You’re not haunted by the war, Dr. Watson. You miss it. – Sherlock: A Study in Pink.
Humans crave struggle; a mountain to climb, that we might reach the top and experience that brief, euphoric moment of pride in what we’ve overcome. We desire purpose, a cause for which we can fight, and a battlefield that gives us the opportunity to do so. But how does this fit into a modern society whose primary function is to prevent this kind of struggle, to protect us from these battles?
PTSD and Nostalgia
In 1992, a young woman named Nidzara Ahmetasevic was wounded by a Serb tank round in the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia. The doctors almost had to amputate her leg, and due to the lack of supplies in the area, the surgery to save it was done without anesthesia. She was seventeen at the time. In an interview with NPR, author Sebastian Junger describes a conversation that he’d had with Ahmetasevic in 2015, long after the war had ended:
Almost embarrassed – she said, you know, the siege was so terrible. It was so hard. But, you know what? We all kind of miss it. (…) We were better people during the siege. We helped each other. We lived more closely. We would have died for each other. And now, you know, it’s just peaceful. It’s – we’re a wealthy society. And everyone just lives for themselves. And everyone’s depressed.
This closeness is not relegated to those who are in combat. Junger points out that about half of U.S. military veterans are now applying for disability based on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), even though only 10 percent of military veterans have ever engaged in any sort of combat. Very few of these noncombat cases are likely to have stemmed from any particular trauma.
Instead, as he points out in his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger believes that the symptoms in these cases stem from a sort of withdrawal from the tightly-knit “tribe” of which they were a part during their service, the purpose derived from the responsibility they felt to those around them and vice versa. He describes this in a TED talk as “a mutual agreement…that you will put the welfare of the group, you will put the safety of the group above your own.”
The withdrawal from this environment is not likely to lead to the anxiety and fear that most people associate with PTSD. However, recent developments show that in many cases of PTSD, anxiety takes a back seat to the nostalgic depressive symptoms described by Ahmetasevic and Junger. In fact, this may be the most common form of the disorder in veterans.
In a 2012 study published by Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, researchers Mick J. Power and Claire Fyvie found that of the 75 PTSD patients at a local trauma center, less than half presented with anxiety as the primary emotion. More common were primary emotions of either sadness, anger, or disgust. This is not what one would expect from an anxiety based disorder, which is likely why the American Psychiatric Association removed the criteria of intense fear, hopelessness, or horror as necessary for the diagnosis of PTSD in the most recent edition of the DSM-5, America’s principle authority on the diagnoses of psychiatric disorders.
Former special ops pilot and combat veteran Nolan Peterson believes that in addition to the comradery of war, this depressive form of PTSD has another cause as well: one based on the brain’s chemical reaction to combat. In his article, Why Soldiers Miss War, Peterson explains that in periods of intense stress – such as a near death experience – time seems to unfold in slow motion. You become hyperaware of everything in your environment, and the brain imprints all of this into a memory that is both extraordinarily clear and remarkably immutable.
This hyper-alertness, he says:
…often extends beyond the actual experience that sparked it. For hours, maybe even days after you evade death, life just seems, well, better. You laugh easier. Things smell better. You notice little details in places and things you have seen countless times before. You want to talk about what happened, you want to tell friends and family that you love them. You live harder and truer than you ever have before. And it feels good.
War carries with it the full extent of the human experience, taking you to your lowest lows, but also to your highest highs. Conflict has a unique way of bringing people together, giving them purpose. When soldiers return home, having fulfilled that purpose and achieved the peace they’d sought, they often find the daily grind relatively devoid of meaning. This, to Peterson, is the root of PTSD. In his words, “It’s the inability of normal life to ever match the amplitude of living that you achieved in war.”
This is something that a great many of us in the developed world will never experience, thanks in no small part to the service of people like Peterson. But this means that we have come to lack the conflict that fueled humanity throughout the vast majority of its 300,000 years of history – not to mention the millions of years of evolution preceding our emergence. Then, people had to rely on those around them in a constant struggle for survival, much as soldiers and civilians in war-torn countries must do today.
Now, as our world grows ever more peaceful and prosperous, its people are growing apart. Those neighbors who would have once been our very means of existence are now acquaintances at best, simply faces that we might pass on the street. Reliance on the people around us disappears as does their reliance on us, and with these goes our sense of purpose.
The Importance of Purpose and Community
The importance of purpose on health and happiness has been well-documented. For example, there have been numerous studies linking early retirement to premature death. Worried that this correlation might be due to early retirements forced by health issues, researchers at the University of Oregon State carried out a study in 2016 which found that retiring just one year later decreased mortality rates by 11 percent even in healthy adults.
In their book, Adapting to Cancer: The Importance of Hope and Purpose, Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver detail fifteen separate studies that found positive associations between the pursuit of goals or a sense of purpose and life satisfaction, happiness, and general psychological well-being. These same studies also showed that those with a sense of purpose were less likely to self-report anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and negative affect.
