The Talmud teaches something so powerful, so compelling, that I think it is imperative that everyone, especially in this day and age, should be aware of it. The teaching arises from something that seems extremely dry and technical, but, if understood properly, is so much more than that. The teaching is simply this: The ancient measurement called an amma (approximately the length of the forearm) has two possible definitions—one is five handbreadths, the second is six handbreadths. The first measurement (the smaller one) is called a “sad amma,” and the second is called a “happy” one. Why the discrepancy? The Talmud goes on to explain that there really are not two definitions, just one—an amma is five handbreadths. So why did one opinion say six? The answer is that when a sad person holds his or her fist to measure the handbreadth, it is a little more compact, more clenched, than the happy person’s. Thus, five handbreadths for a happy person will be a little wider than a sad person’s.
The powerful lesson here is that happiness causes us to expand, and sadness causes us to contract. We see this in the spreading of a smile across the face as opposed to contracting the face in a frown. Further, it is clinically well-known that depression is associated with a stooped, tense, contracted posture, while happiness is quite the opposite in its postural expansiveness. But here is the interesting part: Behavioral psychology has clearly demonstrated that not only does sadness cause us to physically contract, but the converse is also true—physically contracting will quickly lead to feelings of depression. Try it yourself: stoop over, constrict your breathing (especially by not allowing yourself to breathe out fully), and, in order to really get a dramatic result, form your face into a dramatic frown. It won’t take long for you to feel awful.
Allow me to share a story from my clinic. I was treating a sixteen-year-old girl whose mother was concerned that she was spending excessive time social networking and surfing the internet, while becoming completely disengaged with school. Her mother had concerns about how disengaged and apathetic the girl was. However, as I got to know the girl better, she became more expressive in therapy sessions. As her true inner nature emerged, she clearly showed herself to be a bright, sensitive, empathetic, and enthusiastic person who had so much to offer. She went on to explain to me that she used to be more emotionally expressive with her peers, but had learned to tone it down and act in a more muted way because they all seemed a little depressed, and she felt that she did not fit in if she did not follow suit. She was a tall girl, so she even deliberately stooped when she was with friends so as not to feel so “different.” I suggested that she would be happier if she proudly embodied her tall stature and large emotions and let herself express what she felt. She appeared to appreciate this suggestion.
If this was an isolated instance of a depressed friend group and a complying peer, it would not be a matter of such concern. Unfortunately, it is certainly not an isolated instance at all. Being depressed, “emo,” disconnected, disaffected, cynical, and hopeless is increasingly becoming a social norm among a huge segment of today’s youth.
What has caused this epidemic of depression? The causes are obviously many and complex. It is beyond the scope of this article to consider them all. However, you will likely find in your own pocket one of the most important factors—the smartphone. The data is now compelling: The more time teens spend on screens, the lower their sense of psychological well-being becomes. It is interesting to note that adolescent self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness plummeted after 2012, the year that smartphone ownership reached the 50 percent mark in the United States. Increased screen time is associated with adolescent depression, anxiety, insufficient sleep, inactivity, sugary beverage consumption, and poorer connectivity in brain regions governing language and cognitive control. Further, there are reports linking heavy use of social networking to feelings of isolation.
Why the smartphone has had such a devastating impact on our youth is a complex question in its own right. But allow me to suggest one extremely subversive effect of the smartphone: it has caused our youth to shrink. They have shrunk in terms of their physical posture (stooping over their phones, heads bent forward and down), in terms of their interest in going outside to experience the world (many youths prefer to shut out the world completely, staying in their rooms with blinds drawn), and in terms of their real-world, face-to-face human interactions. No, I don’t mean FaceTime, I mean actually looking into the eyes of a friend and having a good laugh with them. A bored youth in an earlier generation might have gone outside to throw a ball around or wander in the forest with friends or maybe even get a job. In contrast, so many youths today find themselves trapped in a reverse day-night cycle, with shrinking understanding of how the world works or what skills they might need to independently navigate their way through it.
Every word that I have just said applied before COVID. Clinically, I have begun to see how COVID has extremely and painfully intensified the effects described above. In America, so many of our youth are bored, frustrated, understimulated, aimless, and depressed. Like a muscle atrophying, their passion is fading, and they are gradually forgetting the natural evolution of youth, which is to feel pride about attaining increasingly adult skills so that they will be ready, when they hit their early- to mid-twenties, to live independently and make their own mark on the world.
This state of affairs is more than concerning; it is a crisis. America now faces a combination of social unrest, widening divisiveness and polarization over fundamental issues in this American experiment of self-governance, and economic instability that is highly likely to get worse and will likely take a decade to overcome. This is precisely the time that our youth need to not be hiding from the world in the quiet security of their rooms.
If I had to put it directly to our youth, I would say this: “The world is changing and you need to be ready for it. Events may occur that require you to be strong and quick, communicate well, analyze options, seek consultation, make decisions, and find allies who will be there for you (really there, especially when it is not easy, not just a profile image online). And you will need real-world experiences with those people so you can read their body language, see the things that your peers try to hide when online, and judge their character. I know this is a lot to ask of you. But you don’t need to get a degree in these skills; you just have to be willing to enter the world. Use your body. See how fast you can run and how you become faster and faster if you work at it. And the same goes for your physical strength. And the same goes for your mind. Use it, challenge it. Expose yourself to new ideas. Read books, argue with your friends about them, watch the news. Get out in the world. Rediscover what the sunshine feels like and how it soothes a tense body. Explore the complexity and diversity existing in the forest down the street. Toss a baseball or throw a frisbee around with friends. Or ask your parents if you can help more in the house. I’m sure they could use it. They are probably really worried about their jobs, income, and the future. Learn an instrument; see how much you can accomplish by practicing every day. Organize a group of real- world friends to come up with some ideas about who might need extra help in the pandemic—family, friends, neighbors. Perhaps you could deliver groceries to the elderly. And if that would be hard to do because you don’t know how to drive yet, then start working on getting that license. The world is changing, and it won’t wait for you to finish that video game or to make just one more Snapchat post.”
Michael Milgraum is a licensed psychologist who has a private practice in Kensington, Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com. His most recent publication is Written Upon Our Souls, an exploration of the Jewish soul's journey to wholeness. For more of his writing, check out DrMMsolutions.com or his Facebook page.
(c) 2022 Michael Milgraum