Mood Science and the Evolutionary Origins of Depression

The Unaddressed Business of Filling Our Souls


What language and symbolism have to do with mood and how light exposure and sleep shape our mental health.

“Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals,” legendary psychologist Martin Seligman observed in his essential treatise on learned optimism. But such a definition of depression, while true, appears somehow insufficient, overlooking the multitude of excruciating physical and psychological realities of the disease beyond the sense of personal failure. Perhaps William Styron came closer in his haunting memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, where he wrote of “depression’s dark wood,” “its inexplicable agony,” and the grueling struggle of those afflicted by it who spend their lives trying to trudge “upward and outward out of hell’s black depths.” And yet for all their insight into its manifestations, both the poets and the psychologists have tussled rather futilely to understand depression’s complex causes and, perhaps most importantly in terms both scientific and humanistic, its cures.

That’s precisely what psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg sets out to do in The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic (public library) — an ambitious, rigorously researched, and illuminating journey into the abyss of the soul and back out, emerging with insights both practical and conceptual, personal and universal, that shed light on one of the least understood, most pervasive, and most crippling pandemics humanity has ever grappled with. (A sobering note to the hyperbole-wary: At any given point, 22% of the population exhibit at least one symptom of depression and the World Health Organization projects that by 2030, depression will have led to more worldwide disability and lives lost than any other affliction, including cancer, stroke, heart disease, accidents, and even war.)

Rottenberg takes a radical approach to depression based not a disease model of the mind but on the evolutionary science of mood — a proposition that flies in the face of our cultural assumptions that have rendered the very subject of depression a taboo. He puts this bind in perspective:

Because depression is so unpleasant and so impairing, it may be difficult to imagine that there might be another way of thinking about it; something this bad must be a disease. Yet the defect model causes problems of its own. Some sufferers avoid getting help because they are leery of being branded as defective. Others get help and come to believe what they are repeatedly told in our system of mental health: that they are deficient.


People still feel inclined to whisper when they talk about depression. Depression has no “Race for the Cure”; this condition rarely spawns dance marathons, car washes, or golf tournaments. Consequently, the lacerating pain of depression remains uncomfortably private.



Illustration by artist Bobby Baker from ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me.’ Click image for details.


Rather than subscribing to this broken deficiency model of depression, Rottenberg argues that affective science — the empirical study of mood — lies at the heart of understanding the condition. Defining moods as “internal signals that motivate behavior and move it in the right direction,” he argues that our bodies are “a collection of adaptations, evolutionary legacies that have helped us survive and reproduce in the face of uncertainty and risk” and paints the backdrop of understanding depression:

The mood system … is the great integrator. It takes in information about the external and internal worlds and summarizes what is favorable or unfavorable in terms of accomplishing key goals related to survival and reproduction.


Once a goal is embarked upon, the mood system monitors progress toward its attainment. It will redouble effort when minor obstacles arise. If progress stops entirely because of an insuperable obstacle, the mood system puts the brakes on effort.

Under this model, mood has an evolutionary function as a mediator of survival strategies. Rottenberg cites a number of experiments, which have indicated that negative mood incites one’s psychoemotional arsenal when a task becomes too challenging. For instance, when study participants are deliberately put in a negative mood and asked to perform a difficult task, their blood pressure spikes — a sign that the body is being mobilized for extra alertness and effort. But if the task is made insurmountably difficult, so much so that success stops being possible, the spike no longer occurs and the mood system dials down the effort. In that sense, mood — the seedbed of depression — isn’t an arbitrary state that washes over us in a whim, but a sieve that separates the goals worth pursuing from those guaranteed to end in disappointment.

Rottenberg argues that our relationship to the mood system is shaped by the way we talk about it and is mired in toxic cultural constructs that bleed into our language:

One of the amazing things about the mood system is how much of it operates outside of conscious awareness. Moods, like most adaptations, developed in species that had neither language nor culture. Yet words are the first things that come to mind when most people think about moods. We are “mad,” we are “sad,” we are “glad.” So infatuated are we with language that both laypeople and scientists find it tempting to equate the language we use to describe mood with mood itself.

This is a big mistake. We need to shed this languagecentric view of mood, even if it threatens our pride to accept that we share a fundamental element of our mental toolkit with rabbits and roadrunners. Holding to a myth of human uniqueness puts us in an untenable position. For one thing, it would mean that we deny mood to those humans who have not yet acquired mood language (babies) or have lost mood language (Alzheimer’s patients). Toddlers, goats, and chimps all lack the words to describe the internal signals that track their efforts to find a mate, food, or a new ally; their moods can shape behavior without being named. Language is not required for moods. All that is needed is some capability for wakeful alertness and conscious perception, including the perception of pain and pleasure, which is certainly present in all mammals.

Still, Rottenberg cautions, “what we say about our feelings is only one window on mood” — we need, instead, to examine a variety of evidence in the mind, brain, and behavior to paint a dimensional picture of mood and depression. In fact, part of the puzzle lies in the crucial difference between feelings, or emotions, and moods — emotions are more instantaneous and short-lived responses compared to moods, which take longer to germinate and longer to wither out. Moods, Rottenberg explains, “are an overall summary of the various cues around us [and usually] are harder to sort out.” Our deeper reliance on moods rather than feelings is one of the things that make us human and different from other species, a difference empowered by our use of language and symbolism:

Our heavy reliance on symbolic representation also makes the precipitants of low mood more idiosyncratic in our species than in others. We become sad because Bambi’s mother dies, because there are starving people a continent away, because of a factory closing, because of a World Series defeat in extra innings. Though there is a core theme of loss that cuts across species, humans’ capacity for language enables a larger number of objects to enter, and alter, the mood system.



Illustration by artist Bobby Baker from ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me.’ Click image for details.


And yet for all our emotional sophistication, we remain strikingly blind to many of the real triggers and causes of moods, instead falling back on our penchant for psychological storytelling. Rottenberg ties this back to depression:

Despite our deep yearning to explicate moods, the average person cannot see many of the most important influences on mood. As the great integrator, the mood system is acted on by many potential objects, and many of the forces that act on mood are hidden from conscious awareness (such as stress hormones or the state of our immune system). Left to our own devices, the stories we tell ourselves about our moods often end up being just that. Stories.


We must understand the ultimate sources of depression if we are ever to get it under control. To do so, we need to step back and replace the defunct defect model with a completely different approach. The mood science approach will be both historical and integrative: historical because we cannot understand why depressed mood is so prevalent until we understand why we have the capacity for low mood in the first place, and integrative because a host of different forces (many hidden) simultaneously act on people to impel them into the kinds of low moods that breed serious depression.

But before we are tempted to file away low moods as an affliction to be treated, Rottenberg offers a necessary neutrality disclaimer, pointing out that both high and low moods have their advantages and disadvantages:

We are born with the capacity for both high and low moods because each has, on average, presented more fitness benefits than costs. Just as being warm blooded can be a liability, high moods are increasingly understood as having a “dark side,” sometimes enabling rash, impulsive, and even destructive behavior. Likewise the capacity for low mood is accompanied by a bundle of benefits and costs. Seen this way, depression follows our adaptation for low mood like a shadow — it’s an inevitable outcome of a natural process, neither wholly good nor entirely bad.

So what might be the evolutionary advantages of low moods? Several theories exists. One proposes that low moods help dampen agitation in confrontation, thus de-escalating conflicts — when a loser yields rather than fighting to the death, he or she is able to survive rather than perish. Another paints low mood as a “stop mechanism” that, just like the task studies suggested, prevent the person from exerting effort towards a goal that is either unattainable or dangerous. A different theory conceptualizes low mood as a tool for making better decisions, putting us in more contemplative mindsets better suited for analyzing our environment and solving particularly hard problems.

In fact, the latter is something repeatedly confirmed by experiments, most notably in the pioneering work of psychologists Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, who termed this role of low mood depressive realism. Their work has inspired multiple other experiments, including this 2007 study:

Australian psychologist Joseph Forgas found that a brief mood induction changed how well people were able to argue. Compared to subjects in a positive mood, subjects who were put in a negative mood (by watching a ten-minute film about death from cancer) produced more effective persuasive messages on a standardized topic such as raising student fees or aboriginal land rights. Follow-up analyses found that the key reason the sadder people were more persuasive was that their arguments were richer in concrete detail [suggesting that] sad mood, at least of the garden variety, makes people more deliberate, skeptical, and careful in how they process information from their environment.

These positive uses of negative moods may seem at first counterintuitive, but Rottenberg reminds us that “multiple utilities are the hallmark of an adaptation.” He puts things in perspective:

One way to appreciate why these states have enduring value is to ponder what would happen if we had no capacity for them. Just as animals with no capacity for anxiety were gobbled up by predators long ago, without the capacity for sadness, we and other animals would probably commit rash acts and repeat costly mistakes.

In support of this conception, Rottenberg cites a wonderfully poetic passage by Lee Stringer from his essay “Fading to Gray,” found in the altogether fantastic 2001 volume Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression:

Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.

(What gorgeous language, “the unaddressed business of filling our souls” — rather than an affliction, isn’t that the ever-flowing lifeblood of human existence?)



Cover illustration for P.M. Hubbard’s ‘Picture of Millie’ by Edward Gorey. Click image for details.


Still, Rottenberg is careful to point out that severe depression, far from being evolutionarily beneficial, is absolutely crippling, marked by “distorted thinking that appears to be the polar opposite of depressive realism.” In fact, what is perhaps most perplexing about the condition is that scientists don’t yet have a litmus test for when low mood tips over from beneficial to perilous, no point on the mood spectrum that clearly delineates the normal from the diseased. Rottenberg proposes that mood science is the key to honoring the nuance of that spectrum. He differentiates between milder periods of low mood, which he terms shallow depression, and periods wherein the low mood is both long-lasting and severe, which he calls deep depression, and writes:

Shallow depression is adaptive, whereas deep depression is a maladaptive disease.

The strongest evidence for this spectrum model, rather than a binary division between wellness and disease, comes from the fact that shallow and deep depression share a set of risk factors, suggesting that mood, which varies along a continuum of intensity, is the common denominator. Rottenberg puts it elegantly:

Ignoring this would be like a weather forecaster using separate models to predict warm days and very hot days rather than considering general factors that predict temperature.

So what, exactly, seeds low mood? Rottenberg points to three distinct but interconnected triggers: explainability, evolutionary significance, and timing. He writes:

Modern psychological theories postulate that we recover more quickly from a bad event if we can readily explain it. We would expect, then, that events that generate mixed feelings and/or confusing thoughts would be a powerful impetus toward persistent low mood.


Events that present irresolvable dilemmas on themes that have evolutionary significance — like mate choice — are fertile seeds for low mood.

