These, Our Joyless Times

The story of how humans became so depressed and melancholy about all the gifts we gave ourselves

Matthew Ward

“In this current world, surrounded as we are by an explosion in exciting technology and gadgets of all kinds to make our lives the easiest in history…we’re not feeling it.”

In a Scientific American article from November 2012 entitled “Pop Music Became More Moody in Past 50 Years”… we learn that Pop music has become more moody in the past 50 years. It turns out that in 1965 about 85% of popular music featured happy Major keys, while today pop music is almost exclusively melancholy Minor keys. Songs are also longer and slower. The lyrics less optimistic and forward looking. “She Loves You” through “Fight The Power” to “American Idiot”. The Beach Boys to Megadeath. This comes as no surprise to any of us who, when young, couldn’t get enough of the joy and happiness the Beatles reflected in our own souls, and who now watch our young in their time pine for something more sublime. Surely it reminds us that these are joyless times.

The National Center for Health Statistics completed a study in 2011 entitled “Antidepressant Use in Persons Aged 12 and Over: United States, 2005–2008". In it they found that over the study period the use of antidepressants among Americans over the age of 12 numbered one in ten. That study included 12 year old children. “Antidepressant” was barely a word when The Four Tops sang “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” in 1965. Had we paid attention to the music we might have guessed that. Statistics, in a statistical world, have lost the ability to shock. They live for their own sake and we have lost their connection to real people leading real lives. But music comes from a different place, a different part of the brain. Because of its ability to pull together memories as if whole film, we can hear and touch and feel our emotions from a distant place in the past. Major tones and minor tones. It’s so different today.

And music can also transcend generations. How does a 16 year old of the 21st century comprehend those YouTube videos of antique major tones in mono? The grainy black and white film, the haircuts, the clothes. The smiles. What does she think of that world so different than her own? A loss of optimism about the future. Depression that requires epic amounts of anti-depressants. Minor tones. In this current world, surrounded as we are by an explosion in exciting technology and gadgets of all kinds to make our lives the easiest in history…we’re not feeling it. There is clearly something going on, something wrong. It shouldn’t be this way. But it is.

“There are more people who lead insufferably empty lives today than there were people only a handful of generations ago.”

By any measure, we who live in the industrial western world are rich. The most material laden civilization to ever stalk the earth. And we are healthy. So healthy that our spotless, germ free world of antibiotics, sanitizing lotions, and toilet seat wrappers have made us susceptible to record breaking epidemics of diabetes, asthma, and a host of childhood problems like peanut allergies that used to be rare when they existed at all. We eat what we want, when we want. We are obese. We live longer and use plastic surgery to cure it. The average age of mortality just a century ago was about 48 years of age. Today it exceeds 80. We are kept alive by pills and machines.

We all follow the same pattern. We are born, coddled, and educated. Then we abandon all the things we love about life and get a job doing something soul crushing in the pursuit of money and false happiness. We do that for half our life and then enjoy the balance of what we have left with what we have left. Many of us simply play Bingo and wait. Along the way we trade our freedom for debt with which to buy all our worldly goods, none of which we can take with us when we go. A life’s labor exchanged in free markets for a parade of pointless trash. We have children and train them to do the same thing.

There are more people who lead insufferably empty lives today than there were people only a handful of generations ago. Your great grandparents’ time. People whose lives are ruled by the clock, calendar, and debts to pay. People who, automatically and without thought, rise in the morning and stand in spirit sapping service jobs for eight or more long hours, just to make enough money to be desperate for the most basic of human needs. People who are born with all the promise our epic age might deliver, if only they didn’t have to wait tables, flip burgers, or stock shelves in lieu of their adolescent dreams. They sit in cubicle packed office towers without natural light or fresh air. They listlessly prowl the empty caverns of big box retail stores and lean on service counters with aching backs and feet that were not designed in any way for a task for which they earn the very minimum wage allowed by law — or in many cases, less. They are degraded and humiliated through the arcane voodoo of business management, arranged as they are in tiers of hierarchy that ensures that punishment always rolls downhill, towards them, and by design. They live in fear that on any day and at any moment their lives can be irreparably shattered by losing these jobs that are, in the end, mandatory requirements for survival in the 21st century. People literally beg to have their lives exhausted in this way for someone else’s gain.

