* When I was a child, something unexpected happened to my parents. My father grew up in a tiny village in the Swiss mountains called Kandersteg where he could have named every other inhabitant, and my mother grew up in the working-class Scottish tenements where if you raised your voice, all your neighbors heard every word you said. Then, when I was a baby, they moved to a place called Edgware. It is the last tube stop on the Northern Line—a suburban sprawl of detached and semidetached houses, built on what used to be London’s green edges. If you fall asleep on a train and find yourself there, you’ll see lots of houses, some fast food joints, a park, and lots of decent, likable, alienated people hurrying through them.
When my parents moved in, they tried befriending people in the neighborhood, in just the way they would have in the places they were from. It was as natural an instinct to them as breathing. But when they tried to do this, they were perplexed. In Edgware, people weren’t hostile. We knew our neighbors to smile at. But that was it; any attempt at engagement beyond brief chitchat was shut down. Life was meant to happen, my parents learned slowly, inside your house. I didn’t regard this as unusual—it was all I ever knew—although my mother never got used to it. “Where is everyone?” she asked me once when I was quite small, looking down our empty street, baffled.
Loneliness hangs over our culture today like a thick smog. More people say they feel lonely than ever before—and I wondered if this might be related to our apparent rise in depression and anxiety.
* For decades now, a Harvard professor16 named Robert Putnam has been documenting one of the most important trends of our time. There are all sorts of ways human beings can come together to do something as a group—from a sports team, to a choir, to a volunteer group, to just meeting regularly for dinner. He has been gathering figures for decades about how much we do all these things—and he found they have been in free fall. He gave an example that has become famous: bowling is one of the most popular leisure activities in the United States, and people used to do it in organized leagues—they would be part of a team that competed against other teams, who would mingle and get to know each other. Today, people still bowl, but they do it alone. They’re in their own lane, doing their own thing. The collective structure has collapsed.
Think about everything else we do to come together—like supporting your kid’s school, say. “In the ten short years between 1985 and 1994”17 alone, he wrote, “active involvement in community organizations … fell by 45 percent.” In just a decade—the years of my teens, when I was becoming depressed—across the Western world, we stopped banding together at a massive rate, and found ourselves shut away in our own homes instead.
We dropped out of community and turned inward, Robert explained when I spoke with him. These trends have been happening since the 1930s, but they hugely accelerated during my lifetime.
What this means is that people’s sense that they live in a community, or even have friends they can count on, has been plummeting. For example, social scientists have been asking a cross-section of U.S. citizens a simple question for years: “How many confidants do you have?” They wanted to know how many people you could turn to in a crisis, or when something really good happens to you. When they started doing the study several decades ago, the average number of close friends an American had was three. By 2004, the most common answer was none.18
It’s worth pausing on that: there are now more Americans who have no close friends than any other option.
And it’s not that we turned inward to our families. The research he gathered showed across the world we’ve stopped doing stuff with them, too. We eat together as families far less; we watch TV together as families far less; we go on vacation together far less. “Virtually all forms of family togetherness,”19 Putnam shows with a battery of graphs and studies, “became less common over the last quarter of the twentieth century.” There are similar figures for Britain and the rest of the Western world.
We do things together less than any humans who came before us. Long before the economic crash of 2008, there was a social crash, in which we found ourselves alone and lonely far more of the time. The structures for looking out for each other—from the family to the neighborhood—fell apart. We disbanded our tribes. We embarked on an experiment—to see if humans can live alone.
* To end loneliness, you need other people—plus something else. You also need, he explained to me, to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you. You have to be in it together—and “it” can be anything that you both think has meaning and value. When you’re in Times Square on your first afternoon in New York, you’re not alone, but you feel lonely because nobody there cares about you, and you don’t care about them. You aren’t sharing your joy or your distress. You’re nothing to the people around you, and they’re nothing to you.
