Saying Goodbye to Tomorrow.



Today is the last day on Earth, according to some New Age interpretation of the Mayan calendar.

This belief has caused endless suffering and useless expensive purchases by people trying to “beat the clock” and find somewhere safe to spend their last few hours.  Cheap places have suddenly become outrageously expensive, because someone said “Hang out there!” during your final hours.

This story caused one young woman to take her life.

However, saying “Goodbye to Tomorrow” has a long history that goes beyond this moment in time.  Humans are famous for planning the end of not only their own anticipated deaths, but because that is just too commonplace, they have to anticipate the death of everyone and everything around them.

The End of the World.  Or more modestly put, The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI).

One psychologist got interested in one “Say Goodbye to Tomorrow” group, and actually hung out with them during their “final moments.”  He wanted to know how they cognitively justified it, when the end of the world failed to materialize.

He reported that great anticipation happened during the moments ticking up to “the end.”  Five minutes “after doomsday,” the euphoria of the group changed to anxiety.  After several hours, when the followers began to look doubtfully at their leader, he enthusiastically announced “We’ve done it!

In a twist of mental gymnastics, he proclaimed that given his followers’ prayers and preparations, they had successfully “stopped” the end!  But now he was in a bit of a dilemma:  If the whole raison d’etre of the group was the “end,” he needed another “end,” or what’s the point?

What I’m noticing is a disturbing trend that mimics this same pattern.  Saying “We’re screwed!” is a good start when you are trying to build enthusiasm, but not quite as good as “We’re screwed next Tuesday!”  When next Tuesday comes, and the “screwing” didn’t happen on cue, what do you do to maintain your credibility?

Again and again over the years, I’ve noticed that people have taken dramatic actions in anticipation of this or that “end.”  For some, it is the end of civilization.  For others, it is “goodbye to the global economic system.”  For still others, it is the end of the Earth as a livable planet.  For these intelligent, sincere individuals, their goal, despite their critics, isn’t making a fast buck.  Most of them make no or little money on their predictions.  They really believe in what they are predicting.  So, to live in congruency, they pack up, sell off, and move to some more “sustainable” or “safe” location, and try in earnest to live in keeping with their anticipated tomorrow.  They “do it anyway” as a friend of Sharon Astyk says.

But it causes some of them tremendous social hardship.

Nostalgia for the Present

For some, they start to miss their “old life,” that “yesterday” that they abandoned with conviction.  For most living in this “yesterday,” they weren’t nearly as wastefully as others.  They were already living lean, using a fraction of resources compared to the average person in Western Civilization.  And they, themselves, are products of this Civilization they’ve come to critique.  They are writers, intellectuals, scientists, and professionals. They often leave culturally rich environs to move to remote locations known for, well, known for nothing in particular that most people care very much about.  Let’s call that location “Rural Nowhere.”

Then they wait.  And wait.  And wait.

Rural Nowhere is not noted for great employment opportunities. They’ve often given up their jobs and their incomes as a matter of conviction and necessity.  No matter how long they anticipated their resources to last, as the months and years tick on, they see the bank accounts dwindling.  Some have sold their homes, bought an RV, and drove around believing the “end of oil” is upon us.  (Yes, I know…)

Plus, if they left an intellectually alive place for Rural Nowhere, they get lonely.  They get resentful.  They start to look back at all of their colleagues and neighbors, the “Sheeple,” that continue to rake in decent salaries and take in decent cinema, without driving a few hours.  They feel increasing disdain  and then increasing hostility.

If they confidently provided a timeline, their families begin to stare at them with their own impatient brand of “Sooooo?”  Few of us would move on the promise that “the end of tomorrow” will happen in 50 years.  Most of us drag our feet at dramatic lifestyle change if doom is expected in over 5 years.  So many are stuck with an accelerating Doomline, and a stubbornly “Todaylike” tomorrow.

What happens to your marriage, when you took her out to Rural Nowhere, and you have day after day of Todaylike tomorrows?  What happens when Tomorrow stubbornly refuses to leave?

The pressure is enormous.

As the clock continues to build, not only must Tomorrow be something that is going, it starts to mutate.  Despite the hardship, Today has got to go.

Evil Believers

It is one thing to be a Panglossian, who believes that nothing in the world could possibly go wrong.  Now, however, what about those who continue to believe in Tomorrow?  They are viewed in the worst possible light.  You want children? You’re pregnant?  Those bearing children become “breeders” who should be shunned.  You bought a new car, or iphone?  You are killing off the ecosystem.

3-E Hair Shirts

But caution is in order, because it is really very difficult to live purely, even in Rural Nowhere.  To resolve the hypocrisy, some proclaim “I won’t change, it is the corporations that need to change!” They say their contribution to Demise is hardly significant. So they go on living like they did yesterday, while predicting the end of tomorrow. The rest of us us still secretly driving to buy take-out, and are ashamed of ourselves or embarrassed when we’re “caught.”

We find ourselves lusting for that “really cool” gadget, then hating ourselves.  In an attempt to purify ourselves, no different than the saints who wore hair shirts or whipped themselves into trances to rid themselves of impure thoughts, these modern day Doomers also look for relief.

As if I haven’t created enough enemies in our community at this point, allow me to push forward.

 You either support our movement, or you take your place of shame with the Sheeple and be shunned…

Nudging Along the End of Today

If civilization is going to fall, and isn’t falling fast enough, it should now be nudged along.

The solution is also an old one.

A movement is gaining popularity whereby this nudging has taken on violent overtones.  The narrative is outlined in the starkest terms:  If you love the planet, there is only one recourse to those who are killing it.  You are either with us, or against us.  You either support our movement, or you take your place of shame with the Sheeple and be shunned.

