Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.
“Marigolds and Blue Sky.” Photo by Flickr user Strange Attractor. (CC)
My parents were born just after World War I and came of age as World War II was beginning. I have often wondered what it was like to grow up in the midst of such serious global conflict. Besides the two wars, the years 1918–45 were marked by the “Spanish Flu”, a worldwide epidemic that killed an estimated 500 million people; the Great Depression; and the polio epidemic. Though “baby boomers,” the generation just after the WW II (from 1946 to 1964), were subject to the threat of the Cold War, fears of nuclear annihilation, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, very few of us actually died as a result of those conflicts, compared with the global destruction that our parents witnessed.
Writing last week in The New York Times, Gregg Easterbrook, the author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, asks why there has been such a decline in optimism in recent years. On both sides of the political aisle people are expressing anger, despair, and hopelessness about our future. Yet Easterbrook details the many ways in which the global outlook is rosier than ever.
For example, the “decline of the middle class” is a myth, he says. While wages have not increased relative to inflation, other factors have more than made up for that: “Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution has shown that when lower taxes and higher benefits are factored in, middle-class buying power has risen 36 percent in the current generation.” And while Republicans have made much of the loss of our manufacturing force, “figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis show industrial output a tad below an all-time record level, while nearly double the output of the Reagan presidency, [the] supposed golden age.” Furthermore, Easterbrook asserts, what jobs have supposedly been lost to China are not actually moving there. Technology has caused a worldwide shift in employment, and no one is “stealing” factory-floor jobs; they are gone. Though that is a serious change, he says, the fact remains that American output is greater than that of our two closest rivals—China and Japan—combined.
When I was growing up, the nuclear threat was so prominent that I assumed that having children was irresponsible. As that problem diminished, fears of overpopulation and pollution put the earth’s future in doubt. Now, according to this author, those issues are much more under control than they were back in the “good old days,” and across the globe people are better off: “In 1990, 37 percent of humanity lived in what the World Bank defines as extreme poverty; today it’s 10 percent.”
Why are we so discouraged? Easterbrook says it is optimism itself that has declined—because it is out of fashion. While those on the right have always grumbled about the new order and longed for the past, liberals have traditionally been hopeful, urging change as the way to a brighter future. But in recent years “progressives drank too deeply of instant-doomsday claims. If their predictions had come true, today petroleum would be exhausted, huge numbers of major animal species would be extinct, crop failures would be causing mass starvation, developing-world poverty would be getting worse instead of declining fast.” In reality, we have failed to give credit to the ways in which advances in many areas have actually helped improve the quality of life for all.
I think there may be more driving the pessimism than just fashion, however. One factor contributing to the national mood may be a sense of helplessness. Psychologists have long known that when people feel there is nothing they can do about their fate, they are more prone to depression. Martin Seligman, who is sometimes called “the father of positive psychology,” demonstrated that even lab rats could be driven to despair if they felt helpless. Experiments with the elderly have demonstrated that giving them some control over their environment helps improve their mood, and even perhaps their longevity.
We feel less in control over of our environment lately, however. Today, if you vote for the candidate of your choice, assuming you choose to exercise your right to vote (and most do not), it is unclear that it will make a difference. The gridlock in Washington is such that it seems that less and less is accomplished and none of it seems to have much to do with “we, the people.” On the international front, fears of terrorism are also responsible for a sense of helplessness. Though the chance of being harmed by terrorists is still incredibly slight—“ in the last 15 years, even taking into account Sept. 11, an American is five times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist,” Easterbrook says. The threat of terrorism represents a new kind of problem. With the “enemy” harder to discern, find, or even to fight, we feel less able to control our destiny. Our usual solution—sending troops into battle with American “shock and awe”—did little to solve the problem and may have made it worse. Despite having the largest military in the world, now stronger than ever before, there is a sense among us that we are “losing.”