When the bad things happen also matters. Extensive research demonstrates that early life traumas, such as physical or sexual abuse, lay the groundwork for a slow creep of depression and anxiety.

He cites the example of a middle-aged woman suffering from lifelong “low-grade depression” and anxiety, who grew up with an alcoholic father in a household that vetoed any discussion of feelings. When a neighbor molested her at the age of thirteen, she kept the trauma to herself, believing that her mother would blame her and her father would explode in a rage. Rottenberg explains how these early experiences provide the psychoemotional backdrop for our adult lives:

Jan’s chronic feelings of anxiety and sadness are natural, the product of an intact mood system. In a world in which a child’s primary attachment figures — parents — are emotionally unavailable and unable to help when a trusted neighbor turns into an attacker, the mood system is ever forward looking. It assumes that, if the worst has already happened, it can and will happen again. Best to be prepared. Anxious moods scanning for danger (especially in relationships) and sad moods analyzing what was lost and why serve as the last lines of defense against further ruin.



Illustration by Edward Gorey from ‘Donald and the…’ Click image for details.


Triggers notwithstanding, Rottenberg points out that individual temperament is an essential component in people’s mood responses to the same events. He cites a study conducted after the 9/11 attacks which found that a month later Lower Manhattan residents who had been there on September 11 experienced wildly different degrees of depressive symptoms, ranging from crippling major depression to hardly any symptoms compared to their respective state on September 10.

This variation, once more, can be traced back to early childhood. Rottenberg cites the work of psychologist Jerome Kagan who has spent decades studying infants and found that temperament can be detected as early as in nine-month-olds, who exhibit “reasonably consistent and strong fear reactions to a variety of potentially threatening situations.” These early differences in temperament, Rottenberg argues, are likely to be heavily influenced by genes.

And yet, just like the mood spectrum, temperament isn’t a black-and-white game but an evolutionarily wise strategy:

Experiments by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson also demonstrate that there is no “single best temperament.” In one condition, Wilson dropped metal traps into a pond containing pumpkinseed sunfish. A subset of the fish showed boldness and interest in investigating a novel object. This was a really bad move, as they were immediately caught, and had Dr. Wilson been a real predator, it would have meant the end of their genes. Another group of fish were wary and stayed back from the traps; they were not caught. This situation favored the wary fish.

In a subsequent condition, all the fish were scooped up, brought into a new environment, and then carefully observed. Here the previously wary fish had great difficulty adapting to novelty. They were slower than their bold compatriots to begin feeding, taking five more days to start eating. In this situation the survival of the bold fish was favored.

Noting that the single most indicative depression-prone personality trait is neuroticism, Rottenberg adds:

Like depression itself, temperaments that seed depression are neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

Pointing to two distinct sets of influences on mood — forces that make us vulnerable to long periods of shallow depression and ones that deepen existing shallow depression — Rottenberg makes a poignant observation about our culture’s growing fetishism of happiness:

Our expectations about happiness have changed dramatically, and as they rise, ironically, are making low moods harder to bear than ever before.



Illustration by Edward Gorey from ‘The Green Beads.’ Click image for details.


In fact, a number of our modern fixations have taken a toll on our vulnerability to depression, including our cult of productivity, which accelerated after the invention of artificial light. But while routines may be the key to creative discipline, they may also put us at hazard for depression:

Mood is about the mundane. Day-to-day routines — how we spend our time, how we care for our bodies and minds — continually shape our moods and can have a strong influence on whether low mood persists. Routines that build up physical and mental resources can raise mood. Other routines, woven into the fabric of modern life, are grossly misaligned with evolutionary imperatives and have the potential to seed low mood. Many of our most familiar routines seem almost perversely designed to wreak havoc on the mood system.

We already know that REM sleep is intimately linked with depression and that insufficient exposure to natural light is perilous to our well-being. Rottenberg sheds light on the scale and intensity of the problem:

One mundane influence on mood is daily light exposure. After all, mood evolved in the context of a rotating earth, with its recurrent twenty-four-hour cycle of light and dark phases. Our species is diurnal, and the best chance of finding sustenance and other rewards was in the light phase (think about the challenge of identifying edible berries or stalking a mammoth). Consequently, we are configured to be more alert during the day than at night. Consistent with the link between light and mood, some clinically serious low mood is triggered by the seasonal change of shorter daylight hours. The onset of seasonal affective disorder, a subtype of mood disorder, is usually in winter.

Our newfound reliance on indoor light has effectively turned most people into cave dwellers. Artificial light is much fainter and provides fewer mood benefits than sunlight. When small devices that measure light exposure and duration were attached to adults in San Diego, one of the sunniest cities in the United States, it was discovered that the average person received only fifty-eight minutes of sunlight a day. What’s more, those San Diegans who received less light exposure during their daily routines reported more symptoms of depression.

(My reliance on this light-therapy device, which has gotten me through many dreary New York winters, suddenly seems less trivial and less of a placebo effect.)



Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from ‘The River.’ Click image for details.


As a champion of sleep, I especially appreciate the sobering evidence Rottenberg cites from a number of sleep studies:

Mood is lower after even one night of sleep deprivation. Moreover, brief experimental sleep restriction induces bodily changes that mimic some aspects of depression. It’s important to ponder the consequences of sleep deprivation now happening on a mass scale: more than 40 percent of Americans between the ages of thirteen and sixty-four say they rarely or never get a good night’s sleep on weeknights, and a third of young adults probably have long periods of at least partial sleep deprivation on an ongoing basis. Over the last century average nightly sleep duration has fallen. In 1910 Americans slept an average of approximately nine hours; that average had dropped to seven hours by 2002.

Part of the answer to the riddle of low mood, then, lies in contemporary routines that increasingly feature less light, less rest, and more activities that are out of kilter with the body’s natural rhythm.

In the rest of The Depths, Rottenberg, who has battled depression himself for much of his life, goes on to explore how the multiple seeds of the condition cross-pollinate each other, why other species may hold the key to understanding human depression, and what we can do, both as a culture and as individuals, to loosen the grip of this unrelenting oppressor. Complement it with this simple and effective exercise to increase your well-being and lower depression from Martin Seligman, founding father of Positive Psychology, then revisit this provocative read on how antidepressants affect identity-formation.

Thanks, Amelia

The pseudo-science of Alcoholics Anonymous

There’s a better way to treat addiction


AA and rehab culture have shockingly low success rates, and made it impossible to have real debate about addiction


The pseudo-science of Alcoholics Anonymous: There's a better way to treat addiction



Alcoholics Anonymous is a part of our nation’s fabric. In the seventy-six years since AA was created, 12-step programs have expanded to include over three hundred different organizations, focusing on such diverse issues as smoking, shoplifting, social phobia, debt, recovery from incest, even vulgarity. All told, more than five million people recite the Serenity Prayer at meetings across the United States every year.

Twelve-step programs hold a privileged place in our culture as well. The legions of “anonymous” members who comprise these groups are helped in their proselytizing mission by TV shows such as “Intervention” (now canceled), which preaches the gospel of recovery. “Going to rehab” is likewise a common refrain in music and film, where it is almost always uncritically presented as the one true hope for beating addiction. AA and rehab have even been codified into our legal system: court-mandated attendance, which began in the late 1980s, is today a staple of drug-crime policy. Every year, our state and federal governments spend over $15 billion on substance-abuse treatment for addicts, the vast majority of which are based on 12-step programs. There is only one problem: these programs almost always fail.

Peer-reviewed studies peg the success rate of AA somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. That is, about one of every fifteen people who enter these programs is able to become and stay sober. In 2006, one of the most prestigious scientific research organizations in the world, the Cochrane Collaboration, conducted a review of the many studies conducted between 1966 and 2005 and reached a stunning conclusion: “No experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA” in treating alcoholism. This group reached the same conclusion about professional AA-oriented treatment (12-step facilitation therapy, or TSF), which is the core of virtually every alcoholism-rehabilitation program in the country.

Many people greet this finding with open hostility. After all, walk down any street in any city and you are likely to run into a dozen people who swear by AA—either from personal experience or because they know someone whose life was saved by the program. Even people who have no experience with AA may still have heard that it works or protest that 5 to 10 percent is a significant number when we’re talking about millions of people. So AA isn’t perfect, runs this thread of reasoning. Have you got anything better? 

There are good answers to these objections. For now, I will simply say that there are indeed better treatments for addiction—but the issues with AA’s approach run far deeper than its statistical success rate. While it’s praiseworthy that some do well in AA, the problem is that our society has followed AA’s lead in presuming that 12-step treatment is good for the other 90 percent of people with addictions.

Any substantive conversation about treatment in this country must reckon with the toll levied when a culture encourages one approach to the exclusion of all others, especially when that culture limits the treatment options for suffering people, ignores advances in understanding addiction, and excludes and even shames the great majority of people who fail in the sanctioned approach.

The AA monopoly 

AA began as a nonprofessional attempt to grapple with the alcoholism of its founders. It arose and took its famous twelve steps directly from the Oxford Group, a fundamentalist religious organization founded in the early twentieth century. It came to life on the day that its founder, Bill Wilson, witnessed a “bright flash of light” in a hospital room.

Although the fledgling organization lacked any scientific backing, research, or clinical experience to support its method, AA spread like wildfire through a country desperate for hope at the end of Prohibition and in the midst of the Great Depression. It soon became immaterial whether AA worked well or worked at all: it had claimed its place as the last best hope for beating the mighty specter of addiction. It had become the indispensable treatment, the sine qua non of addiction recovery in the United States. And science looked away.

AA has managed to survive, in part, because members who become and remain sober speak and write about it regularly. This is no accident: AA’s twelfth step expressly tells members to proselytize for the organization: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these

Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Adherence to this step has created a classic sampling error: because most of us hear only from the people who succeeded in the program, it is natural to conclude that they represent the whole. In reality, these members speak for an exceptionally small percentage of addicts, as we will see.

Beyond these individual proselytizing efforts, AA makes inflated claims about itself. Its foundational document, Alcoholics Anonymous (commonly referred to as the “Big Book” and a perennial best seller), spells out a confident ethos regularly endorsed by AA members:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

In other words, the program doesn’t fail; you fail.

Imagine if similar claims were made in defense of an ineffective antibiotic. Imagine dismissing millions of people who did not respond to a new form of chemotherapy as “constitutionally incapable” of properly receiving the drug. Of course, no researchers would make such claims in scientific circles—if they did, they would risk losing their standing. In professional medicine, if a treatment doesn’t work, it’s the treatment that must be scrutinized, not the patient. Not so for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Walking the twelve steps

More than anything, AA offers a comforting veneer of actionable change: it is something you can do. Twelve steps sounds like science; it feels like rigor; it has the syntax of a roadmap. Yet when we examine these twelve steps more closely, we find dubious ideas and even some potentially harmful myths.

Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

This step sounds appealing to some and grates heavily on others. The notion of declaring powerlessness is intended to evoke a sense of surrender that might give way to spiritual rebirth. Compelling as this is as a narrative device, it lacks any clinical merit or scientific backing.

Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Many scholars have written about the close bond between AA and religion. This is perhaps inevitable: AA was founded as a religious organization whose design and practices hewed closely to its spiritual forerunner, the Oxford Group, whose members believed strongly in the purging of sinfulness through conversion experiences. As Bill Wilson wrote in the Big Book: “To some people we need not, and probably should not, emphasize the spiritual feature on our first approach. We might prejudice them. At the moment we are trying to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God.”

Religion can have a salutary effect on people in crisis, of course, and its strong emphasis on community bonds is often indispensable. But do these comforting feelings address the causes of addiction or lead to permanent recovery in any meaningful way? As we will see, the evidence is scant.

Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”

For an organization that has expressly denied religious standing and publicly claims a secular—even scientific—approach, it is curious that AA retains these explicit references to a spiritual power whose care might help light the way toward recovery. Even for addicts who opt to interpret this step secularly, the problem persists: why can’t this ultimate power lie within the addict?

Step 4: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

The notion that people with addictions suffer from a failure of morality to be indexed and removed is fundamental to Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet addiction is not a moral defect, and to suggest that does a great disservice to people suffering with this disorder.

Step 5: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Step 7: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”

These steps rehash the problems of their predecessors: the religiosity, the admission of moral defectiveness, the embrace of powerlessness, and the search for a cure through divine purification. The degradation woven through these steps also seems unwittingly designed to exacerbate, rather than relieve, the humiliating feelings so common in addiction.

If moral self-flagellation could cure addiction, we could be sure there would be precious few addicts.

Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”

Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with apologizing to those who have been harmed, directly or indirectly, by the consequences of addiction. The problem is the echo once more of the fundamentalist religious principle: that the path to recovery is to cleanse oneself of sin.

Yes, apologies can be powerful things, and there’s no question that reconciling with people can be a liberating and uplifting experience. But grounding this advice within a framework of treatment alters its timbre, transforming an elective act into one of penance.

Step 10: “Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”

People suffering with addictions as a rule tend to be well aware of the many “wrongs” they have committed. Awareness of this fact doesn’t help the problem.

Step 11: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”

If AA were simply presented as a religious movement dedicated to trying to comfort addicts through faith and prayer, the program would not be so problematic. What is troubling is how resolutely—and some might say disingenuously—AA has taken pains to dissociate itself from the faith-based methodology it encourages.

Step 12: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

AA’s emphasis on proselytizing, a basic tool through which recognized religions and certain fringe religious groups spread their message, is an essential part of its worldwide success, and it’s a big reason that it has been nearly impossible to have an open national dialogue about other, potentially better ways to treat addiction.

The consequences of bad treatment

I have been treating people suffering with addictions in public and private hospitals, in clinics, and in my private practice for more than thirty years. In that time, I have met and listened to a very large number of people who have “failed” at AA and some who continue to swear by it, despite repeated recidivism.

Dominic’s case is just one example (I have changed the names and nonessential details in the passage below and whenever I discuss patients in this book). Dominic began drinking heavily as a junior at a good college. Weekly binges soon turned to daily abuse, with predictable results: his grades plummeted; his attendance vanished. By the time he arrived home for winter break, Dominic’s family was deeply concerned about his deterioration. They advised him to seek counseling at the university health center.

Advisors there recommended that Dominic begin attending AA, which he did. He became fond of his sponsor and felt included for the first time in years—no small feat for a suffering young man. But he also found himself increasingly resentful of the “tally system” that AA uses to measure sobriety: every time he “slipped” and had a drink, he “went back to zero.” All the chips he’d earned—the tokens given by AA for milestone periods of sobriety—became meaningless. This system compounded his sense of shame and anger, leading him to wonder why he lacked the willpower or fortitude to master the incredible force of his alcoholism.

By spring, Dominic had dropped out of college. His parents turned to the family doctor for advice. She told him to double down on AA—to attend ninety meetings in ninety days, which is a common AA prescription.

It worked. Although many of the faces at the meetings kept changing and Dominic constantly felt the urge to drink, he found a few “oldtimers” who believed wholly in the program and who encouraged him to dismiss the great majority of people who fell through the cracks. They just weren’t ready to stop, he was reassured. Dominic soon learned to distract himself from thinking about alcohol and to call his sponsor when the urge arose.

Four months into the program, Dominic became frustrated during a call with his bank. He bought a fifth of vodka and drank so much that he fell down the stairs, suffering three cracked vertebrae. A series of increasingly expensive stints in rehab followed throughout his twenties, with poor results. During this time, he was hospitalized twice and lost every job he held. A brief marriage ended in a bad divorce, and Dominic was deeply depressed by the time someone in his life recommended that he try something other than a 12-step program. Maybe talk therapy was worth a try.

When Dominic entered my office, he had accepted as empirical truth that he was a deeply flawed individual: amoral, narcissistic, and unable to turn himself over to a Higher Power. How else to explain the swath of destruction he had cut through his own life and the lives of those who loved him? His time in AA had also taught him that his deeper psychological life was immaterial to mastering his addiction. He had a disease; the solution was in the Twelve Steps. When he was ready to quit, he would.

It took eight months of psychotherapy before Dominic stopped drinking for good. Although he remained in therapy for several years after that, the key that unlocked his addiction was nothing more complex or ethereal than an understanding of what his addiction really was and how it really worked.

Dominic had felt enormously pressured all of his life, consumed by a suffocating need to excel in every activity. He was driven by a hunger to be “good enough”—accomplished enough, successful enough—to please his demanding father and blameful mother. Whenever he felt he was not performing up to his potential, his old sense of being trapped by implacable demands arose, and with it came a deep sense of shame and an equal fury at the awful helplessness he felt about this burden. Those were the moments he had to have a drink.

Eventually he came to realize that this odd coping mechanism made a certain kind of sense. By making a decision to drink, he was empowering himself—he no longer felt helpless. Once he understood the connection between his lifelong feelings and his urges to drink, he was able to view them with some perspective for the first time. He found that he was able to predict when his drive to drink would return, since it always tended to surface right after that old, unbearable pressure to perform. He developed enough awareness into what was beneath these urges that he could take a step back and deal with those issues more directly and appropriately. Over time, he was also able to work out the underlying narrative forces that had led him to feel so helpless throughout his life. He had, in other words, supplanted the notion of a Higher Power with something far more personally empowering: sophisticated self-awareness.

The rehab fiction 

Dominic’s history follows the same contours as thousands of others. But one part of his story warrants special attention: the series of failed attempts at rehabilitation. Dominic’s family lost close to $200,000— their total retirement savings—on this string of ineffectual programs.

Rehab owns a special place in the American imagination. Our nation invented the “Cadillac” rehab, manifested in such widely celebrated brand names as Hazelden, Sierra Tucson, and the Betty Ford Center. Ask the average American about any of these institutions and you will likely hear a response tinged with reverence—these are the standard-bearers, our front line against addiction. The fact that they are all extraordinarily expensive is almost beside the point: these rehabs are fighting the good fight, and they deserve every penny we’ve got.

Unfortunately, nearly all these programs use an adaptation of the same AA approach that has been shown repeatedly to be highly ineffective. Where they deviate from traditional AA dogma is actually more alarming: many top rehab programs include extra features such as horseback riding, Reiki massage, and “adventure therapy” to help their clients exorcise the demons of addiction. Some renowned programs even have “equine therapists” available to treat addiction—a fairly novel credential in this context, to put it kindly. Sadly, there is no evidence that these additional “treatments” serve any purpose other than to provide momentary comfort to their clientele—and cover for the programs’ astronomical fees, which can exceed $90,000 a month.

Why do we tolerate this industry? One reason may sound familiar: in rehab, one feels that one is doing something, taking on a life-changing intervention whose exorbitant expense ironically reinforces the impression that epochal changes must be just around the corner. It is marketed as the sort of cleansing experience that can herald the dawn of a new era. How many of us have not indulged this fantasy at one time or another— the daydream that if we could just put our lives “on pause” for a while and retreat somewhere pastoral and lovely, we could finally make sense of all our problems?

Alas, the effect is temporary at best. Many patients begin using again soon after they emerge from rehab, often suffering repeated relapses. The discouragement that follows these failures can magnify the desperation that originally brought them to help’s door.

What’s especially shocking is how the rehab industry responds to these individuals: they simply repeat their failed treatments, sometimes dozens of times. Repeat stays in rehab are very common, and readmission is almost always granted without any special consideration or review. On second and subsequent stays, the same program is offered, including lectures previously attended.

Any serious treatment center would study its own outcomes to modify and improve its approach. But rehabs generally don’t do this. For example, only one of the three best-known facilities has ever published outcome studies (Hazelden); neither Betty Ford nor Sierra Tucson has checked to see if their treatment is producing any results for at least the past decade. Hazelden’s follow-up studies looked at just the first year following discharge and showed disappointing results, as we will see later.

Efforts by journalists to solicit data from rehabs have also been met with resistance, making an independent audit of their results almost impossible and leading to the inevitable conclusion that the rest of the programs either don’t study their own outcomes or refuse to publish what they find.

Excerpted from “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry” by Lance Dodes, M.D., and Zachary Dodes. Copyright 2014. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Youth subcultures: what are they now?

Mods, punks, soulboys, metallers, goths, hippies: there was a time when young people made it clear what tribe and music they were into by the way they dressed. Not any more.


The youth of today: clockwise, metallers, goth, Molly Soda, haul girl and seapunks.

The youth of today: clockwise, metallers, goth, Molly Soda, haul girl and seapunks. Photograph: Rex/Christopher Furlong/Public Domain


Down the phone, Helina is explaining what a haul girl is to me. “Basically, you go out shopping for clothes or beauty products,” she says, “then you make a haul video and show viewers on YouTube what you got. You go through the items of clothing one by one. I guess what people get out of them is not showing off, like, how much money you’ve got or anything, but lifestyle: you get to see how one person lives, what their taste is.”

If you’re minded to sneer at a youth cult that involves making videos about your shopping, then Helina has a pretty intriguing counter-argument. “It’s not just about showing what you’ve got,” she says. “It’s a whole creative process behind the videos as well, which is what I enjoy about it. Choosing the right music, going from the filming to the editing. Sometimes I even storyboard things, because I want certain shots, how I can present different items and things like that.” Besides, she says, it’s a genuine community. She thinks a lot of haul girls “turn the camera on because it’s a way to talk to people without having to go outside and face their fears. I know that was the case with me: I turned on my camera because I was at home, signed off work, sick, and really bored. And it helped with my confidence in a way. There’s this community where you can talk to like-minded people.”

