Experts should never pontificate outside their field. Well, arguably I’m not doing that. This "Tuesday is for Therapists" (TIFT) talks about things we know and how they hold the key to a new world order. In brief, we influence popular culture and popular culture will save the world. To start, let’s look at how we got where we are.
Let’s go back to when psychotherapy was invented. That was at the end of the Victorian era, when the culture said man’s intellect should be used to dominate, not only nature in general, but in particular our “baser instincts.” Skirts were supposed to cover up the ankle and, by the same principles, orphanage staff were supposed to shun personal relationships with the children. While intellectuals discussed the fine points, popular culture took its cues from religion, which continued to espouse control over impulses and instincts. To white people in the Western world, it seemed self-evident that denial of instinctive needs was the essence of virtue.
In the 1960s, the winds of change began to blow. Pippa Norris, a political scientist interviewed by Ezra Klein on a NY Times podcast (“A Powerful Theory of Why the Far Right Is Thriving Across the Globe”) gives a detailed view of how various forces combined to move popular values away from duty and self-control and towards enjoying the fruits of security and prosperity, which could increasingly be taken for granted. In my view, another accelerator was globalization. World War II, easy air travel, and the arrival of better and cheaper imported goods led to an easier exchange with foreign cultures which did not recognize the fundamental wisdom of Victorian values. Once those “truths” were brought into question, they seemed more arbitrary than self-evident and began to unravel.
As Norris points out, generations change, but half-way there, as the old guard gets older and new voices more prevalent, a backlash is bound to arise. As many have said, reactionary forces are inflamed by the fear of their own, inexorable loss of influence. Re-imposing Victorian values is not going to happen.
A Runaway Train
But let’s look at what the 60s started and how it is panning out. “Just do it!” With lessening of restraints, everything is Ok, and that is not necessarily good for the human race or the planet. Here are the new rules:
If something feels good, do it.
If you can find an easier, quicker, or cheaper way, then choose that.
These are the default rules derived from our human biology. Evolution has programmed us in such a way that things the mind considers good for species survival are associated with pleasure, while those that predict negative consequences for the individual or species are tagged with negative emotions deep in the limbic system. We naturally avoid those. Furthermore, evolution has always known that saving energy is good for survival, so human nature favors anything that is easier, quicker, and cheaper.
Enter capitalism. Competition has taught us powerful ways to maximize efficiency. In all likelihood, the bulk of the wealth that has been gained in recent years has been earned by selling people things that make them feel good and doing so with ever increasing efficiency. That means cheap, quick access to whatever we might desire: calories, power, novelty, excitement, intoxication, sex, companionship, communication, belonging, and even hope.
The hard stuff
Instant gratification has come at the cost of a lot of positive things the Victorians knew were good for us. It is a major cause of stress and disorder in our world. But the old reasons for doing the hard stuff are dying. There has to be a new way for people to find motivation to do things that are less pleasurable but good for us. That’s a serious challenge. Not only do we need to go against our instincts, but we need to resist a constant stream of increasingly efficient marketing in the wrong direction.
No wonder Fox News is popular. Meanwhile, the liberal press feeds us the virtues of unappealing new vegetables and government regulations to protect us from everything. Those fine and generous goals are deeply at odds with the new, worldwide culture of efficient pleasure.
What makes people go against instinct?
So the answer has to be a willingness to do the hard stuff and where does that come from? Well, we do have some other instincts. One is to be in alignment with our tribe. If the tribe adopts a value, evolution, has determined that sticking together can be more important than personal gratification. We tend to go along with the values of our culture. Consider that brushing our teeth for two minutes, twice a day, costs 24 hours at the end of the year. That’s not gratifying, but people do it largely because our culture says we should.
What hard things will save humanity?
Here is where our professional knowledge and expertise in the area of the human mind are the key to the world’s survival. We therapists know that:
- Mindfulness, especially with an empathic witness, heals painful emotions and works better than avoiding them.
- Intimate disclosure and willingness to engage in hard conversations leads to interpersonal bonding and compassion.
- Accepting diversity decreases mistrust and isolation between people and groups.
- Holding ourselves and others accountable works better than avoiding conflict or engaging when doing so can’t bear fruit.
None of these “virtues” is easy. They all represent hard stuff, but they pay off handsomely in the long run. So why might the world adopt those principles? If they trickle into popular culture, in time they are likely to be adopted. Here is an example: In the 70s, leaders in our field had just begun to think and write about pathological narcissism. Today, wisdom about narcissism is all over the internet, and ordinary people are practicing more effective ways to deal with it. Like a tsunami in slow motion, well-founded knowledge, when broadly recognized, has power that arbitrary beliefs no longer do.
How might change occur?
It’s true that one of the ways evolution has taught us to save energy is to avoid thinking and rely on knee-jerk responses. The brain does use more calories of energy for its weight than any other organ. But people are also curious and popular culture has a way of spreading. How long might that take? It could be a long time, but the strength of the human race is our ability to adapt to reality, and honest truth is a representation of reality. This time the Internet is the good guy. Along with spreading misinformation, it is a vehicle for disseminating wisdom, based not on quasi-religious beliefs, but on truths that can be tested in terms of their yield of life satisfaction and long-term pleasure.
Change is inevitable. Consider how the world became hooked on “things.” We yearned for the biggest and best. But now, heroes of popular culture are looking for “experiences.” The “wow” factor still gets traction, but for how long? And how much internet content is already focused on stress management and quality of life? The satisfaction of practicing the hard things is in line with today’s values of more satisfaction for less cost, but on a longer timeframe. The hard stuff does have a path to becoming fashionable, and from there, to being adopted, driven by a biological need to affirm membership in the tribe.
What we can do
The reason I used the phrase “Will Save the World” is that, if I am right, it will just happen. For once I see hope without having to exhort anyone to great effort. To hasten the change, we need simply tell what we know, each in our own way, to anyone who wants to listen. In that way, popular culture will continue to absorb what we therapists have learned, that practicing a few hard things will, in time, yield more good feeling at less cost.
Please feel free to comment below. And, of course, you are welcome to share this with your friends.
Jeffery Smith MD