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Pundit’s Mailbag — Hard Work, Depression And The Produce Industry

Our piece, Are You Depressed From Working Too Hard Or Working Too Hard Because You Are Depressed? brought some interesting comment regarding its application to the produce industry, including this note:

Read with interest your recent post regarding long hours and depression. In both my industry (marketing, agency) and our clients’ (produce), we are noted for burning the midnight oil… make that the dawn oil also.  Does it lead to exhaustion? Without a doubt. 

Depression, however, is not a feeling typically associated with our colleagues, at least not the type caused by specific hard work/long hours.  Successful marketing and produce folks are typically infused with high energy and eternal optimism: the new campaign will be award-winning; the upcoming harvest will be tops; the next deal: a killer! It’s like having the proverbial carrot always dangling in front of them. It’s what keeps them going.

Also, I have never heard of actual work making anyone depressed. The lack thereof… now, that can really do it to ‘ya.

I can’t speak for government workers or salaried drones, but suspect these may be the most prone to the type of depression mentioned. Or perhaps writers and philosophers with their deep-seated angst (required for good copy) also suffer from it.  

For our group, however, having a creative outlet and feeling as though we control our destiny certainly help keep the black dog at bay.

— Veronica Kraushaar
VIVA Global Marketing, LLC
Nogales, Arizona

Depression is a complicated subject. For one thing, our best understanding is that it is incorrect to say that any environmental factor “causes” depression as there is no set of conditions that will cause depression in every person all the time. It seems most likely to say that there are several genetic, chemical and environmental factors that increase one’s propensity to anxiety and depression.

In addition, depression and anxiety are so common, with frequent estimates that more than a third of the population will experience clinical depression during their lives, that it is not even clear it is always a negative. Some scientists suggest that depression “is not a malfunction, but a mental adaptation that brings certain cognitive advantages” as this piece, Depression’s Evolutionary Roots,from Scientific American suggests:

Depression seems to pose an evolutionary paradox. Research in the US and other countries estimates that between 30 to 50 percent of people have met current psychiatric diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder sometime in their lives. But the brain plays crucial roles in promoting survival and reproduction, so the pressures of evolution should have left our brains resistant to such high rates of malfunction. Mental disorders should generally be rare — why isn’t depression?

One reason to suspect that depression is an adaptation, not a malfunction, comes from research into a molecule in the brain known as the 5HT1A receptor. The 5HT1A receptor binds to serotonin, another brain molecule that is highly implicated in depression and is the target of most current antidepressant medications. Rodents lacking this receptor show fewer depressive symptoms in response to stress, which suggests that it is somehow involved in promoting depression. (Pharmaceutical companies, in fact, are designing the next generation of antidepressant medications to target this receptor.) When scientists have compared the composition of the functional part rat 5HT1A receptor to that of humans, it is 99 percent similar, which suggests that it is so important that natural selection has preserved it. The ability to “turn on” depression would seem to be important, then, not an accident.

So what could be so useful about depression? Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent, and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.

This analytical style of thought, of course, can be very productive. Each component is not as difficult, so the problem becomes more tractable. Indeed, when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.

Analysis requires a lot of uninterrupted thought, and depression coordinates many changes in the body to help people analyze their problems without getting distracted. In a region of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), neurons must fire continuously for people to avoid being distracted. But this is very energetically demanding for VLPFC neurons, just as a car’s engine eats up fuel when going up a mountain road.

Moreover, continuous firing can cause neurons to break down, just as the car’s engine is more likely to break down when stressed. Studies of depression in rats show that the 5HT1A receptor is involved in supplying neurons with the fuel they need to fire, as well as preventing them from breaking down. These important processes allow depressive rumination to continue uninterrupted with minimal neuronal damage, which may explain why the 5HT1A receptor is so evolutionarily important.

Many other symptoms of depression make sense in light of the idea that analysis must be uninterrupted. The desire for social isolation, for instance, helps the depressed person avoid situations that would require thinking about other things. Similarly, the inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities prevents the depressed person from engaging in activities that could distract him or her from the problem. Even the loss of appetite often seen in depression could be viewed as promoting analysis because chewing and other oral activity interferes with the brain’s ability to process information.

Because there are medicines to treat depression and one goes to doctors to deal with it and because it can interfere with normal functioning, there is a tendency to think of depression as abnormal. It may make more sense to think of it as completely appropriate in certain circumstances and thus a life condition most of us will experience at some point in our lives.

If one loses a spouse, for example, becoming depressed is to some extent the perfectly rational alternative. One would almost say that a person is odd if they don’t get depressed under such circumstances.

The notion that working a lot of hours causes depression is odd, considering that until quite recently, in historical terms, it was the norm. It wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act  established that workers in the US who put in more than 40 hours a week should receive overtime — and that law only applied to about 20% of the US working population.

Veronica’s point is ours as well… that working lots of hours is not a variable that makes sense to study independently. A farmer on his own land, planting extra acres for the benefit of his family, free to improvise and alter his path in accordance with his judgment, in a rural area filled with farmers who do the same thing, is simply not going to experience those long hours in the way an assembly-line worker, ordered to work long hours, without prospect of improving his condition by doing so, is going to experience the exact same number of hours.

One point we would make is that the notion that writers, philosophers and artists somehow benefit from depression or angst is unlikely to be true. Read this about Pablo Picasso:

…Picasso didn’t really sit on Paris river banks, drinking wine, while he waited for inspiration to strike. It’s estimated that he created approximately 50,000 works over the course of his life, ranging from painting to sculpture to tapestry.

He lived to the ripe old age of 92, but even in that number of years, his output breaks down to a creative work and a half every day from the day he was born to the day he died. When you get realistic about when he started drawing and realize that he had to take a vacation sometime, his output becomes even more phenomenal.

And while no one set Picasso a schedule as he got older and famous, Picasso’s father was also a painter and a professor of art. He certainly set his young son a schedule, even renting him a small room near their home to work in at the age of 13. Picasso got a good grounding of self-discipline when it came to his art from his youngest years.

Picasso was dedicated to his work even as he grew older: he certainly had earned enough money from his work to afford a lifestyle that didn’t require him to work (or, more importantly, sell his paintings). But he reportedly would spend hours working every day, often working late into the night.

Picasso may not be the best role model when it comes to the way he lead his life, but his work ethic is admirable: if you want to be productive and creative at the same time, you have to work at it. You have to push and grow….

Like the old intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, life promises to offer us at different times the opportunity to know the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Experiencing the full range of human emotions — including depression — is if not exactly a gift, an opportunity to know oneself better and to appreciate the bright spots more sincerely. Of course, this assumes one is able to transcend the depression and go on to see brighter days. Sadly, for some this is not possible. Then depression becomes a serious illness that cuts off human potential.

In his book, Listening to Prozac, Peter D. Kramer put forth a new concern, that the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as Prozac, posed a bigger issue than whether they fought depression effectively. He argued that such medications posed the danger of “cosmetic psychiatry” as they could transform personalities in a few weeks more than most people can change their personalities in a lifetime. He raised the ethical questions about whether people could use such pills just to improve their personalities and on what ethical grounds society might withhold such improvements.

One thing is certain… even if excess work is depressing to some, Veronica’s reference to the absence of work as a cause for depression is surely true. An inability to support one’s family, the lack of prospects, etc., weighs on one surely. For those of us whose livelihood depends on food, the old saw that people have to eat should be a comfort when so many around us suffer from disappearing markets.

Many thanks to Veronica Kraushaar of VIVA International Partners for weighing in on this intriguing issue.

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