Conan O’Brien probably isn’t the first person to come to mind when you think of clinical depression.
The quintessentially goofy, over-the-top absurdist comedian and late night talk show host presents to audiences as a carefree clown who instinctively finds funny everywhere he looks.
But even for someone as naturally gifted and brilliantly funny as Conan, there is a measure of darkness in his life.
An innately positive, upbeat person, Conan told Howard Stern in a 2015 interview that he didn’t initially believe his diagnosis of depression. He didn’t think of himself as the kind of person who would be depressed.
After further exploration and discussion of his symptoms with professionals, Conan accepted the diagnosis as accurate. In the interview, he describes the medication he takes for his depression as, “A little bit of a push … that enables you to keep going. A little bit of oil in the gears.”
Conan revealed to Howard that every morning when he walked into the building in which Late Night with Conan O’Brien was filmed, he felt incredible anxiety. His heart pounded in the elevator up as he felt the pressure to “make this good.”
If an inherently-upbeat, immensely successful, multi-millionaire entertainer beloved by millions can suffer from depression, then who among us is immune?
People are often surprised to find that those who seemingly “have it all” can succumb to depression, or worse, suicide. The suicides of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade days apart in June 2018 were incomprehensible to many. They couldn’t understand how such profound suffering could penetrate the protective wall that we imagine fame, fortune, and success bestow.
A widely-accepted psychological theory known as the diathesis-stress model provides an understanding of this phenomenon. The model asserts that there is a biological component to mental health disorders, and that stress caused by life experiences is what activates, or triggers, their expression.
In other words, two people could have the exact same biological predisposition for developing depression. But if one of those individuals leads a low-stress life and experiences few, or no, adverse events, their depression (or bipolar disorder, addiction, PTSD, etc.) will not be activated.
If the other person with this predisposition endures tremendous levels of stress – whether as a result of experiencing significant adverse events (abuse, loss of loved ones, poverty, etc.) or as a result of extreme pressure to succeed – their vulnerability to depression will have the fuel it needs to express itself.
A good way to conceptualize the diathesis-stress model is to imagine a balloon being blown up. As greater and greater pressure is placed on it, the balloon will eventually burst at its weakest point.
As humans, we all have a breaking point. We are not machines. You can be as free-spirited, fun-loving, and phenomenally talented as Conan O’Brien and still find yourself requiring medication for depression or other mental illnesses if the stress you’re experiencing reaches levels that overwhelm your biological ability to cope.
In Conan O’Brien’s case the intense pressure to “make this good” and to maintain the empire he had worked so hard to build, provided that fuel. His intrinsically positive tendencies were no match against the power of his stress levels to activate this biological predisposition.
The fact that high levels of sustained stress can activate underlying biological propensities for mental illness could explain why we’re seeing steadily increasing rates of anxiety and depression in the United States. We currently have more, and more effective, treatments than ever before for these disorders, yet the incidence of the conditions continues to soar.
Part of the problem is that there are greater sources of stress today than in past decades and generations. Technology that was supposed to simplify our lives has made us constantly available to anyone at any time, day or night. There is little time anymore to sit quietly and find space for peaceful reflection without constant interruption from a perpetually demanding phone.
In addition to diminishing time for stress recovery, we’re facing greater sources of stress than before. Due to greater technological availability, people work off-the-clock now more than ever. And although advances in technology have allowed us to work longer hours, real wages for U.S. workers have barely moved in decades. According to the Pew Research Center, today’s real average wage, after accounting for inflation, “has about the same power it did 40 years ago.”
Having the same purchasing power of 40 years ago wouldn’t be a bad thing if you were purchasing what people purchased 40 years ago. Today, in addition to those things, we all need our expensive cell phones, computers, tablets, WiFi, HD TVs, and Xbox for the kids just to keep up with the Joneses.
While trying to buy more with the same purchasing power our parents had 40 years ago, we’re also now pressured to parade our possessions in front of others online to maintain appearances of perfection, wealth, flawless happiness, and lives of ease. Filters proliferate to conceal the wear and tear from the stress of maintaining this manufactured life. And yet, we persist.
We accept that this is just how it is. It comes as no surprise that study after study has demonstrated that the more time people spend on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, the worse they feel.
The average person doesn’t face the kinds of stress that Conan O’Brien, Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade endured. We don’t have pressure to keep multi-million dollar businesses afloat, or worry about the livelihoods of hundreds of people whose jobs depend on us doing ours well.
We are, however, faced with far more and greater sources of stress than past generations. Making oneself conscious of these many stressors and becoming aware of the power they have to impact our mental health is extremely important.
To reduce stress levels and our risk of developing depression and other mental illnesses, we need to sign out of the social media apps, put down the phone, and take time to focus inward on our own sources of joy rather than outward on the carefully-crafted profiles of online friends.
Don’t make the increasingly common mistake of pursuing “likes” instead of what you truly love. Look for and embrace what feels good to your soul rather than what looks good to others.
As Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, said, “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside awakes.”
*Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore