Why isn’t this Utopia? Why, given material and technological advantages beyond the wildest dreams of our most visionary ancestors, are we floundering in a sea of despair?

Well, let’s call it “depression.” The weekly magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai (July 24) devotes no fewer than 50 pages to its causes, its cures and, probably most significantly, the relentlessly soaring numbers of its victims. In 1996, according to figures it cites from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 430,000 Japanese were receiving treatment for depression. In 2008, 1.04 million were. How many sufferers are not in treatment is anybody’s guess. Depression is now the leading cause of worker absenteeism, far ahead of cancer, accidents and injury.

The question that follows from this is so obvious it’s a wonder it’s asked so seldom: What are we doing to ourselves? Why such misery amid such overflowing abundance?

Depression has a peculiar place in the Japanese psyche. To the samurai of old, as to the “corporate warriors” of more recent memory, it was weakness pure and simple, a contemptible preoccupation with self in a self-sacrificing culture. If you had it you hid it; if you saw it in others you made no secret of your disgust. Such medical treatment as there was smacked more of criminal rehabilitation than of, say, the Freudian couch.

That started to change a generation ago. Today, few see depression as anything but an illness. An upsurge of research has shown it to have many causes. It comes in many forms. Treatment ranges from medication to counseling to “the four Rs”: recreation, rest, relaxation, retreat. So completely has the stigma faded that some, says Toyo Keizai, become demonstratively “depressed” over the slightest discouragement — either in all innocence or as the means to an end, namely an extended vacation. They check out typical symptoms on the Internet, visit a clinic complaining of those symptoms, get themselves certified as suffering from depression — and what can the company do but send them off to enjoy the therapeutic four Rs at leisure?

That happens, no doubt. Still, depression is real, and spreading, apparently far outpacing happiness. Why should that be? We denizens of the developed world have everything mankind ever wanted. We have powers that make the ancient gods look silly; wealth — even many of the relatively poor among us — that would make the bloated emperors of old gasp. Modern medicine has doubled the life span and is stretching it still; democracy, though flawed, generally acknowledges our freedom and our rights; we have knowledge at our fingertips, higher education for the asking, a dizzying array of options when it comes to things to do with our lives. It is all too easy to imagine the spirits of our ancestors looking down upon us and muttering, “How dare they be unhappy?”

“Utopia,” from the Greek for “no place,” is the name Thomas More gave to his imaginary ideal island in a book first published in 1516. Happiness in Utopia is the fruit of a sensible balance between work and leisure, which in turn depends on two essentials: an equitable distribution of necessary labor, and moderate (downright austere by our standards) material desires, symbolized by what a later age would call communism; no private property.

Utopia’s magistrates see to it “that everyone gets on with his (and her) job. They don’t wear people out, though, by keeping them hard at work from early morning till late at night, like cart-horses. That’s just slavery.” (Need the modern parallel be stressed?) “In Utopia they have a six-hour working day — three hours in the morning . . . then three more hours in the afternoon . . . They go to bed at 8 p.m., and sleep for eight hours. All the rest of the 24 they’re free to do what they like — not to waste their time in idleness or self-indulgence, but to make good use of it in some congenial activity. Most people spend these free periods on further education . . . “

“Simplicity, simplicity,” urged Henry Thoreau three and a half centuries after More. The single-minded dedication of life to the production of wealth was an established American fact by the time he published his classic “Walden” in 1854. It has since gone global, embraced as fervently in Japan as anywhere. Most people call it “realism.” Thoreau thought it inhuman. “The mass of men,” he wrote, “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

It’s as true here and now as it was there and then. The goals we set for ourselves are not rational goals; the achievements of this civilization are brilliant but not life-enhancing. Otherwise, would the depression statistics be what they are? Would (as Shukan Toyo Keizai says is the case) one in five Japanese be suffering from insomnia? Would one Japanese in 40 end up dying by suicide?

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