And when you are a patient in a hospital bed, you’re not alone—but the help flows only one way. The nurse is there to help you, but you aren’t there to help the nurse—and if you try, you’ll be told to stop. A one-way relationship can’t cure loneliness. Only two-way (or more) relationships can do that.
Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. If you have lots of people around you—perhaps even a husband or wife, or a family, or a busy workplace—but you don’t share anything that matters with them, then you’ll still be lonely. To end loneliness, you need to have a sense of “mutual aid and protection,” John figured out, with at least one other person, and ideally many more.
* These days, when my parents go back to the places where they grew up—which had been so rich with community when they were kids—they find that those places, too, have turned into another Edgware. People nod to each other and close their doors. This disconnection has spread over the entire Western world. There’s a quote from the biologist E. O. Wilson that John Cacioppo—who has taught us so much about loneliness—likes: “People must belong to a tribe.” Just like a bee goes haywire if it loses its hive, a human will go haywire if she loses her connection to the group.
John had discovered that we—without ever quite intending to—have become the first humans to ever dismantle our tribes. As a result, we have been left alone on a savanna we do not understand, puzzled by our own sadness.
* It wasn’t long after Robert arrived that he first saw the alpha baboon. At the top of the troop of baboons he was going to follow for the next twenty years, there was a king of the swingers, a jungle VIP6—who he quickly named Solomon, after the wisest king in the Old Testament. Baboons live in a strict hierarchy, and everybody knows their place in the rankings, from top to bottom. He saw that Solomon, at the top, could do whatever he wanted. If he saw anyone else in the troop chewing something, he could snatch it from their hands and take it for himself. He could have sex with any female he wanted—half of all the sexual activity in the whole troop cut Solomon in on the action. When it was hot, he could just shove anyone who was sitting in the shade out of the way and claim the cool places for himself. He had climbed to this position by terrorizing the old alpha male, and driving him into submission…
Robert saw a scrawny, feeble creature who he named Job,7 after the unluckiest man in the Torah and the Bible. Job would tremble a lot of the time and have what looked like seizures. Sometimes his hair would just fall out. Anyone in the troop who was having a bad day could take it out on Job. His food was snatched, he was shoved into the heat, and he was beaten up a lot. Like all low-status baboons, he was covered with bite marks.
In between Solomon and Job, there was a chain of male control and command. Number 4 stood above Number 5 and could take from him. Number 5 stood over Number 6 and could take from him. And on and on. Your place in the hierarchy determined what you ate, whether you got to have sex, and every moment of your life.
* To avoid getting savaged, the baboons with the lowest status10 would have to compulsively show that they knew they were defeated. They would do this by making what are called subordinance gestures—they lowered their heads, crawled on their bellies. It was how they signaled: Stop attacking me. I’m beaten. I’m no threat to you. I give up.
And here’s the striking thing. When a baboon is behaving this way—when nobody around him shows him any respect, and he’s been pushed to the bottom of the pile—he looks an awful lot like a depressed human being. He keeps his head down and his body low; he doesn’t want to move; he loses his appetite; he loses all his energy; when somebody comes near him, he backs away.
One day, after Solomon had been at the top of the hierarchy11 for a year, a younger baboon, Uriah, did something shocking. When Solomon was lying on a rock with one of the hottest babes of the troop, Uriah walked up in between them and started trying to have sex with her—right in front of the boss-man. Incensed, Solomon attacked him and ripped Uriah’s upper lip. Uriah ran away.
But the next day, Uriah came back. And the next. And the next. He kept getting beaten up—but every time, Solomon got a little more exhausted, and more wary.
And then one day, when Uriah struck, Solomon backed off a little. Only for a moment. Within a year, Uriah was king, and Solomon had sunk to Number 9 in the hierarchy—and everyone he had smited or spited was seeking revenge. The whole troop began to torment him, and his stress levels went through the roof.
One day, Solomon was so despairing12 he simply walked away into the savanna and never came back.
Robert had discovered that our closest cousins are most stressed in two situations—when their status is threatened (like Soloman, when Uriah struck), and when their status is low (like poor Job all the time).
