It’s got to be good for you! – But is it?

Economists have a saying; there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

It’s usually invoked as a cautionary response to a new tax or social programme but it may well apply to the modern world – and modern economy – as a whole. The price we’re paying for that world is in the coin of our social and psychological state. The evidence is stacking up.

A 2006 Ministry of Health survey found that 39.5 percent of New Zealanders had suffered from a mental disorder at some time in their lives, 20.7 percent in the previous 12 months. (According to a 2003 WHO study, the latter rate for Nigerians is 4.7 percent.) It deduced that some 46.6 percent of New Zealanders would meet the criteria for a disorder at some time in their lives. Youth in modern societies – particularly Anglo-Saxon variants – have an estimated rate of psychological disturbance of around 25 per 100 at any one time.

Real rates of depression are thought to have increased somewhere between three to ten fold over the past five or six decades. Rates of extreme psychological disorders are more prevalent in cities than rural areas. Ezra Susser, Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology, claimed in 2005 that the risk of developing schizophrenia is three times greater in urban than rural areas: “It’s a dose response: the more urban, the more risk”. Based on a 1999 study, urban birth alone may account for 34.6 percent of cases, genetics for about 5.5 percent. (This site provides an overview of Susser’s work on this along with other studies. Note that genetic predisposition is minor in comparison to exposure to urban life, in all the studies cited.)

A famous study by Jean Twenge in 2000 (from her PhD) involved two major meta-analyses of anxiety scores in children and young people from 1952 to 1993 in the United States. It found a major shift for American children and youth towards greater anxiety. In 1993, normal children were scoring higher than a sample of child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. This increase can’t be explained by genetics. Broad measures of social connectedness were strongly negatively correlated with the shift while trends in (social) environmental threats were positively correlated.

Alongside this rise in anxiety has been a significantly greater tendency for US schoolchildren to move towards perceptions of having an external locus of control (also from a Twenge study). It’s well known that those who have an external locus of control (i.e., believe that external factors determine their life outcomes) tend towards greater depression and anxiety. As Peter Gray puts it in a Psychology Today article, from 1960 to 2002,

“average scores [on Rotter’s external/Internal Locus of Control Scale] shifted dramatically–for children aged 9 to 14 as well as for college students–away from the Internal toward the External end of the scale. In fact, the shift was so great that the average young person in 2002 was more External than were 80% of young people in the 1960s”

What’s behind such trends? Some say they result from efforts by an alliance of vested interests: The news media (with their need to shock to sell news); mental health professionals attempting to create an industry on discontent; various doom and gloom merchants – such as environmentalists – pushing an agenda that requires general pessimism. Against all the objective evidence, so the argument goes, we’re being persuaded to feel bad.

Less conspiratorially, others argue that discontent is a perverse result of how good things are. It’s the ‘princess and the pea’ theory. We’ve become so used to how good modern life is that we start to quibble irrationally with the remaining irritations. Not to put too fine a point on it – we’re all spoilt brats. By extension, psychiatrists and psychologists collude in (over)diagnosing disorders that, previously, individuals stoically endured as part of life. Life experiences haven’t changed, so this theory goes, they’ve just been re-categorised.

This explanation might appeal but it has its problems. It discounts the massive changes that have occurred in daily social conditions. That human development and psychology is resilient enough, at the population level, to be untouched by these changes is an heroic assumption. It also overlooks the possibility that types of social arrangements that are less prevalent today might best produce and sustain stoicism. That is, lack of stoicism may be another symptom, not a cause.

What’s left? The simplest explanation is that today’s social conditions militate against psychological and social health. By ‘social conditions’ I mean the basic ways in which everyday social life is organised (e.g., work, education, family, child rearing, relationships, community). But don’t we live today in the best social conditions that humans have ever enjoyed? Perhaps. But words like ‘best’ need anchoring in the realities of being human if they are to mean anything.

As Eric Keverne (2004) has argued in, the parts of the human brain implicated in our most distinctive – and most social – human capacities (e.g., planning, organisation, strategy, moral and social judgment) are the last parts of the brain to develop fully and are highly plastic into the early twenties. The principal environment for this prolonged neurological development is social and social stimuli are responsible for the sculpting of these brain areas. In effect, the distinctive features of the human brain and mind develop in a social womb for the first twenty years. That womb must provide the essential input to recreate these capacities reliably.

Which social ‘womb’, then, is ‘best’? Importantly, this question goes beyond issues of parenting. It encompasses the wider social world in which children and young people are routinely socialised and adults live out their days.

For millennia, humans grew up and lived in small bands whose members were more or less permanent features of each other’s daily experience. Cultural and practical skills were integrated and taught through direct relationships with older children and adults. Everyone mastered daily survival skills, though limited division of labour would have occurred. Individuality was established through interdependence rather than independence.

Widespread within-group altruism was vital for cohesion and efficient group functioning and was supported by intensive socialisation and common interest. Some anthropologists have argued that this social form was also probably the most democratic that humans have ever experienced, which makes sense given its non-hierarchical nature. As is true for other animals’ relationships to their critical environments, early humans were undoubtedly well designed for this deeply social world.

This is the social environment in which our bodies, brains and personhood evolved and typically developed. Given that we’re here, there’s every reason to believe that it reproduced effective social and psychological functioning despite – or because of – the difficulties of survival.

By contrast, today our lives are increasingly private affairs. Connections with others are intermittent, partial, negotiable and often brief. More and more of us live alone. For many, daily life is composed of a hailstorm of often unrelated, closely scheduled tasks, reflecting privatised agendas that inevitably cut across those of others. As a result, relationships come to be judged contractually, in cost-benefit terms.

New parents have rarely witnessed childrearing close up and their social support – even in the best conditions – is comparatively skeletal compared with that provided in most other cultures, past and present. Formal education in a lengthening series of institutions – beginning almost at birth – increasingly replaces direct mentoring in the skills of life. The point of life itself becomes the achievement of individual ambition. That ambition takes shape and is pursued in a context saturated with images of lives that bear no connection to our own experience but which supposedly reflect the palette of choices available.

It’s an unoriginal but accurate observation that these radical changes have been driven largely by the requirements of production (work) and consumption in the modern world. Social atomisation has little going for it as a means to produce social and psychological goods but it’s an excellent means for producing and consuming myriad economic goods. As a force to dissolve family, community and the individual person it leaves other suggested candidates – such as so-called political correctness – merely mopping up in its wake.

If there’s some hypothetical ‘win-win’ situation in which we can have modernity more or less in its present form and also flourish socially and psychologically then one thing can be stated with some confidence: We haven’t found it yet.

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