Most often, of course, history has taught us that within these movements, there appears to be two classes of people:  The Leaders and the Followers.  The Leaders are often most valuable for continuing to do what they have been doing all along:  Thinking.  Writing.  Lecturing.  Pontificating.  They are justified in any eco-transgressions because, after all, they are the Leaders, and are attempting to gather more Followers to speed up The End of Tomorrow.

The Followers

The Followers also appear to be remarkably similar over the years.  They are usually much younger than the Leaders.  They have far fewer resources and often live lives much closer to “The End of Tomorrow” than the Leaders do.  They are often directly impacted by the worst parts of today, whether this is the crappy jobs during the rise of the industrial empire, or crippling student loans today.  But whether we are talking about the turn of the century or today, the role of the Followers are the same:  they are the handmaidens, the expendables.   They read the call to action and are ready to act.  They will engage in behaviors that cause them to either die or be put in cages for a very, very long time.


Sometimes we’ve learned, decades later, that the provocateurs were actually agents of the government who were seeking to discredit a popular movement that was gaining power.  They were “plants” who said: “We have to do this!” and yet, when everyone was imprisoned or dead, these “Leaders” safely vanished.  Popular movements become “unpopular” when associated with “senseless” acts violence.

Anyone who carefully studies human history will notice this trend.  And they will notice another mantra:  “Things have never been as bad as they are today.”  And usually they are right.  And dramatic actions are called for when we are talking about the End of the World.

They will also notice how slow the progress of change is, and how unpopular ideas seem to almost overnight, become popular ideas.  And despite how dire things are, no matter how bad today is, compared to all the badness of yesterday, remarkably, “today” continued to seamlessly flow into “tomorrow,” against all the odds.  And those who wrote the Doomline re-write the predictions, and no one seems particularly interested in the miscalculation.

Now I hate to have to be the one to write any of this.  What I’m saying is hardly revolutionary or new.  In fact, what I’m saying is easily what the most conservative endorsers of Today would say in response to social critics.  I’ve hardly been a cheerleader of Today, and don’t imagine Tomorrow will be swell, either.

But I care about young people, and I care about their passion and their enthusiasm.  And while I’m terrified of the future, too, I can’t imagine how violence that will mostly impact the poor and working classes will lead to a healthier planet.  I don’t see how spending decades of your life behind bars (“in a cage”) will somehow make the world a safer place for dying species.

And while most of these Thought Leaders proclaim how delighted they’d be to give their own lives for the future of a healthy planet, they live on.

They prep on.

They pontificate on.

And they tell us over and over that if we don’t “do something,” something increasingly dramatic as their Doomlines creep forward, we won’t have Tomorrow.

So for those who believe that Today is the last day on Earth I say:

”So long, it’s been good to know you.”

For the rest of us, let’s continue to work for change, with the utmost of care, and always anticipate that Tomorrow MIGHT come.

“Brother, Can You Spare the Time?”: Psychotherapists Don’t Reach out to the Unemployed

Our families, friends, and true companionship are thus among consumerism’s principal casualties…We are hollowing out whole areas of life, of individual and social autonomy, of community, and of nature, and, if we don’t soon wake up, we will lose the chance to return, to reclaim ourselves, our neglected society, our battered world, because there will be nothing left to reclaim, nothing left to return to.   -Gus Speth – America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Psychotherapists of all disciplines have long thought of themselves as social advocates.  We’ve been taught that individuals are embedded in families, and in extended families.  These families are embedded in neighborhoods, cities, regions and countries.  Ultimately, climate decimation is teaching us that countries are embedded in a shrinking planet that is seriously hurting.

So I began a research project to answer the questions “How responsive are psychotherapists today to the needs of their local communities?” “How do they reach out to those who are in economic as well as psychological pain?” “To what extent does their advertising suggest that they are well aware that the western world is in the worst economic crisis since the last Great Depression?

I made the task easy for myself.  I chose seven cities that have the worst rates of unemployment and related social problems, then did a Google search.  I had written previously about how unresponsive psychologists were during the last Great Depression, actually appearing to find the topic of world economic hardship  unworthy of study.  Surely in an age of global networking, instantaneous news, and easy mobility, we would see psychotherapists announcing their willingness to help the unemployed, not just those still prosperous “worried well.”  At least acknowledge that these are hard times.

Alas, little has changed.

My research found scant evidence in advertising profiles that psychotherapists in private or group private practices are aware or responsive to the economic crisis that is overwhelming their cities. While they may identify specific stressors that are the result of joblessness, they virtually ignore acknowledging the social, economic, and environmental issues that are dominant worries for many urban Americans today.

Seven Worst-Hit Cities

Below are the seven cities having both high unemployment and related social issues. In the parenthesis are the “official” unemployment statistics for that population:

  • El Centro, CA   (30.3%)
  • Yuma, AZ (28.7%)
  • Rockford, IL (15.7%)
  • Riverside, CA  (15.2%)
  • Detroit, MI  (14.3%)
  • Los Angeles  (12.5%)
  • Cleveland, OH (9.3%)

Those of you who read John Williams’ “Shadow Statistics” knows that you have to add at least 9 points (he says 14 points based on governments own stats) on to those numbers, if you were to take into account discouraged workers, involuntarily part-time workers, and the like.  So counting the truly under- or unemployed we learn that El Centro, CA  as a city with 4-5 of every 10 people without a job, could have twice as many workers unemployed than during the last Great Depression.

In Search for a Listening Ear for the ‘Lost-My-Jobbers’

I put myself in the mindset of an average person who has been laid off.  I want to find someone to talk about it.

I go to the internet, and read through the descriptions found on the first two pages of a Google search – keyword:  “therapist” and then individually add each of the worst hit cities listed above—(e.g. “Therapist” and “Cleveland, OH”).

