How we learned to stop having fun
We used to know how to get together and really let our hair down. Then, in the early 1600s, a mass epidemic of depression broke out - and we've been living with it ever since. Something went wrong, but what? Barbara Ehrenreich unpicks the causes of our unhappiness
Beginning in England in the 17th century, the European world was stricken by what looks, in today's terms, like an epidemic of depression. The disease attacked both young and old, plunging them into months or years of morbid lethargy and relentless terrors, and seemed - perhaps only because they wrote more and had more written about them - to single out men of accomplishment and genius. The puritan writer John Bunyan, the political leader Oliver Cromwell, the poets Thomas Gray and John Donne, and the playwright and essayist Samuel Johnson are among the earliest and best-known victims. To the medical profession, the illness presented a vexing conundrum, not least because its gravest outcome was suicide. In 1733, Dr George Cheyne speculated that the English climate, combined with sedentary lifestyles and urbanisation, "have brought forth a class of distemper with atrocious and frightful symptoms, scarce known to our ancestors, and never rising to such fatal heights, and afflicting such numbers in any known nation. These nervous disorders being computed to make almost one-third of the complaints of the people of condition in England."