The world becoming more stressed and depressed. And, overall, our mental health is worsening.
Certainly, research suggests that feelings of isolation, anger, and depression have increased for many people in recent years, likely due to a combination of factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, social media use, and economic uncertainty. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 322 million people suffer from depression worldwide, 18% more than a decade ago.
Our opinions about politics are more polarised. Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to have relationships with people who don’t share political opinions.
And we are more polarised, not only about politics, but also around other racial issues, gender issues, sexual issues, health issues, etc. We have loads of issues.
I’ve certainly noticed more anger. I live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which is usually quite a laid back and happy place. But I have noticed westerners becoming more and more angry. Particularly the recent arrivals.
- People will get angry with you if you wear a mask. People will get angry with you if you don’t wear a mask.
- People will get angry with you if you talk about climate change. People will get angry with you if you don’t seem to care about climate change and you have a car.
- People will get angry with you if you’re rich. People will get angry with you for being poor.
- People will get angry with you if you support the Russians in Ukraine. People will get angry with you if you support Ukraine.
- People will get angry with you if you eat too much. People will get angry with you if you’re too thin.
- People will get angry with you for being happy and smiling. People will get angry with you if you’re miserable.
- People will get angry with you if you’re angry. People will get angry with you if you’re indifferent, if you’re neutral.
Have I made my point?
Everybody is angry except me. I have been struck by this recently. I have known a lot of westerners personally who’ve fallen out with other westerners because of political arguments.
What is the best way to protect yourself going forward?
Let me introduce you to the wonders of neutrality. It’s my superpower.
My superpower is an ability to understand people who are different to me. At school, I was always a loner. I never understood the most normal school children. As a result, I sought out the other weirdos in the school. It wasn’t easy. Weirdos are weird. But after you meet loads of them you begin to realise we’re all weirdos, we just seem to be more or less weird depending on the context.
I realised this superpower, that has laid pretty dormant for the last few decades, is increasingly useful to me. I’m exercising my powers of understanding. I’m ignoring the instinct to label opinions as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’; or ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, I’m trying to understand opinions.
I’m asking myself, honestly, why does a person, who seems perfectly intelligent and good, hold a different opinion to me. And it’s NOT that difficult.
Neutrality in politics
Let’s go back to the original cause of friendship breakups. Politics. In the US that’s basically a left/right or progressive/conservative split. The progressives favour more government intervention, whereas conservatives would favour less government intervention and put more emphasis on individual freedoms.
Notice I’m not describing the extreme positions of both factions. Governments, opinions and people are becoming more extreme, it’s true. But, according to opinion polls, most people aren’t extreme. The extreme left advocates total state control and the extremists on the right advocate end of all state regulation. Whereas, most people would find themselves in the middle of such extremes and therefore would only disagree on the extent of state control over the individual.
Well, this is just a matter of opinion, is it not?
So, isn’t it crazy that many individuals are now unable to communicate with certain friends and family members based on a disagreement over the size of the public sector?
But, I don’t mean to demonize those people who are suffering with these arguments. When two friends fall out with each other, both will suffer. Both of these ex-friends now have one less friend in a sometimes unfriendly world.
These people aren’t crazy to hold on to political opinions and then become offended with others. Our society has been becoming increasingly polarised. People are affected by the society that they inhabit. Always have been. Always will.
If stress and polarisation is on the increase, we’re not helping anyone by getting more stressed out and polarised about this.
I would say that I’ve soothed my own stress and gotten less argumentative by practicing neutrality. You should try it.
Instead of picking sides try to understand differing opinions. This shouldn’t be too difficult. One of the most important intellectual exercises is to create a “steel man” argument for a position you don’t hold yourself. Go into the sensible arguments of “the other side”. There will be many logical reasons that individuals hold opposite opinions from you. Remember, these people have the same brain as you, some of them could be more intelligent, some could be less intelligent, and, more importantly, they have different life experiences from you. Our opinions are shaped by our experiences and all of our experiences are different. There has to be a reason they are holding on to a viewpoint because there are reasons you are holding on to your viewpoint.
Making judgments about other people makes you unhappy
What’s the alternative to trying to understanding people? The alternative is for you to judge them as “bad” or “wrong”. And making judgments about other people makes you unhappy.
Well, OK, it’ll make you happy for a minute:
- “He’s disagreeing with me because he’s stupid!”
- “Ah, that idiot believes everything she reads in the mainstream media. She can’t see through their lies like I can!”
- “That person holds that opinion because they’re racist!”
- “Typical of a white western millennial, they only hold that opinion because they’re too blinkered and have been cosseted by their parents!”