And let’s face it, it’s not that sciatica inducing, arch crushing job that folks are begging for. It’s the money that they need, money they cannot get without a job (criminal activity aside). Offered the same wage, few would pick “drive-thru server” given the choice of any meaningful pursuit they wanted. They need the money. And they need the money to pay their bills, bills being what you accumulate when every consequential thing on earth has been commodified and priced according to the glorious and dubious free market creed, including the very lowest echelons of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” — food, clothing, and shelter. Virtually every single thing necessary for life has a price in the 21st century, and that price is measured in dollars, dollars which most folks can only get by dedicating every waking moment of their lives to that singular pursuit. By working at jobs that should be beneath basic human dignity, but somehow, are not.

“For the great bulk of humans today, life is a constant battle to survive individually and alone, pitted mercilessly against a world they cannot understand.”

Just because this is the only world any of us could ever imagine, it does not make it a good world. It just makes it the one we have stumbled into, led here by a curious course of events over the relatively short period of all of human history. Evolution is not necessarily a process of improvement. It’s just a process. Evolution contains countless examples of dead end species of which humans may simply be one. However, unlike all other of those “here today, gone tomorrow” Dodo birds and dinosaurs, humans have the innate ability to chart their own course and invent their own future, but only if they choose — as a species — to make it so.

It took 7 million years for the human brain to develop into its current configuration. Its purpose was singular — to survive in the harshest of conditions and against all odds. The critical advantages that brain conferred were those of cooperation and mutual support, allowing humans to not just survive, but dominate the planet. We have been using that brain only a scant 200,000 years, barely changed from the brain of our Stone Age ancestors. However, over the most recent 12–15,000 years, humans have drifted away from those best and critical features of cooperation and mutual support, choosing to forsake them for individual liberty, deliberate competitive survival, and the triumph of the self. In the early 21st century humans are living near the end of a short experiment, trying to thrive without the evolutionary advantages we had spent 7 million years developing. The jury is still out on the results, which may include the destruction of the planet and the extinction of the species. Or not.

For the great bulk of humans today, life is a constant battle to survive individually and alone, pitted mercilessly against a world they cannot understand. Though punctuated by periods of hope and dreams and joy and mirth, the daily grind drags on. Some find solace in ideology, a real and conscious worldview that this is the way it is supposed to be. They rally ‘round the flag, sing the songs, worship at the totems, and repeat the myths. A few of them make a lot of money. Others find safety from their primitive conscience in drugs and alcohol. Growing numbers, whose brains simply cannot cope with the evolutionary disconnect, kill themselves. But for most, they just hang on in quiet desperation, venting their troubled souls in the zombies they watch on-line or on TV, the fantasy games they play, and the music they listen to. None of them were ever designed by 7 million years of evolution to live this way. Major tones and minor tones.

“…there is no reason to believe that our world today is as it is because it must be.”

This is the story of how things got the way they are. How we got from there, to here. Specifically, how we, in the 21st Century — with amazing wealth and technology and health and longevity — became so depressed and melancholy about all the gifts we gave ourselves. It’s the story of how we were built to be one thing, but ended up another. But it is also a reminder that we still have, shunted aside in our powerful Stone Age brains, all the primitive tools necessary to use our fabulous technology to save us from ourselves. It’s a fascinating story of short history and reflection.

It seems to me that humans have lurched out from history like a drunk from a bar, fighting to maintain balance, staggering forward in a series of accidental steps, sustaining the course until jolted into another direction by a sudden collapse of equilibrium or the unforeseen appearance of a well-lit lamp post. Whatever the state of our appearance today, we are here by chance and not by design. Unlike every other thing on the planet that has stayed its course within the bounds nature had provided, humans, having shuffled nature aside, set their own agenda without regard to any kind of landmark from which to draw a reference. Humans, once they had become human, set themselves adrift without compass, map, or destination. As humans we are simply aimless wanderers.

Several observations present themselves immediately. The first of those is the incredible brevity of our time on this earth, the flash in the pan nature of our conscious existence. We humans are but a bright spark, or perhaps, a rapidly arching flare. This presents a second observation; that the fleeting nature of our time on this planet, measured as it is in the metrics of our own individual lifetimes, seems to be much longer than it actually is. Here in the 21st century of individual identity, where we have convinced ourselves that we are champions of all we attempt, we see human history as having a very long and predictable path that we ourselves have deliberately (it seems to us in hindsight) set down, and that 200,000 thousand years of humanity is an eternity. On a planet that is 4.2 billion years old, we consider anything older than 10,000 years “pre-history”, as if that incomprehensible amount of time is itself the flash, and not us.

