Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.
With reference to the Native American Indian: For all the temptations of native life, one of the most compelling might have been its fundamental egalitarianism, personal property was usually limited to whatever could be transported by horse or on foot, so gross inequalities of wealth were difficult to accumulate. Successful hunters and warriors could support multiple wives, but unlike modern society, those advantages were generally not passed on through the generations. Social status came through hunting and war, which all men had access to, and women had far more autonomy and sexual freedom – and bore fewer children – than women in white society. “Here I have no master,” an anonymous colonial woman was quoted by the secretary of French legation as saying about life with the Indians, “I am the equal of all women in the tribe, I do what I please without anyone saying anything about it. I work only for myself. I shall marry if I wish. Is there a single woman as independent in your cities?”
Because of these basic freedoms, tribal members tended to be exceedingly loyal. A white captive of the Kickapoo Nation who came to be known as John Dunn Hunter wrote that he had never before heard of a single instance of treason against the tribe, and as a result, punishments for such transgressions did not exist. But cowardice was punishable by death, as was murder within the tribe or any kind of communication with the enemy. It was a simple ethos that promoted loyalty and courage over all other virtues and considered the preservation of the tribe an almost sacred task, which indeed it was.
One study in the 1960s found that the nomadic !Kung people of the Kalahari desert in south Africa needed to work as little as 12 hours a week in order to survive – roughly one quarter of the hours the average urban executive at the time. The “camp is an open aggregate of cooperating persons which changes in size and composition from day to day, anthropologist Richard Lee noted with clear admiration in 1968. “The members move out each day to hunt and gather, and return in the evening to pool the collected foods in such a way that every person present receives an equitable share…. Because of the strong emphasis on sharing, and frequency of movement, surplus accumulation is kept to a minimum.”
The Kalahari is one of the harshest environments in the world, and the !Kung were able to continue living in Stone-Age existence well into the 1970s precisely because no one else wanted to live there. The !Kung were so well adapted to their environment that during times of drought, nearby farmers and cattle herders abandoned their livelihoods to join them in the bush because foraging and hunting were a more reliable source of food. The relatively relaxed pace of !Kung life – even during times of adversity – challenged longstanding ideas that modern society created a surplus of leisure time. It created exactly the opposite: a desperate cycle of work, financial obligation, and more work. The iKung had fewer belongings than westerners, but their lives were under much greater personal control.
Among anthropologists, the !King are thought to present a fairly accurate picture of how our hominid ancestors lived for more than a million years before the advent of agriculture. Genetic adaptations take around 25,000 years to appear in humans, so the enormous changes that came with agriculture in the last 10,000 years have hardly begun to affect our gene pool. Early humans would most likely have lived in nomadic bands of around 50 people, much like the iKung. They would have experienced high levels of accidental injuries and deaths. They would have encountered domineering behavior by senior males by forming coalitions within the group. They would have been utterly intolerant of hoarding or selfishness. They would have occasionally endured episodes of hunger, violence and hardship. They would have practiced close and involved childcare. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. The would have almost never been alone.
First agriculture, and then industry changed two fundamental things about human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts towards a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.
The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not. Numerous cross cultural studies have shown that modern society – despite it’s nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science and technology – is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
According to The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources, early chroniclers of American Indians couldn’t find any examples of suicide that were rooted in psychological causes. Early sources report that the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Montagnais, the Arapaho, the Plateau Yuma, the southern Paiute and the Zuni, among others, experienced no suicide at all. This stands in harsh contrast to many modern societies where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. In the United States, white middle aged men currently have the highest rate at 30 per 100,000 per year. According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and the people in countries with large income disparities – like the United States – run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders.
The mechanism seems to be simple: poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities.
The psychological effect of placing such importance on affluence can be seen in the microcosm of the legal profession. In 2015, the George Washington Law Review surveyed more than 6000 lawyers and found that conventional success in the legal profession – such as billable hours or making partner at a law firm – had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves. In fact, public defenders, who have far lower status than corporate lawyers, seems to lead significantly happier lives. The findings are in keeping with something called self-determination theory which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.
Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth.
“The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment that maximizes consumption at the long term cost of well being,” a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012. “In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight deficient, sleep deprived, competitive, inequitable and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”
Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made of wire mess. The wire mesh mother however dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry clothed mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates including humans.