And on and on and on. I’ve made judgments like those in the past. They’re all judgments based on my biasses and they serve only one purpose: to make me feel superior. For one second. And then they make me sad.
People these days seem to be up-in-arms about the bias of the ‘mainstream media’. The mainstream media has always been biased. All information is bias. There is no such thing as objective reality. There are only subjective opinions.
I worked in newspapers and magazines in the UK in the early 90s. I wasn’t surprised at all to see that these companies recruited from a certain highly educated sector of British society. And, a certain individual from a certain background is going to bring the biases and prejudices from their background to their opinions. Sure, maybe they know their prejudices and try to counter their biases, but they’ll never be 100% successful at that. No one can completely claim to be 100% unbiased. As I say, there is no such thing as objective reality. There are only subjective opinions.
Now, as I have already discussed, there is more friction in the world. Therefore the media bias is more obvious. But, that is all that is happening. Journalists aren’t suddenly doing a bad job whereas before they were doing a good job. Journalists reflect the society they come from. The situation in the world has changed. Many economic indicators are as bad as they have been in living memory.
However, the media will make you more stressed and depressed. The media present problems in a simplistic way that inclines you to take sides. Taking sides is a mistake. The media presents a version of events and we either believe it or we don’t. The problem is we are either agreeing or disagreeing with a simplistic opinion. And by taking sides we unfortunately equate an opinion with reality. But the news is not real. It’s a mistake to confuse the map with the terrain, the news isn’t really whats happening with your world.
So, wtf, chill out!
OK, a somewhat simplistic subheading there! But, there’s a lot to be said for not taking yourself too seriously and, more importantly, not taking the world too seriously.
So what if there’s a war in Europe that could escalate into a larger, nuclear conflict? OK, we have economic inequality that’s the worse it’s been for nearly a century. Yes, there’s a man-made climate crisis. OK, we have the most instability with big power politics since the end of the Second World War. And, on top of all that, we’re recovering from a deeply unsettling pandemic which had huge economic and social implications…
But what can you do about all this shit? It’s not your fault the human race extracted hydrocarbons from the earth and burnt them increasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Inequality, big power instability, and the pandemic are things that have come and gone before. Not in our living memory but you only have to open history books to see that civil wars, plagues, and competing empires are the rule rather than the exception.
This has all happened before and will happen again and there’s nothing you can do about it. Why try to put the world to rights? The problems aren’t your fault. A few angry words will do NOTHING to solve these complex issues. A few angry words are just your ego talking.
Your energies will be far better directed towards understanding and helping other people rather than taking sides against them.
But, what do you think? Am I being hopelessly simplistic and weak to not take sides? Am I just swapping one judgment for another?
I definetly do agree, in theory, I think!
Some areas where I struggle to be neutral are when someone has an opinion I disagree with and they act on it (and/or it affects me).
Say its fox hunting. I think it’s bad, they think it’s good. Fair enough. But what if they go on fox hunts or campaign to keep/make it legal?
Do I just say “fair enough, we both have our bisases, and neither of us is right, live and let live”.
Obviously you can replace fox hunting with an issue you care about or affects you.
How do you stop neutrality becoming apathy?
With some issues, you can make a difference. In the fox hunting example, you could become a hunt saboteur, attend protests, write to your mp, become a politician etc.
What about stuff like my opinion on drunk driving? If I believe it’s OK to drink drive, where does my right to have that option end and your opinion that its wrong start in regards to me driving on the same roads as you while drunk? Should we still be neutral about opinions that are potentially damaging to someone else’s health?
I’m definitely with you on the more abstract issues, like global warming, size of the state, left or right, but where does an abstract issue start being something more tangible?
Just some random thoughts…
Excellent analysis, J!
Rob Cubbon says
I really appreciate the random thoughts as this is exactly the sort of push back that goes on inside my head. But here are some random push backs against your push back.
Remember what the whole point of this is: becoming a happier person. It’s about understanding the other side rather than judging them and getting angry which solves nothing for anybody.
In the case of fox hunting: (I’m not saying this is what you’re saying, just a hypothetical response that someone could have) instead of judging the people who engage in fox hunting as “bad” and “evil” people and feeling superior to them, I’m saying you could try to understand their motivation first and go from there. Are they all people who sadistically like torturing foxes? Or do they see some animals as pests that should be killed? Human beings do kill animals when they are considered to be against their interests or tasty. Maybe fox hunters would see it like this. (I don’t know, I’m just guessing). And maybe they think that the fox doesn’t suffer before it dies. It just dies in the same way that the chicken that I ate today died. (I’m not a vegetarian, obviously). I’m suggesting that understanding the opposite argument preserves my sanity, more than anything.
