Are humans heading to perdition or creating heaven on Earth?
John Geddes, professor of epidemiological psychiatry at Oxford university warned this week: “Depression is the single largest contributor to global disability that we have – a massive challenge for humanity.”
It is estimated that around 350 million people are afflicted worldwide. More worryingly, the numbers jumped 20% between 2005 and 2015. That rise is expected to carry on.
A week ago, our newspapers and airwaves were excitedly informing miserabilists that women, men and children from north to south, east to west, are better off than they have ever been in history. Surely some mistake? Can this be true?
Yes, because Professor Stephen Pinker, the exceedingly famous Harvard psychologist says so in his new book, Enlightenment Now. He has the figures to prove it and enough optimism to fill a zillion, cheerful air balloons.
His take, in brief: People are living longer, are healthier, have more food, and are less likely to become victims of natural disasters or political conflicts. Epidemics, infant and mother deaths have gone down. Females are doing better; democracy is spreading. Although about 10% of humans are still excruciatingly poor, such extreme poverty is declining as prosperity spreads. Just as the global economic system loses credibility among millions, Pinker writes a hymn to it.
So are humans heading to perdition or creating heaven on Earth? I think both. Most humans have never had it so good and yet they feel more fragile and less able to cope with what used to be thought of as the normal vicissitudes of life. Or maybe they are not hiding their feelings and pain the way most felt they had to in previous decades.
Other studies have shown that people living in affluent countries are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than those in poorer nations. Scientists, from the Netherlands, Australia and London, expected to find that people in areas which had experienced wars or had serious environmental, economic and political instabilities would show higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than citizens of developed countries. They found the opposite.
In their paper, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, they reveal that Canada has the highest levels of PTSD, followed by the Netherlands, Australia, the US and New Zealand. The lowest levels were found in Nigeria, China and Romania.
One of the authors, Prof Chris Brewin from University College London, attempts to understand this paradox: “You thought you were living in a world which is basically safe, people are basically well disposed toward you, and something happens that completely turns those ideas upside down… that makes it really hard for people to get over these events… But if you’ve been brought up in a very different society… You already see the world as a much more dangerous place and it may not be so surprising when something terrible happens.”
That could be a partial explanation. I know a young person in my family who had a charmed home life and then could not cope with the rough and tumble of school and life’s many disappointments. She had a breakdown.
But something else is also going on.
Materialism leaves a big black hole inside millions of people. The more you have, the less content you feel. Some of this is to do with not finding the perfection you are daily and hourly promised by advertisers, businesses and media.