I’ve ended up talking to Helina because haul girls and their videos are currently a remarkably big deal – there are scores of the things on YouTube – and I’m trying to investigate the state of youth subcultures in 2014. It seems a worthwhile thing to do. You hardly need a degree in sociology to realise that something fairly dramatic has happened to them over the past couple of decades; you just need a functioning pair of eyes. When I arrived at secondary school in the mid-80s, the fifth and sixth forms, where uniform requirements were relaxed, looked like a mass of different tribes, all of them defined by the music they liked, all of them more or less wearing their tastes on their sleeves. There were goths. There were metallers. There were punks. There were soulboys, at least one of whom had made the fateful decision to try and complete his look by growing a moustache, the bum fluff result pathetic in the extreme. There were Morrissey acolytes, and even a couple of ersatz hippies, one of whom had decorated his Adidas holdall with a drawing of the complex front cover of Gong’s 1971 album Camembert Electrique: a pretty ballsy move, given the derision that hippies had suffered during punk, and at the hands of the scriptwriters of The Young Ones.

The way it was: punks, 1983.

The way it was: punks, 1983. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features And I seem to recall there were dozens of psychobillies, the dimly remembered 80s youth cult that opted for a cartoonish marriage of punk and rockabilly. That may be my memory suggesting they were more numerous than in reality, simply because they looked so striking, your average psychobilly having contrived to attain a look that was simultaneously utterly ridiculous and disquietingly hard and menacing. I definitely remember one of them turning up on non-uniform day wearing a giant banana costume and Doc Martens, presumably in tribute to psychobilly heroes King Kurt’s then-recent single Banana Banana. It was fairly obvious who was who and what was what. You didn’t have to be an expert in the finely nuanced semiotics of teenage dress codes to work out that the bloke with the vertiginous dyed quiff walking around dressed as a banana probably wasn’t cut from the same subcultural cloth as the bespectacled cardigan-wearer carrying a copy of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. And that was just my school. Beyond its gates, style magazines were always reporting on weirder, more arcane youth cults: at one point in the 80s, the Face ran a slightly incredulous piece on “psychedelic scalls”, scouse casuals with a love of dope-smoking and Frank Zappa. In the late 80s and early 90s, the music weeklies were always being accused of trying to invent youth cults for their own nefarious ends: grebos, romos, fraggles, teen-C.

In 2014, however, the only real teenage cults visible to an outsider, displaying their allegiances by their manner of dress, seem to be metalheads and emos. The former feels like the most deathless youth movement of all, still recruiting new young converts long after being a mod or skinhead has become almost exclusively the province of the middle-aged. The latter seems to have co-opted elements of most of the other spectacular subcultures – goth, metal, punk and indie – under one catch-all term. In the mid-noughties, it even managed to provoke a flicker of old-fashioned folk devil outrage when the Daily Mail proclaimed it the Dangerous Cult Of Teen Suicide. But that’s about it.

Something has clearly changed, and over the past week, I’ve listened to a lot of hypotheses as to why, of varying degrees of plausibility. A sociologist at the University of Sussex, Dr Kevin White, tells me he thinks it has something to do with Britain’s changing class structure. Elswehere, there’s a rather grumpy “tsk-kids-today” theory that teenagers are now so satiated by the plethora of entertainment on offer that they don’t feel the need to rebel through dress or ritual – and a deeply depressing one that people are too worried about their futures in the current financial climate to be creative. And I’ve had a long and fascinating conversation with historian David Fowler, author of the acclaimed book Youth Culture in Modern Britain, who has an intriguing, if controversial, theory that subcultures such as hippy and punk had very little to do with the actual teenagers who participated in them – “They were consumers … they were sort of puppets” – and were instead informed and controlled by a slightly older, university-educated generation. “Youth culture as a kind of transformative, counter-cultural philosophy, it has to be shaped by older people and invariably it’s by students,” he says. Today, the lack of anything equivalent to the radical student movements of the 60s that fed into both the hippy movement and punk means a lack of ideas trickling down into pop culture.

Haul girls.

Haul girls. Photograph: YouTube Meanwhile, Dr Ruth Adams of King’s College London thinks it might be linked to the speed at which “the cycle of production and consumption” now moves. “Fashion and music, they’re much cheaper and they’re much faster today,” she says. “I think it’s a lot easier to be promiscuous, subculturally speaking. When I was a teenager, you had to make more commitment to music and fashion, because it took more of a financial investment. I had a pair of gothy stiletto boots, which lasted me for years: I had to make a sort of commitment to looking like that, because I wasn’t going to get another pair of alternative shoes any time soon, so I had to think about which ones I wanted. Now, it’s all a bit more blurry, the semiotic signs are not quite as hard-edged as they used to be.”

But the most straightforward, prosaic theory is that, as with virtually every area of popular culture, it’s been radically altered by the advent of the internet: that we now live in a world where teenagers are more interested in constructing an identity online than they are in making an outward show of their allegiances and interests.

“It’s not neccesarily happening on street corners any more, but it’s certainly happening online,” says Adams. “It’s a lot easier to adopt personas online that cost you absolutely nothing apart from demonstrating certain types of arcane knowledge, what Sarah Thornton called subcultural capital. You don’t have to invest in a teddy boy’s drape suit or a T-shirt from Seditionaries.”

Once you start examining subcultures online, things become blurred and confusing, compounded by the fact that a lot of online subcultures seem to come cloaked in layers of knowing irony. In search of latterday youth subcultures, I’m pointed in various directions by various people, but I invariably can’t work out whether what I’m looking at is meant to be serious or a joke: never really a problem in the days when members of different youth cults were prepared to thump each other. There’s plenty of stuff that seems weird and striking and creative out there, but there’s something oddly self-conscious and non-committal about it: perhaps that’s the result of living in a world dominated by social media, where you’re under constant surveillance by your peers.

Azealia Banks does seapunk.

Azealia Banks does seapunk. Either way, I have literally no idea whether a video by rappers Serious Thugs – YouTube comments: “THIS IS THE FUTURE”, “chavvy meets hipster is happening!” – is a genuine attempt to reclaim the reviled “chav” image that might end up having wider impact, or whether it’s just horrible tongue-in-cheek sneering at the way working-class kids dress. Is a Tumblr star such as Molly Soda – an American 24-year-old with dyed hair and a septum piercing, whose website is a curious mix of nostalgic imagery from the early days of the internet, glittery My Little Pony kitsch, softcore porn and photos of her pulling faces and occasionally exposing herself, and who recently seems to have translated her online fame into a visual-art career (an eight-hour video of her reading the contents of her email inbox was recently sold by Phillips in New York) – at the head of a subculture? On the one hand, it’s a little hard to put your finger on what she does or stands for. On the other, she certainly has acolytes, who dress like her and imitate her Tumblr’s aesthetic (indeed, she has them in such profusion, that they’re parodied on another Tumblr called Molly Soda Try-Hards). Furthermore, her influence appears to be affecting mainstream culture: the clothing chain Urban Outfitters recently ran a blogpost telling customers how to achieve a Molly Soda-inspired “Tumblr girl look”, albeit as – oh dear – a Halloween costume rather than an ongoing lifestyle.

And then there’s seapunk, a movement that started out as a joke on Twitter, turned into a Facebook page, then gained traction to the point where it became a real-life scene, with a seapunk “look” that involved dyeing your hair turquoise, seapunk club nights and seapunk music. “Seapunk is the name of a mid-western club movement created by a group of turquoise-haired twentysomethings who like to drown warehouse breakbeats in a flood of sub-bass and watery Wu-Tang samples,” ran one piece in style magazine Dazed And Confused. “The term was originally envisioned in a psychedelic GIF dream by Lil’ Internet, but producer Fire For Effect has been responsible for turning it into a fully fledged lifestyle.” Before you dismiss that as sounding like something made up by Charlie Brooker for a forthcoming series of Nathan Barley, it’s perhaps worth noting that seapunk genuinely appeared to make an impact on mainstream pop: the seapunk look was variously appropriated by rapper Azealia Banks, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Taylor Swift. In any case, I’m too late. One of seapunk’s supposed core members, Zombelle, apparently declared the movement dead when pop stars started cottoning on to it, which perhaps tells you something about subcultures in 2014. They catch people’s imagination, get appropriated by mainstream culture then die away: it was ever thus, but now it happens at warp-speed. Punk’s journey from the first sightings of the Ramones and Richard Hell in New York to the front pages of the British tabloids took a couple of years, over which time it changed and developed and mutated. Seapunk’s journey from internet gag to Rihanna using its imagery on Saturday Night Live took a matter of months.

They're hippies, but do they know why? Woodstock, 1969.

They’re hippies, but do they know why? Woodstock, 1969. Photograph: Bill Eppridge It’s hard not to be struck by the sensation that, emos and metalheads aside, what you might call the 20th-century idea of a youth subculture is now just outmoded. The internet doesn’t spawn mass movements, bonded together by a shared taste in music, fashion and ownership of subcultural capital: it spawns brief, microcosmic ones. In fact, the closest thing to the old model of a subculture I’ve come across is Helena and the haul girls. Their videos are about conspicuous consumption: a public display of their good taste, carefully assembled with precise attention to detail. When you put it like that – and at the risk of incurring a fatwah from middle-aged Paul Weller fans – they sound remarkably like mods.

Religion Is Good For Your Brain


“Sheila M. Elred writes in Discovery Magazine that a recent study has found that people at risk of depression were much less vulnerable if they identified as religious. Brain MRIs revealed that religious participants had thicker brain cortices than those who weren’t as religious. ‘One of the worst killers of brain cells is stress,’ says Dr. Majid Fotuhi. ‘Stress causes high levels of cortisol, and cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus. One way to reduce stress is through prayer. When you’re praying and in the zone you feel a peace of mind and tranquility.’ The reports concluded that a thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression. The social element of attending religious services has also been linked to healthy brains. ‘There’s something magical about socializing,’ says Fotuhi. ‘It releases endorphins in the brain. It’s hard to know whether it’s through religion or a gathering of friends, but it improves brain health in the long term.’”

“Listening to sermons and reading religious works like the Bible may also invoke a cognitive benefit. “You’re exercising your higher cortical function, thinking about complex concepts that require some imagination,” says Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University and a professor of psychiatry. According to Koenig the benefits of devout religious practice, particularly involvement in a faith community and religious commitment, are that people cope better. “In general, they cope with stress better, they experience greater well-being because they have more hope, they’re more optimistic, they experience less depression, less anxiety, and they commit suicide less often. They don’t drink alcohol as much, they don’t use drugs as much, they don’t smoke cigarettes as much, and they have healthier lifestyles. They have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, probably better cardiovascular functioning, and probably a healthier hormonal environment physiologically—particularly with respect to cortisol and adrenaline And they live longer.” So where does that leave non-believers? “Out of luck, I guess,” Koenig jokes. “Actually, I would suspect that people doing the types of things like religious people do — socializing, doing similarly complex cognitive tasks, would have similar benefits. But it is interesting that religion provides that whole package of things that people can adopt and pursue over time.” Dr Dan Blazer says the study is very interesting but is still exploratory and that spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status. “It’s hard to study these things,” concludes Fotuhi . “It’s why research has stayed away from them. But there does seem to be a strong link between spirituality and better brain health.””

Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety

by JD Taylor on March 14, 2014

Post image for Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety

In today’s turbo-charged and austerity-ravaged economy, anxiety and insecurity have become the new normal. How did this happen — and how do we fight back?

About six months ago, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, died after working for 72 hours straight without sleep. Journalists found a strange bravado among City workers, reflected in their tributes to a value-system of drive, resilience and regularly ‘pulling an all-nighter’ beyond all normal measures of exhaustion. That’s nothing. As one said, “On average, I get four hours’ sleep about 70% of the time … [but] there are also days with eight hours of sleep. … Work-life balance is bad. We all know this going in. I guess that’s the deal with most entry-level jobs these days.” Coupled to ambitions to succeed in careers scarcely worth the reward is a fatalism about expecting any change. That’s how it is.

This unflinching dedication to the job — indeed the job with the utmost virtue of wealth production — indicates a set of moral and social values increasingly used to describe both individual and national economies. On the one hand, productivity, growth, entrepreneurialism and drive are ‘virtues’ both of the effective individual and the expanding economy. By contrast, depression, crisis, zero-hour insecurity and burnout are used to describe both ‘failing’ economies and individuals who must work harder to perform. Whilst failing states are humiliatingly ‘bailed out’, usually under punitive conditions, individuals experience similar ‘interventions’ by more successful peers (and celebrities) on reality TV formats to increase their productive value through getting a job, looking sexier, or something similar. In each case, some internal failure (bloated public sector, childhood setback) is considered the cause of the ‘problem’ and remedied through external improvement of the individual.

Toxic Stress

A similar disengagement with reality occurred in the UK with the series of suicides and unofficial explosion in homelessness following the coalition government’s scorched-earth retreat on social spending and welfare. One man died by self-immolation in Bolton after harassment from debt-collectors became too much to bear. Yet in each case, the media narrative of individual self-isolation and appeals to ‘speak up’ in times of hardship ignores the common societal causes of these issues. It also reinforces an effective narrative that welfare, sick leave or social support should not be given to the ‘feckless’ and ‘undeserving’, but creates a culture of dependency (of which the reactionary ire over Channel 4′s Benefits Street is just the most recent example). This perverse rebranding of the relief of poverty is succeeding, with recorded social attitudes in the UK considerably hardening towards welfare recipients since 1997.

Reported rates of workplace stress, depression, and anxiety also correlate to worsening personal debt and public health problems like obesity and alcohol dependency. Though research remains undeveloped in this area (after all, what multinational or western government would fund such politically explosive material?), evidence from the World Health Organization (WHO), the US National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation together indicate clear links between poverty and clusters of mental and physical health problems. This is not to suggest that mental health or suicides have only an economic cause (a recent series of suicides by high-profile ‘burnt-out’ French workers would challenge this), but the poorest have fewer forms of social and economic support in difficult times, and less opportunities to change their circumstances, than those with university educations, more extensive social circles or affluent relatives. Obesity, diabetes, ‘toxic stress’, and many forms of cancer have such a clear link to poverty that these ought not to be considered as diseases of affluence, but conditions of poverty in the same way that rickets, tuberculosis and infant malnutrition were to the deprived and exploited labouring classes of the 19th century.

Mental health and homelessness charities are being overwhelmed by appeals from millions abandoned for the sake of economic recovery. Study the news for long enough and stories of self-immolation, suicide and death by overworking are by no means unique to the UK (in Japan they term the latter karoshi, whereas in the case of Moritz Erhardt, our coroners call it an entirely unrelated epileptic seizure). But what is innovative is the effective management of the reality presented to entirely remove any collective, public or social basis for these growing problems. Instead responsibility is attributed to the individual, who has either been unfortunate or ineffective at adapting to the world around them.

Generation F#cked

What I highlight are extreme situations, and my interest is more in the millions who continue to live in more disempowered and restricted circumstances. Behind such cases is a new normal of zero-hour contracts, working without payment (either internships at the top or ‘workfare’ at the bottom) and in states of stress and anxiety, as an increasing dependence on management thrives on sucking the remaining residues of performance from precarious workers. Living costs have sharply risen in rents and goods, while supermarkets, energy firms, landlords and financial traders have greedily increased their profits. For institutions of popular power, scandals like the undemocratic catastrophe of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the exposure of GCHQ and NSA’s total surveillance of internet and telecommunications, mass fraud by MPs of expenses, the rises in university tuition fees and the removal of EMA, regular press phone-hacking, the exposure of Murdoch’s power over successive governments’ policy, routine police racism, unlawful spying of protest groups, or the unprosecuted murders of members of the public, and — as we have already forgotten — the failure to meaningfully punish anyone in the City for the bank collapses of 2008 should have, each, led to a crisis of political legitimacy in the UK. These fine props of the illusion of freedom and prosperity are weakened, yet remain for now stuck in place. The expense of such illusions is a grinding and unnecessary burden, felt by many occasionally and some increasingly often, a burden that for now is explained as the individual’s to carry.

There is a generational feature to this. Those who have grown up in a society transformed by the anti-social, economic Darwinism mantras of Margaret Thatcher have experienced an intensification of productivity in the most intimate aspects of personal life. Increasing and intensified school examinations at earlier ages, combined with regular media terror-tales of abducted children and random youth violence, alongside an aggressive marketing of leisure technologies towards children has created a more anxious, distracted, allergic, paranoid and restless generation than those prior. This comes with some mental toll, and another remarkable societal transformation is the frequency and normalisation of mental health disorders, particularly among young people.

For many, like myself, like those closest to me, anxiety and depression are not technical terms but personal experiences. It was only a year or so ago that I realised just how depressed I had been across my adult years. Continual tiredness, regular little ailments related to stress, an occasionally total mental paralysis, the silent conviction of being a fraud, and the anxieties each of these engender: I knew what my symptoms meant even then. Through a very fortunate change of circumstances, getting funding to do a PhD, I finally obtained financial stability and the chance to work towards an actual personal interest, and on my own terms. I’ve been lucky, though academia is less a lifeboat and more a ship of fools, steered by bloated Vice-Chancellors. Mental health problems and anxiety disorders are growing in academia, particularly among PhD students and postdoctoral researchers. But the problems of continual productivity, heavy teaching workloads, workplace bullying, casual sexism, poor or non-existent pay, no work-life balance, and of competing (never cooperating) as a high-impact entrepreneur of oneself, are each features of modern labour in capitalist workplaces. Stress is the cost of success. Insecurity is the new normal, as is the passive acceptance of such insecurity as some unfortunate but necessary stage to success.

In my case, a series of jobs that I had largely loved in the charity/voluntary sector had already familiarised me with these things. Free of the stress of seeking or holding down employment, or of trying to justify myself in competitive and insecure workplaces. Free in time I could actually spend on things of my own free choosing. I discovered that stress had acted like a perverted mental program since my early teens to work long and hard, independently, for an image of material and existential ‘success’ that no-one, in hindsight, can possibly experience. This program, one that prizes and rewards aggressively macho behaviours like competition, cunning and strength of will over cooperation, compassion and indifference, considers life as a game of winners and losers. The existential effect of such a worldview combines restless labouring for the next project, followed by the next, alongside a crushing and inexplicable self-loathing that inverts the neoliberal narcissism of reality gameshows like Big Brother, X Factor and The Apprentice into a nasty minor key.

Within this common self-loathing is the repressed sense that this is not right, that life should not be lived in this way. But, unable to join the dots and connect a sense of personal alienation to material circumstances, I followed the common social direction and put the blame on my own individual defects. Not any more. I suspect my own case is not unique. How is it that so many females my age I know well enough are suffering from mental health problems and accessing public or private treatments? From my work as a men’s suicide prevention campaign coordinator, I also know from conversations and research that depression and anxiety are probably experienced in equal measure by men, but who are far less likely to consider getting outside support beyond the off-licence. Is it really such a coincidence?

Anxiety Machines

These might all be conditions of modern life: rates of allergies like hayfever and eczema in the UK population have risen to 44% in 2010, whilst rates of depression have similarly soared. Rising recorded levels of these ailments may signal a greater awareness and ability to self-diagnose these conditions, one could argue; but this alone doesn’t sufficiently explain why anxiety disorders began rising first of all. Anxiety and fear are psychological marks of domination in all social structures, but a specific anxiety and fear emerges in financial capitalism through the accelerating demands and pressures of working and living in the neoliberal era. Greater insecurity in the workplace or school leads to an intensification of individual failure that is also manifested in the growing trend of bullying, which further reinforces the cycle of stress, depression and suicide. I think this insecurity is also expressed through the very media used to communicate and function in everyday life. By this I mean the intensification of information technologies into domestic and personal life, what Paul Virilio calls a ‘tele-present’ world. From home computing for leisure, to the internet, hand-held communication devices, and social networking sites, in the last two decades there has been an unprecedented intensification of technologies that continuously connect users to hyperactive news streams and a disembodied form of social interaction, whose psychosocial norms deserves deeper analysis.

Consider the panic of losing a mobile phone, of having no access at all to the internet, to one’s games, movies, photos, or common nodes of social interaction that we call our friends or followers. A power-cut, a burglary… would it be wrong to call them addictions? Yet we have neither selected this basis of social organisation, nor should we guiltily consider ourselves lucky first-worlders gorging gluttonously on the backs of the deprived billions. Whilst digitised technologies have abstracted and placed many cultural forms on a single homogeneous platform, personal technologies have the worker connected and potentially labouring at all hours in ways that operate, at minute level, the exchanges and processes that neoliberal capitalism requires to function. Against such a backdrop, our politicians, the public face of neoliberal capitalism, cajole us through fear and envy to keep up our duty as citizens: spend, borrow, buy, 24/7, 365 days a year, be it Christmas, Valentine’s or whatever, one must never shirk in one’s duty to service the economy.

