We deal with a lot of stress these days, and a considerable amount of anxiety. The National Institute for Mental Health estimates that 18% of Americans have some kind of mental illness. But why? Our ancestors didn’t suffer from stress and anxiety to the extent that they were actually ill from them.
Our modern-day issues with mental illness derive from many different sources: brain lesions, genetic mutations, trauma, and many people suffer from them simply because they don’t handle stress or frustration or anxiety as well as others.
So why are we so stressed out? In two words: because EVERYTHING. To break that down a bit, we’ll start with the theory that evolutionary psychologists have: that there is a mismatch between our modern environment (with cities, broadband, social media) and the environment of evolutionary adaptation (life on the savanna).
We can break this down into 5 important sources of our modern-day stress and anxiety.
1) Innovation is faster
We live in an exciting time of ever-evolving technology. You’ve barely configured your phone to your liking and there’s already a new one on the market. Tools like CRISPR exist to enable gene-editing at a pace so fast there are philosophical arguments about what it should and shouldn’t be used for. The technology that powers your smartphone is light-years ahead of what NASA used for the Apollo missions. 3-D printing capacities, technology that helps you regrow body parts, the latest and greatest iPhone…it’s no wonder we are overwhelmed.
Just trying to keep up in this technologically rocket-fast world can be extremely stressful. When we lived on the savanna, innovation happened very slowly, and it was easy to understand and absorb as a community. These days, parts of our community have grown irrelevant because of innovation. Our grandfathers and grandmothers, or great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, grew up in a different time and have no need for or interest in the Internet and smartphones.
Before you feel too sad for them, realize that because of the pace of innovation we, too, will someday be even more irrelevant.
2) Markets have increased in efficiency
This could be easily explained by the ‘90s saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” So, overall, more efficient markets are a good thing. They help with the increase of possessions of material goods, entertainment options, education levels, even life spans. So what gives?
Well, it used to be that if you were really good at something, or really good at making a lot of something that people wanted, you were set. You owned the market for that good or skill. But then, competition came in and someone was making a better thing or a multicolored thing or they had multiple skills and suddenly you were stuck in a bad place: you had to diversify your skill set or you would be out of a job. This is pretty much how it is today. No matter how much specialization you have, it doesn’t really matter. You’re not going to be relevant in today’s market, unless you have something that people want, or a skill people can use, and nobody else -maybe in your local market or your community- has that thing or skill, and you’ve got the market cornered. But the notion of someone else coming along to compete with you is always hanging over your head, stressing you out and frustrating you.
On the savanna, you were very much the owner of whatever skill or thing you had or made, and there was no concern for competition, therefore…no stress.
3) We are specialists
Even as recently as 1600, if you were bright enough, you could get a grasp on pretty much everything that humans had created academically. At this point in history, you study a sub-sub-sub discipline, like the effect of Woodrow Wilson on the Turkish Revolution. There is SO MUCH to study, learn, grasp, and there is absolutely no way to learn everything. So, we specialize.
And, the mastery of these fields takes longer, and the payoff is less. If I had written a dissertation on the effect of Woodrow Wilson on the Turkish Revolution and gotten my Ph.D and claimed my spot in the lineup of historians around the world and worked really hard to have my field get recognized and became a professor emeritus and was asked to testify before Congress on matters that may be impactful because of ongoing problems in Turkey…I would still only make about $35K a year. Not much to brag about.
Aristotle is revered not only for his own philosophical works, but because he read all of the philosophical works in Greece at that time. At that time, that was considered quite a feat, but those works still didn’t explore things in depth the way our modern standards of specialization do.
When people ask me what I studied in college and I tell them I wrote my final on the influence of Woodrow Wilson on the Turkish Revolution their eyes glaze over around “Wilson”. Nobody cares, really. And that in itself is incredibly frustrating and saddening and stressful.
4) We compare ourselves to ridiculously high standards.
Thanks, Photoshop, for giving us models that don’t actually exist, and are so skinny that 40-60% of elementary school girls aged 6-12 are worried about their weight, and 20 million women and 10 million men have eating disorders. What the hell is going on here?
What’s going on is we hold ourselves to unattainable standards. We see models and soft, sexy women and chiseled, 8-pack abs men in movies and we hold ourselves to that. We see Olympians and we want to swim or skate or ice dance like them. It’s a standard that .001% of our population meets: THAT’S how few celebrities exist compared to normal people.
We shouldn’t actually compare ourselves to anyone -it’s always going to hurt our self-esteem if we do- but out on the savanna, in our tribal environments, it’s possible to be the prettiest girl in the tribe or the strongest man. Those goals were attainable. Now, they’re really not so much. So we should probably find a different standard to hold ourselves to, like maybe…our own?
5) We interact with lots of different people
Diversity is generally embraced as a good thing. When problem-solving, diverse groups of people tend to do better and solve the problem faster than people who are all like-minded. Diversity teaches us respect and appreciation for people of other cultures, backgrounds, political beliefs, sexual orientations, etc.
Diversity is, however, also stressful. Diversity means dealing with a LOT of input into our brains and trying to figure out how to deal with that. You’ve finally gotten used to your workplace made up of highly politicized people when suddenly your new workmate is introduced to you & she or he is transgender. And you’re sitting there sweating, trying to come up with a polite way to ask what pronoun they prefer. Do you see what I mean?
So while diversity is great for society, it kind of makes our brains explode a little. It’s stressful and can induce anxiety.
These five differences between modern life and life on the savanna may go a little ways to explain why we are stressed out and super-anxious. Perhaps we can find a way out of the stress caused by simply living in the modern world, but we haven’t done it yet.