Uncertainty, Depression And Creativity

The recent psychological literature has noted a striking increase in depression rates at more or less the same time as the psychological community has turned its eye, and pen, toward what makes people happy.[1] It seems, to an extent, that the more aware we become of our potential for happiness, the more depressed we are. This makes sense, since one of the key findings with regard to happiness is that it is a byproduct of other meaningful activities. In essence, happiness cannot be our main objective. Therefore, the more consciously aware we are of our desire to be happy and our pursuit of it, the less likely we are to find it. This is one of life’s many paradoxes. There is, however, another way to look at this issue.

One of our greatest needs is for the perception of security, and therefore certainty. The literature with regard to cognitive biases and denial makes this crystal clear.[2] During the course of the last couple of decades, but in particular during the course of the last five or so years, the Internet and other information technologies have become widely used, and have exposed humanity more than ever to vast amounts of information. At the same time, information continues to multiply exponentially. The more access we have different perspectives, the more aware we become of how little we know, and how often our beliefs are incorrect. Thus, our awareness of our fallibility, and insecurity, increases. This increases psychological stress. It makes sense that depression would increase as a result of this, if nothing else.

Scholars working with regard to intellectual and social history have noted that this kind of phenomena and regularly occurs. We almost always say that we want more freedom. However, the evidence strongly suggests that we do not. The more choice we have, the less satisfied we are in some ways. For example, we would rather choose between three or four high quality types of olive oil than a dozen. Choice beyond a certain degree creates stress. The happiest societies tend to be highly structured, and therefore secure. Countless other examples could be put forward.

Nonetheless, after our environment changes and provides us with greater choice, we adjust to this to an extent, and find ways to limit the choices that practically speaking we need to make, and hence become comfortable in our new environment. Thus, increasing choice tends to create the possibility that we may become better off, while causing stress. Over the course of time, we generally find ways to be better off, while limiting the choices that we need to make for practical purposes, and therefore reducing our stress. There is no reason to believe that this process will continue with regard to our current environment.

This brings me to the real purpose for writing this note. The fact that we are in an information rich environment with greater than ever access to information, while still having roughly the same intellectual capacity as our ancestors thousands of years ago, means that we tend to rely upon each other in new ways.

We no longer, for the most part, need each other for physical security. Most of us in the West, despite media reports to the contrary, enjoy more safety than ever. Violence within human groups has been on a downward trend since the beginning of recorded history.[3] However, when it comes to knowing how to create new things, to entertain ourselves, to get along together, to love more effectively, to become better off in any way, we are awash in such a tide of information that each time we encounter another human being we have greater reason to believe than ever that we may learn something profoundly important, or simply fun. This reality should empower each of us with regard to our own personal sifting through the information available to us in experimentation with life, as well as in the interest we take in the perspective of each person with whom we come in contact either in person or through the Internet’s vast asynchronous hallways.

There is something immensely exciting about this new reality. Participating in group activities has played an important part of humanity’s development, and survival. We are small herd animals. Until recently, our prospects for survival and reproduction were largely determined by the success of our small group. Therefore, we find participation and coordinated group activities particularly satisfying. This is the root of ritual appeal, within religion or elsewhere. This also explains our attraction to spin classes, yoga classes, marching, the miracle of intricately coordinated teamwork in certain sports, choral singing, being part of a crowd as it roars at an athletic event, and a host of other activities.

Now, we are offered the opportunity to participate in new kinds of coordinated human activity. Look at Wikipedia for example. Had it been suggested 20 years ago that the common riffraff could produce an intellectual monument of this kind, the idea would’ve been laughed off. The various manifestations of the post-Mormon diaspora over the Internet are another small example in this regard. We now have the means to coordinate our activities with people in remote places, at different times, in order to achieve intellectual and social feats that until recently were unimaginable. This is a profoundly exciting, an important development, at the scale of human history. What a pleasure to participate in a small way.

[1] A number of fine books have been published during the past few years in this regard. These include Jon Haidt “The Happiness Hypothesis”, and Daniel Gilbert “Stumbling on Happiness”.

[2] See http://www.mccue.cc/bob/documents/rs…. for a primer in this regard.

[3] See Steven Pinker at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinke… in this regard.

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