Shortly after the 2012 massacre in Newton, Connecticut, I wrote an article for USA Today titled “Losing the Will to Live.” While the mainstream media and anti-gun lobbyists pounced on the opportunity to attack the Second Amendment, I urged the public to consider a more troubling common denominator among the perpetrators of mass violence.
Almost without exception, every shooter then, and since — from Adam Lanza, the 20-year old responsible for the carnage at Sandy Hook, and James Holmes, who opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, theater, to James Paddock, the Las Vegas gunman — exhibited signs of depression long before they reached for a weapon.
The recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School stands as yet another reminder of a silent epidemic that is sweeping the country. An epidemic affecting all age groups — from youngsters to seniors — and spanning all races, gender and economic classes. More Americans report feeling depressed, isolated, and desperate than ever before. And this condition is responsible for a dramatic rise in public violence since 2000.
Think of a mass shooting as a form of suicide.
By the perpetrators’ own admission, they expect to die when they carry out their plans — either by their own hands or by the hands of law enforcement. If suicide is the motive behind the public tragedies, then we need only examine the statistics to gain a clear understanding of the danger ahead.
On average, 123 suicides occur in the United States every 24 hours. For every successful suicide, experts estimate 25 unsuccessful attempts are made — roughly 130 an hour. Even more alarming, over 9 million Americans admit thinking seriously about suicide. The per capita suicide rate in the United States has been growing every year for the last decade. Suicide has become so prevalent it now has the honor of being the tenth leading cause of death, costing roughly $70 billion each year in medical care and treatment.
Sadly, the growing number of attempted and successful suicides are not the only forewarning of mass shootings to come. Within the past 15 years, the use of antidepressant in the U.S. has soared a whopping 65 percent. Today, one in eight Americans over the age of 12 relies on a mood-altering drug to get through the day — and the numbers are climbing. Among children, physicians report a 23 percent increase in diagnosed depression.
These are tough figures to swallow. Figures that don’t jive with the smiling faces we see when Wall Street hits another all-time record. When America racks up another Gold Medal. When Congress announces another windfall for the working class. Something is amiss. Something has gone terribly wrong . . . but what?
Unfortunately, the faith the medical community put in antidepressant drugs was gravely misguided. Despite their rampant use, antidepressants have done nothing to diminish suicidal tendencies or mass shootings associated with feelings of isolation and destruction. The reason pharmaceuticals have failed is scientists have recently discovered that suppressing the symptoms of depression does not produce feelings of happiness or well-being. It turns out, happiness is not the opposite of depression as once thought. Depression and happiness are two separate levers — not a single lever that moves up or down. What’s more, only one of the two levers has an impact on both positive and negative emotions. That’s the happiness lever. While alleviating depression doesn’t do anything for happiness, taking specific steps to increase happiness diminishes — and in many cases, eradicates — depression.
In short, for more than a century mental health experts have been working the wrong end of the problem. They’ve focused all their attention on dysfunctions like depression, sociopathy, addiction, and invested in pharmaceuticals, treatment centers, counseling, education, and research on maladaptive behaviors rather than identify and proliferate behaviors known to produce optimism, resiliency, satisfaction and happiness. Our collective focus has been on reacting to mental illness instead of using science to avert it. And while there is no vaccine to guard against destructive emotions, there is a growing body of evidence that happiness is something which can be taught and learned. And once learned, the new skills act as powerful immunization against despair throughout an individual’s life.
In 1977 Michael Fordyce conducted an experiment where he asked a group of subjects to imitate specific behaviors associated with happy people. Fordyce selected behaviors such as being organized, keeping busy, spending more time socializing (in person, not electronically), developing a positive outlook, and working on a healthy lifestyle (sleep, eating, exercise). Within a short time, those who adopted the practices associated with positive emotions and high life satisfaction reported experiencing significantly higher levels of well-being. Fordyce also discovered that headway was not temporary. Nine to twenty-eight months later the test subjects continued to thrive, revealing higher overall well-being scores.
In 1995, Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox and Gillham conducted a similar experiment with children. They subjected a group of youngsters who were identified at risk for depression to “optimism training.” Once again the training was comprised of behaviors practiced by people who report high levels of life satisfaction. At the end of the experiment, children who received the training were measurably less depressed than the control group and the effects of the training continued 2 years after the experiment.
These studies, along with thousands of other laboratory experiments, prove that optimism and life satisfaction is something that can be taught. And once learned, continue to pay dividends.
The truth is, scientists know more about how our genes, life skills, and environment contribute to our outlook than we have put into practice. We’ve amassed so much data that universities, such as Harvard, now offer courses on the “science of happiness” — courses which are so over-subscribed by students eager to learn happiness skills the classes are not only jam packed, there are long waiting lists of students hoping to get in. And what do these students learn about the science of happiness? They learn that there is a threshold of income after which human happiness does not appreciably improve. They learn that having someone to count on in times of trouble and a strong social support system are the single most important factors when it comes to happiness — trumping all other factors by a wide margin. They learn that having children does not increase happiness, but marriage does. They learn that employment, meaningful work, and keeping busy are critical components of well-being. They learn that pet ownership, performing kind acts for others, and talking more seriously add to our optimism about life. They learn that in the absence of these behaviors and others, humans struggle. The door is thrown open for despair and desperation. And mass shootings are one expression of a void no pharmaceutical or legislation can cure.
We can throw up our hands and chalk the problem up to individual “mental illness.” We can blame gun lobbyists and inadequate screening. We can beef up security in schools, shopping malls, airports, fairgrounds and other places the public gathers. We can call for social media companies to monitor threats and alert authorities. We can ask citizens to be more diligent in reporting erratic behavior. We can dole out more antidepressants. Or we can choose to intervene. We can leverage what we now know about everyday behaviors which produce resiliency, enjoyment and hopefulness and act quickly to immunize future shooters against desperation. We can arm would-be perpetrators with the life skills needed to thrive. We can fortify positive emotions and change the outlook millions of Americans have on life. Science can fix this.
Rebecca D. Costa is an American sociobiologist and futurist. She is a world-renowned expert in the field of “fast adaptation” in complex environments. Costa’s work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, SF Chronicle, The Guardian, etc. Her first book, "The Watchman’s Rattle A Radical New Theory of Collapse," was an international bestseller. Her follow-on book, titled "On the Verge," was released in 2017. For more information visit www.rebeccacosta.com. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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