What’s behind the spike in anxiety? There are almost too many potential causes to list them all. There’s the same liberty and abundance that Tocqueville noted, only more so. There’s the same sense of dizzying cultural acceleration and change that that got the blame for neurasthenia 150 years ago, only more so. There’s an accompanying worry about the fragility of our economic status — a fragility intensified by the combination of capitalism’s pervasive creative destruction with the minimalism of the safety net we choose to provide for ourselves.
And then there is, of course, the technological component — especially the immensely powerful communications technologies that saturate our late-modern lives. One might think they would be the greatest means of forestalling loneliness ever devised, but something close to the opposite appears to be true. Every text we receive triggers a tiny dopamine rush in our brains to which we quickly become accustomed. Before long we crave more of it — and feel its crushing absence when the messages fail to arrive. The result is a surge in neediness. “Why isn’t my friend texting me? Is he writing someone else, someone more interesting, funny, or sexy instead?”
What Jean-Jacques Rousseau called amour-propre — the anxious longing for the approval of our peers, along with the tendency to transform ourselves into what we imagine they want us to be — can become overpowering, as we seek to become the kind of texting partner who will inspire others to respond.