We humans are meant to live in smaller, tightly-knit communities. Our hyper-individual, affluent lifestyle focused on everything that makes us different hurts us profoundly across many dimensions - mental health, stress, freedom.
But as societies become more affluent they tend to require more, rather than less, time and commitment by the individual, and it’s possible that many people feel that affluence and safety simply aren’t a good trade for freedom.
Many people have no one to rely on, no one to support or sacrifice for (beyond their immediate family). We're a society of strangers.
The findings are in keeping with something called self-determination theory, which holds that human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.
Connection is paramount for mental health. We have evolved to relate, to connect, to understand, empathise, and even sacrifice.
What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves.
That's why war veterans often miss their wartime experiences - the camaraderie, the connection, the willingness to sacrifice for others and a sense of belonging. Returning to a civilian life shows them just how distant we are from one another.
A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.
What war veterans - and tragedy survivors - often miss is not the danger and the tragedy, but rather the togetherness of these experiences. The tribe-like mentality that brings together those who've shared a difficult experience. The realisation that sacrifice for the sake of others gives back more than it takes.