Finally, in one of the more famous studies on the links between purpose, happiness, and health, researchers at a nursing home gave one group of residents a plant to care for, a second group of residents a plant to be cared for by the staff, and a third group nothing at all (the control group), hoping to see whether or not the sense of responsibility and agency given to the first group might be beneficial.
The results were astounding. Not only did those who were given the responsibility of caring for the plant score higher on ratings of sociability, interest in activities, etc., but they were also about twice as likely to outlive those in the “no-responsibility” group. Something as simple as giving them a plant for which to care had seemingly increased their lifespans.
Given all of this, is it any wonder that as countries like the U.S. have become increasingly peaceful and the sense of responsibility to our neighbors has decreased, the rates of depression and mental illnesses have risen in kind?
An excellent article by psychologist and author Jean Twenge covers multiple studies which show this very trend, indicating that mental health issues in America have been steadily rising since the 1930s. Twenge smartly points out that these increases are not solely attributable to over-diagnosis, as many of these studies employed anonymous questionnaires relying on self-reported data as opposed to data reported by psychologists. She also refutes the narrative that people have simply become more comfortable with reporting psychological issues, as the same trends were still present after specifically adjusting for this possibility.
It is difficult – and foolhardy – to attempt to pin large data trends such as these on any one factor, but it is interesting nonetheless that the increases in psychopathologies have been most pronounced in many of the world’s richest and most peaceful countries. A study by the World Health Organization published by BMC Medicine found that of the nearly 90,000 participants surveyed, 15% of those in the ten “high-income” countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, United States) reported having experienced depression at some point, while only 11% said the same in the “low- to middle-income” countries (Brazil (São Paulo), Colombia, India (Pondicherry), China (Shenzhen), Lebanon, Mexico, South Africa, Ukraine).
According to SafeAround, which measures the safety of cities and countries using crime data, death tolls, and the occurrence of terrorist attacks and wars, those “high-income” countries have an average safety rating of 76 out of 100. The “low- to middle-income” countries have an average ranking of 45.5. Again, there are far too many possible factors to imply that the countries with lower safety ratings are happier because of the prevalence of conflict. But at the very least, the data does suggest that safety and happiness are not as positively correlated as we might expect.
This is further supported by research on PTSD in perceived “high disorder neighborhoods,” which are characterized by respondents’ tendencies to report their neighborhood as being unsafe, high in drug use, high in vandalism, etc. In a study of PTSD among low-income African Americans, several researchers from Emory University found that the perception of a high disorder neighborhood increased the likelihood of an individual to show symptoms of PTSD. However, the perception of “community cohesion” and strong social ties decreased the likelihood of an individual to display symptoms while greatly reducing the effect of neighborhood disorder. In other words, as far as the prevalence of PTSD goes, the closeness of the community is much more important than how safe its members feel.
This echoes the sentiments of Ahmetasevic, Junger, and Peterson, who all claim that they were at their happiest when in the midst of conflict. They each describe the loss of a sense of purpose and the loss of a sense of community. And they describe the hollow feeling when realizing that everyday society cannot provide these things at the level to which they have become accustomed. They realize that humanity has not yet adapted to the prospect of peace.
For those of us who have never experienced the highs and lows of conflict, the idea that there could be something to miss about it – that there could be a psychological benefit to something so horrible as war – is difficult to grasp. And in our confusion, we blindly seek new purpose and new tribes to which we can belong. How do we solve a problem created by the absence of conflict? Simple: we create our own.
Creating Purpose and Community through Faux Conflict
In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe how ‘paranoid parenting’ and a ‘culture of safetyism’ in schools and universities has ironically left Generation Z and younger Millennials gun shy. This should remind you of the predicament of those veterans with PTSD who are not haunted by any specific trauma as much as by the return to a society in which there is none. The younger generations are being kept “safe” from having to face any challenges to their ideals or to their emotional wellbeing. Not only is this leaving them depressed, anxious, and ill-prepared for a world which will not be so accommodating; it has also left them desperate to find that challenge, that conflict, through new avenues.
This may be evidenced in the increased use of militaristic terms to describe speech. Words are now labeled as violence. Trigger warnings – a term originally used to describe something that might elicit an anxious response in a person with PTSD – now constitute anything that a person might find offensive or uncomfortable. And any idea which is in disagreement with an ideal is now considered an “attack” on those who hold it.
In this way, we seek to moralize every word or action as a potential “microagression,” a word which is deemed by a person to contain a subtle, offensive undertone or meaning. In a 2015 article by Lukianoff and Haidt – titled the same as their above mentioned book – they point out that when we make such moral judgments, we are also expressing allegiance to a team which includes all those who agree with this judgment. This allows for the fulfillment of our desires for conflict, community, and purpose all at once.
