Modern Life

The thing that prompted me to write this was a documentary I recently watched about Xanax and the ever-increasing mental health issues people face today. The documentary traced the earliest mentions of anxiety related illnesses on a fairly broad scale to the time just after technology enabled relatively quick transmission of information. An example given was that people could find out from the newspaper about a volcano erupting halfway around the world, and some people may sit around thinking about it (or other catastrophes) all day, causing mental stress and feelings of anxiety.

Technological development and information overload affecting mental health is something I’ve thought a lot about in the past, but it returned to the forefront of my mind after seeing this documentary a few days ago. I won’t get into all the problematic aspects of psychotropic drugs or why I refuse to take them despite my history of anxiety; I find the more important aspect to be why more and more people feel the need to take these drugs.

Anyone can claim that perhaps these mental issues have always existed and were undocumented, and there is no way to really refute that claim, but I find it to be unlikely (at least on such a large scale). Of course some people have genuine chemical imbalances or serious mental illnesses that require medication to treat, but this isn’t what I’m referring to, as it is unlikely that genetic chemical imbalances would be increasing at such a staggering rate or would have such a strong prevalence among populations (particularly the youth). The more likely explanation is that people resort to taking these drugs to treat mental illness caused by our lifestyles.

Modern life has placed such an emphasis on education, career progression, and material wealth that many of us spend the first 1/3 of our lives slaving away in preparation to start our lives, often accumulating debt before we’ve even started working. After all that preparation is finished and we can finally start living, we may need to move to a big city to be able to find ‘opportunities’ to pay off our debt or make money, bringing with it a considerably higher cost of living. At this point we realize we need more money so we can comfortably have the time to relax and live life on our own time, so we focus on working and developing our career at the expense of our youth and free time. By the time we have enough money to start relaxing, we are often already afflicted by degrading health as a result of the constant stress we have put on ourselves. When we reach the end of our lives, I’m sure many of us are left wondering where all the time went and whether we ever really started living.

Even during our rest time, many of us spend our time browsing the internet, using social media, watching the news, etc. We never give ourselves the time and space to relax. Don’t tell me that watching the news or scrolling social media is relaxing, because they have been widely shown to have a negative effect on people’s wellbeing. If anything, they may feel relaxing because we have become so uncomfortable with doing nothing that even a moment alone with our thoughts can cause some of us to feel like we’re going crazy.

The two main culprits behind these issues, in my opinion, are materialism and overstimulation.

I think that the most worthwhile and important thing we can ever have in this life is other people, whether that be a single person you can relate with, a family that cares about you, or a community that supports each other. But I feel that we have replaced people with money, since we can support ourselves with money without the need for other people. When I have thought about the reasons that I need money (beyond basic life expenses), the only things that really come to mind are to help other people (family, friends, etc.) and to support myself after I stop working. All other things are superfluous. I think we often overestimate the amount of money we need to be content, and have so much fear of what would happen if we lose our job or have an accident (because we lack social support), which is the reason that we spend so much time and energy working. And in our efforts to acquire this money, we may neglect to support the people who matter in a more important way: emotionally.

Some of the best times in my life have been when my life was the most simple – living on a compound in the rural Philippines with 4 people in a one bedroom house, and when I was in the army and all my possessions could fit in two suitcases. The material comforts, or lack thereof, didn’t detract from my sense of wellbeing during these times because I had a sense of belonging and community. Perhaps it was because of and not in spite of this simple life that I felt more close to the people around me.

Overstimulation is something I often struggle with, especially because I live alone. When living with others, I may spend my time interacting with them. But when I’m alone in my room, it’s easy to waste a lot of time online. The problem with the internet is that it’s possible to do everything almost instantly. I can check my email, reply to text messages, order food, check social media, search something on the internet, and read the news headlines all within 5 minutes. Is it any wonder that many of us can’t slow down our minds? And besides this, even when we are out we can stay just as connected and distracted using our mobile devices.

This helps us to stay productive, right? It depends what your idea of productivity is. This helps us stay productive if our mindsets are in alignment with modern social ideologies, and are in constant pursuit of more money, opportunity, information, or whatever. But being constantly active and stimulated is not productive if our goal is mental and physical wellbeing.

Unfortunately, I have found the increased connection afforded to us by technological development to actually result in feeling less connected with others. Although it is easier to reach out to people, it is not so easy to arrange for quality time together, and when we are together, we may get distracted by our devices and take away from time with each other. It is also more difficult to meet new people out in the world. When I’m out and about at the store, in a cafe, on the street, or at the gym, most people are either staring at their phones/tablets/computers or have headphones in their ears. There is basically no possibility of interacting with strangers without intentionally interrupting whatever they are distracting themselves with. Sometimes this may be a good thing, but it also makes incidentally meeting new friends unlikely. Perhaps this is more relevant for me than it is for others since I frequently move and have to re-start my social circle from scratch each time, so I don’t have the convenience of a built-in social network that comes from growing up or living long-term in a place.

