Why everything is amazing and everyone is miserable
We’re living in the most abundant times the world has ever seen, yet, a very great many of us consume our days in suffering, depression and anxiety. It seems like there’s something we’re missing - something big.
I look at a few possible causes to our mysterious plight and one huge possible solution.
Most of us aren’t starving, aren’t freezing and aren’t subject to the whims of natural catastrophe when it comes to what to put on the table tomorrow. The global poverty rate had halved from 43% in 1990 to 21% in 2010 and a quick browse through the website: https://humanprogress.org/ will have you grinning in amazement at everything our species manages to do to improve our lot.
On every measure of health, prosperity and peace we are living in entirely unimaginable times. These are in the most literal sense in last the 200.000 years of homo sapiens: the best of times.
At the same time, almost 20% of adults and around 40 Million people are officially diagnosed with anxiety in the US. In the UK, the number stands at just above 8 Million. And around 300 million people around the world experience depression, according to the World Health Organization.
These numbers are high, but they're also rising, most acutely in the younger generations.
By some estimates, five to eight times as many college and high school students fall within the diagnostic criteria of major depression and/or anxiety than 50 years ago. These effects are constant even when factors like the changing diagnostic criteria are taken into account. We haven't just moved the goalposts - people, especially young people, are in a darker place than they've ever been in recorded psychological history.
There could be many causes of this decline in mental health. Our way of life has changed more drastically in the last 50 years than it has for all preceding 200.000 years. The way we use our bodies, the things we eat and drink, the way we spend our time, they would all be unrecognisable to our ancestors. Something's gotta give, and it seems to be our minds.
Simulated autism for everyone
Some have linked the spike in anxiety and depression to the rise of technology and the changing nature of social interactions.
Humans are social beings. Some of our most ancestral desires are to be included and attain status as members of the in-group.
To feel seen, to feel understood, to feel important.
With the dawn of the digital era, social interactions have turned into a mix of rollercoaster and minefield. Humans used to rely heavily on body language, facial and tone of voice cues to understand the social environment, and these are all but missing nowadays.
Text is by nature ambiguous, and even the most elaborate concatenation of emojis can't communicate the same things as a face to face chat.
We've institutionalised simulated autism for everyone.
Why is this worrying? Because the lack of social cues leads to social ambiguity. You don't know where you stand. And that in turn, leads to fear.
A thick, dark Primal Fear where the twist is that Edward Norton turns out to have killed the archbishop.
Pavlov, researcher of bell-ringing-dog-salivating fame, used the term "experimental neurosis" for the mental breakdowns he could induce in the dogs he was training. Setting aside the fact that driving dogs nuts on purpose is a bit cruel by modern standards, his insights were radical.
One of the conditions that would lead to the mental breakdown of the dogs was presenting them with "difficult discrimination". The dogs were trained to salivate at the sight of a circle, but not at the sight of an ellipsis. Though these dogs knew way more geometry than me, when the trainers presented them with a succession of circles that looked more and more like ellipses and they reached a point where the two became impossible to distinguish, the dogs would go berserk.
Though dogs aren't as sophisticated as people, we still share a good chunk of the mammalian brain with them, and it seems like needing to handle too much ambiguity can be a clusterfuck for the mind. Especially when the stakes are high like they naturally are in human social interactions.
Control over your destiny
A factor that correlates strongly with depression and anxiety is having a feeling of control over your own destiny. Someone who feels like they are a victim, at the mercy of forces outside of their control will be much more prone to anxiety and depression.
The most established way to measure this is through Rotter's Locus of Control scale. I like to call it the "Locust of Control", for fun, and because it sounds like the most anti-climactic supervillain in the universe.
The scale distinguishes between an external and an internal locus of control. Having an external locus of control means having the feeling of not being in control of your own life and at the whim of outside forces. Having an internal locus of control, on the other hand, means feeling like your life is in your control and that you are the master of your own destiny. People that have a perceived internal locus of control are much more likely to enjoy their professions, have fulfilling relationships and participate in their community. You know, the people in breakfast cereal commercials.
There has been a steep increase in people feeling that their destinies are outside of their control. An average young person in 2002 was classified as more "External" than 80% of young people in the 1960s. This overlaps well with the trend line for increasing rates of anxiety and depression.