Here is what I found:

There were hundreds of listings. Most describe themselves as “compassionate and kind.”  Some offered koans like:  “Each person is different, and we are all alike; or nautical themes like “helping you navigate your way through life’s difficulties…” They promised to help me “reach [my] full potential.”  Some asked the reader probing questions like:  “Are you falling apart?”

None of them mentioned that the planet  is falling apart.

Most talk about “meaningful change” that will help me to discover my “true self.” Does this include economic change that has caused chaos in the lives of so many people?

And when I’m asked whether my “productivity at work”  is off, I imagine I might blame myself if I were unemployed, asking:  “Is that the reason I’m not working?  Was I unproductive?”  Why don’t they mention the massive lay-offs that are happening in their cities?  Why don’t they mention the emotional hardship unemployment brings?

Some agencies clearly state their preference for seeing only the remaining “high- functioning clients” “seeking more fulfillment…and joy in their lives.” They also consult with employers to “uncover ways to reduce cost, [and] enhance employee morale.”

“Employee Morale” is a big problems when you let go a significant portions of your work force.  Often larger corporations hire “motivational speakers” days after the layoffs are announced, to promote a “positive attitude” as the “key to success” for their remaining work staff.  I wrote about this phenomenon in 2010:

In 1994, the same day that AT&T announced it would lay off fifteen thousand workers, it sent its San Francisco staff to a big-tent motivational lecture by Zig Ziglar who told the crowd:

“It’s your own fault, don’t blame the system; don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more” p. 115.

No one in Los Angeles, CA mentioned that residence live in one of the most expensive housing market in the country, with a sharp rise in the crime rate.  Nobody in Riverdale, CA mentioned increasing poverty rates or a rising level of pollution that is impacting the children.

In Cleveland, OH, a city with more robberies per 100,000, than any other city in the USA, a psychotherapist proclaims: “Clients deserve to get what they want.

Okay,” I mused, “I have a list for you: I want my job back; and a planet with half the population, a city that is safe and neighborly, and cheap gasoline.”

Sometimes the listing shocked me with the insensitivity shown–like the therapist who worked with parents who argued:  “The cost of services is less than the cost of a child’s funeral…

I Get It.  Times are Hard.”

I wasn’t looking for much.  I just wanted some acknowledgement that the person clients were going to open up to, to reveal their deepest fears to, actually recognized larger scary concerns.

In Detroit, it is great to “shine my light,” but I wanted some indication that the psychotherapist knew that the city’s lights were being shut off.

I found one:

Hello, we live in a very stressful time and things are becoming more difficult for couples, families and children every day. I have over 7 years of clinical experience and I understand many of the societal, family, and interpersonal factors that contribute to the challenges we face today.” Gerald Mc Gee, MSW, LICSW.

Thank you, Mr. Mc Gee.

In Rockford, Il, a city as hard hit as during the Great Depression, David Heuser, a minister, wrote:

Lack of insurance should not be an obstacle to receiving help. If you do not have insurance, if money is tight, I am willing to discuss with you how to deal with the financial arrangements of receiving counseling while dealing with the real issues that are important to you.”  Mr. David Heuser,  Counselor , LCPC , CADC , MSEd, MDiv

Bless you, Reverend.

Of perhaps hundreds of profiles I read in the seven worst cities in the US for unemployment, pollution, or crime, only these two profiles gave any hint that clinicians knew that bad things were happening to good people.

Many of the therapists claimed to be “practical” or “down to earth,” but none had anything to say about the deteriorating condition of  the Earth or the fact that you had to be “practically blind” to not see the obvious: the cities they practiced in were financial war zones.

A Significant Source of Stress

As professions, we know the impact of terrible economic times. Information is out there. Seventy-eight percent of Americans report money as a “significant source of stress” (APA, 2009).  Economists Daniel Sullivan and Till von Wachter estimated “a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed,” as well as a higher risk of suicide, disease and divorce.

And yet, only two psychotherapists gave any indication of the impact of job loss or community degradation in their profiles?

Position Mergers not Work Sharing

Countries like Germany are well aware of the emotional damage caused by unemployment, and have instituted ‘workshares,’ to keeps workers from being laid off.  The German government helps companies keep employees on their payrolls by subsidizing their wages with the money saved on unemployment benefits.  All work fewer hours, but all still work.  In contrast, in the US, managers are merging  two jobs, and increasing  the unemployment rolls.

The Stress of Being Unemployed

food lines in El Centro, CA

Food lines in El Centro, CA.
Modern-Day “Bread Lines”

Not doing productive work does terrible things to a person. According to the APA, the chances of depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, low subjective well-being and poor self-esteem double with unemployment. And those still working often end up with a heavier work load and the constant fear and anxiety that they’ll be next. Parental job loss even increases the incidents of punitive and arbitrary punishment of children.

And unemployment doesn’t only impact individuals, it impacts entire communities.

More from the APA:

Widespread unemployment in neighborhoods reduces resources, which may result in inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, restricted access to services and public transportation, and limited opportunities for employment, making it more difficult for people to return to work (Brisson, Roll, & East, 2009). Unemployed persons also report less neighborhood belonging than their employed counterparts, a finding with implications for neighborhood safety and community well-being (Steward et al., 2009).

While APA does call for extending the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, it continues to advocate for more research on the psychological impacts of unemployment, and pushes job re-training.  I argue that we know plenty about these impacts, and retraining only works if there are actual jobs to train for.  Often these programs provide good jobs only for the workers who run them.  Those who entered the computer programming field after being “retrained” can attest to the impact of repeated job displacement.

A Call to Action:

In the worst-hit cities, and indeed all over the USA, grass root action is happening, and I would like to invite my colleagues to join it or initiate it in their own communities.  We need to radically transform the way we provide mental health in this country, one psychotherapist at a time.

