The Land of the "Free" and Home of the Depressed

Approximate Read Time: 17 minutes


What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

According to Peter Thiel, the billionaire tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, this is the best interview question you can ask. What do you believe that most people don’t? As Thiel explains in his book, Zero to One, this is an exceptionally difficult and revealing question. “It is intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular.”

I’m sure many respond to Thiel with impressive sounding financial predictions or, perhaps, a regurgitation of Thiel’s own famous outside the box beliefs- paying homage to his affinity for the philosophy of Ayn Rand or his assertion that many high-achieving young adults would be better off skipping college. If you asked people outside the financial realm, you’d probably get a lot of responses like, “Everything happens for a reason,” “America is truly exceptional,” “Nice guys actually finish first,” or even the occasional, “9/11 was a government conspiracy.”

Next!

Being naturally skeptical of conventional wisdom- a quirk of being raised by a black belt, Clint Eastwood loving philosophy professor- I’d have no problem coming up with a list of my unorthodox beliefs. I think normal citizens have no business choosing the president (neither did our founders), that none of today’s “core” classes represent the core of what a human needs for success, and that we’d all be better off in a culture that accepted the utility of occasional fist fights. Too much protection and dependency have great costs. But, before I run you all off in a piece that was meant to bring us together, I’ll move to the important truth I’d respond with:

Most people believe that the traditional markers of progress- more comfort, convenience, luxury, entertainment, and overall ease of life- are a good thing. They believe that with fewer inconveniences and more pleasures life will improve. However, I believe that as modern life becomes more convenient and comfortable- as it becomes easier and less chaotic- and as we are more entertained and face fewer hardships, humanity in mass grows more depressed and empty. Certainly there are some universally positive innovations, like the smallpox vaccine, that are exempt from my overgeneralization. Furthermore, it isn’t that Uber Eats and Google search aren’t awesome in their own right, but the collective effect of mass diversions has been to breed less capable, less fully activated humans.

As Yuval Noah Harari puts it in his latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century,

“We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk, but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data processing mechanism, but these data cows hardly maximize the human potential.”

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While it is wonderful to live without facing an imminent threat to your life, the absence of any need to ensure our own survival has been the greatest obstacle to human thriving. As the rate of progress only quickens, our ability to fill this absence marks the greatest challenge to mental health.

Last year alone, over 30 students at the high-school where I work were institutionalized in a mental health facility. Nationally, the number of school shootings, drug overdoses, and suicides have been growing steadily for years. We have less inequality, less violence, more medications, more mandatory sensitivity trainings, more pleasure, and fewer pains. So what the hell is wrong with us?

You are a Human. Start There.

For the vast majority of their time on earth, humans have lived in small bands of about 50 people who were deeply dependent on one another for survival. These bands hunted animals, fished, gathered plants, and moved in accordance with the patterns of nature. This is the world your DNA expected. All of your instincts, impulses, and emotional needs have evolved to thrive in this nomadic environment.

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Civilization as we know it has been a fairly recent development. Following the agricultural revolution, surpluses of food allowed populations to grow and stay in one place, but the larger societies became, the more inhuman they tended to become. Our social framework can only support about 150 relationships of any depth. Thus, the coordination of a growing society requires increasingly impersonal systems. People stop mediating their own issues and instead turn to an impartial third party. The economy moves from trading goods to utilizing a medium of exchange, like money. Eventually, the majority of jobs do not even require us to see a project through. We are cogs isolated from every step of production. The car salesman has no idea where the cars materials came from and no idea how to build what he is selling. He does not see himself in his work and there is little pride in the product he sells. His job is simply a means to a financial end. It is the pursuit of comfort at the expense of fulfilling work.

As technology progresses, society becomes more disconnected. Rather than acquiring your own food or buying from a local producer who you know, you get food from a supermarket. Rather than finding people we trust to work and do business with, we begin looking for brands we trust. With each of these developments, society gains predictability, convenience, and efficiency, but we lose more personal capability and more connection to the people around us. We gain security and lose real freedom.

