We are not wired for modern life

Despite what some would say, most people, in the West at least, but increasingly everywhere in the world, are living a better quality of life than Aristocracy did less than a hundred years ago. For all the talk of the 1%, most people born today are in the top 1% of everybody who has ever lived in human history.

I’ve always been fascinated how we can have so many material comforts, and so many deadly problems our ancestors faced have been eradicated, yet we still have the capacity to be miserable. There is a strong negative correlation between mental health issues and increases in comfort, especially rates of suicide in men and self harm in women. As life objectively gets better, paradoxically many of us become less happy. In fact many believe we are currently in the midst of a mental health crisis. There is a reason why this bit from Louis CK went viral, because it’s true:

One of the reasons is relativity, we compare ourselves to others, rather than appreciate how much worse things could be. However, the bigger problem as I see it (or my pet fascination at least) is that we are built for adversity and for living in groups, but we are experiencing much less of both. Our ancestors who survived long enough to reproduce were the ones who had it in them the ability to thrive when times got tough. We have evolved from the industrious, the aggressive, the survivors and the community focussed. When times are relatively easy, that part of our DNA does not just switch off. It takes thousands and thousands of years for us to evolve to changing circumstances, and we currently live in a time when everything is changing more rapidly than ever before.


Some of the most startling evidence I have seen to support this came from the fantastic book Tribe by Sebastian Junger. He revealed that mental health was shown to improve during some of the harshest times in recent memory. 9/11, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the Blitz in the UK, all saw the general spirit of the Nation, and reported mental health, improve. Junger argues that we have lost our sense of community, something which we are evolutionarily primed for and thus causes a lot of our mental health problems, and therefore horrific moments like these brings everyone back together. We stop focussing inward and start thinking of others, which is what we are built to do.

The great promise of the Internet and social media in general was that it would bring all of us closer together. While all of us have personal examples where this is true (my own being able to stay in touch with friends in the US and Australia) for the most part social media is making us more detached and lonely. Rather than meeting new people and experiencing new ideas, we all use the Internet to find people who think just like us. We are all much less civilised to each other online, which is hardly a controversial claim at this point. Social media also makes us compare ourselves to others and assume their life is better than ours (We compare our ‘behind the scenes’ to their ‘highlight reel’), very recently Facebook and in particular Instagram have been reported to cause depression, anxiety and self esteem issues in young people. We have evolved to participate in groups of no more than 150 (Known as the Dunbar number) and work together face to face. However, we spend more and more time living and working alone, despite being connected to thousands of people.

Hardwired for struggle

Anxiety in general is on the increase and that is of particular interest to me because I have suffered from it myself for a lot of my adult life. Our brains were formed at a time in history when 50% of children died prematurely, so one of the universally agreed upon Big Five Personality Traits we have developed is Neuroticism, which is sensitivity towards negative stimuli. High Neuroticism would have kept you and your children alive when there was constant threat around every corner, it is higher in women precisely because as historically primary caregivers, the more worried mothers could sniff out threats sooner (it is lower  in men because historically they have evolved to take more risks to, among other things, protect against those threats).

So while we comparatively have nothing to worry about these days, we still have that Neuroticism hard wired. The Big Five Personality Traits (A very interesting subject by the way, you should take the test) are considered to be at least 50% genetic, 30% developed in infancy and only about 20% malleable. They are not going anywhere anytime soon and no amount of stuff bought on Amazon Prime will change that.

Seek out difficulty

Income inequality is a huge problem but I am much more fearful of the impact of automation and the prospect of a world without work. There is a lot of talk about a universal basic income being a necessity when jobs become scarce, which I agree with, but just as important will be society finding a way of filling that time with something meaningful where we can still overcome struggles. A dog trainer once told me that you shouldn’t just feed a dog, you should make the dog work for it, because it’s in their nature (especially the working breeds). The same is true of humans, we are hunter gatherers, it is in our nature to acquire our own resources. Acolytes of universal basic income suggest we will all become artists with that free time, something which I would love to see but am skeptical that we all have in us. My concern is that it will just be more and more consumption of news, and tech, and Twitter, at cat memes, and ‘stuff’. Just as our response to an abundance of food was for obesity to skyrocket, a world without work could see us become rudderless consumers like Aldous Huxley predicted, with all the mental health issues that come with that.

The solution as I see it is that, when you are fortunate enough in life to have few material discomforts, to impose a few on yourself. Before this sounds masochistic, remember most of us do it anyway in the form of eating icky vegetables (rather than lovely lovely cream cakes) and going to the gym. There is already an awareness in society that there is too much of a good thing and sometimes we have to do things we don’t enjoy to prevent problems further down the line. This is also why we see people volunteer for things like Tough Mudders and Bull Runs, which are obviously dangerous and painful, we want that feeling of having been on a hero’s journey.

There are plenty of accidental experiments that have shown the benefits of inviting a form of struggle into your life when it is not needed. Followers of Jainism, for example, have one of the most restrictive lives you can imagine. They meditate, they fast, they are vegetarian and have strict rules about materialism and celibacy. The Jains make up just 1% of the population of India, yet staggeringly they contribute roughly 24% of the total taxes. They also have the highest literacy rate of 94.1% compared to a national average of 65.38%. A similar phenomenon can be witnessed amongst the Mormons in America, who have a similarly restrictive lifestyle and are massively overrepresented at the top of the business world. The evidence is out there, and it shows that self-control is the master trait when it comes achievement and living a fulfilling life.

Seeing how hard wired we are for struggle has simultaneously made me more sympathetic to people who allow small problems in life consume them, and also makes me want to shake them and say snap out of it. In particular my attitude towards Millennials has changed considerably since I have gone down these evolutionary rabbit holes. It is true that young people have it way too easy and could benefit from some adversity. It is also true that when they have been shielded from it for so long, they probably genuinely feel some sort of pain at trivial things like being called mean names. However, the solution is certainly not more safe spaces or coddling.

In the words of comedian Adam Carolla “Nobody is depressed when they are being chased by a bear”. The two most engaging and fulfilling periods in my life were also the two biggest problems I’ve ever faced, the adversity brought out the best in me even though I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my worst enemy. If you are lucky enough to not be struggling to keep warm or feed yourself, maybe the best thing you can do is try and solve whatever the most immediate difficult problem facing you is. You need problems in life to overcome, if you are lucky enough to choose which problems those are, don’t waste the opportunity.

If you are interested in the psychology of why we are so easily offended these days, I’m writing a book about it. You can get a free copy of an early draft chapter by joining the mailing list below:

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