Strong mental health

TLDR; a limiting social factor on the size of the economy should be the health and well-being of living things. What follows mostly focuses on mental well-being of individuals but I now extend this to all health and all living beings. Making and mental health have a very strong linkage, which is why I focused so narrowly on this area of health and well-being.

This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.

The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts. References to “city 9” “pei 11” or “maker 1” are references to participants in my research.

In my research mental health and well-being was supported by the role of alternative economies and Making in improving self-esteem, citizen owned production, and work-life balance. Participants discussed these elements in relation to the theme of overworking as a problem, and specifically linked Making to mental well-being in two ways.

First, Making reintegrates the hand and brain leading to the feeling of ‘flow’ which relaxes participants and makes them “lose time” and sometimes elicits ritualistic and religious feelings.  PEI 17 said “I go to my studio and hours go by. I mean, I can go in there at 8 in the morning and before you know it, it’s 4pm. I didn’t feel the time pass but I’m tired, happy, and satisfied.” In relation to this feeling, PEI 5 said that it often happens when the task is repetitive and while “some people might see it as monotonous, that’s what gives it meaning sometimes. I get into a trance-like state and the end product is filled with that mindfulness and my peace of just being there and in the moment”.

Second, chiming with perceptions of my own respondents and various other studies (Riley, Corkhill, and Morris 2013; Taylor, Hurley, and Connolly 2016; Kouhia 2015), Making has been shown to improve self-esteem, confidence, and to provoke feelings of pride in one’s self. In this section, I explore what ‘well-being’ is, how it has been, at least in some ways, undermined by processes of modernity, and some possible EE responses to this problem.

Well-being is divided into “two elements – hedonic well-being, which refers to more transient feelings, such as life satisfaction and happiness; and eudaemonic well-being, which focuses on functioning, capabilities, meaning and purposes” (G. Henderson 2012). When these two areas coincide then mental health can be described as thriving. Currently, modern society suffers from a crisis of mental health including: low general life satisfaction; high stress in relation to work that detracts from primary social relationships; extreme levels of narcissism perpetuated by addictions to media; and relatively low self-esteem (Rogers and Pilgrim 2014; Schumaker 2001; Twenge and Foster 2008; Waugaman 2011; Lasch 1991).

These trends are characteristic of a post-industrialized society:

“the way in which we live nowadays is not conducive to our emotional, social, and psychological well-being…well-being is a collateral casualty of modernity, with a corresponding trend towards placing insufficient value on meaning, purpose, or community with individuals increasingly seen as being separate, unique and alone”

G. Henderson 2012, p. 12

This echoes Laing’s The Divided Self (1965). Just as the process of individualization is linked to urbanization, so too the latter undermines  mental health “through the influence of increased stressors and factors such as overcrowded and polluted environments, high levels of violence, and reduced social support” (Srivastava 2009, p. 75-76).

As individualism is seen as increasingly more important than a collective and psychological needs are instead met by consumerism there is a growing “sense of disconnection…and a weakened belief in the broader social ideal and commitment to common social and community goods” (G. Henderson 2012 p. 12).

Despite the rise in GDP over the last 50 years, there is no corresponding rise in a sense of well-being, quality of life, or mental health (van den Bergh 2017; G. Henderson 2012), but rather rise in diseases of affluence such as depression, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes (Ezzati et al. 2005; Graaf, Wann, and Naylor 2002; Luthar 2003; Singh and Singh 2008).

Children are not exempt from this crisis. Constant parental pressure to succeed and constant stimulation via technology stunt critical development of the child’s self, and leads to depressed, disconnected and anxious kids as young as three years old (Levine 2008). Preschoolers who spend greater time outdoors, off of screens, and lead more active lives are shown to be happier, more empathetic, score higher on standardized tests, and have greater self-control (Hinkley et al. 2017).

Jean Twenge’s most recent research finds that modern teenagers (born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s), are incredibly technology-capable and constantly linked to a technological device during waking hours. These teens suffer from high rates of depression. 65% of girls aged 13-18 have experienced suicide-related events such as thinking about suicide, self-harm, or clinical depression. The percentage of teen girls with suicide-related events increased by 58% in 2012, the same year smartphones became widely popular in Western high schools.

Twenge has a specific concern for young girls because girls tend to spend their time on social media while boys are generally more interested in games, which have less of an impact on mental well-being. Teens using social media have demonstrated short-term bursts of self-esteem, improved development of their sense of identity, and a broader circle of peer engagement, however this is accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of cyberbullying, depression, and in-person social anxiety. While helping to develop a teen’s sense of identity seems like a positive outcome, the focus on ‘identity’ takes for granted the pre-eminent ontological and psychological status of the individual in relation to mutual identification with a group (Elias’s ‘I/We balance’) – the trends of hyper-individualization is directly related to this problem.

A large contributing factor to the decline of mental health in Western society is this excessive differentiation of the individual and the self-perception of separation, autonomy and independence. Twenge and Foster argue that this obsession is not an organic human development, that it has been engineered by advertising companies, social media, and consumer society, which creates a feedback loop. More realistically it should be understood as a function of modernity i.e. complexity and the extension of the social division of labour; the process of disembedding; the loss of connection with place-bound communities; and individual relations to market and state (Beck 1992; Elias 2007).

