By all historical and geographic comparisons, we are living in the greatest time and place in all of human history. Our rights and freedoms are protected to a degree that no other countries have, the average standard of living for an American is exponentially higher than it was even 50 years ago, and our technological prowess is at an all-time high, as is the economy.
So why are we so unhappy? What led us to this festering cesspool of anger and depression faced by a plurality of Americans?
In theory, we should be at all-time highs for general happiness as well, but, on paper, we are not. In the U.S. alone, the suicide rate quadrupled for males ages 15 to 24 from the years 1946 to 2006, and it has been steadily increasing since. Another alarming truth, according to NPR, is that the suicide rate for girls ages 10 to 14 tripled from 1999 to 2014. According to Reuters Health in 2019, “Suicidal thinking, severe depression and rates of self-injury among U.S. college students more than doubled over less than a decade, a nationwide study suggests.”
Increasing levels of mental illness and drug abuse are also becoming apparent. We are seeing more drug overdoses among not only less fortunate Americans, but also among those who have “made it” in Hollywood or the music industry. Mass shootings are occurring at an unprecedented rate, whereas for the entire 1950s, when gun control was largely nonexistent, there was a grand total of one mass shooting in the U.S.
So why, in an era when there are so many things to be grateful for and happy about, are a plurality of Americans riddled with anxiety, anger, fear, and depression?
My theory has a lot of components to it, but the main idea is that the collective avoidance of pain brought on by a lifetime of instant gratification has numbed younger generations to real experiences. Many of us are familiar with the term “instant gratification,” maybe from the 1972 experiment at Stanford regarding marshmallows and toddlers. But we can save that for another time. In essence, when something good happens to us, like receiving a text message or maybe a match on a dating app, we are gratified, and a surge of the chemical dopamine is sent to our brains, making us feel good and happy.
This is an unintended consequence of technological progress, and, over the years, our tolerance for what it takes to make us happy has gone up. Way up.
It’s like caffeine tolerance in coffee drinkers. Many coffee drinkers start out with one cup a day, but as their tolerance for caffeine grows, so does their need to consume more of it to feel the way they felt the first time they ingested it. One hundred years ago, when depression rates were far lower, people had to work, in a sense, for their entertainment. This could be by reading a book, creating something, or simply going outside.
The popularization of television changed this, and people began to get sucked in more and more to the lives of other people on their screens. For a while, Americans had to at least wait a week to find out what would happen in their favorite TV show, giving them delayed gratification rather than instant.
Today, technology has cut out this process entirely, and you don’t even have to so much as click a button to binge an entire series on any one of the many streaming sites. This gives us constant flows of dopamine because that is what watching television does, it makes you feel happy. Unfortunately, when our tolerance for dopamine secretion goes up, that happiness begins to fade until it gets harder and harder to enjoy an experience.
This concept can be applied to many aspects of our daily lives. Texting has replaced human interaction, dating apps have replaced asking people out in person, delivery services have replaced sharing a meal with family and friends, and social media has combined all of these things together. Unfortunately, all of these instantly gratifying activities lead us to develop an addiction to them, not unlike drugs or alcohol.
If you cannot go a week without looking at your phone or checking social media, you are addicted. There can be tragic consequences of this, and we are already seeing it in the number of deaths every year in this country from car accidents in which the driver had been texting. I have seen people unable to wait for even the theme song of a TV show to finish before fast-forwarding through it. That is an addiction to instant gratification, plain and simple.
I am not saying that we should all quit technology cold turkey, but this silent killer is one that many Americans are in denial about, so a social media cleanse every now and then is highly recommended. The first few days might feel strange, and most people usually feel unproductive, which is interesting because doing nothing is no more unproductive than watching “The Office” for the fifth time.
Once you finish the withdrawal period, however, you will be happy you did, and real experiences will start to matter again. You will be able to go to sleep earlier without the blue-light stimulation from an electronic device and thus be able to wake up earlier in turn.
This mass societal movement away from the benefits of delayed gratification and toward instant gratification is by no means the fault of the younger generation, but it has blocked millions of Americans from going through the necessary pains of life in order to learn. Adam Carolla, the comedian and popular podcaster, points out that kids “grew up dipped in Purell, playing soccer games where they did not keep score,” and, by no fault of their own, have become unable to accept it when happiness does not come as easy in the real world as it does when they log in to their Netflix accounts.
No one can truly protect young people from the harsh realities of the real world, so the best and the only thing that can be done is to make them strong.
Jordan Foster is a student at Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences and a graduate of East Hampton High School.