The 21st Century May Be Bad For Your Mental Health

To appreciate this post, you need to know a little of how it came about.  Yesterday morning, in my dentist’s waiting room, I started reading an article in  the Nov. 14 Newsweek by Dr. Andrew Weil.  He and others have noted that modern affluence breeds depression.  They have also observed that the Amish, with a 19th century lifestyle centered on simplicity, have only 1/10 the amount of depression of other Americans.  Just as I hit this tantalizing statement, the dentist, who was running ahead of schedule, called me in.  After my appointment, I finished the article.  “Our brains aren’t equipped for the 21st century,” says Weil.

One of the things we are not equipped for is our 24/7, hi-tech, multi-tasking world, a point that made me chuckle as I pulled out my smart phone, photographed the pages, and emailed them to myself.  Just call me a poster boy for the legions of technically savvy neurotics.  It turns out I didn’t need to send the page to myself.  Weil’s article is available online, and I highly recommend it:

The article is taken from his latest book, Spontaneous Happiness, just released this month, where Weil says it’s not just technology that’s the cupric in our epidemic of depression.  Increasing numbers of psychologists and therapists identify one of our key problems as Nature Deficit Disorder.  Weil says:  

“Behaviors strongly associated with depression—reduced physical activity and human contact, overconsumption of processed food, seeking endless distraction—are the very behaviors that more and more people now can do, are even forced to do by the nature of their sedentary, indoor jobs.
“Human beings evolved to thrive in natural environments and in bonded social groups. Few of us today can enjoy such a life and the emotional equilibrium it engenders, but our genetic predisposition for it has not changed.”

Weil discusses the bad news in detail, but doesn’t end there.  He is firmly in the camp of “positive psychology,” the discipline that concentrates on human wellbeing rather than pathology.  He summarizes positive measures we can take, things he discusses in greater detail in the book.

  • Find a mindfulness practice.  (I was impressed that Weil listed this as suggestion #1.  I’ll follow this up by posting some resources soon).
  • Spend as much time as possible outdoors.
  • Find some form of aerobic exercise.
  • Sleep in total darkness, if possible, and avoid very bothersome noise, even if it means wearing earphones.  Weil discusses why uninterrupted sleep, and freedom from noise pollution are important.
  • Attend to diet – he has written of this in detail in previous books.
  • Cultivate social relationships.
  • Spend some time each day unplugged from all forms of gadgetry.

Finally, Weil, like almost everyone else who writes on wellbeing, cites gratitude as a critical factor.  This morning I ran into an acquaintance who has had a number of physical problems.  He has paid a price, but also found something diamond-solid that is now at the core of his life:  three times he has been clinically dead, and he’s seen and experienced “the light,” that people in that extremity sometimes encounter.  He knows it is waiting for him, and meanwhile, shares his experience with others he thinks will benefit.  He says he intends to do so, “as long as God decides to keep me around.”

Simply encountering him put me in tune with the theme of the season, and reminded me of all I have to be thankful for.  That is my hope for everyone reading this – may you find unshakeable joy in your life just as it is, and may you be able to share it with others.

6 thoughts on “The 21st Century May Be Bad For Your Mental Health

  1. This post reminded me of a book that my Abnormal Psychology teacher talked about titled Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters. The subtitle of the book is “The Globalization of the American Psyche.”

    In the 20th century, especially the latter half, the US was really the center for most of the Psychological research done in the world. As a result, the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the current edition is the DSM IV-TR, but the fifth edition should be produced soon) is the standard for diagnosing mental illnesses (including depression) in the US.

    As the world is shrinking due to the expanded technology, the DSM is being introduced in other cultures. This is serving to bring up the question of whether the mental illnesses that are in the DSM are really innately human or if they are culturally based.

    The book talks about several different examples, but the one that your post reminded me of was the “exportation” of depression to Japan. When GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) tried to market their anti-depressant Paxil in Japan, there wasn’t much of a market for it and they weren’t making money. Because of this, they created a brilliant marketing campaign where they essentially introduced Japan to the idea of depression, calling it a “cold of the soul.” Essentially, GSK marketed the idea of depression to a country where it didn’t really exist before in order to sell their anti-depressants in that country.

    The book was a quick and interesting read covering a few different mental illnesses and how they are viewed and treated in different countries. I think you’d enjoy the book and it seems like it goes hand in hand with the article that you mentioned.


    • Very good points, Adam. For one thing, I spoke to a psychologist at the local Calif. Writer’s Club, who has written a book that raises a strong case against seemingly complete victory of pharmacology in therapy. His comment was that Charlie Sheen is a poster boy for what’s wrong with it. He also points out that the whole neurotransmitter theory of depression’s origin is just that, a theory, that the drug companies have convinced us is established truth. He also claims that even the current generation of anti-depressants tend to be very addictive. He will likely self-publish his book as he can’t interest any of the big six.

      Interestingly, Weil suggested that Nature Deficit Disorder may make it into the DSM5. The DSM is clearly affected by culture – how could it not be, since what is pathological stands in contrast to what is normal, which is hardly universal!

      In my own therapeutic classes they cautioned us on some cultural differences. For instance, in cultures where large families are the norm, you can’t apply the same concepts of “boundaries” that we do in our world of “individualism” and nuclear families. Even such things as eye contact in therapy are different. For some groups it represents honesty, while in others it can signify a challenge.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!


  2. Thanks for this post, Morgan. I am going to take Weil’s little list and put it up on my wall. I’m looking forward to your future post on mindfulness practices. I think I’ll take a little walk outdoors, then close the curtains and take a nap!


  3. During this season of thanks, I’m thankful I’m abnormal. I don’t have a TV, I listen to classical music, I lift weights to keep in shape at nearly the age of 60, and my therapist lives in a stable. I begin each morning with lots of doggie belly rubbs to thank them for the joy they give me, commune with my flock of chickens to thank them for the eggs they give me, and hug my horses just to press my cheek against their warm body and relish their earthy scent. Yeah, there is something to be said for getting back to nature. Every hike in the high Sierra’s with the dogs and ride down a winding trail to the rythmic clip-clop of hooves reaffirms how important nature is to my mental and physical health.


    • That’s great! Thanks for your comment. I too, at this time of year, breathe in relief at the thought that if things had gone differently, I might have turned out “normal.” Whew!

      Your comment reminded me of William Stafford’s poem, “Choosing a Dog.”

      “It’s love,” they say. You touch
      the right one and a whole half of the universe
      wakes up, a new half.

      Some people never find
      that half, or they neglect it or trade it
      for money or success and it dies…..


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