Fighting Societal Affective Disorder

Roadside Musings

Fighting Societal Affective Disorder


After a conversation with a seasonal affective disorder expert, Rabbi Rami ponders the affliction of societal affective disorder.

Reading Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness through All Seasons in preparation for my interview with the book’s author Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, I was struck with the notion that Western civilization may be going through its own version of SAD: not seasonal affective disorder, but societal affective disorder.

According to Dr. Rosenthal, SAD is a “condition of regular depressions that occur in the fall and winter and typically remit in the spring and summer.” Among the common symptoms of seasonal affective disorder are a slowing down of thinking and action, sadness, increased anxiety, increased appetite, cravings for sweets and starches, greater need for sleep, and less interest in sex. As I look at societal affective disorder, the symptoms are similar: lack of mental clarity and increase in irrationality; increase in fear, anger, hatred, and violence; increased appetite for conspiracy theories; scapegoating and othering of marginalized communities; cravings for empty rhetoric, spectacle, and bread and circuses; greater need for mind-numbing info-tainment; and less interest in sex accompanied by a rising obsession with homophobia, toxic masculinity, and misogyny.

One element central to curing seasonal affective disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, the key to CBT is the notion that it isn’t the events you experience that cause you to feel one way or another, but your beliefs about those events that cause you to feel one way or another. Take what is for many—though not for a food addict like me—a trivial matter: my response to my daily morning weigh-in. It was suggested in both Twelve Step meetings and by Dr. Rosenthal that for food addicts, a daily weigh-in is not always wise, but I am no less addicted to the scale than I am to food, so I weigh myself every morning.

The scale reveals a number. The number is just that: a numerical fact. It has no bias attached to it. I attach a bias to it. If it is higher than yesterday, I feel defeated and driven to punish myself by overeating. If it is lower than yesterday, I feel victorious and driven to celebrate by overeating. My feelings don’t come from the numbers themselves but from my beliefs about the numbers: I should weigh no more than “x.” If I weigh less, I am happy. If I weigh more, I am sad. But the notion “I should weigh ‘x’” is based on nothing more than a belief. The fact is I should weigh exactly what I do given my biology, caloric intake, and the amount of calories I burn.

It is my belief that is the problem. This is true in societal affective disorder as well. For example, why are so many people afraid of and violent toward the LGBTQ+ community? Because they believe the very existence of such people violates the will of God or laws of Nature. Why do so many people hate Jews? Because they believe Jews are part of a millennia-old cabal that secretly runs the world to the detriment of [fill in your favorite racial, ethnic, or religious group]. Why do so many white people want to erase African-American history? Because they believe that the truth might lead to justice for Black people at the expense of white people.

If I’m right about this, one way to cure America of societal affective disorder is to examine the health of our beliefs. But be careful: Don’t assume that liberals’ beliefs are healthy, and conservatives’ beliefs are unhealthy. That is just another belief system that will not stand up to scrutiny. We need another set of criteria when judging our beliefs. Let me suggest this preliminary list:

If your beliefs promote the thriving of all people regardless of race, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc., they are probably healthy. If they don’t, they are probably unhealthy.

If your beliefs are testable and open to rational inquiry, evidence-based reasoning, and civil dialogue, they are probably healthy. If they aren’t, they are probably unhealthy.

If your beliefs are open to change, they are probably healthy. If they aren’t, they are probably unhealthy.

If your beliefs call you to acts of justice and compassion to serve the wellbeing of person and planet, they are probably healthy. If your beliefs make you anxious, angry, fearful, violent, and boorish, they are probably unhealthy.

If your beliefs are healthy, share them. If your beliefs are unhealthy, change them. In this way, we might do something to defeat the societal affective disorder that is threatening our democracy.

Listen to the podcast episode that inspired this essay here.

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Fighting Societal Affective Disorder

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