Our profession has become so tethered to health insurance companies, that we’ve stopped considering those without insurance coverage as “client eligible.”  The unemployed fall into this category.

It is clear that economic and psychological insecurity due to employment displacement is a real psychological issue.  How do you ignore 40% unemployment or underemployment?  How does that not get mentioned as a “specialty” under “problems treated”?  It is not enough to call it a “loss” or “life transition.”

And the silence about the context of psychological suffering in these profiles sends another message implicit:  Silence says that economic hardship, rising crime, deteriorating environmental conditions, and sky-rocketing energy costs aren’t appropriate issues to discuss in psychotherapists’ “safe offices.”  The message is “your pain is not connected to your deteriorating world.”


Some will argue that those in financial need are served by public mental health clinics, and don’t belong in private psychotherapy offices.  This argument is spurious, at a time when funding to pay for public services are dwindling. The mental health clinic I worked at that served the poor exclusively had a six-month waiting list.

If psychotherapy is truly a ‘calling’ where empathy reigns, I urge my colleagues to find psychologically sound methods of providing these services to those in need, regardless of their financial situation.

And because productive work enhances mental health, “Sliding scales” and hand-outs aren’t the best solutions.

Community Exchange Systems

One way to provide mental health services to the un- or underemployed, a strategy used successfully during the first Great Depression, is Community Exchange Systems (CES).  To again quote my former article:

When the Great Depression fell upon the American public, Self-Help organizations sprang up as a “spontaneous mass movement” and became a part of daily life for many people. By the end of 1932, there were self-help organizations in over 37 states with 300,000 members (equivalent to 2.1 million people today). Their work involved direct exchanges of goods and services (partially in cash), cooperative production for sale or trade. The largest group, in Seattle, WA, the Unemployed Citizens League (UCL) had twenty-two local commissaries around the city where food and firewood was available for exchange for every type of service and commodity from home repairs to doctors’ bills. Local farmers gave unmarketable fruits and vegetables over to their members to pick and people gained the right to cut firewood on scrub timberland.


These systems are not direct bartering. “Bartering” poses ethical dilemmas for therapists and can, for example, muddy the therapeutic relationship.  Instead, trading system “clients” are in no way obligated to the therapist directly.  They instead are obligated to the community, “paying back” their psychotherapy by delivering/selling something to another trader in the community.  It is, in the true sense of the word, a “favor bank.”

Giving to the War Effort

Today, as during World War I, psychotherapists have rallied to help returning veterans and the US Military, and this effort demonstrates how effective Community Exchanges are as applied to psychotherapy. CES organizations like Give An Hour , ask clinical volunteer professionals to give an hour of their time to provide critical mental health services to U.S. troops and their families who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. This organization is proof that such a system can work well for our profession.

Surely the economic ‘War on Workers’ deserves our attention no less.

The Dangers of Psychological Terrorism

I’ve developed a deep respect for how powerfully psychology frames reality. Misuse this power, and we pathologize a person’s emotional reactions, attributing psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression to past traumas, when these reactions are perfectly appropriate given the current situation or potential threat that presents itself. The sorrow over the death of a parent, for example, is not a mental illness, it is an appropriate emotional response to what has happened to you.  Unemployment and the resulting social and economic damage is no different.

When we pathologize predictable responses to life’s difficulties, and disconnect  actual events from common emotion reactions to it, we inflict what I call “Psychological Terrorism.”

When, as a group, we psychotherapists don’t acknowledge economic hardship, energy depletion, or environmental degradation as legitimate concerns for exploration in therapy, we send a powerful message to people implying that these aren’t “real” concerns, or that these are “personal” as opposed to “collective” issues, that require only personal help.  Referring the un- or under employed to movements like UCubed allows them to see themselves as part of the 31 million Americans without work.  It contextualizes their pain.  It promotes collective action.  It enhances mental health.

While mentioning “I know these are hard times” or “I’m sensitive to environmental concerns’ in their advertising will hardly be a revolutionary act, it is an initial step in first and foremost labeling this severe economic depression as “real.”  Imagine if physicians, dentists…all health and allied mental health professionals included in their advertising the phrase “We know you are hurting from this bad economy.  Let us know how we can help you get the help you need.”

This type of advertising says “It’s real.  It is happening to all of us, not just you.” It labels these concerns as legitimate stressors that intensify the need for treatment, as well as being a legitimate topic for treatment.

Community Spirit Lives

Community Exchange Systems (CES), Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), Mutual Credit trading systems or Time Banks are trading systems that are truly workable in communities decimated by a crumbling economy. When psychotherapists join them, participate in them, it tells our communities that we are aware of what is happening, and we are active participants in healing the suffering.  We put our own labor on par with that of other community workers and we are willing to exchange that labor to those who are willing to work for others.  Our very participation in such CES organizations are bolstering the care we provide, by providing the opportunity to work.

We Live in Historically Significant Times

My colleagues, let us not be judged harshly by history yet again. Eighty years ago, we responded, as a group, to the war effort, while ignoring the unemployed:

“When the United States entered the First World War, psychologists,

We are used to these pictures. Women and children weren’t allowed in these lines. They were taken around back, when they showed up for food.

as an associated group, volunteered their professional services. Their contribution was considerable, both to the conduct of the War and to psychology.

When the United States entered the big world depression, psychologists did nothing and, as a group, have so far done nothing.

For nearly 10 years we have suffered through a national social and economic crisis; yet, from an examination of our professional journals and the programs of our professional meetings, one might conclude that psychologists were oblivious of the fact that our social institutions are rattling about our ears.

In fact, the world at large is as ignorant of the possible contributions of psychologists as psychologists appear to be about the world.”

