When considering the reasons for today’s high levels of anxiety and depression, we shouldn’t ignore two major culprits: advertising, and the kind of diversion that’s disguised as innovation.
Advertising’s influence over our mood changed significantly in 1920s when, for the first time, advertisers began targeting the Emotional Brain instead of the Thinking Brain.
Previously, ads had described how efficient a product was or highlighted a special ingredient. But in the late 1920s, products began to be pitched in ways that exploited a person’s “pain point,” or insecurity. The question wasn’t, How can we convince them our product is worth buying? but rather, How can we convince them our product will make them feel better about themselves?
This change, in and of itself, is bad enough for the human psyche, but there’s another shift that may have had even more profound effects – the one in which innovation turned into diversion.
All over the world, when a developing nation begins to experience growth, there is a period of innovation. It’s usually marked by advances in medicine and an increase in available jobs, and people generally become happier during this time. But once a nation reaches First World status, those happiness levels tend to flatline and even drop, while levels of depression and anxiety increase. This is because innovation is turning to diversion; advertisers start preying on consumers’ insecurities and selling them things they don’t really need.
Businesses like to say that this is just “giving the people what they want.” And in the US, the fact that supermarkets have things like a massive selection of breakfast cereals is even considered a sign of how much freedom there is. And more freedom should equal more happiness, right? But often, when you have more choice, all you really have are more diversions, and this can actually lead to less freedom.
With the abundance of diversions we have now, we’ve become obsessed with using technology to make things easier to do. But we’re also developing new, compulsive behaviors in the way we use technology, which diminishes our freedom. True freedom comes from reducing things in your life, like when you delete a social media account to free up your time and attention. When your sense of well-being becomes dependent on distractions, creature comforts and unnecessary technologies, you’re moving in the opposite direction from freedom.
As troubling as it is that we’re willing to give up so much freedom in return for convenience, there may be a silver lining to these technological distractions. We’ll look at that in the next blink.