How the Economy Affects Our Mental Health

We evolved to be connected to nature and to one another, but our exploitative global economy is severing those relations.
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“No amount of money can buy the love and caring we need to meet our emotional needs.”

Photo by Malte Mueller/Getty Images

As I was reading the current series of YES! articles on the mental health crisis, I received an email from Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at University of Notre Dame. She was sending me articles being prepared for an anthology she is co-editing with the working title Sustainable Vision. The articles present lessons from indigenous culture that underscore why community is the solution to so much of what currently ails humanity.

Both these collections underscore why so much of what currently ails us can be traced to the ongoing global process of commodification, monetization, corporatization, and the increasing trend of machines, robots, and artificial intelligence replacing people in jobs ranging from manufacturing to customer service. All this is separating us from one another and from nature so that billionaires can grow their fortunes. The consequences—including environmental, social, and political collapse—are dramatic, devastating, and unnecessary.

Narvaez observes that for roughly 99 percent of the time that has elapsed since the appearance of the first humans, we lived as hunter-gatherer tribes with deep and direct connections to one another and nature. Together, tribal members foraged for nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. Together, they stalked, killed, and dressed their game. Together, they prepared their food in communal kitchens.

Relationships with one another and nature were direct, strong, lifelong, and grounded in intimate knowledge of one another and the plants and animals they lived among. Tools were simple, self-made, and shared.

Our human brains evolved in this context to facilitate living in co-productive relationship with one another and the Earth. The distinctive developmental needs of the brain as a child matures into adolescence and adulthood can only be fully understood in this context.

As human beings, we begin life with bodies and brains only partially formed and in a state of total dependence on our parents. No mother can completely provide for her own needs and those of an infant by herself. That’s why, it’s said, it takes a village to raise a child.

The human child’s path to physical and mental maturity is long, can be treacherous, and requires proper nutrition and exercise. A hunter-gatherer newborn was breast-fed for its first two to five years. This provided nutrition and constant reassurance of its mother’s love and care. The maturing child led an active outdoor life. He or she experienced constant engagement and enduring relationships with playmates of many ages, the support of an ever-present tribal family spanning multiple generations, and the accessible wisdom of honored elders. This is what the maturing human mind and body evolved to expect and which it continues to require.

In our modern setting, we pride ourselves on our liberation from the need to forage for our food, make our own clothes, and build our own shelter. This can work well for those with adequate income to buy what they need or want. No amount of money, however, can buy the love and caring we need to meet our emotional needs.

Statistics on global trends suggest we are creating a world where it is ever harder to meet those needs. More people are living in single-person households. Since the 1960s, the percentage of households with only one person has more than doubled in Australia, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

In the United States, 28 percent of households are now single-person. Between 1960 and 2016, the number of children in the United States living in single-parent households increased from 22 percent to 31 percent of the population. Often the single parent is a mom struggling to make ends meet with one or more low-wage jobs that may require long commutes, offer little security, and separate her from her children during most of her waking hours.

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Too exhausted to prepare home-cooked meals, we depend on nutritionally deficient, chemically laced packaged meals. Online retailers provide for our material needs with no need to venture out of our single-person residence or even for any human contact. To fend off our isolation-produced depression, we become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

The mental health consequences are devastating. U.S. suicides have increased 25 percent since 2000 and experts predict that 50 percent of the current U.S. population will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.

For all the advances of modern societies, traditional tribal communities may have better served the essential needs of people for emotional support, nutrition, and exercise than does contemporary society. We don’t need to return to the ways of our ancestors, but we do need to learn from them.

What are those lessons? Instead of building more single-family dwellings, we should build multigenerational, multifamily homes in vibrant eco-villages that share facilities, tools, labor and resources. Instead of designing cities for self-driving, single-person cars, design them for walking, biking, and public transportation with lots of places for people to meet and greet, mix and mingle. Instead of growing an economy dependent on global movements of money, people, and goods to maximize profit uncoupled from place, create economies that bring people together to maximize health and well-being in the place where they live.

As we envision our future, don’t think money, money, money to maximize profit. Think relate, relate, relate to maximize community.