“When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?” - Virginia Woolf (Night and Day)
In the Western world, we are carefully nurtured by those around us until we reach ‘maturity’, and then we are left to face the world alone. We do, of course, improve in our ability to live independently as we get older. As babies and toddlers, our independence is pretty much limited to breathing. Everything else, including feeding, cleaning, and transport, is closely supervised by adults who hopefully know what they are doing. But when we hit our late teens and early twenties, perhaps excluding the occasional error in feeding and hygiene, we are able to do all of these things alone. So we are encouraged to spread our wings and fly.
Independence is important, but if we are honest, there are many moments of fear and uncertainty where we could use guidance, even well into adulthood. We all want help with our minds because we are needy creatures, but asking for it can be a daunting experience because we do not want to seem incompetent or babyish. So we are left with the impression that others are living successful happy lives, while we put on a brave face that masks an insecure internal reality.
Our hesitance to ask for help is part of a collective psychosis, driven by the extreme assumption that adults should be able to take care of their own psychological development, and anything else is a sign of weakness. In fact, we are all wearing the emperor’s new clothes, and it may take someone screaming “But we are all incompetent!” to snap us out of our delusions of suffering alone. It’s about time we all got a little more familiar with each other’s worries and follies, so that we can see just how much overlap there is between us. Sharing our concerns with someone who responds with an acknowledging nod of “I’ve been there my friend” can have a profoundly positive effect on our emotional life.
I remember one particular moment in my own life where this scenario came to pass. It was a chilly Saturday night; the kind that makes your knuckles feel numb within minutes of stepping outside. I was a fairly standard emotionally volatile 17 year old sitting with friends in the local pub in my small town on the outskirts of London. I noticed an on-off girlfriend walk in and sit at the next table with her friends. It was the kind of relationship you might label with “it’s complicated” on an online social network page. We got chatting later in the night, but naturally with the early stages of intoxication looming, a slightly heated debate took to the stage (so important was this debate that I have entirely forgotten what it was about).
After making our way out of the pub into the conveniently cold night that would cut any argument short, we exchanged a few more intense words, then I turned and darted away into a dark and lonely park nearby to feel sorry for myself. I sat down at the nearest and gloomiest bench I could find to complement my mood, and contemplated why the universe wouldn’t let me be happy like everyone else. A drunken gentlemen probably a decade or so my senior at the time — my age now as I write this sentence — walked past at that moment and mumbled something I didn’t quite catch. I blurted out what any British person would at such a time: “Sorry?”. He stopped and smiled and asked a question that I found shocking at the time: “Is it a girl?”. With my current more mature mind, this question seems far less magical, but at the time I thought this man was a prophet so I asked him to surrender his enlightened teachings. He continued in a rather haphazard but comprehensible way to explain that we all go through romantic anguish, and that it blinds us to the clear fact that any time we spend in misery is time that we will later regret. So why waste any of our limited life on emotional pains that will eventually disappear and barely be remembered? I can assure you that his insights that night were not particularly deep, wise, or even fully coherent, but simply meeting someone who could highlight the fundamental non-exclusivity of my feelings was remarkable proof of the power of shared pain and empathetic community. It demonstrates we all go through those kinds of struggles and come out better at the end. I immediately hopped up and went home to happily finish a book I was reading about earthworms.
Your pains and anxieties seem much less significant when you feel part of something bigger. This bigger thing can span from other members of society to the universe as a whole. The larger parts of that range may be difficult to feel any strong connection to because their scale is so vast that our ape brains struggle to comprehend them in any realistic way. But they probably also present a more powerful experience of togetherness or ‘oneness’ if conquered, something that many Buddhists teach (I’m not a Buddhist myself). At a more basic level, connecting properly with others around you allows you to take someone else’s perspective of your own pain, which helps to get you out of your own skin and away from your self-centered perceptual or cognitive biases that distort your view of the world.
A mental disorder known as anosognosia presents a particularly extreme example of the benefits of shifting away from your first person perceptions. Anosognosia refers to an inability to see or understand your illness, even when it is abundantly clear to everyone else. When patients have anosognosia for hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of their body), they will repeatedly and confidently deny that they have a problem, even though they cannot move their limbs. If they are asked to move their limbs, they tend to make irrational excuses for why their limb cannot move at that moment in time. But they are utterly convinced that they are healthy, and are not just making up stories that they know are false. When a group of researchers decided to film a patient denying their symptoms and replay it back to them, they discovered a dramatic change in the patient’s reactions. The patient was effectively cured of their anosognosia, purely through seeing themselves from a third person perspective. This video replay approach has now been used more widely with similar results. Although this is a rare and extreme case, it does illustrate the power of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. We all have needs that can benefit from escaping our narrow minded and often robotic first person perspectives.
So what exactly are the needs that we share as humans? Abraham Maslow took on this challenging question in the 1940s. His solution was a famous pyramid, the “hierarchy of needs”. According to Maslow, our most basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid are physiological. We need food to prevent starvation and shelter to protect us from the elements. Without these, we make very little progress in the world. A step up the pyramid brings us to our safety needs; we can only thrive if we manage to avoid war, abuse, and any other violent or dangerous situation that threatens to cut our life short. Only after meeting these most basic needs do we begin to care about our more advanced psychological needs in the upper levels of the pyramid. These are belonging, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization: we need friendship and intimacy, we need self-respect, and then we need to realize our full personal potential.
Maslow’s model makes intuitive sense overall. People in war-torn countries are probably less able to find the time and mental space to care about reaching their full potential when they are worrying about whether the next bomb will drop on their home. If we cannot keep ourselves alive with easy access to food, then we cannot motivate ourselves to find friends or self esteem. However, I cannot help but feel that this conceptualization of human needs adds to the common sentiment that our psychological needs matter less than our physiological needs. It is a sentiment that makes us believe we should feel slightly embarrassed when complaining about being lonely or sad. The truth is, when we fail to meet basic psychological needs, we can be far worse off than a simple step down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A lack of food can kill us, but so can a lack of psychological and emotional stability. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 25–34 after unintentional injuries. In one 2013 survey of 9th-12th grade students in the US (~14–18 years of age), 17% of students had seriously considered suicide within the last 12 months preceding the survey. These are not small numbers.
I believe our human needs in the modern world have a more complicated structure than the hierarchy presented by Maslow (as valuable as that hierarchy has been within the psychological sciences). Food is no less important than it used to be, but we need to take our psychological needs just as seriously, not just as secondary phenomenon worthy of less concern. Intense sadness can feel just as bad as hunger, and looking at the suicide statistics above should at least give us second thought about assuming it is any less fatal. In fact, suicide presents an additional bizarre problem compared to deaths from failures of physiological needs, specifically that people actively want to die, rather than dying unintentionally from bodily failures. Whatever the subtleties of the problem, in the modern developed world, it is relatively uncommon for someone to die of starvation, so we may need to begin accepting our psychological needs within our primary needs.
We are all capable of making progress towards meeting our needs for mental wellbeing . Some of us, due to both genetic and environmental luck during our development, will find this much easier than others, and some of us will naturally be more resistant to psychological challenges and pressures. But most importantly, within our own little fortunate or unfortunate worlds, we can all make the most of the cards we are dealt.