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Today, our survival is ensured by impersonal governments. We expect to be kept safe in every sense. Violent threats are the responsibility of our military and police; health threats are monitored by the CDC and a vast network of government agencies; and moral threats are mediated by the FCC. The private sector contributes as well. If a car breaks down AAA comes to the rescue and we call an Uber. If our roof is damaged in a storm, the insurance company we’ve been paying steps in to cover the damages. On one hand, this is all wonderful, but the collective effect is a society that learns to do increasingly less to ensure their own survival and whose people grow increasingly entitled to necessities that were once luxuries.

“Pain is the source of all values. To numb ourselves to our pain is to numb ourselves to anything that matters in the world. Pain opens up the moral gaps that eventually become our most deeply held values and beliefs. When we deny ourselves the ability to feel pain for a purpose, we deny ourselves the ability to feel any purpose at all.” -Mark Manson

In 2018, scientists from Harvard, Dartmouth, and New York University published a study with deep implications about human perception. Study participants were shown a succession of dots that ranged from extremely blue to extremely purple. Their task was simple- look at each dot and determine whether it was blue, or not blue. Each looked at 1,000 dots. The scientists found that as they reduced the number of blue dots, participants still found about the same number. The mind, expecting to see a set amount of blue dots, began to shift its definition of blue to fit the expected outcome. From these experiments, the scientists were able to show overwhelming evidence of humanity’s inclination for what they called prevalence induced concept change.

The point of this fancy term is that when oriented to find something, the human mind tends to find it. This study went on to apply the same model to other circumstances. Participants were asked to look for threatening faces and they detected just as many when the number of threatening faces was reduced. They were asked to read business proposals and identify the unethical ones and as the number of unethical proposals was reduced, they continued to find just as many. Their sense of ethics shifted to confirm an unconscious expectation. In each scenario they thought they were consciously discerning, but in fact their mind was compelled to fulfill an assumed default pattern.

We see manifestations of this phenomenon today in both political extremes. Xenophobes, sexists, and true bigots see confirmation of their prejudiced beliefs everywhere they look. Every change seems to threaten their values and narrow conception of a better way of life. Thus, they are threatened by the prospect of women working, of men cooking dinners, of gay marriage, of new immigrants, and of any new restaurant that isn’t a steakhouse, burger joint, or pizza place.

Likewise, the Social Justice Warrior movement encourages its adherents to detect every perceivable slight and every conceivable bigotry. They find racism, sexism, and other isms even when they aren’t there. With a mind programmed to scan for injustice new conceptions of wrong-doing are created like cultural appropriation, toxic masculinity, unchecked privilege, and failing to give trigger warnings prior to discussing potentially sensitive subjects.

As problematic as these extremes are, they hardly scratch the surface. The most troubling aspect of the blue-dot study is this: Humanity is naturally oriented to seek what is wrong in its environment. Just as you don’t notice when you’re not sick, or when your big toe feels great, you typically don’t realize the immense comfort of your existence. We are programmed to scan for pain. If our default is to look for pain, we will find just as much discomfort regardless of how easy and seemingly pain-free our life becomes. In other words, we generally feel about the same amount of suffering regardless of our experiences.

Now for the good news. You thrive on pain. The body grows greater immunity from facing hostile germs, more strength from facing physical resistance, and more endurance from training for progressively longer durations. The brain grows more intelligent and cunning from mental challenges and from striving to create deeper understandings. Likewise, our emotions grow more resilient from exposure to pain and hardship. Pain instructs us in how to refine our values and grow into better versions. This, in turn, fuels a sense of purpose. When we face pain, we grow confidence that we can rise to any adversity and, rather than shrinking from life for fear of pain, we embrace a broader set of experiences.

You see, pain and suffering are not the same thing. More pain does not equate to more suffering. In fact, if there is any disposition that invites greater suffering it is the belief that pain is a problem and the expectation that we should be able to avoid it.

Clearly fulfillment is based on a lot more than most people’s simplistic pursuit of more net pleasure. We need meaning. We need a mission and, most of all, humans are bio-evolutionarily hardwired to need a tribe. Just like a bee needs its hive or a penguin needs its waddle. Yeah. Look it up. A group of penguins is called a waddle and these guys couldn’t be happy laying around in their rooms scanning social media all day, either. We don’t need less pain. We need to do a better job listening to our pains and allowing that feedback to help us choose more rewarding struggles.

Dog Shit Alley

“(Taking anti-depressants) is like putting a leash on a pet. Drugs control us, rein us in, but they also disconnect us from the causes of our pain.” -Johann Hari

Like most physicians, Dr. Sam Everington, was trained to believe that depression was caused by a chemical imbalance. It was a linear equation. Neurotransmitters are acting up again. Add these drugs and they should fix that. Yet when he talked to patients this simple symptom-focused picture proved insufficient. They always had a deeper angst- a cause or, more commonly, an absence. The problem wasn’t their brains, it was their lives.

Around the corner from  Dr. Everington’s East London clinic was an ugly space the locals called “Dog Shit Alley.” For years this dark walking tunnel had been a breeding ground for graffiti, litter, and dog shit. Dr. Everington and colleagues organized a program where groups of depressed people would be funneled towards volunteering projects, like beautifying Dog Shit Alley. One site coordinator would help facilitate groups of around 20 depressed, anxious, or otherwise distressed people. Yet unlike, traditional mental health initiatives, their goal was to interfere as little as possible. There would be no counselling, questions, or specific agenda other than the project at hand.

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After years of crippling depression, Lisa Cunningham was put on the Dog Shit Alley project. She and her peers were tasked with turning this wasteland into a beautiful garden of flowers and vegetables. Neither, the alley nor the group’s emotional well-being improved over night. Many plants failed. They had to learn about nature, about the seasons, and about what plants would thrive in their environment. As Ms. Cunningham observed:

“You can’t change how nature is—because the weather will do that. The seasons will do that... Creating a garden takes time and an investment of energy and commitment… You might not feel you’ve made much impact in one gardening session, but if you do that every week, over a period of time you’ll see change.”

Slowly group members began to trust each other and open up about their challenges. They’d go to the local café after gardening sessions. Over time the garden bloomed and people would walk by thanking them for their efforts. They got to feel useful and appreciated. They reconnected with people and community, and they reconnected with nature. Ms. Cunningham credits nature itself for giving her back a “sense of place.” As she put it, “those two things that I had completely lost contact with (community and nature) had come back into my life again.”

After a few years of the gardening program, Lisa Cunningham got off Prozac, lost 62 pounds, married a gardener, and is now opening her own garden center in Wales.

In his book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari details this story and many others about people who have overcome crippling disorders. Similarly, the solution to my all-encompassing O.C.D. came through exposure, meditation, and an intense study of human thriving. The chemical imbalance narrative that dominates mental health discourse is oversimplified, to say the least. Hari points to at least seven environmental factors that contribute to depression, as well as two biological factors that often combine with the environment to exacerbate the problem. The components that prompted Ms. Cunningham’s transformation are simple and abundantly available: nature, community contribution, and a shared mission.

Leave it Better

At the end of the day, our lives should leave the world a better place. This doesn’t have to be grandiose. It is as simple as picking up trash whenever you see it. By physically investing in your community you automatically become part of a larger whole. In a digital world it is important to remember that this is the only way to real connection. I say pick up trash when you see it, put back a grocery cart that is left out, smile at the young man working the checkout counter. The concept is simple. We will be happier if we get outside and work in our community to make it a better place.

In a time when we are inundated with charity 5K’s and Go-Fund-Me’s, we have overlooked a most essential cause- community itself. These other charities aren’t the problem, of course. They can create a sense of community in their own right. Yet, often the charity becomes about convincing people to care about our own concerns and the challenges that have afflicted our individual lives. Furthermore, when everything we do is for points, we feel like there has to be a point other than responsibility itself. In our busy modern lives we’ve lost the causes that were once inherit to every community.

The Death of a Common Good

“What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.” – Sebastian Junger

For a society to operate well, it must be bonded by more than location and laws. It must have common values which are typically forged through common experiences and common struggles. Through most of the 20th century males found this in the military. From 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I through 1973 when the U.S. exited the Vietnam War, nearly every male was raised with the expectation that they may be needed to serve in war. This brought an urgency to youth development that forced the nation to mutually conceive of the challenges that should define every upbringing and the competencies expected of adults. The U.S. was especially unified in the 1940’s. Emerging from the great depression, young men went to war, women filled their jobs in order to produce for the war effort, and all citizens rationed meat, sugar, gas, and other luxuries while growing victory gardens at home.