But even more than loss of control, it is the loss of connection that brings people down. Statistics show that suicide rates are going up, having just hit a 30-year high. Some point to unemployment as the culprit, yet levels are quite low overall. What is different is the many ways in which the American social structure has changed, leading to less connection and support between people. Even when we’re employed, we are less likely to remain at a job for a long time, establishing deep bonds with other workers. Or a job may involve little or no contact with others—something that was unheard of in the pre-technology age. Employees are asked to move or relocate more frequently, and business travel, that loneliest of pursuits, broke records in 2015 and is expected to rise again this year.
The world can be divided in many ways, and one is between optimists and pessimists. The other day, Molly Fisk wrote, in “Benign Outcomes,” that even beyond this character trait, which is to some degree inborn, many of us are influenced by our negative past experiences to expect them to be repeated. In most cases, we are not even aware that we are doing this, since these memories are unconscious. Psychologists and psychoanalysts know that the unconscious is “atemporal.” In the world of the unconscious, it is always “now.”
That’s why so many of us react in situations that recall past trauma as if we were still helpless and small. When they happened, that’s usually exactly what we were, and in our mind we have not “caught up” to the present reality of being a competent adult.
So, for example, a woman in her 40s who experiences the anger of another woman as debilitating and is undone when she gets into conflicts with her contemporaries is reacting, at least in part, to her abusive mother, who used to berate her and hit her with her hairbrush when she was angry. This woman needs to constantly remind herself of the present reality that she is an adult who is not helpless and trapped by a frightening, bigger person who has all the power.
But what about the rest of us who suffer from garden-variety pessimism? There’s an awful lot to worry about, and even those of us who were not specifically abused may not have been made to feel particularly safe. Add to that the theory of evolutionary biologists that the worriers among us may have survived at a higher rate than did the happy-go-lucky types. In theory, our ancestors who lived out on the dangerous savannah would have fared better if they had been watching for the possibility of attack by lions and tigers and bears than if they decided to forget about it.
But forgetting about it some of the time is necessary to survive in peace—it’s called “healthy denial.” If you worried about every possibly dangerous situation or thing that could go wrong during the course of your day, you would never leave the house. This capacity for healthy denial is part of what terrorists target when they attack. They provoke the fear—a fear we all know is somewhat true—that anything can happen, anytime, anywhere.
Lately, I seem to be inundated with articles about how hard and sad and pathetic my “golden years” are going to be. As a single woman with no kids (a spinster), I, apparently, am due for a pretty bleak existence as I get older. I’m going to be lonely and broke, and in poor physical and psychological shape. I keep seeing these reports, but I never feel as if they’re talking about me. I’m not in denial . . . maybe I’m just optimistic. Or even a bit skeptical. Who are these people they’re talking about?
Though all these “poor single baby boomers” articles should worry me, they don’t. Having kids or a husband is no guarantee of a graceful decline. Of course, when it works the way it’s supposed to, I know that having kids and a husband is a lovely way to spend one’s later years. Yet having a husband is no sure safeguard against a lonely, destitute old age. He might die before you do, or be infirm at the same time, or have split long before you reach the twilight of your life.
Kids are no guarantee, either. They may not have the wherewithal—or the will—to care for you and their own families. At the risk of saying the morbid, sometimes kids die first, or maybe they and you might be unlucky enough to have a poor relationship and they wouldn’t come around. I wish it would never turn out like that, but sometimes it does. I have single friends who worry that they’ll break a hip and be stuck somewhere, alone, but I don’t really think about stuff like that. I’m hoping to just drop dead one day.
So, despite not having a husband or kids, I’m planning (well, actually hoping) to have a good old age. I’m making regular contributions to an IRA. I have disability and long-term-care insurance. I own my home. I eat right and, so far, I’m in good health. I’m relatively likeable, and so I’m crossing my fingers that my friends and family will enjoy spending time with me when I’m old, and will even step in to take care of me if/when that time comes. These are the things I hope my married-with-children friends are doing, too.
So . . . I’m not going to get myself into a tizzy worrying about how horrible life will be when I’m old, just because I’m single. I appreciate the warning, but I have a life to live. Whatever happens, happens.