America is Sick, and Not Just From COVID. Can We Heal and Fix It?
According to many sources, though to name two, CBS News and acclaimed journalist Johann Hari (who took a deep dive into studying this very topic), record numbers of Americans are stressed, depressed, and wracked with anxiety. (And I am speaking pre-COVID).
Why were these numbers soaring?
An estimated 8.3 million American adults suffer from serious psychological distress, an evaluation of federal health data concluded. Keep in mind, those are just estimates and based on those who’ve reported it. Thus, in actuality, the numbers are likely higher. Mental illness and incidents of suicide are also rising steadily and have been for years.
The World Health Organization has declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialized nations.
Per the Center for Disease Control, the prevalence of obesity between 2015 and 2016 was 39.8%, affecting about 93.3 million U.S. adults.
Between one third and one-half of adolescent girls engage in crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives. Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
According to Forbes, a recent Cigna survey revealed that nearly half of Americans always or sometimes feel alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent). Fully 54 percent said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well.
Addiction to opioids is at epidemic proportions, to such a degree that overdose is now the current leading cause of death in America for those under the age of fifty. Yes, you read that right. Drug overdose is the leading cause of death in this country today. (Again, that is pre-COVID). What’s especially powerful about that fact is, while drug addiction does have a component of physical reliance, it stems significantly from a lack of connection and meaning in one’s life. More on this later. This is, though, compelling information and a correlation with our countries soaring levels of anxiety and depression. The fact that now, rates of addiction are at an all-time high.
You can likely see where I’m going with all of this. Something is very wrong with this picture.
An animal placed in an environment that goes distinctly against that which is innate for its physiology and psychology is going to find itself in distress, both physically and mentally. There is something ill-fitting, unhealthy, and much that goes against our innate natures, in terms of the ways in which we are living today. We forget, often, that we too are animals. Something significant about the environment in which we are living, and several aspects with regards to the way our lives are structured today, is wildly out of whack. As to be actualizing in shockwaves such as these.
To shade in further details to the disheartening picture, we have become a status-seeking, attention-hungry, validation grasping culture. We are becoming empty shells of human beings, lives lived catering to the brand and image we’ve created online and for onlookers. Popularity, “hotness”, and status are reigning priorities, as opposed to the inner heart and character of a person.
Selfies take up most of our internet and social media space, with many young adults even admitting that the crafting of these can take hours of their time. Taking pictures of oneself to share for the responses of others has become such an ingrained cultural theme that we’ve even created a device which allows for the easier capturing of these very images. Behold, the selfie stick. Now, people can extend a several-feet-long iron tube, this way and that, slicing in front of passersby to get that integral image of themselves in whatever enviable scenario they wish to capture and later show off.
We thirst for fame, “likes” and “claps”, for followers and number of views edging ever upwards. This number now made synonymous (in our minds and the culture at large) with our sense of worth and how cool (aka, worthwhile) we might be.
In our world today, fame is in. Power, influence, popularity, and prestige are hot.
Depth of character, kindness, legit likability (which we often confuse with popularity, though alas, these are not one and the same), a sense of authentic and sustained interest in others, and genuine interpersonal connection and community? Not so much.
We’ve come to think that status and much attention towards the carefully crafted brand images we’ve created of ourselves, that this will make us happy. All while the sear of loneliness felt throughout our country is surging.
In the US alone, over $11 billion a year is spent on plastic surgery (status via beauty seeking, to the extreme that we will mutilate our bodies to achieve it, largely for the approval and desires of men, and to feel accepted and up to snuff for our culture at large).
Books on how to earn excessive wealth and prestige regularly top the charts today (status via money seeking). Even in private moments, when we should be (and over the big picture, would garner far more emotional satisfaction from) connecting with the loved one(s) in front of us, we are often distracted with tweeting, Instagramming, and posting online for the reactions of others (status via outer validation seeking, needing to “prove” to others how “cool” and “valued” we are).
In terms of our priority now tending more towards ourselves and as a result, with a distinct lacking towards others, people have decided nowadays (at least in Boston) that on public transportation, as well as when in waiting rooms, while walking down the street, even when seated in cafes and restaurants, that they are going to play music, videos, even their phone calls aloud from their phones or iPads. Disrupting and often at jarring volume, for all in their vicinity to be forced into hearing, whether those surrounding like it or not. That, because this one person wants to hear it, we all must deal and must hear it as well. This one person deciding that what they feel like trumps and wipes out everyone else surrounding.
Entitlement, lack of consideration for others, and a decrease in empathy are reaching startling peaks. Case in point: recently, a young male sat next to me on the otherwise quiet bus, blasting aloud videos on Instagram from his phone. This, for everyone on the otherwise generally hushed bus to have forced upon their auditory space, whether they liked it or not.
I attempted “letting it go” for some fifteen minutes (since that’s what everyone does nowadays in response to such behavior), before deciding that this is the very reason entitled people like him behave in such a fashion. Because everyone else remains silent, and because no one speaks up, such behavior continues and is even on the rise. Despite personally witnessing eye-rolling and looks of annoyance and disdain from others directed at the loud rude person, no one says a word. Thus, the entitled and rude are then allowed to set the standard and rule the roost.
