Modern-day 21st Century living is easy.
Your debt, job, addictions, relationship problems, illness or injury may not make it seem that way; but in the context of humanity it is. We live in a time where there has never been more abundance in our resources and less risk to our lives. In fact, our abundance is so much that we are facing an obesity crisis and our life so risk-free that we are now asking questions about how our Governments can cope with us all living so much longer. If we were to tell our ancestors that we would be living in a time of rampant gluttony and extended retirements, they would surely think humanity had made it to the promised land that the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 18th Century promised. In the span of humanity, we truly live in a Golden age.
Yet, for most of the people I talk to, it does not feel that way. People tell me that they wish for a simpler life, that they would like to go back to a time where the stresses and strains of modern life are not present. When I ask what these stresses are they tell me that there is not enough time for leisure, they don’t have as much money as they want, they feel work gives them a lot of pressure (especially in my profession), their friends are doing a lot better than they are, they are not as successful as they want to be and that life generally has not turned out the way they thought it would. For a significant number of my friends and colleagues, these pressures have contributed to them being diagnosed with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Everywhere I look, in my professional or personal life, people these days seem to be stressed out. Many reach a breaking point and have to seek counselling or medication; yet it does not seem like our Grandparents or the generations before them experienced this, despite living in times that were less abundant and harder to survive in.
Why is this? Why is modern life making us depressed?
Maybe half a century ago people did not talk about depression, they kept a stiff upper lip and soldiered on with life (also, mental health conditions were not as well understood and the treatments were severe). Perhaps with the advances in medicine and education we are now more likely to be open and seek treatment, with positive public health campaigns run by organisations such as Mind and MHA helping people be more open about their struggles. If people are more likely to be honest about their problems, and the treatment is more effective, maybe that is why everyone seems so stressed out. Looking into studies into the prevalence of modern-day depression, this is also the reason given by some researchers whom are sceptical about claims that mental health issues are more common now than with previous generations.
However that claim of over-diagnosis does not sit quite right with me, especially when I consider that a lot of the things people see as stress-inducing are linked directly to our modern society. People feel they do not have enough money because they are buying luxury goods that were not available to previous generations. People feel like they do not have enough time for leisure because the extent of activities has broadened and technology has placated us in the family home. We feel other people are doing better because social media shows us every holiday our friends go on, every meal they eat, and services like Amazon even give the option of linking to Facebook and sharing every item they buy. Work gives us more pressure because advances in communication technology mean that we can now never escape the office, despite it being known that checking work email at home can cause heart problems, anxiety and headaches. With social media meaning that we can airbrush out the imperfections in our lives, projecting only what we want others to see, it is little wonder that we can be left feeling that everyone else is doing better than us. I see a lot of my friends sharing images of their holidays, homes and new cars; I have never seen anyone telling me about their credit card bills or the negative equity of their home.
Given that these issues were not faced by the generations before us, it is important to look for research that negates this theory of depression and stress now being more diagnosed.
Jean Twenge, writing in Social Indicators Research, found that teenagers in 2014 (compared to the 1980s) were 74% percent more likely to have trouble sleeping, 38% more likely to have trouble remembering and twice as likely to have seen a doctor regarding mental health issues. Young adults were 50% more likely to say they felt overwhelmed or stressed and all adults were more likely to say they had issues with their appetite, problems sleeping and everything was an effort- these are all symptoms of depression. Whilst this research provides a lot of evidence based on these factors alone, the key point is that it did not look for whether people had been diagnosed or identified themselves as depressed, it simply asked how people felt. Indeed, when people were asked if they felt depressed, that didn’t change between 2014 and the 1980s.
What this all means is that the rise in depression and anxiety can’t be just because people are being more honest. In fact the opposite may be true, with fewer people self-reporting as being depressed yet more saying they have the symptoms. When data from 2014 and the 1980s is compared, it seems to be a true increase in problems, not simply an improvement in diagnosis or decline in stigma.
This leaves the question, why are we are feeling this way?
Personally, I have a few theories that I know impact on my quality of life and I also believe that these issues are felt by others.
1) We do not see the fruits of our labour any more. Most of us do not make things ourselves and our children’s creativity is now played out in a digital form, with games like Minecraft meaning there is no tangible product of their creativity. The sum of our worth is now based upon what we can buy with the money we receive for our time, not what we can use our skills to create or develop ourselves. This has shifted our feelings of reward and we are evolving to this new era where our legacy is likely be be based upon what is stored on hard drives, not what we have made with our own hands in the real world.
2) Our friendships are less meaningful and more superficial. Increasingly we live in an age where our friendships are based less on shared experiences and more on shared views. The internet means that we can have thousands of Facebook friends, yet not see any for weeks, or write to millions through Twitter but go through whole weekends without speaking to anyone in person. We can edit our friends list and social circles to people that are like us, we admire, or that we are attracted to. We can cherry pick our media sources to give us very defined views of the world and project an image of whatever we want. What this means is that we can hang on every word typed out by somebody on the other side of the world and yet not make the effort with our own neighbours. It also means that our old friends become more disposable, particularly if we fall out; after all, when you can make friends with a click of a button why put up with a real life friend that is needy or annoys you? Which leads onto my next point…
3) Our relationship and community ties are weaker in general. With the expansion of our communities into the online realm, we have lost the old sense of belonging that we have in our neighbourhoods. The things that used to tie us to our communities are no longer there in the same way that they have been for the generations before us. Church attendances are rapidly declining, we travel further away from our homes for work, local businesses and bars are closing, interest in grass-roots politics is at an all time low, and our community centres and libraries are being cut. We are seeing the very fabric of our societies being torn up and, having lived this way for generations, there are clearly deep-rooted anxieties about these changes.
4) We are now focussed on goals that are out of reach for most of us. We want fame, we want money and we want to achieve a certain image; believing that achieving these goals will make our lives complete. Far from being the purpose of life, as many now believe it to be, the active pursuit of material goods is directly linked to anxiety and depression.
5) Our expectations are too high. My feelings on this are best summed up by the author Kurt Vonnegut who explained “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories”. That quote is part of a really interesting longer article that sums up why I believe we want too much. We’ve all grown up with our teachers and parents telling us “you can be anything you want to be”, watching films about normal people having extraordinary adventures and being bombarded with adverts tempting us with an ideal life if we buy certain products. Added to this, and reflecting on the earlier points about dying communities and superficial friendships, we are all developing more positive self-views meaning we believe we deserve more than we’re capable of achieving.
So, if you’re feeling low or like everyone’s doing better than you, the chances are you’re not alone and most people keep you know have these same emotions but keep them hidden. Modern day life is advancing at such a fast pace that our human nature is finding it difficult to keep up, causing mental anguish in the process.
What can we do about this then? How can we better cope with the demands of contemporary living? Come back later this week for my answers to those questions and what we can do to redress the balance by taking back control of our chaotic modern lives.