The medical establishment has also transformed its understanding of rising anxiety. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association has, since the publication of DSM III in 1980, been considered the authoritative index of mental disorders, codified within a system of diagnostic management. The new fifth edition of 2013 describes ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ as ‘excessive anxiety and worry’, which the individual experiences and finds difficult to control for more days than not for at least six months. It is an uncontrollable worry that largely dominates the sufferer’s time, and usually defined by three or more symptoms, including ‘restlessness’, ‘being easily fatigued’, ‘difficulty concentrating or mind going blank’, ‘irritability’, ‘muscle tension’, and ‘sleep disturbance’. General anxiety concerns an excessive and painful ‘apprehensive expectation’ for an uncertain future event, rather than of the present, as in fear. The disorder isn’t simply a reflection of an individual struggling against unusual duress, but extends to an anxiety about even the most mundane of things, like completing household chores, being late for appointments, or of one’s inadequate performance as a worker or friend.

Depressed Britain

I wonder if the DSM-VI will propose it on a collective scale? These symptoms describe those of the precarious worker, exhausted, fed up, yet compelled to stay awake just to finish a little more work from home, screens stained by old microwave meals, spilt coffee and reminder notes about looming dates, gym reminders and so on. Depression and exhaustion are endemic and act as marks of an affective and immaterial economy where employment is now to be found in the services — retail, leisure, call-centres, cleaning, childcare, sex work — where an inflated mood, one indeed of motivation, is required, as the recent attention to ‘affect’ in critical theory is making clear. Individuality becomes another part of the service worker’s uniform. Recent reports detail increasing depression and anxiety: a 2003 survey by the American Medical Association (AMA) found that 10% of 15-54 year olds surveyed in the US had had an episode of ‘major depression’ in the last 12 months, with 17% of these over the course of their lifetimes; a figure echoing the 15.1% found in the UK to be suffering from ‘common mental disorders’ (stress, anxiety and depression) by the NHS’s most recent 2007 adult survey.

Further, women were twice as likely to suffer from depression in both the AMA and NHS Surveys — the 15.1% average comes from 12.5% in men, 19.7% in women (the real unrecorded numbers are probably higher, and this is still the most recent survey, based on symptoms in the last seven days). The NHS Survey also found that self-harm and suicidal behaviours in women had increased since 2000, with ‘being female’ at one point listed by the survey as a source of depression, without irony or sociological comment. Finally, one-fifth of all working days in Britain are estimated as lost due to anxiety and depression forcing workers to take time off, a very shaky estimate given the stigma and perceived weakness of openly telling managers of mental health problems; but given the current prospect of increasing working hours in Britain as labour regulations are further ‘liberalised’, this anxiety will only continue.

Given the general, non-personal causes of these common mental disorders, evidence beyond the obvious observations of one’s surroundings suggests that living standards are declining, affecting men and women differently, with a high suicide rate amongst men on the one hand — suicide is the single biggest cause of death in men aged 15-34 in England and Wales — and a higher incidence of depression among women on the other. Recent employment statistics demonstrate that women have been adversely affected by the large redundancies within the public services in the UK following the neoliberal austerity cuts, with a 2011 TUC report finding female unemployment had risen 0.5 points to its highest level since 1988. Single-parent families are largely led by females, who are struggling with reduced welfare support, inflation and reduced employment opportunities, while continually demonised by the right-wing media and Conservative governments as ‘feckless’ and irresponsible. Austerity becomes the state of exception of British neoliberalism, with the need for deficit cuts being used both by Thatcher and succeeding governments to further reduce welfare and support services whilst justifying wage freezes and unemployment, which adversely affect women.

Age of Anxiety?

Yet rather than restrict the medicalisation of social issues or universal experiences of human life, the DMS-5 instead created a number of new disorders like ‘disruptive mood disregulation disorder’, for temper tantrums and other wilful behaviour, and extending ‘major depressive disorder’ to include bereavement, against the advice and review of much of the medical establishment, including the producers of previous DSM manuals who have already much to answer for. (But, the influence of DSM should not be too over-stated: beyond the USA, many countries like the UK instead use the WHO International Classification of Diseases). No doubt major pharmaceutical companies will not fail in honourably and dispassionately servicing such individual maladies, and others such discovered in 2013.

In the UK antidepressant usage is rising year on year, more than any other item prescribed. Prescriptions tend to be highest in areas of greater social deprivation (particularly northern towns like Blackpool, Barnsley and Redcar), but with over 50 million such prescriptions dispensed in England alone in 2012, increasing on the previous year by 7.5%, their usage has become democratically universal. The OECD have found that mental health problems now cost the UK economy £70 billion a year, or 4.5% of GDP, primarily through productivity losses and disability payments. Concerned only for economic growth, even the world’s “smartest men” — the neoliberal economists — are starting to doubt the credibility of the UK’s recovery, with more workers reporting mental health disability (just under 40% of all new disability claims) than any other developed country. By 2020, the WHO predicts that depressive disorders will be the leading cause of disability and disease burden across the globe. Researchers have found that a poor material standard of living accounted for nearly 25% of cases of common mental disorder in 1998, a figure which, given increasing poverty, debt and social inequality, will have surely risen.

So is ours an age of anxiety? Previous generations have also claimed this thorny crown, particularly those ravaged by social and economic inequalities like the 1930s. Yet it is in these last few years more than most that anxiety, precarity, crisis and burnout have become regular keywords, and where continuous productivity, connectivity and alertness are demanded at all hours. To anyone who values the lives of other human beings over the growth of stocks, shares and tax-free profits, this situation should be appalling. It will also worsen. To continue insisting that the mass breakdown of workers into malfunctioning anxiety machines is down to some failure of the individual is either callous or blind. As a collective that prizes its own freedom and happiness, then, what is to be done? That old question we always ask and to which, like chronic depressives, we can never commit resolutely to any sure answer. Perhaps, like guerrilla fighters, we might re-purpose these underlying controls identified into weapons of change? Not through some juvenile dream of accelerating the contradictions of capitalism, nor through the perverse belief that university-press-published critical jargon will undo the grip of neoliberal ideology on the lives and hopes of the majority. No, no.

I wonder instead if we might take a cue from the cod-psychology of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), popular in management and popular life. Though rightly discredited by many experts, NLP considers that the human experience is entirely based on the individual’s cognitive ‘map’ of the world. This mind can be re-programmed to visualise and experience more positive ‘frames’ of mind. It has been adapted for mass audiences, with great success, by TV hypnotist and celebrity advisor Paul McKenna. It shares a number of underlying premises with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now one of the most common non-pharmaceutical mental health treatments in Britain, like the onus on the individual to internally manage and remedy negative associations and behaviours. In NLP, common to treatments of individual problems is the requirement to visualise and step into a positive future persona. By adopting and embodying more proactive states, usually by mimicking ‘successful’ figures or a more positive projected self-image, the individual gains confidence and power over themselves and their surroundings. Now what if we were to discard NLP’s neoliberal emphasis on the individual imagining a more positive future self, in favour of a collective imagining of a more positive future society? What would the coherent visualisation and supposition of such a society look like, feel like? A society where equality, liberty and justice were fully supported by institutions of democratic political organization that meaningfully gave citizens power and effectively safeguarded against corruption or military/police abuses? What would the features of these institutions be?

Collective Desire

Our brains and backs are tense and tired, our minds shattered and nerves shot by increasing demands by managers to do the impossible: increase our productivity, when what is produced is less necessary and of worse quality than before. The demand everywhere is the same: do it more, do it quicker, do it better! Never must we act, think, feel or simply be for what is good itself. Part of the problem is that the good itself is never presented or introduced, its possibility unthinkable. By the good I mean a sense of future, not just for oneself, working against difficult circumstances to survive or succeed, but a quality of life that all can democratically produce and enjoy together. Where the needs of society determine economic activity, and where an ethics of public service determine political conduct. Where the qualities of a flourishing society, like unions, welfare, asylum, populism, social service, council, and public are no longer pejorative terms. Instead, people with good intentions on the Left have become confused, like two lost travellers fighting over the interpretation of a map, either pointing blame at other activists, cynically taking the dollar of private finance for more short-term gain, or simply giving in. The exhaustion and depression that some activists are feeling also mirrors this wider dislocation of hope, the good, and a future, from our myriad cognitive maps.

As the basis of our future political activity, we should begin by thinking what is possible and what is desired. Transforming the way we work, live together, understand ourselves, and communicate with each other will require brave new ideas that adapt the benefits of these technologies to the prior wellbeing and welfare of each of us collectively. It won’t be easy. But given the fact that anxiety disorders, suicides and wider mental health problems are rising and becoming normalised to a fairly terrifying extent, I think it’s fair to give these a political explanation. Rising anxiety disorders are connected to the growing pressure on workers to increase their productivity. It is encouraged by the growth of working from home, and smartphone technology, which irrevocably blur the work/life distinction. It is encouraged by the growing power (and pay) conferred to managers, to the rapid decline of workers rights, and of trade unions to legally resist these. It is an effect of the collapsing infrastructure of our communities and the loss of support services that once could help. Therefore, what could be done is to reverse each of these in turn: challenge and, how I dream it to be possible, overthrow governments that act only in the interests of large businesses. To fight for things like a fixed working day, a living wage, and to fight for massive increases in the resources given to support mental health problems. To discuss these things more openly, too — exhaustion is increasingly the norm. And then to politicise these experiences, and begin to dream together and work together to produce the kind of society where mass depression and collective anxiety are banished.

Today we are spent and we are broke, fit only for a few decades of underpaid labour before being cast aside by the markets as unproductive fodder. Things will worsen unless we politicise anxiety and depression, and start the fight to prioritise the welfare of our societies. Many of us feel paralysed, buckling under the pressure to keep it all together but knowing that the way we work — and live — is damaging us and our relationships. Globalisation of neoliberal political and economic practices is now creating an equality of insecurity and misery for all people, particularly the young, who have little chance of getting even a pension or affordable care in their final years. In such a moment of over-extended transition, where the credibility and legitimacy of the 0.01% has never looked weaker, what future is ours? It will be the future that we dream of, that we refuse to abandon, and that we cannot possibly entrust to the deceptive economic motives of our undemocratic elites. Societies must express collective desire or they will not be at all.

JD Taylor is a researcher and writer from London, and author of Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (Zero, 2013). Follow JD on Twitter: @jd_taylor.

How Facebook and Twitter can change the way you think and make you unhappy

7 telltale signs social media is killing your self-esteem

7 telltale signs social media is killing your self-esteem
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetIn this technological age, social media has become a primary gateway to connect with friends and the world around us as part of our daily ritual. Yet what often begins as a harmless virtual habit for some can fast-track into a damaging, narcissism-fueled addiction which impacts negatively upon our self-worth and the way we perceive others.

Studies show that up to two-thirds of people find it hard to relax or sleep after spending time on social networks. Of 298 users, 50 percent said social media made their lives and their self-esteem worse. So just what exactly is it about social media that allows it to affect our self-worth?

According to psychotherapist Sherrie Campbell, social media can give us a false sense of belonging and connecting that is not built on real-life exchanges. This makes it increasingly easy to lose oneself to cyberspace connections and give them more weight than they deserve.

