Okay, I’ll admit that most people will object that in 2015, the first world has it pretty damn good. It’s true that historically you were more likely to contend with senseless killing, early morbidity and mortality, dysentery, polio, arranged marriage, a rigidly enforced class system, and other not-so-pleasant things.
But I still want to make the case that things are pretty dire in the 21st century, despite the iPhone and modern medicine. Here’s why:
#1 Paralysis by Analysis
Excessive choice makes it extremely difficult to navigate life. This is why In-N-Out has such a compelling business model. They’ve got like three things on the menu. No need to anguish about the flavors you could be missing out on.
I’ve been out with friends that won’t try a new taco truck because it just looks pretty good. Because you deserve to eat at the best taco truck, which naturally entails scouring Yelp reviews ad nauseam. But apart from choosing restaurants, this paralysis by analysis also results in a highly cluttered mind and a pernicious cycle of overanalyzing trivial decisions.
#2 Social Isolation
It’s pretty interesting that in the west, you’re considered unsuccessful if you’re living with your parents at age 25. Why is this the case? Wouldn’t it be more financially prudent to pool resources by living with your parents, at least until you get married or move in with a significant other? I think this phenomenon reflects the growing fragmentation of small communities like the family unit. I wasn’t there so I can only speculate, but back in the day, I feel like your social fabric was more tight-knit.
#3 The Positive Psychology Movement
To harp on some familiar cliches, everyone thinks that their a unique and beautiful snowflake. The possibilities are endless. You could become a neurosurgeon, or you could make slightly more than minimum wage flying a Boeing 747. But The greatest predictor of how much wealth you’ll have as an adult is still the net worth of your parents. This illusion of enhanced social mobility paired with the positive psychology movement leads to hopelessly thwarted expectations.
#4 Chronic, Unpredictable Stress
Back in the day, we’d encounter highly stressful situations, like running from a predator (to use a threadbare example). These encounters would powerfully activate the sympathetic fight-or-flight response, cortisol and other signaling cascades, allowing you to perform in stressful situations. But as soon as the threat left our purview, we’d return to baseline.
In modernity, stress is relatively mild, like worrying about exams or whether or not your spouse is cheating on you. But it’s chronic and unending. In 2015, most of us don’t experience a life-or-death situation to calibrate our stress response. This absence of brief but intense stress in the present day magnifies low-level, chronic stress. It’s this chronic, low-level stress that’s particularly bad for your brain.
#5 God is Dead / The Universe is Expanding
They’re a few secular humanists out there that are pretty damn happy. But personally, I’d be a lot better equipped to cope if I didn’t think that the intrinsic instability of the universe could cause it to expire at a moment’s notice due to a vacuum metastability event. There are a few sparse studies supporting the notion that religious people are happier. These studies confirm my thesis, so I’ll ignore evidence to the contrary.
#6 The Death of Blue Collar Jobs
Blue collar jobs aren’t really dying. In fact, blue collar workers are in high-demand. What I’m referring to is the perception that white collar work is superior to blue collar work.
This preference for white collar work based on its perceived social capital is resulting in a devaluation of certain kinds of manual labor.
What if you’re a really bright kid with ADHD? Previously, you could excel at agriculture or build Disneyland. If you have ADHD in 2015 and have white, middle class parents, you’re most likely hopped up on dextroamphetamine with the idea that you must do white collar work or you’re a failure firmly embedded in your hypertrophied amygdala.
The public perception that sitting at a desk looking at Excel data at Goldman Sachs 80 hours a week is the most praiseworthy thing you can do with your life is definitely eroding the mental health of people with different skill-sets.
#7 Social Media / What Happened to the Small Ponds?
Social media is great. You get to stay connected to people you might not otherwise talk to. But it’s also toxic, because you’re inundated with other people’s accomplishments, which breads resentment. Seeing everyone’s best side through the lens of manufactured profiles and airbrushed photos results in a Facebook death spin that will leave even the most smug a little weary. Previously, you could be a big fish in a small pond, or even a small fish in a small pond with a tight-knit community; now you’re notified of your peer’s accomplishments in real time and there’s no pond – just an ocean filled with minuscule fish.
#8 The Excessive Prolongation of Life
Modern medicine is pretty excellent. I was certainly stoked to get my appendix removed under anesthesia after an insane 48 hour, life-threatening stomach ache. But in America, you’ll probably use the majority of medical resources in the last year of your life, whether or not you’re cognizant enough to appreciate it.
A wide range of resuscitation techniques, blood transfusions, potent drugs, machines (heart, lung, kidney) and other supports are brought into operation to save the live of a patient, and even to revive a patient already dead by some criteria. In terminal and geriatric cases, these methods are so effective that life of a kind may be prolonged almost indefinitely, however limited the existence the patient then experiences. Medical techniques may also be used to maintain life in children born with severe physical deficiencies, including lack of a brain. Conditions such as encephalocele or anencephaly, in which the brain is severely damaged or almost completely lacking, are such that the likelihood that the child would be able to live independently in society without continuous care are negligible. Such children are completely unresponsive and unaware of their surroundings (ref).
#9 The Wide Availability of Drugs of Abuse
Some people use illegal substances responsibly and even benefit from them. Like the scientist Kary Mullis who putatively discovered PCR (the polymerase chain reaction) based on insights gleaned under the influence of LSD (disclaimer: story may be apocryphal).
However, now that methamphetamine and other drugs of abuse are widely available, you could find yourself hopelessly addicted to a substance that may not have existed 200 years ago. It’s strange to think that you could be scrubbing your bathroom floor for the 48th straight hour, a life experience made possible by modern organic chemistry.
Do you sleep with your iPhone by your bed? If you’re like me, chances are the first thing you do in the morning (and the last thing you do before passing out) is compulsively check your phone for new emails/notifications. Unfortunately, all this screen time in the dead of night is probably dysregulating your circadian rhythms, suppressing endogenous melatonin production, and impairing your sleep quality.
iPhones/computers/video games – they’re pretty great. But they also effectively hijack the dopaminergic reward circuitry in your mesolimbic pathway. That dopamine squirt you get every time you receive an FB like/follow/wall post/private message? That’s what makes you check your phone under the table at dinner instead of talking to your friends, browse Reddit endlessly while cracking threadbare jokes about how you should probably go outside.