Human history is then but a sliver, and the human course, a wander. Many events along this narrative of ours have shaped its direction, each flap of a butterfly’s wing creating a new mark, a new jolt that turns us to and fro towards today, each new today inexorably becoming an old tomorrow. Every day a new day that brings with it the chance for change of speed and direction. A further observation seems obvious; that there is no reason to believe that our world today is as it is because it must be. It is the way it is because of chance alone, and there is no law natural or otherwise that says it must remain unchanged. It never has.

“These turning points that changed the course of history we did not design, but gleefully followed just the same. They were accidents with consequences we failed to understand, as we fail to understand them still.”

The world — our world — is not a machine. It is not a series of interconnected wheels and gears that turn together towards a common end. It is rather, a biology of countless individual cells, each with its own individual consciousness, all bound together with no other purpose but to replicate and continue the species. Humans are a complex sociology that pulse and boil and grow together. The shape of the human race at any given moment a reflection of the uncountable flutters of uncountable butterfly wings. There is a constant momentum in the exponentially increasing complexity of that biology. That momentum of complexity is relentless at pushing humans forward. But that forward motion is not linear and not predetermined. Natural and human events intercede, and when they do on a grand scale, they are enough to “change the course of history”.

I believe that of all the many stories that make up the narrative of human history, there are but a handful that can be truly considered turning points. These are periods when humans were oozing themselves in one direction and then suddenly, had that direction turned for them in another. After each of these turns humanity found itself further from its roots, further from those things that were given to us by evolution for the successful propagation of our species. These turning points that changed the course of history we did not design, but gleefully followed just the same. They were accidents with consequences we failed to understand, as we fail to understand them still. And with each lurch we became less happy, less secure, and less aware of our circumstance. Many, many unfortunate people died or were displaced in the process, as they are still. And quite unlike some other species, whose members selflessly give their short lives for the benefit of the group, humans have given their own short lives in countless numbers involuntarily, taken by the few, and quite without regard to the benefit of any but those few.

If we are to chart this wobbly course of ours it is necessary to identify that point at which we first became human, and where our blind journey began. To begin at the beginning seems entirely logical in this regard. And the beginning surely is that point where humans became humans, those species peculiar to history who through natural selection gained the ability to leave the well-trodden road of nature’s protection and strike out on their own and of their own accord. Once untethered thus from nature, the short and winding road from there to here can be seen clearly in its proper context, a series of missteps and jolting events that swept humans to and fro across the landscape of time.

“Despite our arrogance, we humans are infants yet, a short experiment where everything is possible, should we have the courage to make it so.”

The online magazine “Edge” posed the question of its contributors and readers, “What should we be worried about?” While the answers were as varied as they were fascinating, none seemed to me to capture the problem of what contemporary humans should stay awake fretting over for the species and the planet. For my part, I worry that we are systematically destroying our evolutionary advantages of imagination, creativity, and innovation. All our combined human efforts in these realms have been turned away from making us a more sustainable, healthier, and happier species, and instead towards consumer items and weapons systems. In this process humans have fooled themselves into believing that progress is measured by our mechanical accomplishments, regardless of the value to the species those accomplishments represent. A means at odds with their end. Thus deceived, we attach value to the production of things that bears little relationship to those things humans were originally designed for. And humans were designed by evolution to solve problems of fitness by the brute power their unique brains gave them. Those brains developed capacities for imagination, creativity, and innovation in lieu of the many varied physical attributes other species used to solve their own problems of fitness and survival. Individually, humans were simply not up to the physical task of surviving a planet that was in constant change and environmental flux. But armed with an additional level of brain capacity, humans could interact socially and combine the power of those individual brains into a super-unit of networked resiliency. Humans thrived on chaos.

At one time, about 200,000 short years ago, there may have been as many as four different kinds of humans roaming the planet. Each had evolved from a common ancestor over the preceding 7 million years. Only one of these families would survive the tumultuous years of climate calamity that began to set in upon them all 2,000 centuries ago. And to be clear, 200,000 years is a very short period of time in the grand scheme of things, 2,000 centuries a brief moment on a planet that is over 45,000,000 centuries old. While we may think of ourselves as masters of all we survey, humans are but a flare, only a few million years in development. Despite our arrogance, we humans are infants yet, a short experiment where everything is possible, should we have the courage to make it so.

Time is short in a world of chaos. Do we have the courage to think again like social humans and abandon this short, failing experiment as selfish individuals? This world we stumbled into is slowly killing us even as it extends our killing lives, even as it provides us with all the gifts we can pay for, all the gifts we can pay for with jobs and lives that are slowly, painfully, depressingly killing us, killing us softly to the drone of minor tones in these, our joyless times.

Ideas need words to think. You can reach Matthew Ward by email, or on the dreaded Facebook

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