“When we look to social media, we end up comparing ourselves to what we see which can lower our self-esteem. On social media, everyone’s life looks perfect but you’re only seeing a snapshot of reality. We can be whoever we want to be in social media and if we take what we see literally then it’s possible that we can feel we are falling short in life,” Campbell told AlterNet.

How do you tell if your social network habit is healthy or harmful? If you find yourself feeling stressed, anxious or having negative thoughts after using social media, it may be time for a break. Here are seven telltale signs social media could be negatively impacting your self-esteem…and what you can do about it.

1. Social media disrupts your real-world thoughts and interactions.

If you feel worried or uncomfortable when you’re unable to access social media or your emails, it is likely your social media dependency is compromising your self-esteem. Additionally, if you’re thinking about social media first thing in the morning and just before you go to bed, or you find yourself simultaneously juggling face-to-face encounters with your social media habit like facebooking or tweeting, there’s a good chance social media is disrupting your life in a negative way and may in fact be impinging on your real-life relationships. Time to hit the breaks and take back control of your life.

2. Social media affects your mood.

If this voyeuristic habit is affecting your thoughts and feelings about yourself, it is likely harmful to your self-esteem. A new study released last week found a prominent link between eating disorders and social media. Women who spent longer periods of time on Facebook had a higher incidence of “appearance-focused behavior” (such as anorexia) and were more anxious and body conscience overall. What’s more, 20 minutes on social media was enough to contribute to a user’s weight and shape concerns. It follows that the emptier one’s personal life, the more one will be attracted to the virtual world, with bored or lonely people spending more time on social media than those who are busy or active.

3. Real-life interactions are difficult and being alone is uncomfortable.

If you’re struggling with face-to-face connections or find it difficult to communicate, social media may be to blame. Studies have shown social media is a pathway to shallow relationships and emotionally detached communication. An  Australian study found that Facebook users experienced significantly high levels of “family loneliness.” Campbell explains, “Social media is a very lazy way to be in relationship with somebody and impacts on the inability to be alone. We have a generation of kids growing up not knowing how to just sit in their own space because there is constant social noise. Kids are losing the idea of what it means to wait for information—they get it right now. They don’t know that idea of alone time or patience. Technology allows us to have connections when we want it without having to wait, but we’re never going to be able to snuggle up with the computer at night. Human touch remains a fundamental physiological need,” she said.

4. You find yourself envious about what others are promoting.

When we are depressed or down or just feel bad in general, it is easy to become jealous or envious of what other people are advertising about their life, particularly images of alleged happiness or success. This may make us feel inadequate simply because we don’t have what they have or because our self-worth is low. It is important to remember that what you are viewing is only a small sliver of someone’s life, which for the most part, is heavily embellished and mostly rooted in fantasy. When such images are starting to poison the way you look at your own life it may be time to step away from the screen.

5. You relish in others’ misfortune.

If you find yourself happy when other people are unhappy on social media, it may be time to ask yourself whether social media is a healthy psychological choice for you. You may merely be validating your own misery and unhappiness by comparing yourself to others. But even those advertising their tragedies on social media are doing so because they crave attention, whether positive or negative, in a bid to boost their low self-esteem. Christopher Carpenter, author of a study titled “Narcissism on Facebook,” explains: “If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.” If this is you, it’s time to invest in a social media diet.

6. You measure your success by others.

Reality check: the number of contacts or likes a person may receive on social media doesn’t equate with life success. Sure, social media allows us to assume everyone else is feeling and living a better life than we are but what are we really seeing here? It isn’t a person’s whole life, not even a reflection of reality, but merely a glimpse of the life they choose to present through rose-colored lenses. Campbell explains: “When someone has a lot going on and everything they post seems perfect, we think they are lucky but social media is merely a way to project your story onto somebody else—whether you’re projecting from high self-esteem or low esteem, you’re making up a story.” Campbell says it’s more productive to make real-world changes that will help you feel more successful and secure in your life than to spend time building your social media online persona.

7. You’re addicted to the attention and drama.

It’s easy to get sucked into the drama and juicy gossip encapsulated by social media especially when your own real life is lacking any sort of excitement or fulfillment. But this can be a dangerous game to play and often people get hurt. Studies have shown that Facebook contributes to jealousy in relationships and excessive use can in fact damage relationships by virtue of the fact that information a person would not normally share becomes public knowledge. This leads some to desperate measures like becoming amateur private investigators as they embark on a digging expedition to locate incriminating material. Case in point: your fiancé has just been tagged in a picture with a mysterious, half-naked woman. Uh oh! Expend your energy on more worthwhile real-life pursuits which are likely to benefit, rather than impair, your self-esteem.

Need a Solution? 

For those who think their self-esteem is being influenced negatively by social media, Campbell says the most important thing to do is reconnect with your presence and your personal brand—that means unhooking from computer land.

“I encourage people to turn off social media and eliminate it from your life. Get back into your real life. If you can’t do that, then start monitoring your usage, particularly just before bed or remove or block specific people that make you feel negative about yourself. Self-awareness is such an important step. If you realize why you’re turning to technology in times when connection or learning new information isn’t critical, you’ve made the first step to reconnecting with yourself. Spring-clean and get back to the real world,” she says.

Here are some tips to boost your self-esteem outside the realm of social media:

  • Try something new like volunteering.
  • Change your diet or get active; join a gym.
  • Groom yourself.
  • Sit up straight and practice good posture.
  • Read a book.
  • Get involved in a local meetup group you’re interested in.
  • Focus on person-to-person contact.
  • Commit yourself mentally to positive change.

12 Things That Impact Your Sexual Satisfaction


Scientists have devoted numerous studies to gauge the factors that play a role in how gratified we are in the bedroom.

Most people consider a satisfying sex life to be one of life’s key pleasures and often an indicator of a good relationship. Yet defining sexual satisfaction is no easy task. To better understand this elusive concept, scientists have devoted numerous studies to gauge the factors that play a role in how gratified we are in the bedroom.

The scientific study of such a multifaceted and clearly subjective psychological concept is not easy. Nonetheless, here are 12 factors that scientists have determined impact reported levels of sexual satisfaction.

1. Pornography. It may be time to click the exit button on those X-rated sites, as pornography can curtail sexual satisfaction. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the amount of porn one watches and one’s level of overall sexual satisfaction. People who watch a lot of porn are less likely to be pleased with their partner’s physical appearance and sexual performance and more likely to compare their partners with porn models. Relationships can suffer, as porn can lead to a drop-off in the primary sexual relationship. This can often leave one partner feeling inadequate or unable to compete with what’s onscreen.

2. Communication and intimacy. While it’s common to feel shy or intimidated when expressing sexual wants and needs, studies have shown that sexually assertive people experience much greater levels of sexual satisfaction than those who hold back. Unsurprisingly, intimate, loving relationships coupled with good communication equate with high sexual satisfaction. The ability to express preferences in the bedroom, negotiate exchanges and ask about sexual history play a major role in how a woman feels about sex, according to the Essential Handbook of Women’s Sexuality.

3. Single versus relationship. Casual sexual encounters tend not to be as satisfying as sex within a relationship, with some studies suggesting the more sexual partners a person has, the less sexually satisfied they feel. One explanation for this is that casual sex partners are less focused on pleasing one another and voicing their sexual needs, with women more likely to orgasm from sex within a relationship than during a hookup. While many women feel fine about engaging in casual sex, according to one study, many felt disrespected or cheated by the behavior of their partner the morning after, which impacted upon satisfaction levels, even when there was no desire for the one-night stand to lead to a relationship.

4. Rewards-to-costs ratio. Under the rewards-to-cost theory, when the level of “rewards” in a relationship exceeds the level of “costs” or there is equality between both rewards and costs, sexual satisfaction is high. Rewards refer to the positive aspects of a relationship that bring joy and satisfaction, versus costs which are things that ae likely to cause pain, anxiety or require effort. Therefore, if your sex life brings you more fun than pain, the fun level exceeds expectations, or the pain level is lower than expected, you are likely to be sexually satisfied, according to Psychology Today. As a general rule of thumb, women are more likely to consider the psychological aspects as rewards, such as security and love, and the physical and behavioral aspects as costs, such as having sex when not in the mood.

5. Age. The issue of age and sexual satisfaction has been fraught with conflicted data. On one hand, research shows sexual satisfaction and libido decline with age, as do thoughts and frequency of sex. This is a result of both biological and health factors that arise later on in life as well as a natural decline in desire over longer periods of co-habitation with the same partner. On the other hand, there are equally as many studies showing that older people are satisfied, if not more so, than their younger counterparts with liberal men having sex into their 80s. A Durex study revealed that those over 65 are still having sex more than once a week. After all, age brings confidence and experience.

6. Self-esteem.Feeling sexy in your skin is the ultimate key to sexual satisfaction. Negative thoughts about your appearance can often detract from your sexual experience, with younger women said to have more positive attitudes about their bodies than older women.  Those with positive self-esteem and body image report high levels of sexual satisfaction, irrespective of objective weight or shape. The impact of weight gain on self-esteem remains apparent for women. Studies show overweight women are more likely than men to avoid sexual encounters, say they don’t feel sexually attractive and are reluctant to be seen undressed. Sexual self-esteem is at its highest among those in happy, long-term relationships which equate with greater satisfaction. For those struggling with low self-esteem, experts suggest exercise is a helpful way to feel better about yourself as well as increase stamina and improve the ability to orgasm.

7. Exciting sex life and frequency. It may be time to break free of the missionary position and bring out the whips and chains for those who feel their sex life is borderline average. Fifty-three percent of people who introduced experimentation into their sex life through role-play, massage, sexual fantasies or bondage saw an increase in sexual satisfaction according to Durex Global Research. Having sex frequently along with sufficient foreplay is also an essential driver of satisfaction.

8. Health.It comes as no surprise that healthy people are more sexually satisfied than those who suffer from physical ailments such as heart diseases or diabetes, or psychological problems like depression and anxiety, according to a 2013 literature review of 197 scientific studies on sexual satisfaction. Certainly, those who have healthy functioning sexual organs also experience greater sexual satisfaction than those suffering from sexual dysfunction. For men, erectile sexual dysfunction is the most common problem hindering satisfaction. For women, vaginal dryness, which 34 percent of women have suffered across all ages, tends to impact upon pleasure.

9. Stress.Freedom from stress is one of the greatest drivers of sexual satisfaction, as is achieving an orgasm. Stress impacts directly on the quality and ability to orgasm and can lead to a whole bunch of mental and sexual disorders. Those who suffer from financial and family worries have reported lower levels of satisfaction and desire than those who are stress-free. Stresses related to biological factors like hormonal changes, pregnancy and childbirth also affect levels of gratification. Women who have high amounts of anxiety and anger also reported low sexual satisfaction.