This sense of unity continued into the 1950’s. Nearly all Americans believed in the cause of spreading democracy and they worked hard to build a generation capable of fighting wars to contain communism, going to space, and outpacing any progress made by the Soviet Union. The ethos of personal responsibility and the belief in advancement through effort were virtually universal.

By the late 1980’s, however, the Soviet Union was decaying fast, while within the U.S., a decade of social unrest bred hostile divisions leading many to question the ethics of those in power. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the majority credited the superiority of capitalism. We won the Cold War because we create and buy more stuff. Absent of a common rival, Americans increasingly filled their lives with the diversions created by a ballooning entertainment industry.

Television, video games, and eventually the internet and smartphones took hold of every free moment. Free time was spent in mass consumption, driven by an advertising industry that brilliantly deploys one simple message: You deserve this product. It will make you happy. We were trained to think only of what we wanted and what we were owed, neglecting the production and contribution that held the keys to actual fulfillment. Ironically, as we made more money and grew to see more luxuries as necessities, life became more stressful. Necessity enslaves.

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There were other factors contributing to increased self-interest and the disintegration of purpose-driven communities. A legal culture developed in the 1960’s where every action became subject to a lawsuit. Suing is a use of state power and exists to defend our liberties, not encroach on everyone else’s. As author Philip K. Howard explains in The Lost Art of Drawing the Line: How Fairness Went Too Far, “Law serves a social function as well as an individual…. When working properly justice is like the liver. You never notice it. People go through their lives comfortable with their instincts of right and wrong.” However, when you can sue for anything an environment of hypersensitivity and entitlement takes root, whereby every action is subject to over-analysis. We’ve all noticed this in our own lives.

The bounce house company owner is sued for $500,000 when a negligent parent’s kid climbs on top of the inflatable and jumps off, breaking his arm.

A medical school student a week from graduation decides to drive past a car accident. She and her mother agree that it isn’t worth it to help the victims as they await paramedics because she could be sued for practicing without a license.

When each of our actions can be maliciously exploited by another for greedy gains, we grow less confident doing what we think is right. We shy away from living fully and investing ourselves in the people around us. According to Howard:

“We got into this legal quick-sand, because we woke up in the 1960’s to all these really bad values. Racism, gender discrimination, pollution—they were bad values, and we wanted to create a legal system where no one could have bad values anymore. The problem is we created a system where we eliminated the right to have good values.” The demand for government to mitigate every possible human flaw quickly slipped into an over-reliance on government to serve our every individual want.

The Modern Absence

Society has been trained to obsess upon safety, stopping at nothing to remove any risks of bumps or bruises and feeling emboldened by the smallest accident. But by removing any pain and blunting our feedback mechanisms we shrink from life, growing less capable and more isolated.

Absent of a clear purpose, most have decided that their children should be the center of the universe. The role of parenting has shifted towards overproviding and overprotecting at the expense of creating great people.  Rather than uniting behind common trials and a mutual vision of the virtues that youth should cultivate, too many parents seek to stave off adulthood, indefinitely while working incessantly to grant their child’s every wish.

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These trends are especially apparent in modern youth sports. A culture has spawned where parents see themselves as their kid’s sports agent, responsible for demanding playing time, shuffling them to gurus, and shopping for the team that best positions them for that almighty scholarship. When a coach is inevitably forced to move athletes from their preferred positions to the places where the team needs them, parents and athletes alike are likely to be enraged. More and more we lose the concept of sacrifice for a greater good and in the process destroy ourselves in our entitlement. Our affluence has allowed us to forget that responsibility is not something to be avoided. It makes us part of something bigger than ourselves. A sense of duty is a sense of purpose and a source of connection.

Often we look at the world in terms of what we are owed. What do I need to be happy? When will the universe show me my purpose? When are “they” going to fix this? What are my inalienable rights? But rights inherently come with responsibilities. The gift of life imbues each of us with the responsibility to leave the world a better place- to offset our own burden. The funny thing is, these inconvenient efforts create lasting fulfillment. If we want more from life, we have to give more.

The dissolution of community is not your fault, but you are still responsible. You have to live in this world and your bio-evolutionary needs require more than comfort and convenience.

The communities we need aren’t built by government initiatives or rich donors. They are built by people who show up for a common mission and have common values forged in the process. “We’s” only form when “I’s” invest in something bigger than themselves.

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