Life has always been hard, but the modern world presents special challenges to human contentment.
According to Self-Determination Theory, human beings have three basic psychological needs:
When we lived in a tribe or village, it was probably easier to get these psychological needs met.
Today it can be more difficult to get these needs met.
How the modern world frustrates our drive for competence
When our tribe consisted of 100 people it was easy to be the best in the known world at something.
If someone else was the best hunter, we could try to become the best spear maker or story teller. There was always a niche available at which we could be the best in the known world, and it was a broad enough niche that everybody valued it.
Today we compare ourselves to 7 billion people. If we want to be the best in the known world at something, we either have to be extremely good (unreasonably good), or find a niche so narrow that no one we grew up with even understands what we do.
How the modern world frustrates our need for autonomy
Autonomy is not the same thing as independence.
Autonomy is a matter of feeling free to act according to our own values.
In the tribe, we tended to share the values of the tribe, and there weren’t many social forces conflicting with our sense of what was worth working toward.
Today we interact with a relatively diverse set of people who have very different sets of values. And we must find a way to get along with all of them.
Personally I think this is good. But it is also somewhat disorienting for humans who come pre-loaded with psychologies that were designed for simpler circumstances.
Today we are also more likely to have jobs that require us to act out of step with our values.
And we are more apt to change our values as we grow up and move away from our families and childhood friends. This can cause us to be out of step with people in our lives who still might have considerable influence over our well being.
And so on.
How the modern world frustrates our desire for relatedness
It’s easy to imagine that in many tribes everyone felt that they were valuable members of the tribe. And it was easy to define who was in your tribe.
Today we have our sense of relatedness spread out over many overlapping groups. Bonds are not as close and fierce anymore.
Again, this is good in some ways, but there is a part of many people that longs for those close bonds that used to happen naturally when life was simpler.
And that’s not all . . .
In addition to those things, life is just more complicated. We have to keep track of more things to function in modern societies. And if you live in an area where jobs are scarce, life will be hard in the good old fashioned way it’s always been hard (on top of all the new ways life is hard).
But let’s not lose perspective here. Life is also easier today in many ways than it was in tribal or village life We have running water and electricity in our homes. If we ARE out of step with the values of our families, we CAN find people to be with who accept us or share our values. We have better medicine, more consistent food choices, an so on.
Personally, I would not trade modern life for tribal or village life. Tribal life was no picnic, and not every tribe matched the romantic ideal we might fantasize about when we want to retreat from modern complexity.
But it’s good to acknowledge the obstacles we face when trying to make a tribal psychology work in our large rapidly changing cosmopolitan world.
NOTE: I’ve also poured my heart into a more comprehensive treatment of these themes in the essay:
Original Author: Jim Stone