Sunday 18 August 2019

Life's never been so good so why the trauma?

Bestselling author Sebastian Junger wants to talk about modern living and dissatisfaction, writes Niamh Horan

COMMUNITY CHAMPION: Sebastian Junger’s talk to the festival will explore the human psyche.
COMMUNITY CHAMPION: Sebastian Junger’s talk to the festival will explore the human psyche.
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

The number of Irish people self-harming is continuing to rise, numbers reporting emotional and psychological conditions has surged from 96,000 to 123,000 since the last census, our anxiety levels have rocketed to the top 10 worldwide and Ireland has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the EU - and yet today we are more affluent, and enjoy more material comforts, than most previous generations.

The question is why all our financial progress and modern-day comforts fail to bring us inner peace?

Number one New York Times bestselling author and documentary maker Sebastian Junger is jetting in to Dublin next week to give us all a wake-up call.

Speaking ahead of his appearance at the Dalkey Book Festival next weekend, he says: "I don't care what the advantages are [of Ireland's economic growth], that is not a psychologically healthy society."

Junger, famous for his award-winning chronicles of war but who has more recently penned the worldwide phenomenon Tribe to illustrate how modern-day society is fuelling chronic loneliness, says the Ireland of yesterday was more conducive to community and happiness.

"The kind of industrial mass society we have now is extremely hard on the human psyche because we are a social animal and for thousands of years we have been living in exactly the type of groups that existed in the Ireland of yore.

"Large families, lots of children, all around the fire in the evening. I mean that is the human experience for thousands of years. That abruptly changed last century and, for all its advantages, it is definitely not easy on us judging by the rates of suicide, anxiety and depression."

He adds: "A certain kind of closeness with others - not just family and friends but also community - buffers people from an awful lot of psychological struggles and in small scale tribal societies, suicide, crippling depression and anxiety are quite rare.

"Those societies are not studied as thoroughly as western modern society but nevertheless it seems to be that there is a correlation between affluence and modernity and psychological struggles.

"This affluent style of living has its benefits. Individualism allows people to pursue incredible things. We had Albert Einstein and Picasso precisely because they lived in a society that was affluent enough that they were not struggling to literally survive everyday.

"But it also has enormous downsides because real emotional security is proximity of other people. Not just family but community and yet the irony of affluencism and modernity is that people have enough money to exist individually, without community. Alone or just within their family. They don't need the ties of community to survive but then they don't have anyone to buffer some of the problems that come from isolated living."

Junger cites a study of depression during the Troubles in Northern Ireland to illustrate how times of war and disaster causes people to band together, giving their life meaning and a reason to survive. While in periods of peace, where there is no threat to survival, can create an inward-looking ennui.

"There is a study that I cite in my book Tribe by an Irish psychologist who analysed depression rates in 1969 and the 1970s during the Troubles. And what he found was that the counties with the highest levels of violence had the lowest rates of depression."

He also spoke about how modern life is making more young men feel displaced and pushing them towards violence, depression and addiction. "When it comes to the traditional male role in every society going as far back as we can see, men are so expendable. You can kill 90pc of men in society and it doesn't really matter. Within a generation the population is right where it was before. That is not true of women.

"You cannot replace women, you can replace men very easily. So it makes sense that you sacrifice men to buffer society from hardship and threats but when you remove a traditional male role, the male self-esteem takes a hit.

"My traditional job is being a provider and protector but being a provider and protector is no longer required. Women can do all the jobs that men do and there is no enemy to fight against and yet these are very traditional roles that are deeply ingrained in our DNA and in our culture so of course we feel a sort of lassitude and depression and a sense of not being needed. And in young men a feeling of not being needed is a sure pathway to addiction to depression and suicide. He said: "Make people feel superfluous and they will destroy themselves."

The Dalkey Book Festival features dozens of high-profile speakers such as Steven Pinker, Lionel Shriver and Marie Heaney. It takes place from June 14-17. For more information log on to

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