Also, someone once said, “it is difficult to get someone to understand something, when their salary depends upon them not understanding it.” For example, disproportionately large numbers of people in fossil fuel industries tend not to believe in climate change. Does that make them bad people? Does that make them stupid? Don’t we all have our biasses?
It’s not about being apathetic. It’s about being a happier and more insightful human being. How does getting angry and judgmental about fox hunting help the poor, bloody fox? Again, I’m not saying you’re getting angry and judgmental. I’m saying, in these days, turning the temperature down is a good idea.
Yes, drink driving and knocking someone over and killing them is a bad thing. But, similarly, if you forgive someone for doing something it doesn’t mean that the bad thing they did wasn’t bad. In similar way forgiveness is more about yourself and conserving your mental health, not about the “other person”.
Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “neutral” so much. You’re right, that was more about right/left opinions, and opinions like that. I should have used the words “understanding” and “forgiveness” more. Now, after answering your comment, I can see I could have written this better! That’s the beauty of blog commenting! Thanks, Joe, great to hear from you as always.
Thanks for replying Rob!
That makes more sense to me now and I think I understand it better.
Yes, if you frame it as the goal being to preserve your/our sanity and not get angry/upset, it makes it easier for me to understand the premise. I went down the apathy route as I probably had the wrong end of the stick.
I think I do try to do this in real life for most people (try and see their motivation/understand their situation), but online its hard, for example when I read about fox hunting for example, I just think “cruel people” but maybe if I knew a fox hunter in real life who I liked, I would have less of a black and white reaction. I guess that’s the downfall of online interactions/news media — we don’t see the whole person, just the “bad” thing they did/do.
But then there are people in my life who trigger me and I just can’t empathise or be neutral. I guess that is where I need to work on this more!
In my opinion, blogging is the best thing about the internet in terms of connecting with others and being “social”. I think it’s the ability to write in long form, take time to reply, and hopefully get a thought out response from the blog author. But I will try to remain neutral and try to understand why TikTok is just as good ?
Hope all is going well in Thailand/Chiang mai.
PS I didn’t get an email notification that you had replied to this post and I’m pretty sure I did check the box.
Rob Cubbon says
Thanks for telling me about not getting the email notification, Joe. That sucks. It may be because of a setting at the host. I’ll look into it.
It’s interesting you prefer the long form blogging comment conversation to the 150 character short form chats that are becoming more common.
Everything is good in Thailand, thank you. Hope all is well with you.
Thomas Christensen says
I think it’s always worth studying your own behavior- be it observing your thoughts or own emotions. It’s difficult work but it will bring us closer to being neutral (observing) to the mind and it’s thought forms.
Rob Cubbon says
Totally agree, Thomas. Ever since I started meditating and watching my thoughts, I’ve been acutely aware of how my biasses and generalisations work against me and not for me. Maybe my use of the word “neutral” was wrong. It’s about “observing” and “understanding”.
Stef Strahle says
Good stuff Rob!
We live in v polarising times
I recall years back recommending a friend go see An Inconvenient Truth and it was the catalyst for him to head up a public anti global warming demo with placards. Well, I didn’t predict that! But the really interesting thing happened later when he and his girlfriend quizzed me on my political position round at his place. Instead of the predictable ‘ you’re an ..ing loser, leftist preaching tosser blah, blah ‘, their response to me was all embracing. I said that what’s so good about their anti global warming stance is that it supports science. We need the devil’s advocate, the apposing position to further science and scientific debate:)
Edit: it’s meant to read anti- anti global warming or anti environmentalist stance (he likens the global warming theory to the flat earth theory)
Rob Cubbon says
I’m not familiar with An Inconvenient Truth but, yes, reasoned, intelligent, and, above all, courteous debate is what’s needed now, Stef. But, at the moment we’re getting enragement where we used to get engagement.
I think with what’s going on in the world today is easy to feel like everything is getting on top of you. Just going to buybfood these days can leave you feeling dad with what you can afford.
So any tactics we can find and use are always helpful. And the knowledge there is always someone to talk to when needed
Rob Cubbon says
Oh, for sure, Sean, the sad thing is that there are less people for people to talk to nowadays. All indicators point towards the fact that people have less good friends than they used to and there are more and more people with no one to talk to. These indicators have been moving in the wrong direction for a few years now. So, if this blog post helps one person, it’ll be something.
That’s a good point.
In the UK at least, more and more shops are replacing their staff with automated checkouts.
While this does seem more convenient, it probably has its downsides.
I know chatting to the check out staff probably isn’t a deep and meaningful connection but its one less social interaction a day for some people, and also an opportunity where you might’ve interacted with someone different from you and your usual social circle, even if it’s just to say “thanks” and “good day”.