Staying Sane In an Insane World

02/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Leeat Granek, Ph.D. Critical health psychologist who studies grief, loss and cancer patients and their families

I made it half way through day two of Oprah's "Best Life" series on TV this week before storming off in a huff. The two-week series is supposed to be about health, but nothing about these shows feels nurturing to me. Case in point: being obsessed with the measurement of your waist and the amount of food that goes in your mouth is hardly a model of well-being, and yet, it's exactly what we are encouraged to do.

Oprah is not the only one missing the point. Nothing about this modern life is conducive to our health or our happiness. In fact, obsessing about weight is the least of our problems.

We work too much and exercise too little. And when we do exercise, it's in a gym, alone, with our earphones on. We grab packaged food on the go and eat it in front of our computers. We would rather watch television than have a conversation with our spouse, and we text message our friends instead of engaging with the person sitting next to us at the coffee shop. We rarely make eye contact.

It's a lonely, frantic, impersonal world out there. In fact, it's nothing short of insane.

Crazier still is that we think there is something wrong with us for not being able to fit into this reality. It's not just about weight loss. It extends to many other areas of our lives. Too often we are told we are crazy, or have "issues", or a mental disorder when there is nothing wrong with us. The problem is not individual. It is societal.

As a researcher, I have spent years talking to people with cancer, with clinical depression, with eating disorders, with learning disabilities, and now, with people who are grieving or are sick. I don't crunch numbers or perform fancy statistics in my research. Instead, I do qualitative studies, or, simply put, I ask people about their experiences and try to understand what they are going through from their own perspective.

When you actually listen to people instead of giving them a battery of tests, a diagnosis, and a bottle of pills, you begin to understand that no matter what the situation is, people's experiences make sense in the context of their own lives.

For example, the anorexic women I spoke to associated thinness with achievement and achievement with love. Most had learned at some point in their childhood to associate their self worth with achievement, and the highest achievement for them was losing weight. And so, dieting in the extreme was about feeling worthy and loved. Although ultimately self-destructive, their explanations were logical in the context of this culture that connects thinness with accomplishment.

My clinical depression study came to the same conclusion. When women talked about their depressions, they would talk about relationships. I heard about boyfriends and girlfriends, and mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers, and friends and colleagues. No matter how many times I tried to steer the conversation back to "The Depression" they would talk to me instead about feeling lonely, disconnected, and isolated. Were they really clinically depressed? Yes, according to the diagnostic criteria, but on closer inspection, it was obvious that their environments were a huge part of the problem. They wanted to love and be loved and felt depressed because they couldn't do that.

Unfortunately, our society is more insane than ever these days. And we are all feeling its effects. The widespread anxiety and depression we are experiencing is in many ways natural and even adaptive to the kind of word we are living in. It's scary out there, and it's lonely.

This is not an easy problem to solve. It's less work to try to make individual people "sane" by forcing them to adapt to an insane world, then to try to change an insane world to adapt to sane people.

One solution I have been toying with recently is the return to community. One of the most consistent findings in the psychological literature is that social support is the best way to promote well being and prevent mental distress. Being socially connected is so good for your health that belonging to just one social group (if you previously belonged to none) cuts your risk of dying by almost half! There is even evidence that social relationships can buffer the effects of disease. People who are married, who have close family and friends, and who belong to social groups have less mental disorders, recover faster from disease, and live longer than those who don't.

It's one holistic way to address the problem. It may not be the best or only one, but what is clear, is that we need to stop adapting ourselves to the insanity around us.

I'd be curious to hear suggestions and solutions the readers have for tackling these issues.