So, I turned to him, asking quietly, “excuse me, might you have headphones?”
He leaned toward me, an antagonistic sneer on his face. “Yeah, I do. Why?”
“Well, maybe you could use them? So that I and everyone else don’t have to hear that noise?”
“No,” he said, his mouth twisted in contempt. He then turned back to his phone. What a charmer, as well as, a thoughtful and kind man.
This person had a tool in his bag that could contain the noise he felt a need to hear, to his ears only. He could have kept it to himself, instead of pressing it upon others, uninvited, and without their consent. Instead, he actively, purposefully chose not to. To do the exact opposite. To press his own noise and agenda on others, with nary a care as to how they might feel about it. Further, on being asked considerately to please cease doing so, he refused.
This, folks, is a great example of the attitudes that seem to be spreading like an unchecked virus throughout America. It seems to be becoming fairly par for the course, the way in which people respond to each other in terms of thought or requested courtesy, as in, they don’t and they won’t.
Americans no longer particularly care about one another. (I realize this is a rather blanket statement. There are, of course, still a plethora of people out there who are considerate of others, who are kind, caring, thoughtful, and not entitled. Who have more of a collectivist mindset as opposed to this over-the-top individualistic, self-serving one that seems so pervasive). These seem to be the exception though. There seems to be a steady rise in behavior that feels vindictive, angry, self-serving, entitled, and not particularly concerned with or interested in the feelings of others.
From the pages of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Janet Twenge, she reflects on the fact that narcissism — an inflated view of the self — is everywhere today. Public figures say it’s what makes them stray from their wives. Parents teach it by dressing children in T-shirts that say “Princess.” Teenagers and young adults hone it on Facebook, via selfies and Instagram, and celebrity newsmakers have elevated it to an art form. And it’s a significant aspect of what’s making people depressed, lonely, and buried under piles of debt.
Take a gander down any inside expanse of a mall, city bus, train car, even within cafes and restaurants, or while outside waiting on a sidewalk and watching passersby. No one looks at each other anymore. At least, not for long. Instead, they are all ever looking at their screens. Everyone’s gazes are trained down, on the device and screen in hand. Scrolling. Tapping. Staring, blank-eyed.
A couple of months ago, my attention was jerked to the side as a young woman walked, smack dab, smashing into a signpost. She cried out, embarrassed and wobbly. Where had she been looking? She’d been staring down at her cell phone, with zero a glance elsewhere.
Almost no one is looking up or at each other. Hardly anyone is watching the world around them. Instead, their heads are craned downward. Fingers tap tapping away. Earbuds jammed into and plugging up their ears from any other sound entering. The outer world, silenced, disconnected, and cut off. People walk down the streets, a vacant, far off look in their eyes, staring not in front of them but instead, at the electronic in their hands. Much of the time, not aware of or paying attention to where they are walking, or into whom. Case in point: signpost girl.
Further, people walk down the street and now frequently conduct phone calls via speakerphone. Whereas before, people held phones up to their ears for, I don’t know, decades? Today, people have begun pressing the speaker button so that essentially all those surrounding not only have to hear the one-sided conversation, they now also are treated to the crackling, electronic, often loud, disembodied voice erupting forth from the cell phone too. What is this? Is the phone too heavy to hold up to one’s ear now? Is it “too inconvenient?” So now, we’ve decided to annoy and inconvenience everyone around us?
At work, everyone sits at their desk with earbuds in, the outside world shut away. Everyone sequestered within their own isolated little bubble. In the same room, though very much apart from one another mentally and emotionally. They even walk around the office with earbuds in ears, their name often needing to be said multiple times before they hear or notice.
In face-to-face conversation, with friends, family, colleagues, you name it, people frequently have their phones in hand or sitting on the table, routinely pausing mid-conversation to look at the screen as it lights up. For many, the device is now their main gig, while the person in front of them, the afterthought. Perpetually throughout the interaction, one or both people are often cutting away from the other in front of them, mentally and literally, to look at and think about whatever is on their phones. This, chipping away at, taking away from, and fragmenting the interpersonal connection right in front of them.
Why are all these problems, bad behaviors, and fracturings in America so crucial to consider and identify?
Because turning the spotlight onto behaviors, values, and societal structures that are harmful, which are hurting us, and which are dividing rather than uniting us is the only way by which we might hope to potentially start changing things. If one cannot identify the problem or sickness, there cannot be any hope of solving or curing it.
You get one life. One fleeting experience on this earth, to live in an utmost way. These are considerable issues which are taking away from and damaging our quality of life, during the time we have here to live it. We need to do something, not tomorrow, but now, to start making substantial cultural shifts towards our citizens being able to lead far better lives.
We need to both, become better people ourselves (kinder, more thoughtful, empathetic, concerned with the feelings of our fellow men and women), as well as, demand better treatment and social structures in place for happier, healthier, and better lives for everyone.
Within these significant cultural values, behaviors, and issues of today, one can find the clues as to where our society has gone so awry. Each of them, a landmark along the dark and dangerous path that has led us, and is continuing to lead us, nowhere good.
It is also within the examination of these skewed values and behaviors that we might then be able to shift our choices, turn away from the ever-narrowing path down which we are headed, and reverse direction.
Check out more about Brooke at brookeenglish.com