Not to me. I am never going to be a billionaire entrepreneur / famous entertainer / media celebrity (circle one).

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You can't have a relationship with a phone
Source: CCO/Creative Commons

What counsel can I give that young person?

I begin with: reality. Recognize that life, for most of us, is a series of disappointments, with long stretches of boredom in between. And then you die. So you must find joy and meaning in the life you have right now. Don’t pin your hopes on becoming famous. That’s probably not going to happen. Try not to look at Instagram or other social media engines of envy. Read an old book instead – something written before, say, 1997. Or go for a walk in a park. Meet a friend for a cup of coffee. Look at the sky. Listen to the trees. Smell the air.

Toward the end of the Second World War, a British writer suggested a thought experiment which I paraphrase as follows: Imagine 30 people all living in rooms in the same building. Fifteen of them think the building is an all-inclusive five-star hotel. The other 15 think it is a prison. Those who believe themselves to be at a fine hotel are upset at the poor quality of the rooms and the ill-prepared food. Those who believe themselves to be in prison are pleasantly surprised by the rooms and the food – even though the rooms and the food are precisely the same for both groups.

In other words, your subjective experience depends in substantial part on your expectations. If you hope and expect to be rich and famous someday, you are more likely to become envious and resentful. But if you have modest expectations, you are more likely to be grateful for the small pleasures along the way.

When my patient returned 11 days later to get the stitches out, she told me that she was glad for the time we had spent together, talking. “Thanks for teaching me the secret,” she said.

“What secret?” I asked.

“I guess – that expecting less is the key to being happy,” she said. And she smiled.

Leonard Sax MD PhD is the author of four books for parents:

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