This creates a new issue – trying to meet people online. In my opinion, this is just a terrible experience all around. While it may be true that there are some cool people online, it takes a lot of wading through the ‘others’ before you meet them. This isn’t as straightforward as it is in real life because you can’t immediately feel whether someone is strange or incompatible online, so you end up having the same basic conversations with people over and over until eventually one person stops replying. The internet also makes it possible to meet people you never would in real life, which seems like a good thing at first, but I think of real-life contexts to act as a sort of filter. If you encounter someone in real life, it’s probably because you have common habits or interests and go to the same places, which is already a form of connection. Shared interests and social connections goes a long way toward making friendships.

Trying to find someone to date online comes with its own set of challenges. Not only do the apps/websites make it very difficult to meet people without paying money (more than they are worth), the dynamic of using these apps/websites is not conducive to building real relationships, in my opinion. I have come to this conclusion based on two factors: lack of social connections and the paradox of choice.

As I mentioned above, having common social connections goes a long way toward becoming friends with someone. Not only is that person validated as being worthwhile because they are your friends’ friend, but also that shared connection makes us more likely to try to tolerate the person even if they aren’t immediately likable, due to the possibility that we will continue to encounter them through our social circle. Disagreements or drama with that person also has to potential to affect more than just the two of you. This provides an incentive to work through problems rather than end the relationship.

The paradox of choice is the well-documented phenomenon that having more choices or options does not make us freer or happier, but rather makes it more difficult to make a decision and increases the likelihood to second-guess our choices. If you are trying to decide between two restaurants for dinner, it’s relatively straightforward; you could even flip a coin if you wanted to. But if the choices expands to 20 different restaurants, it’s no longer such a simple decision. When it comes to higher-stakes and long-term decisions like choosing a partner, this becomes even more problematic. If you meet a person in real life and you think they look good and are nice to spend time with, you may decide to date that person. But if you’re seeing hundreds of ‘potential’ people every day online and having conversations with several people at once, it is no longer so simple. Which one seems more promising? Or should I just wait it out and see if something better comes along?

The reality is that there is never an answer because it’s possible to find upsides and downsides to anything, and as long as we perceive there to be many options and possibilities, it will never be easy to make a choice and commit to it.

What is the solution to all this? Every person needs to find their own solution, and not every solution may be suitable for every person. Some people may actually love modern life and not be negatively affected by anything I’ve mentioned. Others may find that minor adjustments to their habits and technology usage could do the trick. While still others may need to make drastic changes to their lives to find their own sense of wellbeing.

As for me, I feel that my notions of ‘possibility’ cause more dissatisfaction than any actual lack of anything. I find myself constantly being pulled by desires that were given to me by society, but that I have difficulty ignoring as long as I know they are possible. I feel the need to disconnect considerably more than I already have and try to live my life primarily in the physical world, with limited connection to the digital world. As funny as it may sound given the difficulties I had initially with developing a social circle when I moved to Taiwan, I also often find myself wanting to move into an even more rural area, further isolated than I already am from ‘the world.’ I feel such a strong desire to live the most basic of lives, but find it nearly impossible while surrounded by others who are heavily afflicted by the desires I’m trying to distance myself from.

Wish me luck, and I wish that you all can find peace as well.

One reply to “Modern Life

  1. That was a good morning read – Thanks – I enjoy reading your writing, your thoughts. I wish I could express my thoughts the way you do…but I’m simple and to the point,

    I grew up with no technology, so, family, friends, and holiday get togethers were so important. I attended high school and college sporting events, and I was in a lot of extracurricular activities. I was pretty social, but I enjoyed my alone time too. Now days, I look forward to just reading a good book, but my eyes bother me more so reading gets tiring. Sadly, I notice in younger kids that all they want to do is play video games. Some adults still play hours of video games, which I can’t relate to since I never made them a priority.

    I am glad you enjoy nature and photography – I always enjoy you videos too. The world is getting to be a crazy and controlling world. Enjoy you simplicity – your dad was a lot like you until he got married and had a family. He never had credit or a credit card til he was about 39.

    I look at where Grandma is now – technology helped her until she got to the point that she is in the nursing home. I do have to admit that is saved her sanity during the covid years to be able to continue emailing and using the phone. Her only happiness now is when people stop by to see her…and an occasional Hallmark movie. She is depressed even on an antidepressant and an anxiety med. Loss of basic skills and basic life are hard.

    I reflect on my life – I enjoyed my busy teaching “social” life because I was working with some great teachers and helping kids and families. I miss that a lot now. Yes, I did work for money, but often the money was put into buying books and things for you boys and the students at school. There are things I would like to change/do but at this time I have to spend more time with mom. I pray I don’t have to go through a stroke or dementia. Getting old is not fun!

    I hope work is going well. I love you! Thanks for the post. Love – Mom

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