Our Mismatched World Is Making Us Sadder Than Ever
By: Kristina Durante
This article was inspired by my teenage son and daughter, and the unprecedented courage of young public figures who also made recent decisions to take care of themselves before pleasing others.
We have a mental health crisis. It is becoming increasingly difficult to live in our modern world without mental illness — particularly for young adults — because of a social adaptation gone awry.
All of us are walking around with brains designed to solve problems that existed thousands of years ago. None of us have brains fit to solve problems in this modern, digital world. We are all misfits in a mismatched world — and it’s literally making us sick.
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A glimpse back in time — we are people who need (to please) people.
Humans emerged as a distinct species 300,000 years ago on the African savanna, eventually migrating throughout Europe and Asia roughly 50,000 years ago. All these generations of our ancestors lived as hunter-gathers in small groups of 50–100 people who depended on one another for survival.
The human brain evolved to solve problems during this period of human existence — long before the dawn of agriculture a mere 10,000 years ago that finally allowed for the mass production of food that, in turn, allowed mass civilization to (ever slowly) emerge. The process of evolution has not had enough time to change our brains to fit our new world — much less the digital world.
Our brains are adapted to a world where having trusted friends was critical. War, disease, predators, and famine were around every corner. All humans living today are designed for subsistence living — the kind of living where you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from or what dangers you might face tomorrow. Today, our brains lead us to behave as if the quality of our friendships with other people means the difference between life and death. Because for many millennia, it did.
The human brain is designed to make us feel unhappy about disappointing people who live near us because we used to need these people to help us find food, shelter, protection, and mates. Nature designed us to be people pleasers, especially women (pregnancy, nursing, and childrearing — a biological “given” ancestrally if you were a woman — meant women required even more assistance to keep themselves alive so that children survived).
So, people pleasing, and the emotions tied to this behavior, became solidified in the psychology of humans — what biologists call an adaptation.
An adaptation gone awry.
This people-pleasing adaptation has gone awry in today’s world. We fake it to please others at a rate several standard deviations above what our brain is used to and eventually we break.
I was five years old the first time I remember lying to please. My family had just moved to a new town and the girl next door invited me over. Positive emotions flooded my brain — evolution’s bespoke reward designed to guarantee my continued attempt to build this childhood alliance.
Inside her room I saw a poster of the singer Barry Manilow. Though I didn’t really know who he was or like his music, I excitedly told her I liked him a lot. As if an automaton, an instinctual, pre-programmed tape guided my behavior.
Feigning similarity to get people to like us helped generations of our grandparents make friends and this behavior was passed down to us. Now, it is a problem.
Unlike today, nearly every generation before us lived with people they were genetically related to, who shared the same evoked culture as they did, and were from the same geographic region. Small group living made the likelihood of landing on a shared interest or goal a lot easier than it is today.
Today, we have the same strong, evolved desire to get others to like us, but finding common ground more often involves betraying our true selves to belong.
The (mismatched) digital world has short-circuited our evolved nature.
The gap between our ancestral environment to which our brains are adapted and our modern world is larger than in any other time in human history. We now live within large populations of people connected through modern transportation, and within a global village interconnected by advanced telecommunication — both traditional (television, cinema) and new (social media, dating apps) — the adaptations designed for a social world of 50–100 people now incorporate thousands, even millions, of others — most of whom we will never meet.
Circa 2021, the amount of people we believe to be watching our choices is not limited to close kin — it includes all the people we “know” through our phones, workplaces, and yes, even our television sets, and our brains cannot handle it.
Our brains did not evolve to differentiate between people on a screen and people who live next door to us. Ten thousand years ago, if someone came into our living space, there was an all-but-certain chance that person was someone we knew, whose opinion of us mattered — whose opinion may make the difference between whether we lived or died.
Like the fake rabbit the greyhound believes is real and so chases relentlessly around a racetrack, our brains categorize people we see on social media and TV as real people we know.
This immeasurable mismatch has exacerbated the misery caused by our people-pleasing adaptation tenfold. This mismatch is a factor contributing to the proliferation of mental illness over the past decade, especially among young people.
During our lifespan, there is a critical period that begins near puberty and lasts throughout young adulthood where what other people think of us matters the most. Young brains are designed to get a sense of how successful we are likely to be in our peer group and generates emotional feedback in the form of happiness (“People like you. Congrats!”) and sadness (“People do not like you. Work on that!”).
Only today’s peer groups are many times the size of the peer groups of even a generation ago. If someone 7,000 miles away doesn’t like my son’s haircut, social media delivers this message directly to him in milliseconds and his brain reacts as if this is a real person in his real, everyday world. It is very hard to convince our mind and body that this person’s opinion is not important.
So, our young people are sadder than ever. This sadness used to function to motivate our ancestors to patch up a relationship — only now there are too many people and opinions to manage and patch up.