From:  The psychologist’s understanding of social issues. Gundlach, R. H.; Vol 37(8), Oct, 1940. pp. 613-620

Will history repeat itself?

Unemployment Line in Missouri

We can take action, as a profession, developing psychologically savvy and effective ways to empower those now ravaged by the second Greater Depression.  We can add our voices to the growing choirs that say “growth is a dead end on a finite planet” and that a “debt-based economy harms people.”  We can tell our clients “It isn’t you.  You are living in a time of great social upheaval. Don’t blame yourself.”

We can refuse to participate in Psychological Terrorism.

We know and teach that relationships, not material possessions bring us happiness.  Now we must model that conviction in our work, by interweaving our efforts into our wounded communities, giving and receiving services, not only money.

By our actions, we demonstrate our motivation to change our world for the better and earn the label “healers.”


Dr. Kathy McMahon, “The Peak Shrink,” is a clinical psychologist who chides herself, as well as her colleagues, for not pushing harder to find better ways to reach the un- and under-employed in her community.  She’s learned something about unemployment when her husband lost his business and was un- or under employed for 18 months. She’s learned about “job merging” when her “promotion” was withdrawn and “combined into” another existing higher-up position.  You can critique her own professional profile by entering in “Psychologist” and “Cummington, MA,” or just Google Kathy McMahon.

She welcomes your comments.





When Mental Health Becomes an Economic Issue (and what to do about it…)

Crazy for Comfort  

During the last Great Depression, financially desperate people ended up entering convents, seminaries, prisons and mental hospitals, when homeless shelters had no room for them. If the goal was three “hots and a cot,” being admitted to an insane asylum allowed you to eat well, sleep off the streets, and get free medical care. And most of those admitted didn’t have to feign their afflictions…being homeless remains an extremely stressful life circumstance.

Pushed Off the Tightrope, but Ignoring the Net              

Social security “safety nets,” put in place by F.D.R., have changed some of the options available when facing difficult economic times, especially for those with psychological disorders. We now have Social Security Insurance, (SSI) for the truly impoverished and disabled among us, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), an economic survival option for the previously employed working- or middle-classes.

The challenge today is to learn how to identify the need for and to accept help with emotional problems quickly, and to recognize that not doing so could mean taking an economic as well as psychological hit.

You do not need a long history of hospitalizations to qualify for SSDI, and this fact surprises many.  “Extreme” impairment is not a requirement, either.

Mental distress impacts earning potential, and getting help in a timely way is economically as well as emotionally smart. A colleague of mine said she expected most of her clients to improve their earning capacity as a logical outcome of working with her.

Disability Payments You’ve Been Paying For All Your Working Life

But if despite your best efforts, your emotional well-being deteriorates, you need a licensed provider to help you document the type of help you’ve been getting, and the “functional impairment” that requires you to tap into the existing economic insurance policy you’ve been paying 8.4% of your income, (perhaps as much as $9000. a year for…) all of your working life.  That insurance policy is SSDI.

And time is of the essence, because you’ll need financial resources to wait it out.  SSDI payments often kick in 2-4 years after you’ve apply, but the payments back-date from the time of the initial application.  For many, this means getting a check for between $15,000-$20,000, even after all expenses are paid.  That can truly ease the pain of mental distress.  And your benefits will continue until your retirement, as long as your impairment continues to be documented, typically every 3-5 years.

Knowing Your Options

This post is about knowing your options. My readership is a group that by and large values financial independence, and has a deep distrust for all things governmental.  But they also plan for the worst, and are deeply pragmatic.  The “sin qua non” of mental health is often the capacity to sort out reality from illusion, figure out who to trust and who to be suspicious of, and determine ahead of time actions that will help you, from those that can prove more damaging.

So here is information to tuck away in case you ever need it.


I’ll begin by discussing the differences between SSI and SSDI, and the related increase in both unemployment and disability claims.  I’ll go on to describe the professional players (lawyers & psychologists) who usually assist people in filing these mental health insurance claims, and provide an overview the required steps to document a “functional mental impairment.”  Next, I’ll looks at different social and economic attitudes of those applying for SSDI vs. SSI, and the impact it has on their overall financial well-being.  My work in the inner city over the last three years helping clients get SSI will inform this discussion.

I will end by arguing that those in the working- and middle-classes are often the most reluctant to seek psychological care when they develop functional emotional problems that impact their working life.  This is unwise, not only from a social and emotional perspective, but also from a financial one. No one with a work history and financial assets should impoverish themselves before seeking government assistance, because you have directly paid into these funds through FICA contributions, and these funds are designed to buffer you from this very situation.

Unlike the urban poor, who use government monies as a baseline income, the middle classes errs in the opposite direction.  They refuse available resources, and instead spend down their savings and retirement.  Their invisible illness often negatively impacts their professional relationships. Only in desperation, when all other resources are exhausted, do they consider what has been available to them all along.

Had they been more pro-active, and known their options, they might have prevented the catastrophic hit.  I provide a story of one entrepreneurial  family who prevented financial ruin as an example of how this can be done.

What is SSI and SSDI?

Social Security is a federal insurance plan that pays for someone’s “total disability” including mental health impairment. “Disability” under Social Security, is based on your inability to engage in consistent productive work. The difference between SSI and SSDI, is in who pays for it, and whether the applicant has “resources” (e.g. cash, a home, cars, or investment accounts) or not.

