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In his latest book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger details fascinating accounts — including those of English settlers who chose to live with Native Americans, survivors reminiscing fondly about the siege of Sarajevo and the two-year absence of rampage killings after 9-11 — to reveal the disconnect in modern society and its impact on wellbeing.
Following is an edited extract from the first chapter of Tribe.
"The question for Western society isn’t so much why tribal life might be so appealing — it seems obvious on the face of it — but why Western society is so unappealing.
On a material level it is clearly more comfortable and protected from the hardships of the natural world.
But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom.
First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience.
The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts towards a common good.
And as society modernised, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group.
A person living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day — or an entire life — mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet deeply, dangerously alone.
The evidence that this is hard on us is overwhelming. Although happiness is notoriously subjective and difficult to measure, mental illness is not.
Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society — despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology — is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history.
As affluence and urbanisation rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down.
Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
The findings are in keeping with something called self-determination theory, which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent about what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.
These values are considered "intrinsic" to human happiness and far outweigh "extrinsic" values such as beauty, money, and status.
Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasis extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth.
The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment ... that "maximises consumption at the long-term cost of wellbeing," a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012.
"In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences."