Future Shock and Awe
What’s driving these rising levels of anxiety, depression, and related mental illness? A study on suicides rates in India points to at least one important factor. In India, a country dogged by grinding poverty, the leading cause of death is suicide. But the highest rates of suicide aren’t found in its poorest states as we might expect. In fact, it’s the opposite. The study shows that suicide rates in the richer, faster developing states are in some cases ten times higher than rates in the much poorer northern states. The highest suicide rates in India “are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the two states with the highest development indicators. The lowest is in Bihar, the state that finishes last in every measure of progress and development.”
How to explain an anomaly reminiscent of those happiness measures that often find that people in so-called underdeveloped countries report higher levels of life satisfaction than those in the rich northern countries? Dr. Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine led the India suicide study, which was published in the medical journal the Lancet. Commenting on its seemingly topsy-turvy findings, he says this: “Our study doesn’t answer why, and this is speculation, but it clearly points to something that is not biological. It has to point to the social environment young people are growing up in—there must be something toxic in the social environment in the rapidly developing states of India, which is not there in less developing states.” He goes on to note that “the most obvious explanation” is that people have a sense of expectation that life just can’t match. “Your aspirations,” he says, “have been built up by opportunities that in reality don’t exist.”
Does that sound familiar? To me it sounds like the entire edifice upon which the future era has been built. The future is coming. The future will be whatever you want it to Get ready to ride the crest of change! But when we try to grasp that awesome future, it melts away in our hands. Where did it go? Across the globe, we live longer, we eat more, we have more stuff, we are more educated, and we are less likely to be subjected to wars and plagues than any people who ever came before us. And we’re miserable.
Today, two of the top ten causes of death across all nations are heart disease (lack of exercise coupled with overconsumption) and suicide. Go back to 1900 and neither of those self-inflicted killers made the top ten. In many ways, what’s killing us now isn’t having too little, it’s having too much—too many options, too many propulsive, consumptive urges coupled with too many pressures to jettison the past, eradicate stability, adopt perpetual change as the only possible meaning. The era of permanently chasing future is the era of permanent anxiety. Scientists at Yale University are researching the revelation that chronic stress actually reduces the brain’s ability to make an important protein called neuritin. “Neuritin produces antidepressant actions and blocks the neuronal and behavioral deficits caused by chronic stress,” Ronald Duman, a neurobiologist at Yale and his team report in a study in the journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study found that when we get too anxious and stressed out, the brain stops making as much neuritin. Once again, biology trumps ideology. Our brain’s health depends on a certain level of stability, the knowledge that what happens tomorrow will be pretty similar to what happened yesterday. We don’t want and never wanted constant change as the firmament of our society.
No matter how much we try to accept and even profit from propulsive possibility, our minds are literally physically incapable of absorbing the shocks of the future era. We evolved to survive and perpetuate, and that process requires stability. The entire psychological framework of the human being is fundamentally about achieving and maintaining stable environments and social conditions. Without that stability, the brain gives up trying to keep up. Our minds are throwing in the towel, waving the white flag. And so the age of anxiety, exponentially expanding with each fresh push to emphasize change and future over constancy and progression. Chasing the future isn’t saving us, it’s killing us.