Resources and Who Pays

Think of SSDI as ‘Worker’s Disability.’ Paid out of the Social Security trust fund, it is available to those who have worked and paid 4.2%  (or 8.4% for the self-employed) included in FICA taxes, for a required minimum number of years. The amount of SSDI payout, is linked to your employment history, is paid out of workers’ tax contributions. Eligibility does not take into account one’s assets. Owning assets does not affect your eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

SSI, on the other hand, is a need-based program for people with low income and few resources. Individuals can apply for SSI if they aren’t insured for SSDI, or are insured for SSDI but are only eligible to receive a fairly small SSDI monthly benefit. A person may potentially be eligible to receive both SSDI and SSI. This is known as a “concurrent disability claim.”  Currently, the cap on assets for SSI is set at $2,000 (or $3,000 for a couple). But some assets, like the house you live in and the car you drive for basic transportation, aren’t counted toward the cap on assets.

Substantial Gainful Activity
Being “disabled” means being financially, as well as physically or mentally disabled.  “Substantial Gainful Activity” is work that monthly brings in over a certain amount of income.  The amount changes year to year. Make more than that amount per month, and SSA says you “are able to engage in competitive employment in the national economy.”

Disability Rises with Unemployment

Here is a chart that shows REAL unemployment statistics, courtesy of Shadow Statistics:

Now let’s look at the rise in disability:

Rise Seen in Social Security SSID Benefit Lawsuits

Appeals Tell the Tale

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (27 Jul 2012):

“…the latest available data from the federal courts show that in June of this year there were 860 new SSID (not a typo) Title XVI lawsuits filed, most under US Code Title 45 Section 405 which allows for judicial review when Social Security supplemental security income (SSI) benefits are denied. The number of filings for each of the last four months (March through June 2012) is higher than for any other month in the past five years. Overall, the data show these filings are up 19.4 percent from a year ago and up 62.6 percent from levels reported in June 2007.” (emphasis added)

These are tough times.  And how does that compare to pre-2007 numbers?

Social Security claims that “the share of the U.S. population receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) benefits has risen rapidly over the past two decades, from 2.2 percent of adults age 25 to 64 in 1985 to 4.1 percent in 2005.”  

Three in 10 workers between the ages of 18-64 will be disabled, according to SSA.

Why Are Lawyers Involved?

Disability is a steady stream of income for lawyers, who are able to collect up to 25% of all back-payments owed to the filer, starting from the date of first filing, should they win the claim, with a cap of $6000.  That adds up to considerable money, as lawyers can handle quite a few claims at one time.  The lawyer charges nothing up front to the disabled person, so the cost of entry is low.  And attorneys who do nothing but disability cases know how to approach the claim, to maximize the odds that their clients win these claims.  They will usually aim for winning 80-95% of the cases they take, so if they take your case, you probably have a solid chance of getting disability.

Therefore, charting SSID, or law suits arguing for disability clients (SSI), is a quick and accurate feedback mechanism for charting the rise of SSI filings.

What Do Psychologists and Other Mental Health Professionals Do?

In the case of those who are filing for mental impairment, they typically fall into those qualifying for SSI, and those qualifying for SSDI.  In the agency I worked for, we only took SSI cases, because we only accepted publicly funded insurance.

Those aiming for SSDI will typically want to hire a private diagnostician, rather than go to a public mental health clinic (although many public health clinics take all types of insurance).  You want to ask them “How many workman’s comp and SSDI/SSI assessments do you do a year, and do you measure your success rate?”  In my agency, we seldom had a client who was ultimately found ineligible (but that may also be due to the multi-problem families we worked with.)  I believe there was one in the three years I was there, and that case was currently on appeal.

What to Expect from the Psychologist

Psychologists conduct an interview, and perform a diagnostic assessment. This provides the Social Security Administration (SSA) with psychological testing, such as IQ tests, Projective or neuropsychological  instruments, to document the nature and extent of the functional impairment. It is best if the psychologist conducting the evaluation is not the same professional who is treating you on an ongoing basis.  Many psychologists do nothing but these types of assessments to be used in disability cases. They know how to write an effective report that meets SSA requirements.  A comprehensive psychological report, which clarifies the current diagnosis, and documents functional impairment is required to make a clear case determination.

There are nine diagnostic categories that qualify a person for disability because of mental impairment: Organic mental disorders (12.02); schizophrenic, paranoid and other psychotic disorders (12.03); affective disorders (12.04); mental retardation (12.05); anxiety-related disorders (12.06); somatoform disorders (12.07); personality disorders (12.08); substance addiction disorders (12.09); and autistic disorder and other pervasive developmental disorders (12.10). Each of these, with the exception of mental retardation and substance addiction disorders, requires both a statement describing the disorder(s), including a set of medical findings such as those diagnostic tests given by the psychologist, and a set of impairment-related functional limitations.

SSI Recipients in ‘Deep Poverty’

The case I’m presenting below isn’t an actual person, but it is a composite description of hundreds of families very similar to Ms. James’, that I supervised over my three years working in the inner city with those in deep poverty.  We classify families as living in “deep poverty” if they have three elements: (a) severe poverty – an income less than half the median income for poor families; (b) long term poverty – being poor for 5 years or longer; and (c) concentrated poverty – living in a neighborhood in which 30% of families are poor (Wilson, 2005):

Ruby James, (26 years old), has been out of work for 6 years.  She is intelligent, but functionally illiterate and probably has an undiagnosed learning disability. Her children, ages 2, 5 and 7, are all on social security disability (SSI) for various reasons including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism, and physical disability. Each child has a different father. The oldest child’s father, Mr. Clarke is drug addicted, and there is a restraining order against him by Ms. James for domestic violence. The whereabouts of her second child’s father is unknown.  The youngest child’s father is in prison.  

Ms. James is currently fighting with her mother over custody of her three children.  Her mother, Ms. Thompson, has charged that her daughter is an “unfit parent,” as she alleges that there is no food in the house, and that her daughter is once again living with her former partner and father of her oldest child, Mr. Clarke.  She further alleges that her daughter sometimes leave the children home at night alone, “to party with friends,” claiming that the 7 year old is left to “babysit.”

