Yesterday I read a short article by Jesse Singal in New York Magazine online, with the modestly misleading title, "For 80 Years, Young Americans Have Been Getting More Anxious and Depressed, and No One is Quite Sure Why." (It can be found at http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/03/for-80-years-young-americans-have-been-getting-more-anxious-and-depressed.html.)
The title is moderately misleading because the article does indeed venture to interpret the data (based on questions about symptoms asked in a manner more resistant to cultural change over time) and to offer an answer as to why, based on research by Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University. Twenge attributes the progressive increase in symptoms associated with anxiety and depression to certain features of modern life. Specifically, she argues that “modern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, at least in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago or 100 years ago. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is higher, people get married much later in life.” Twenge supports the social progress that has made all this possible. But she believes we have to be “clear-eyed” that the “potential tradeoff for our equality and freedom is more anxiety and depression because we’re more isolated.”
Twenge also notes that a shift in social values has accompanied the shift in our way of life and sees that too as connected with anxiety and depression. “There’s clear evidence that the focus on money, fame, and image has gone up,” she argues, “and there’s also clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame, and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious.”
The conclusion the article draws from Twenge's research "is that while there’s no way to go back to family farms and young marriage and parenthood — and, from an equality standpoint, we wouldn’t want to anyway — modern life needs to do a better job of connecting people to one another, and encouraging them to adopt the sorts of goals and outlooks that will make them happy."
An old Italian aphorism warns that, without paesani, one will not find happiness in life. Is it really at all surprising that what Genesis 2 and most of human cultural history have taught -that we are not meant to live primarily autonomous individualized lives - is again being confirmed by the pathologies evident in this first era in human history to try to construct and organize human life on a contrary principle?