why we’re less happy, and why this will continue

Teenagers aged 14 and 15 are said to have the lowest self-satisfaction, with 15% reporting low well-being.

Article here.

EDIT – added additional factor, made some other edits.

This isn’t unique to the UK. The trend is the same in the US, probably elsewhere.

I have a few hunches as to why wealthy nations are experiencing this issue, and not just with children, but adults as well. They’re in no particular order; not all of them will apply to everyone and perhaps none of them will apply to some. Some items in the list are related to others or could be grouped differently. The list is geared toward adults though, not children, though some will apply to adolescents as well.

1) People aren’t getting married, or are more readily divorcing. A lack of a stable life partner makes us less happy. Men and women both have temptations at work, and leaving one’s spouse for someone else is less taboo. Some people resist getting married at all.

2) Religion is fading, and secular humanism doesn’t replace it. There are many religions and many sects within those religions. For whatever reason, some people are very devout while others shun religion or are hostile to it. Most people are somewhere in the middle: ranging from mildly religious to “apatheistic” (apathetic). Many atheists are delighted by the fall of religion in western civilization, but allow me to propose an alternate view:  that we have lost something irreplaceable.

Of the many religions, there is perhaps one commonality: coping mechanism. To many, faith in something greater than themselves and hope in an afterlife is remarkably comforting. I know this isn’t always the case; or in some cases, it can provide both comfort and pain. But to many, it is a potent source of hope, a sophisticated and timeless coping mechanism that can make life’s ups and downs more bearable. The alternative is, to many, emptiness. Not despair, but the empty feeling of pointlessness. If we are, after all, sophisticated apes with cell phones and video blogs, is there really any point to life? Religion can be individually interpreted in a way that provides optimal meaning to the individual, and “flexible” interpretations need not disrupt scientific curiosity.

I grew up in a mildly religious household. We went to church on Sundays, but “God” and “Christ” was rarely spoken of the rest of the week (or even on Sundays, really). Sometime early in my childhood, I suddenly became conscious of the Higher Power of whom we sang in those hymns. It was an experience like becoming sentient after years being a robot. I was much more receptive to singing the hymns I previously resisted (outward sign), but the real change was internal. Fast forward to my early teenage years, I began praying at night consistently (though silently and inconspicuously to others). I was both self-conscious of my faith (and this was before all the best-sellers on atheism, before the public mood shifted) but also sure that something was out there and that I was in touch with this force. I silently shrugged off the idea that my religion conflicted with science, as it was so easy to reconcile the two in my head. Evolution? Sure, just the Deity’s way of creating and shaping life.

Even in college I was a believer, though again, a silent one who never attended church and who never talked about faith, or God, or religion to anyone (just one exception that comes to mind at the moment, but you get the gist). It was a quiet faith that interfered with nothing and provided a kind of calm solace.

The quick prayers at night stopped soon after college, not without a sense of guilt. I don’t know when it “clicked” exactly, but I do know that I became more apathetic about it as time went on. God was dead, never to be revived.

This is not a joyous time though. The consistent and flexible solace is comfort no more when one does not believe in the celestial being. And to a large degree, I miss that almighty friend and confidant.

Not everyone experiences their faith in this rather pleasant and meaningful way and some people are thrilled to be rid of their childhood beliefs. But what replaces that belief? A void, one that is apparent to people who, like me, had it and then lost it. Secular philosophical thought and science are useful, but they hardly function as coping mechanisms when times are tough.

3) Social isolation. For most people, including the majority of introverts, social connectivity (with many people, or with a few close friends) is very important. We live in an age where we can surround ourselves by people and yet be alone; we can surf the web and connect to others virtually (and superficially) and yet feel none of the positive effects of social interaction. For those who suffer from social isolation, and by that I mean people who lack whatever social connectivity and depth that is appropriate for their needs, this is a serious promoter of depressed mood.

4) Everything is public. I’m glad to be an adult, already grown up and guarded against saying the wrong thing or posting the wrong thing online. We all face the anxiety of knowing that any embarrassing moment we have can be recorded and uploaded for viewing by anyone, or everyone, and at any time.

And recall that saying something threatening, even when obviously joking and while playing an online game where trash-talk is common, can mean time in jail. Background checks are cheap, so escaping the past becomes increasingly difficult.

5) Unstable middle class. We are in a global competition wherein the winners get a larger share of the pie, and lifelong careers at a single company are rare. There are many positives to this economic reality (I’m generally free market-oriented, in fact), but there are downsides as well.

Those downsides are especially acute for those who are unable to attain higher education, often not because of lack of desire or intelligence, but lack of money (or not being smart enough to choose the right parents who can afford higher ed). As tuition costs have risen well in excess of inflation, and many adults are out of work or under-employed, this likely means a persistent and multi-generational poverty, as well as a wider gap between well-off and not-well-off.

6) Excessive use of state interventions for interpersonal conflicts (previously labeled “Liability, risk, and recourse”). This one is related to a couple others, but it deserves its own entry. It’s a complicated one involving many factors, so let me explain via example, one that hits close to home. Imagine you’re out walking your dog. Out comes one of your neighbors with her dog. Somehow, you both get a little too close to each other and, voila, aggressive play leads to one dog biting the other, or biting the neighbor, or whatever.

No worries, you decide. It’s just a scratch, no biggie. If the situation were reversed, you’d wash it off and call it a day. But then she calls Animal Control. The next week she sends you a bill for medical services rendered (and she went to the E-R without insurance). Or maybe she calls the police to report your “dangerous animal.”

Neighbors don’t always just work things out anymore. And the one who calls authorities first might have the upper hand (in their minds, at least). The situation described above isn’t too far from an actual situation that happened to my wife and me, from a neighbor we thought was our friend. And several years later, things haven’t improved. In fact, they’re worse. Much of this pertains to the neurotic personality of the neighbor in question, yes. But the fact is, our advanced legal and law-and-order system means that people resort to official channels rather than informal resolution, lest they be beaten to the punch. The neighborly chat and apology exercise is replaced with threats to call Animal Control, constant fear of being shaken down via absurd lawsuit, and having to live in proximity to an emotionally volatile neighbor who sneers at you at every opportunity with the ever-present implied threat of calling police (yes, police) if your dog barks at her or if you raise your voice to defend yourself.

If you don’t live near a neighbor-from-hell, then good for you. But other examples abound. We have a system that rewards those who use official channels against others and whose liability is high (a scratch can cost thousands in the E-R).

Use of state/government resources as the first line of defense or offense is more common than previous times because we have a good system, and good systems afford institutions for dealing with crime, civil disputes, and so forth. As crime in the US has fallen dramatically relative to the early 1990s, and police resources remain well-funded and available, we are left in a situation where police must justify their jobs by finding less significant “crime” where available: with a less active “market,” they must increase the “supply” of crime (go after petty or even absurd non-crimes) to justify the “demand” (their own jobs and funding).

The issue here is trust. When neighbors can’t trust neighbors to talk things out, they’ll respond preemptively by resorting to the very tactics they abhor. Rather than talking things out, we’ll deal with each other by looping in authorities on the conversation. And it only has to happen once before we all learn to distrust our neighbors in general and dislike our communities.

7) Lack of physically demanding activity. We’re generally less physically active, which leads to less overall happiness. Health aside, there is an antidepressant effect of exercise. I suspect this effect is, in part, due to depletion of energy reserves, meaning that those same energy reserves aren’t devoted to the (energy demanding) brain processes that include obsessive rumination and autonomic arousal (i.e., less energy available to worry about stuff).

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