“Cultures of we” are an antidote to depression

By Bryan Gilmer • Published: May 6th, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Individualism is a hallmark of American culture… and we celebrate the right it gives each of us to pursue happiness. But now, researchers suggest that our “culture of me” makes people who are genetically prone to depression more likely to feel depressed.

Eastern cultures that emphasize collective values like harmony, agreement and interdependence can actually help suppress a common gene that causes depression. The result: Even though far more East Asians carry the gene… some four out of five… these countries have far lower rates of depression than Western ones, where only two out of five have the gene.

People in Eastern cultures seem to benefit from knowing they can rely on their community for support. And that’s often enough to ward off depression even during major life stresses… stresses that in Western cultures leave vulnerable people hopeless, empty and numb.

People in Eastern cultures also seem to experience fewer major life stressors. In fact, researchers think Eastern societies may have evolved collective cultures in order to insulate members from stress.

Maybe it’s a defense against their people’s genetic tendency toward depression.

Northwestern University researchers in the emerging field of cultural neuroscience made the connection. They looked at the prevalence of the gene and the rate of depression in twenty-nine countries. This confirms their understanding that a person’s genes and circumstances combine to produce major episodes of depression.

And it suggests that doctors need to work closely with social scientists to better understand and treat mood disorders like depression. Because the best methods for treating depression may vary from country to country.