10. Socio-economic status. According to a Spanish national sex health survey, socioeconomic factors like income, higher levels of education and occupation influence how satisfied people are likely to feel in their love lives. Those with higher socio-economic status had greater awareness of their own needs and therefore a greater capacity to develop their sexuality, Daily Mail reported. Lower socio-economic status affected sexual health negatively overall. Those who were economically disadvantaged were less likely to practice safe sex (with higher pregnancy levels) and experienced less pleasurable and safe sexual experiences due to the lack of resources and access to help and social support.

11. Sexual abuse. It’s no shock that those with a history of sexual trauma commonly experience problems related to sexual satisfaction. Sexual abuse has been associated with low self-esteem, lower levels of social support, decreased levels of passion and a reduction in satisfaction in sex-related behavior. A recent American study showed that men and women with a reported history of childhood sexual abuse were likely to report dissatisfaction in their sexual relationships and disrupted marriages. With proper healing and time, those who have been sexually assaulted are capable of experiencing sexual gratification.

12. Sexual guilt.Sexual guilt, which often emanates from a puritanical society that does not celebrate sexual liberation, can also impact sexual pleasure. Studies have shown that those who experience sexual guilt or negative attitudes, such as a person who views premarital sex as immoral, will experience lower sexual satisfaction than those who are socially liberal and have relaxed attitudes about sex.

The Neuroscience of Computer Programming


“Chris Parnin has an interesting read about an international team of scientists lead by Dr. Janet Siegmund using brain imaging with fMRI to understand the programmer’s mind and to compare and contrast different cognitive tasks used in programming by analyzing differences in brain locations that are activated by different tasks. One recent debate illuminated by their studies is recent legislation that considers offering foreign-language credits for students learning programming languages. There have been many strong reactions across the software-developer community. Some developers consider the effort laudable but misguided and proclaim programming is not at all like human language and is much closer to mathematics. Siegmund observed 17 participants inside an fMRI scanner while they were comprehending short source-code snippets and found a clear, distinct activation pattern of five brain regions, which are related to language processing, working memory, and attention. The programmers in the study recruited parts of the brain typically associated with language processing and verbal oriented processing (ventral lateral prefrontal cortex). At least for the simple code snippets presented, programmers could use existing language regions of the brain to understand code without requiring more complex mental models to be constructed and manipulated.” (Read on for more.)

“Interestingly, even though there was code that involve mathematical operations, conditionals, and loop iteration, for these particular tasks, programming had less in common with mathematics and more in common with language (PDF),” writes Parnin. “Mathematical calculations typically take place in the intraparietal sulcus, mathematical reasoning in the right frontal pole, and logical reasoning in the left frontal pole. These areas were not strongly activated in comprehending source code.” The new research results are a much needed, but only a first step in revealing the neuroscience of programming. Other questions remain including: Can we finally provide a neurological basis for a programmer’s flow? How relevant is the mastery of language skills for programming? Are there certain programming activities that should never be mixed, due to higher chance of cognitive failure (and resulting bugs)? Do code visualizations or live programming environments really reduce mental load? “Programming involves a rich set of cognitive processes,” concludes Parnin. “Although the study found a particular pathway that was strongly associated with language processing, there may be other pathways associated with other common activities related to programming (debugging, editing, refactoring, etc).””


Why I Disrupted the Wisdom 2.0 Conference


February 19, 2014

The organizer behind the demonstration speaks out

Amanda Ream

The invisibility of the crisis in San Francisco right now is reminiscent of that of the AIDS epidemic. To quote from Vito Russo, a founder of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, film historian, and rabble rouser, it’s “like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches.” He lived in this city when it was a haven for political radicals, queer people, artists, and immigrants, when it was America’s great city of sanctuary.

“You look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices,” he said. “It isn’t happening to them.”

People are not dying, but they’re disappearing every day, from all over the city. The tech industry’s great economic boom is driving a housing crisis, with no-fault evictions increasing 175% since last year. The city doesn’t keep track of how many people live in these apartments, but the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates up to 3580 residents were no-fault evicted in 2013.

I came to San Francisco like generations of people before me because I wanted to find the freedom to live out my ideals. And to practice the dharma—no other city has so many teachers and centers. It’s a great place to find the teachings of the Buddha. The tech industry, Google and Facebook and their peers, have adopted the culture of this place.

Just like the gentrification of a neighborhood where new, wealthy people displace people who have lived there longer, the dharma is undergoing a process of gentrification in San Francisco today. Lost is the bigger picture of the teachings that asks us to consider our interdependence and to move beyond self-help and addressing only our own suffering. The dharma directs us to feel the suffering of others.

The pace of displacement in the city’s Mission District makes whole sections of the neighborhood unrecognizable to people who lived there just a year before. With great respect for Sharon Salzberg, Konda Mason, and Shinzen Young, who taught this year at Wisdom 2.0, I ask the following question about the dharma on display at this conference: To whom is it recognizable?

While members of Eviction Free San Francisco held a banner across the stage, I handed out leaflets to the more than 500 attendees that read, “Thank you for your practice. We invite you to consider the truth behind Google and the tech industry’s impact on San Francisco.”

At a conference like this, our action—a banner and a chant of “San Francisco Not for Sale” on a bullhorn—is only meaningful in the context of the larger movement to keep families in their homes, to save the city and the diversity we love, and to repeal the state law that allows for no-fault evictions, which create conditions for speculators and evictors to run wild for profits. We want to preserve an economically diverse city that works for all of us, not just the tech industry.

When I zipped up that banner in a bag to sneak it into the conference, I thought about the ways this action could contribute to a larger conversation among people of conscience about how to stop this crisis of economic inequality. But like our Mission District neighbors, the activists and the message of Eviction Free San Francisco were disappeared without a word, censored from the livestream of the event. As we were marched out of the hall by angry conference staff, the Google presentation carried on, asking the audience to “check in with their body” about the conflict. No one addressed the issues we were raising, not then or later on in the conference. It was a case study in spiritual bypassing.

It’s almost too easy to point this out at Wisdom 2.0. Most of the workshops offer lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness, and unsustainability associated with living under capitalism, but it does so without offering an analysis of where this disconnection comes from. The conference presents an evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.

We disrupted Wisdom 2.0 to make visible the struggle of eviction and gentrification that we and our neighbors are facing. The invitation still stands for the organizers, presenters, and attendees of this conference, as well as our new neighbors who work for the companies that put it on, to recognize our demands and engage with these social issues.

Before Google’s talk on corporate mindfulness at Wisdom 2.0, I sat there in my chair, a participant in a centering practice alongside other conference attendees. I felt connected. We were only different from them because we were preparing ourselves to take the stage as uninvited guests in order to ask the question that most needs asking in San Francisco right now: Who is included and who is excluded from this community?

Amanda Ream is a member of Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center and is in the Dedicated Practitioner’s Program at Spirit Rock. She works as a union organizer in Bernal Heights, San Francisco.

View a video of the Google Wisdom 2.0 disruption here.

A report says loneliness is more deadly than obesity


Loneliness Is Killing Us – We Must Start Treating It Like One of the World’s Deadliest Diseases

 – the challenge now is to help lonely people connect.

That loneliness is a health issue would not have been a surprise to Mother Teresa who once said: “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for and deserted by everybody.”

But now doctors have quantified the effects of the loneliness disease, warning that lonely people are nearly twice as likely to die prematurely as those who do not suffer feelings of isolation. Being lonely it seems, is a lot more worrying for your health than obesity.

In a report called Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Ageing that Professor John Cacioppo presented in Chicago at the weekend, the effect of satisfying relationships on the elderly was measured.

Cacioppo’s team found that friendships helped older people develop their resilience and ability to bounce back after adversity, as well as an ability to gain strength from stress rather than be diminished by it.

Not surprisingly, there is no corresponding good news for those less well connected to other people. Loneliness has dramatic consequences on health. Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, lower immunity, increase depression, lower overall subjective wellbeing and increase the stress hormone cortisol (at sustained high levels, cortisol gradually wears your body down).

Older people can avoid the consequences of loneliness by staying in touch with former colleagues, taking part in family gatherings and sharing good times with family and friends, says Cacioppo. Moving away from an established community to retire to a seaside idyll could often be a mistake, but such good common sense probably doesn’t go far enough.

The Lonely Society, a 2010 report commissioned by The Mental Health Foundation, cited a link between our “individualistic society” and the increase in common mental health disorders in the last 50 years.

It also drew on research showing that mental health problems occur more frequently in unequal societies where vulnerable people are often left behind. By squandering “social capital” in the individualistic pursuit of greater wealth, or treating social networks as incidental, are we neglecting a part of life that makes us happy and keeps us healthy for longer?

This report also quotes research that suggests lonely people often share certain characteristics: these include more of a history of loss or trauma and a childhood spent with negative, critical and harsh parenting.

Loneliness is often the core feeling that gives rise to emotions of anger, sadness, depression, worthlessness, resentment, emptiness, vulnerability and pessimism. Lonely people frequently feel that they are disliked, are often self-obsessed and lack empathy with others. They fear rejection and keep themselves at a distance, which feeds the loneliness.

People who are lonely often think that everyone else is doing OK while they are not. They think they are the only ones carrying a burden. I have had clients talk about putting their “game face” on rather than sharing truthfully about themselves. And it can be difficult to know when it is appropriate to make the move from the former to the latter.

So in an ageing society with more and more people living on their own, what is the solution? I believe that it is never too late to change, and that psychotherapy can help people to heal the wounds from their past and establish new patterns of relating to others. But a dependency on this specialist relationship may also develop, with the therapist becoming a substitute for developing confidants outside the consulting room.

I am on the advisory board of The Talk for Health Company Ltd (T4H) which is a social enterprise set up by psychotherapist Nicky Forsythe. It trains people in the loneliness-stopping skills of authentic sharing and empathic listening. After a short initial training, the groups set up long-term peer support systems that are proven to improve wellbeing significantly. The ultimate aim of T4H is to create networks of confidants where anyone can find a place to connect at a deeper level.

It seems that at least some GPs and health managers do realise that combating loneliness is key to maintaining good health. A forward-looking scheme funded by the NHS in Islington will this year fund 12 Talk for Health programmes, offering 180 free places to Islington residents for adults at any stage in life.

People without access to such a programme could also consider joining a 12-step group such as Emotions Anonymous or Depression Anonymous, where they will be able to put aside their “game faces” and share truthfully about themselves on a deeper level. Unlike individual psychotherapy, the connections made in such groups can be integrated into the participants’ lives beyond the group.

Such schemes can help people of any age to develop self-acceptance, making it easier for them to relate to others and connect on such a level that loneliness, if not eradicated, at least becomes less of a threat to health.