Our phones alone exponentially increase the number and the volume of the voices we are apt to disappoint. The unhappiness designed for our small ancestral world is compounded into a neurological cataclysm.
Between 2005, when social media platforms were first introduced en masse, and today, the number of young people reporting symptoms of depression has increased over 50% in adolescents and 63% in young adults 18–25 years of age. Mood disorders and suicidal ideation have also increased dramatically. The COVID-19 lockdown increased the prevalence of mental illness even further.
The US health care system has not responded well to the demand for treatment of mental illness. Some 60% of youths with depression have not received any treatment.
We cannot change the warp speed tech innovations that make neighbors out of those on the other side of the globe — nor would we want to. Digital technology has many benefits. We also cannot change the structure of the human brain.
Where does this leave us? As a parent dealing with the effects of social media on my children, I do not always get it right. I usually get it wrong. Here is what I know for sure we can — and must — do.
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1) Destigmatize mental illness by putting mental health further into the public conversation.
Those currently struggling with mental illness feel that they are outsiders who have a problem that no one else has. The new conversation must raise the flag on the fact that we are all struggling with the same problem in different ways. The only way to galvanize efforts to solve a problem at a global level is for people to feel safe discussing it.
Here’s to young people like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Demi Lovato, Prince Harry, Megan Markle, and others who are pulling the veil off a very serious problem. This is a Me Too movement long overdue.
2) Bring mind-body wellness into our schools.
All of us, and especially young people, should understand why our mind plays tricks on us in the first place and how to change the way we see the world. Spiritual teacher Dr. Wayne Dyer’s invaluable words represent a key intervention:
If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
Just as we can transform our natural craving for fried food — a adaptation mismatched to an ancestral environment lacking in beneficial fat and sugar — we can take back the reigns of our catastrophizing, fortune-telling thoughts that keep us sad and anxious about the state of social relationships.
It takes learning and practice to become relaxed, aware, and mindful, just like learning to eat healthy in our modern world of sugary temptation. One can never learn too early. It is also never too late.
3) Practice limiting use of devices for all family members.
Writing this makes me a little sick to my stomach because this piece of advice has been told to me repeatedly by countless behavior experts. Limiting devices is easier said than done. My various attempts at removing devices and the success rate would require an article on to itself.
Yet, I can attest that both of my children experienced a boost in wellbeing for time periods when devices were completely removed, especially when a parent figure was not the reason for the removal, such as through summer camp, school, or residential treatment rules.
4) Do more of what our ancestors did.
Here are five biggies.
- Give children defined roles. We are wired to have a purpose. Humans are designed to thrive in small groups where each person specializes in a role that contributes to the greater good. Research on meaningful roles implemented in school settings has effectively decreased bullying and aggression in children. One way to do this outside of school is to find situations where your children can help another child, animal, or adult in need.
- Have one trusted friend you check in with and see regularly, if possible. This can even be a close family friend, adult sibling, or other relative who is in the same age group.
- Get outside, often. Humans belong outside in nature, not indoors. Schedule time outside every day. Period.
- Eat a traditional “ancestral” diet. The human body is built to metabolize whole foods, not the processed or fast foods most of us, especially young people, eat most frequently. A diet high in processed foods is linked to poor brain function, including an increase in symptoms of depression. Fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains, and fish are all part of what our bodies need to function and keep our digestive system full of the “good” gut bacteria our brains need.
- Exercise regularly, especially resistance training. The human body is designed to be moving. Our ancestors were constantly moving, bending, stretching, and lifting weighted objects to remain alive, fed, and protected. When we stop building and using our muscles, this sends a signal to our brain that something is wrong, which can hasten the deterioration of our body and mind. Weight training is the best way to keep your body young and healthy. Children can begin resistance training as soon as they begin to play sports in middle school. Weight training is not just for people who want six-pack abs, it is for everyone — and especially for women, who tend to avoid heavy lifting under the false assumption they will get “big.” Women simply do not have enough testosterone to build muscles the same way men do. While women will not look like men no matter how much they lift (unless they use hormonal supplements), the health benefits, including a youthful appearance and swift fat burning that increases weight loss, are the same.
5) Rethink traditional schooling.
Sitting long periods in classrooms learning abstract material is not natural for children or adults. Many children experiencing depression and anxiety begin to refuse to attend school. When possible, let children’s curiosity guide them and allow for more control over what and how they learn. Traditional schools are not for every child.
Too many of us are struggling with mental illness in a shroud of shame and silence. Let’s keep the current tide toward destigmatizing mental illness rising high and lifting all boats. The future of humanity depends on it.
We are all misfits in a mismatched world. Every single one of us.
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Kristina Durante, PhD, is a professor and the Vice-Chair in the Department of Marketing and the research director for the Center for Women in Business at Rutgers Business School. She has authored several articles on the psychology of women and families. She routinely speaks on her research across the globe, including a recent TEDx talk.