2.6 The pressures of modern life
A number of studies (for instance in countries such as the USA) suggest that people currently feel more anxious and stressed than in the 1950s, despite unprecedented improvements in physical health and wealth (e.g. Twenge, 2006). Perhaps this reflects increasing dissatisfaction with the pressures of modern industrial societies, in which the pace of change has been accelerating for many decades.
Some researchers suggest that modern life itself is particularly stressful and happiness particularly elusive, because we live in a very different world from that in which we evolved. Culturally, humans have come a long way from their ancestors. Only 30–50 000 years ago our ancestors lived in small kin-groups as hunter-gatherers (Figure 6).
This time span of a few tens of thousands of years, though it may appear long, is not in fact sufficient to allow significant biological evolution, though it has witnessed a tremendous explosion of cultural evolution. Our brains and emotional propensities, on this account, remain more or less as they were in our ancestors. In Eaton et al.’s (1988) memorable phrase, modern people are like ‘stone-agers in the fast lane’.
What are the implications of this for our well-being? Physically, it has been suggested that many of our chronic health problems, for example atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), diabetes, high blood pressure and the complications of smoking and alcohol abuse, result from the mismatch between the environment in which we evolved (sometimes referred to as the environment of evolutionary adaptation or EEA) and the environment in which we currently live. For instance, we have an evolved propensity to prefer sweet and fatty foods – this would have been valuable for survival in the past, when these energy-rich foods were rare. Now, in an environment of easy availability and little energy expenditure, indulging this preference can lead to obesity and diabetes, with their often harmful consequences.
Mentally and emotionally, too, many people, particularly in urban areas and the industrialised world, now live in a hugely different environment. For instance, many of the expectations that people face from their families, employers and society, and the perceived pressures from advertising and media to achieve goals of fame, beauty and success are unrealistic and unachievable for most people. This can be highly stressful and demoralising. On this view, the complexity of modern goals and the difficulty and effort needed to achieve many of them play a very significant role in feeding negative emotions such as anxiety and depression.
Some people have linked such pressures to the consumer and individualist attitudes in modern industrial societies (e.g. Twenge, 2006). Indeed the distinguished stress researcher Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University argues that the ‘epidemic’ of stress and stress-related mental distress in Western societies, which are hugely rich and privileged compared to the rest of the world, is strongly linked to psychological factors: ‘We’re ecologically privileged enough that we can invent social and psychological stress’ (Sapolsky, 1998).
As we consider in the related OpenLearn course, the effect of chronic stress can be very deleterious for some people.