The psychologist Paul Gilbert started to make the case that depression is, for humans, in part a “submission response”—the evolutionary equivalent of Job, the baboon at the bottom of the hierarchy, saying—No, no more. Please, leave me alone. You don’t have to fight me. I’m no threat to you.
* Go to work and you’ll have to obey the whims of a distant boss earning hundreds of times more than you.
Even when we are not being actively humiliated, even more of us feel like our status could be taken away at any moment. Even the middle class—even the rich—are being made to feel pervasively insecure. Robert had discovered that having an insecure status was the one thing even more distressing than having a low status.
* It’s been known for a long time that all sorts of mental health problems5—including ones as severe as psychosis and schizophrenia—are considerably worse in cities than in the countryside…
* the people who moved to green areas saw a big reduction in depression,6 and the people who moved away from green areas saw a big increase in depression.
* They got people who lived in cities to take a walk in nature, and then tested their mood and concentration. Everyone, predictably, felt better and was able to concentrate more—but the effect was dramatically bigger for people who had been depressed.
* “We have been animals that move for a lot longer than we have been animals that talk and convey concepts,” she said to me. “But we still think that depression can be cured by this conceptual layer. I think [the first answer is more] simple. Let’s fix the physiology first. Get out. Move.”
It’s hard for a hungry animal moving10 through its natural habitat and with a decent status in its group to be depressed, she says—there are almost no records of such a thing. The scientific evidence is clear that exercise significantly reduces depression and anxiety.11 She thinks this is because it returns us to our more natural state—one where we are embodied, we are animal, we are moving, our endorphins are rushing. “I do not think that kids or adults who are not moving, and are not in nature for a certain amount of time, can be considered fully healthy animals,” she says.
* The biologist E. O. Wilson—one of the most important people in his field in the twentieth century—argued that all humans have a natural sense of something called “biophilia.”13 It’s an innate love for the landscapes in which humans have lived for most of our existence, and for the natural web of life that surrounds us and makes our existence possible. Almost all animals get distressed if they are deprived of the kinds of landscape that they evolved to live in. A frog can live on land—it’ll just be miserable as hell and give up. Why, Isabel wonders, would humans be the one exception to this rule? Looking around us, Isabel says: “Fucking hell—it’s our habitat.”
* This leads to another reason Isabel thinks depressed or anxious people feel better when they get out into natural landscapes. When you are depressed—as Isabel knows from her own experience—you feel that “now everything is about you.” You become trapped in your own story and your own thoughts, and they rattle around in your head with a dull, bitter insistence. Becoming depressed or anxious is a process of becoming a prisoner of your ego, where no air from the outside can get in. But a range of scientists have shown that a common reaction15 to being out in the natural world is the precise opposite of this sensation—a feeling of awe.
Faced with a natural landscape, you have a sense that you and your concerns are very small, and the world is very big—and that sensation can shrink the ego down to a manageable size. “It’s something larger than yourself,” Isabel said, looking around her. “There’s something very deeply, animally healthy in that sensation. People love it when it occurs—its brief, fleeting moments.” And this helps you see the deeper and wider ways in which you are connected to everything around you. “It’s almost like a metaphor for belonging in a grander system,” she says. “You’re always embedded in a network,” even when you don’t realize it; you are “just one more node” in this enormous tapestry.
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Traditional Chinese Medicine practicioners note that rural people get sick less often and when they do their maladies are straight-forward and easy to treat. Urbanites get complicated conditions requiring sophisticated remedies.
Tangentially, Academic Agent had an interesting insight about the rise of the Nazis. After World War 1, the German economy was destroyed and Jews in Germany had access to capital from their non-German coreligionists. Some *urban* Jewish filmmakers made films lampooning the largely *rural* German soldier as being buffoons. This kindled tremendous resentment and it was the rural areas from which the Nazis got the bulk of their support. The condescension urbanites display toward country folk does seem to eventually come home to roost.