I know correlation doesn't imply causation, but there seems to be something fishy in the state of Denmark here. Maybe these two trends can be traced back to a common cause, or perhaps, at least point to a common fix.
Searching for happiness and finding purpose
We now have an infinity of books, classes and seminars that promise to make us happy. Happiness is apparently the thing nowadays.
Sounds simple enough, intuitive even, that we should be seeking happiness.
But happiness is a zen koan.
The more you chase it, the more elusive it is. Most of the things that look like happiness are fleeting or have diminishing returns: pleasure, freedom, fame. They're on an ever-receding horizon.
Maybe the cure for depression isn't happiness.
Because depression isn't sadness.
Depression is meaninglessness.
A brief history of meaning
Back in the day - and by that I mean almost any day going back a few hundred years ago, you had no option to lack meaning in your life.
Your purpose was carved in stone, and every day it was reaffirmed by sheer necessity.
That necessity? Motherfucking survival.
Your survival, the survival of your family, the survival of your tribe. We've spun thousands of stories around this purpose.
They were unifying stories of local heroes, of brotherhood, but also stories of enemies, of strangers, of darkness. These are all the metaphors that lay at the foundation of our societies. In Sapiens, Yuval Harari makes a compelling case that our ability to create common meaning through stories could be the most exceptional talent of homo sapiens. It made it possible to cooperate across tribes, across regions, across nations. It allowed us to invent fictions such as the nation-state, religious systems and even tell the magically powerful story that is "money".
Meaning, in the form of stories, myths and the sheer necessity of cooperation for survival, has been at the core of our history, and at the centre of our evolution.
What if we’re so tuned for survival that even when we're thriving, our systems for staying alive are still in overdrive?
Evolution works much slower than civilisation, so, we've now got almost exactly the same hardware as we did in primordial times.
Our reaction to not getting that new job, scratching our car door or being put down by our bosses are processed by the same systems that brought you: "RUN! Snake attack imminent!" and "FIGHT! Neighbour wants to snatch your lady!"
We’re still in fight-or-flight mode in a world were fighting and fleeing have become overkill in 99% of situations.
But we're so hooked on purpose, as simple a mission as survival is, that without it we’re unmoored. We have an infinity of options but none as simple and as obviously meaningful as the sheer drive for survival and the complex cultural scaffolding that we've built to help us do it.
Now we’re like windmills on a planet where the wind stopped blowing, twitching at any sign of a gust and making hurricanes out of a breeze. Deep, I know.
We’re so overstimulated by the social games we play that it drives us to the edge of madness. To our ancient lizard brain, unpopularity on Instagram feels just like being ostracised from the village and sent to certain death outside the safe bounds of civilisation, into the darkness.
We’ve managed to insulate ourselves against the raw horrors of humanity, only to discover that we can’t remove the horror detection system.
It’s still running on empty in the background, making your life miserable.
The fix: Drop the entitlement and take on responsibility
If you can read this, you're doing just fine.
And because you're doing absolutely fabulously compared to 99.99% of all people born before you, you have to make your life count.
As a byproduct of taking responsibility for your shit, you'll find meaning. Pretty magical.
The modern age is the era of rights. Human rights, social rights, individual rights, collective rights. We've been fighting for a plethora of rights for the last few hundred years. Everything from housing to food to education is now a right. Maybe deservedly so. But the conversation about responsibilities seems to have been relegated to the dustbin of history and to a few religious nuts with suspicious allegiances to ancient deities.
Weren't rights supposed to come with responsibilities? Ok, maybe our culture isn't that crazy about responsibility.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't be.
Voluntary discomfort, a willing confrontation with hardship and aiming at something, that's how you inject your own meaning into life.
It’s definitely not easy, it’s not always fun, but there might be no other way.
Try the alternative - mindless hedonism - for a few years and soon you'll find yourself staring at the abyss and having it scream right back at you.
Jordan Peterson, philosopher extraordinaire and a man I credit with a lot of enlightenment, puts it this way:
“Find the heaviest weight you can and pick it up. And that will make you strong. You’re not who you could be. And who you could be is worthwhile.”
Maybe your potential is more important than your comfort.
Perhaps even on some higher, cosmic level.