In 2017, the World Health Organization reported the global population reached 7.6 billion and declared depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide. Depression increased by 18% between 2005 and 2015 and now afflicts over 300 million people. Over 72% of Americans reported having felt a regular sense of loneliness, and 3 in 10 people feel lonely at least once a week.
The laws of physics state as gas molecules get more crowded, the amount of empty space between the molecules is reduced. If we apply these rules to the human population, we’re reducing empty space between molecules, but getting worse at establishing stronger bonds.
Why are we getting more crowded on a finite planet, but becoming more emotionally distant?
Capitalism. It’s more than an economic system, it’s the lens through which we understand and see the world. Capitalism fosters an individualistic attitude by valuing growth, productivity and competition, but neglects to account for our most basic human needs: companionship and connection.
Capitalism demands the accumulation of more, and is built on the premise that what we have already isn’t good enough. Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, says to each follow our own self interest and the “invisible hand” will create a market for the greatest, most efficient social welfare for all. But in the process of following self interest to prosper later, we’ve become alienated from ourselves and the people around us. We’ve become overly focused on making our next self richer, prettier, skinnier, smarter, and more popular, that we’re ignoring the self and the community around us now.
The United States represents capitalism’s fallacy, and holds the highest global GDP but remains one of the most depressed countries in the world. Incomes skyrocketed in the United States after WWII, but life satisfaction and reported levels of happiness stagnated or even declined. We got richer, but there was more disparity between income and well being during this time period, and depression rates increased 10-fold.
In the past 30 years, the number of American women suffering from an eating disorders has doubled. And now, over 90% of Americans use social media, a ‘connection’ at our fingertips, yet more than 60 million admit to loneliness. These statistics, albeit correlation does not imply causation, come as no surprise. Our identity has drifted away from being who we already are, and is replaced with ads and Instagram photos showcasing “who we can become.” Success, satisfaction and overall well-being is seen through a lens of how much money we make, what titles we hold, how many likes we have on social-media or how many external accomplishments we achieved, and forgets to look at what can’t be commodified or consumed.
However, humans require a strong sense of belonging and purpose. It cannot be addressed through material goods alone. Researchers from the University of Georgia studied the physical and psychological social well being of capuchin monkeys and found after starving and isolating them for 22 days, the monkeys all chose to rejoin with companions before eating when released. We often say ‘survival of the fittest’ when referring to competition reigning under capitalism, but the study shows monkeys bonded to the rest of the pack were more likely to survive over isolated and marginalized animals, later picked off by predators and starved.
Capitalism mimics these findings by trying to satiate our void through more drugs, food, and technology, but keeps us starving for connection and companionship. Humans, like monkeys, are ultra-social animals. The research suggests we need more than basic necessities (like food, shelter, security) for happiness. A team of Italian economists determined the happiest countries were those with “strong social networks and interactions that keep us connected with others.” They found social capital as more corrosive in people’s self-reported happiness than the income gap between rich and poor, suggesting social bonds are most important for a satisfying life.
Neoliberalism funnels us to each do our own thing in grand isolation from others, but we’re struggling to find purpose. We are mistakenly valuing profit and production over relationships and connection. In a 2013 survey led by Harvard Business Review, 50% of respondents said they “felt their job had no “meaning and significance,”” and just as many were unable to relate to their company’s mission. Another poll surveying 230,000 employees reported only 13% of workers actually liked their job and 37% felt their job was “utterly useless.”
Labor is essential to the human condition. But we no longer feel connected to our work when the majority works jobs that benefit the few. Depression and loneliness seem inevitable. By becoming isolated inside a cubicle and reducing our labor to behind a screen, we’re “work[ing] jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need,” as Tyler Durden says in Fight Club. We created wealth gaps in society, and a gnawing gap within ourselves.
On a planet with 7.6 billion individuals, we manage to live increasingly alone and lead lonely inner lives. Our mental health is threatened, alienating us from ourselves and other people. Yet loneliness can be overcome with an activity as remedial as gardening. Dr. Cacioppo, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago, determined gardening was twice as effective as chemical antidepressants in treating loneliness, and argues the negative feeling doesn’t come from physically being alone, but the perception of being alone. Cacioppo suggests our brain is “reshaped by social forces” and we can be pretty happy gardening in solitude, or any activity, if we connect to our labor, the world around us, and have purpose.
Humans are more than machines with broken parts, and while medication enhances serotonin, we’re more likely to feel aimless and isolated if we keep living in an individualistic, capitalist culture, valuing product solutions over people. Our perception will undoubtedly become depressed once the mania of productivity settles down, and are left to deal with the discomfort of superficial relationships among others, and within our innermost self. But if we meet inevitable pains of life and bear them bravely by looking beyond self interest and consumption, we can find fulfilment through companionship and connection.