Ms. James denies living with Mr. Clarke. She admits that she is clinically depressed, (the basis of her own current disability claim).  She is, according to her own report “a caring and devoted mother.”  Ms. James counter-alleges that her mother is fighting for custody of her children “only to get their benefits.”

Ms. James’ children’s benefits, in addition to her aid to dependent children, food stamps, public health care, and subsidized housing costs, are her only sources of income.

All-Out War on Black and Hispanic Men

Her boyfriend, Mr. Clarke, is not working, and if he is living with her, he is another drain on an otherwise overtaxed family system.  I was left convinced after my three years working in the inner city, that there is an all-out war against Black and Hispanic men in this country.  The education they get in this city is abysmal, and the pressure to stay safe by joining gangs is enormous.  The availability of decent jobs is negligible. When they could be found, they were often secured by others through nepotism or outright prejudice.  Often, the inner-city applicant lacked even the most basic of job skills.  As a result, the intact family, where the father is present, caring, and not abusive, is exceptionally rare in this clinic population.  Fathers are essentially absent, abusive, or imprisoned.  That is the norm.  And it convinced me that families need two loving parents.

Domestic Violence a “Bad Reason” to Land in Prison

Ongoing domestic violence is also quite possible, as her mother alleges, and witnessing that violence puts her children, as well as Ms. James, at risk.  Women in these communities expect adult men to spend at least some time in prison. Children visit family members in prisons from a young age. Domestic violence, however, is considered a ‘bad reason’ to be there, although it is often tolerated in the relationship. Children also witness violent murders commonly, and attend funerals of loved ones they’ve lost.

It is the traumatic norm.

Ms. James may also be correct that her mother could indeed have complicated reasons, including financial motives, for wanting custody.  She’s raising several other grandchildren, is herself on SSI, and feels she “has the time”  and greater “skill” to raise her daughters’ children.

A Seriously Broken System Turns Children into Economic Assets 

Conservatives rail against this type of social benefit payout, and it has become “politically incorrect” to paint such a dreary portrait of the lives of those living in “deep poverty.”  There is no question in my mind that the system is seriously broken, and serves no one well, including the infrastructure of service providers and state workers that now do home-based services.  It is a multi-generational problem that needs multi-generational intervention. In a down-turning economy, this help is unlikely to be forthcoming. What we see in this “Culture of SSI” is that this insurance becomes seen as a sole avenue for financial stability, and given how meager this allotment is, families fight over children who have SSI, as valuable economic resources.

Be that as it may, in a time of increasing economic turmoil, and rising costs of living, the inner city is becoming a nastier place to live, and a tough place to work for those charged with helping families like the James’.  In my last year at this agency, I saw many more incidents of violence or threats of violence toward clinicians than in any other previous year.

Middle-Class Disability

Regularly, I was asked to review psychological testing reports and co-sign paperwork for those being evaluated for mental health disability.

I have come to realize that in contrast to the “Culture of SSI” as a foundation of economic security among the urban poor, many working-class and middle-class families in trouble have no idea how SSDI works, or that they might be eligible for it. There is larger stigma about seeking out mental health services among the working and middle classes than among those in ‘deep poverty.’  This could be a financial mistake.

Those who actively seek treatment when in distress, even if only periodically, create a ‘paper trail,’ which enables them to easily accumulate all of the necessary documentation, should a ‘marked’ impairment in cognitive or psychological functioning arise.  Those who are more economically successful, better educated, or have a prior history of unbroken prosperity often wait before they get help.

Take this hypothetical case example:

Ralph Albertson, and his wife, have run a small business from their home successfully for many years.  However, during the economic downturn, they were unable to sustain it at a viable level.  The couple began first to live off their savings, and finally their retirement income, hoping the economy would “turn around.”   The impact to his suffering business took a severe toll on Ralph.  He became clinically depressed, and at the urging of his wife, was treated by a psychologist, and referred to a psychiatrist for medication.  Despite these interventions, Ralph never fully recovered his capacity to work.

He filed for SSDI.

In order to qualify, he was referred by his treating psychologist to a colleague, who gave Ralph six common psychological tests. His psychologist helped Ralph get his paperwork in order, and contact a disability attorney.  Ralph  was referred to an attorney, because he was self-employed, and these cases can sometimes be difficult to win.  Ralph was granted SSDI, after a long waiting period, and two appeals.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) denies 65 percent of the initial claims filed, and appeals are the norm. It also can take a long time to go through the system, on average two to four years.

This application and income, although not a large amount to the Albertsons, cleared the way to other benefits, such as state offered health insurance, food stamps (SNAP) and fuel assistance, that the Albertsons might not otherwise have been aware they were eligible for.

What does “residual impairment” mean to Ralph, who works in his own business from home?

While Ralph is able to continue working in his business, even after receiving SSDI, and the couple continues to receive monthly income from it, Ralph is no longer as effective as he used to be.  Once a capable trouble-shooter of customer complaints, for example, Ralph no longer has the “patience” to cope with these calls.  He has had to hire part-time help.  

While he has “good periods” where he is feeling hopeful and effective, these are punctuated  by deeply depressed mood, where he “talks incessantly about economic, environmental, and energy declines that are”, in his words “sweeping the country,” according to his wife.  When he’s better, he’s a tireless worker in his community in the Transition Town movement.  When he’s not doing well, he barely functions. During these dark periods, he works actively to manage suicidal thoughts, with the help of his therapist.

How Long Does SSDI or SSI Last?

Ralph is 47.  At this age, if he continues to be eligible, he will receive SSDI benefits until his retirement.  The Albertsons would prefer to be off of SSDI payments, and have a successful business once again.  But Ralph and his wife have found out what many poor recipients have discovered:  the jump in their income must be quite substantial, if they are to maintain their current ‘subsidized’ lifestyle.  This is no easy task in this economy.