As these needs have become more prominent in our culture of safetyism, moralization in this manner has allowed such teams (tribes) to be formed more frequently, leading to the birth of outrage culture. Now, everyone has their own battle to fight, whether it be against culturally insensitive prom dresses, capitalist animal cracker boxes, or sexist air conditioning. Every transgression is a conduit for someone’s own, private ideological or political war, providing the purpose for which he or she strives. Social media allows each of these causes to act as the foundation for a new community, a simple hashtag allowing like-minded people from around the globe to find each other, organize, and form a new virtual tribe to fight their culture war.
But what happens when one attempts to question the merits of that war? What happens when we point out that the world is not falling apart at the seams, that we are better off today than at any other point in human history, and that we will likely be even better off tomorrow?
Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water. (…) As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty. Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate, and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone. – Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times
Steven Pinker details the numerous ways, even in addition to the above, that the world has improved and is currently improving in his book, Enlightenment Now. In a world that is constantly clamoring for good news, one might expect such positive, optimism inducing data to be welcomed with open arms. This should be especially true for those who are politically active, as they are the ones fighting hardest to create this good news. What happens instead suggests that change is not truly the goal. What happens instead is more outrage.
Pinker is ridiculed for cultivating “complacency,” and the focus is returned to all of the ways that the world isn’t getting better. The goal isn’t for the fight to induce change or betterment; the goal is the fight itself. Because if everything is improving, what outlet do we have for our instinctual desire for conflict? How can we fulfill our purpose of fighting injustice if there is less and less of it to fight? What happens when our own, private war is cancelled?
In an interview with the Ways to Change the World podcast, screenwriter Richard Curtis describes why he feels the news tends to focus on the negative in an increasingly positive world. Essentially, news is exceptional, in that it is the exception to the rule. So, we are fortunate to live in a time when evil is “newsworthy,” and good is so common that it’s hardly worth mentioning.
The alternative explanation offered here is admittedly harder to swallow: The news accentuates the negative because we crave it. While we may complain that the news is too grim, ratings continue to be markedly higher when the headline is negative. The news, like any business, is supply and demand: and we demand negativity. Hence the common phrase in the media world: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
This may also offer some explanation for why people enjoy watching scary or violent movies/shows such as Stranger Things and Game of Thrones. There are many possible explanations for our enjoyment of shows that are frightening or otherwise horrific, but the consensus is that our brains tend to react positively to both the triumph over the story’s conflict and the conflict itself. In a way, we are living vicariously through the characters on the screen, experiencing and often overcoming some kind of danger from the safety of our living rooms.
Conflict Theory and a New Hypothesis
The standard conflict theory of psychology is that conflict is unavoidable in any situation where there are structural inequities. The new conflict theory might be that even in the absence of a reasonable catalyst, conflict is inevitable due to our very nature – that we crave it. There need not be a victim or an oppressor. The only necessary harbinger is the presence of humanity.
No matter how hard we try to eliminate it, conflict never truly goes away. We don’t want it to go away. Instead, it is progressively replaced by a more abstract form through what David D. Burns calls “magnification,” or an exaggeration of a thing’s importance. A protected group attempts to manifest illusory danger and hardship to conquer as though they subconsciously realize the need to be challenged in order to grow. But these illusions cannot compare to the dangers from which they are being protected. In fact, the most prominent of today’s illusory battles – the censorship of offensive ideas – only serves to remove them further from that which might truly challenge them.
The question then, is how do we address this seemingly innate desire for conflict? The answer cannot be to create a more dangerous world, but neither can it be to create a society so obsessed with safetyism that it becomes oppressive. A good start might be to simply acknowledge the conflicts that are present even in our very peaceful world. Instead of running from or censoring those people and ideas that are challenging, these should be the ideas with which we become most familiar.
From Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind on the most troubling aspect of trigger warnings:
According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.
But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation.) Then, on subsequent days, you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button, and eventually to step in and go up one floor. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.
For those with PTSD, trigger warnings are not problems to be avoided; they are challenges to overcome. The only way to conquer a trigger is to address it. The only way to eliminate the negative effects of faux conflicts – whether they be psychological, ideological, emotional, etc. – is to address the true, underlying conflict head on.
Slowly but surely, the world is growing ever more peaceful. This peace is the result of those who have fought wars both literal and ideological. But in order to continue the decline of the former, we must not be afraid to fight the latter. We cannot allow a pervasive culture of safetyism and censorship to spread fear and prevent us from living, or to prevent our ability to fight the small, everyday battles that make life so fulfilling.
Humans are animals designed for conflict. We are at our best when we have a purpose; a cause for which we can fight. In the absence of this, we are driven to either live vicariously through another’s conflict or to create our own. It doesn’t matter if it’s unwinnable or even nonsensical. All that matters is that there is a battle to be won. For much like Dr. Watson, we all miss the war.