Nonetheless this perception of the self as sovereign and self-determining is sold to modern individuals through advertisements and reinforced through the labour market and through mechanisms of social and private insurance.  It also chimes with the overarching narratives of liberal democracy and the law, both of which depend on the rights and obligations but also capacities of individual citizens. Increasingly these modern selves share their curated lives on social media to get compliments and gain self-esteem through the approval of others (‘likes’). At this point, the consumers are providing free advertising and perpetuating the cycle. This is fast becoming the primary way of achieving self-esteem, and it is of course directly related to consumption.

If ecological economists want to limit consumption, self-esteem and mental health needs to be bolstered in different ways.

It is conceivable that mental health issues in modern Western individuals could be improved by utilizing well known tools and techniques from ecological economics such as enforcing a four-day work week or six-hour work day, creating hard income caps so that the desire to work overtime is abolished, and banning advertising.

A larger percentage of the solution must come about by undermining the role of consumer culture in bolstering self-esteem (Arndt et al. 2004; E. Becker 1973; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon 1986). Referencing back to Terror Management Theory (discussed in my theory of change), cultural systems function as ‘immortality ideologies’ which act as buffers against existential anxiety (Greenberg, Psyzczynski, and Solomon 1986).

TMT suggests that humans possess the same biological imperative to survive as any other organism, but additionally possess mental capacity to dwell upon their inevitable death and mortality in general. This combination of an instinctual will to survive coupled with knowledge of mortality can become a source of deep anxiety. We need to believe that we live meaningful lives in a meaningful world. To cope with this existential dread, humans create meaning systems which allows us to believe that we are special. These are deemed ‘hero projects’, practices that increase feelings of belonging and self-worth, and can provide avenues for identity to live on after death (i.e.: the afterlife, children, a large pyramid).

TMT has been used to connect consumption to this process of bolstering self-esteem, making it difficult to undermine consumer culture (Dickinson 2009) especially given its high visibility and the ease at which individuals can participate in it. So, if the real problem is the absence of a larger ‘project’ to be a part of, or a lack of ontological security (Giddens 1990), then ecological economic decision making must find activities and cultures, such as Maker Culture, to encourage through the community.

Ecological Economics should seek to offer meaningful alternatives to consumption. In his essay Ethics for Economics in the Anthropocene, Peter Brown outlines an ethic that he says is ‘critically needed’ for the future of humanity (2012). He argues that this ethic be grounded on three premises about humanity’s place and role in relation to Earth:

1. as members, not masters of, life’s commonwealth

2. as custodians of Earth’s household, and

3. as those entrusted with duties to preserve and enhance the low entropy sources on which a flourishing Earth depends (Brown 2012 p 2).

Similarly, Spash (2012) puts forward a large set of ethical and ideological statements that ecological economists ‘should live by’.

There is a clear problem with simply defining ethical platforms – it is incredibly difficult to convince people to get on board to the extent that it would alter their day-to-day behaviour. It also does not necessarily follow that the pattern of life that is good for the environment will come because people are following green precepts or ethics; this emphasizes a logical shift for change, rather than one steeped in meaning.

In the book Getting to Maybe, there is an anecdote about a man living in a poor neighborhood with a lot of crime among the youth (Westley, Zimmerman, and Patton 2007). The man living in the poor neighborhood started a bicycle repair workshop for youth in the area, and there was a dramatic decline in the problem because the youth were given something meaningful to partake in and a place to come together that has purpose.

What Brown and Spash are suggesting is the equivalent of handing the youth a list of values and/or rules by which they should live.

Even if some of them did think they were noble and worthwhile, it would never take hold because the process of defining what the systems ‘should be’ doesn’t necessarily influence the system.

Investing in Maker workshops, repair cafes, tool libraries, and task trading services potentially improves the self-esteem of people that attend. 91% of respondents in the Metcalf study noted that making provides them with a sense of accomplishment. Unprovoked, 70.7% of PEI participants said they moved to PEI or participated in craft to have a better quality of life. One specifically said she gave “up income for quality of life” (PEI 3) and another phrased it as getting “paid in quality of life” (PEI 8).

Maker events are attended widely by people who may not consider themselves Makers; they have mass appeal. Maker Culture is not the only way to bolster self-esteem that could appeal to a wide audience. Other cultural activities such as music, theater, brewing/wine making, religion, or simply more meaningful work could also improve mental health in a similar way as Maker Culture. These are areas of research being investigated in more depth by peers in my research group (Barb Davy, Katharine Zywert, and Anna Beresford). The appeal of Maker Culture is not only the improvement of mental health, specifically self-esteem, but also its support of local economies by encouraging sharing, trading, and local buying while disrupting supply chains – which also bolsters the self-esteem of individuals (Jonas, Fritsche, and Greenberg 2005) and in turn reinforces the alternative economy.

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