Simple, Sustainable Living

The Albertson’s lifestyle is by no means a lavish one.  Most would not even call it a “comfortable” income, but the Albertsons have paid off their modest  home many years ago, insulated it well in preparation for tough times, cook from scratch, and for environmental reasons, are not avid consumers or intentional tourists. They even have a wood stove,  and harvest their own firewood.

Vacillating Functioning

This modest, lower-stress existence has helped Ralph enormously.  When his mood, concentration, and attention improves, he is able to work effectively at his desk, and accomplish his work.  He will engage easily in meal preparation and housekeeping during these times.

Consistency of Functioning a Key Consideration

These periods of better functioning are not a problem for SSDI, however, because these improvements are not consistent.  Consistency in “residual functional capacity” (RFC) is important, to prevent his depression from impacting his ability to do “substantial gainful activity” (SGA).  Without his wife and part-time help as back-up, the business would not continue to function, and this has been made clear to SSA.

He demonstrates that need for continued assistance by faithfully attending his therapy appointments, despite these emotional ups and downs.  His psychologist is able to give accurate and competent documentation that attests to his need for continued disability payments, when his review comes up every 3-5 years.

“Marked” vs “Extreme” Impairment

Ralph is not a severely impaired individual who is regularly hospitalized for his condition.  Social Security Adminstration is clear that this is not a requirement:

“Where we use “marked” as a standard for measuring the degree of limitation, it means more than moderate but less than extreme. A marked limitation may arise when several activities or functions are impaired, or even when only one is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is such as to interfere seriously with your ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis. See §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a.”

They continue:

“We do not define “marked” by a specific number of different behaviors in which social functioning is impaired, but by the nature and overall degree of interference with function. For example, if you are highly antagonistic, uncooperative, or hostile but are tolerated by local storekeepers, we may nevertheless find that you have a marked limitation in social functioning because that behavior is not acceptable in other social contexts.”

Stopping the Downward Economic and Psychological Slide

If Ralph’s situation doesn’t sound serious to you, if you feel he is “bilking the system” for benefits, it is likely that your own idea of living in hard economic times is accompanied by an elevated tolerance for depressive symptoms as an “acceptable reality of modern life.”  Clearly there is a correlation between depression and stress, as there is between unemployment and increased alcohol consumption. But clinical depression is not the same as feeling “bummed out” or “blue” about a loss of income.

Stop-Gap Answer for an Ongoing, Deteriorating Economic Climate

The question remains how many of us would be as pro-active as the Albertsons and take the steps necessary to contact a professional and seek help in a similar situation?  And how many psychotherapists would be familiar enough with the SSDI process, or integrate the necessity of economic help, as part of their treatment plan?  In Ralph’s case, that help was not totally successful in alleviating his symptoms, to enable him to return to his previous high-level functioning.  If it did, he might have found other ways to generate income for his family, even in these financially challenging times.

However, his lingering depressive symptoms, which impact his capacity to function in this present hostile economic environment, prompted his psychologist to encourage Ralph to consider SSDI, as a stop-gap measure to alleviate his family’s ongoing and deteriorating economic condition.  And SSDI was successful in helping Ralph to keep his home, as well as his sanity, intact.

The Shame of Reaching Out

Ralph had steadily paid into FICA, 8.4% of his income, once he became self-employed.  Still, it took supportive counseling before Ralph could see that it was the economy, not his entrepreneurial skills, that were failing, and to accept depression as a diagnosable mental disorder, not a personal weakness.

SSDI now serves as a financial support, partially restoring the steady income that both the economy and Ralph’s depression has taken away from him.

Unwillingness to Accept Crippling Emotional Distress

In fact, one might argue that the Albertsons have actually adjusted quite well to their circumstances, by being unwilling to accept Ralph’s depressive symptoms as a “normal” reaction to economic hard times.  And there are many indications of this intelligent adjustment to difficult circumstances:

  • Ralph is still happily married;
  • He’s resisted the lure of abusing drugs or alcohol to cope with his depression, and;
  • He has maintained his community contacts.

He should be applauded for being pro-active.

If we were to ask him what he thought of this experience, he might say something like this:

I wouldn’t recommend depression to anyone.  I felt so terrible, I wanted to die to stop it.  I can’t see anything positive in my life, past or present, including my wife, when I’m depressed, and I used to take it out on her, but I’ve learned how not to.  

She was the one that insisted that I get help. I was resistant because it was the worst possible time to shell out money for something I’d always considered a waste of time and money  I was also ashamed of what I considered a personal failure, and the last thing I wanted to do was talk to someone about it. But now I’m glad I did.  If I hadn’t, I would have continued like that for… I don’t know how long, and eventually our savings would be gone and we’d have to sell our house.  And I’d keep telling myself to “snap out of it,” but I never would.  I couldn’t on my own.

I know it sounds bad, but I have more freedom now to live my life in a more normal way.  I can respond to the pressures more realistically now, and take a break when I need it.  There are some days I sit in the sun or take a long walk, rather than sit in the office, because I that’s all I can do, and I don’t beat myself up over it anymore.  And the chunk of money, over $18,000 when it finally came through, after the lawyer was paid, really came in handy.”

Forward Into the Past

There is a time, and many say it is coming soon, when families like the Albertson’s will have no other recourse but to sell their house and remain as destitute as any family once found roaming the country during the 1930’s in search of work, with their possessions loaded onto their station wagon.

But that time is not now.

If you, or someone you know is suffering… is just not getting through the day without enormous effort, encourage them to get them help, and keep careful records, when they do.  If their functioning is impacted in a marked and prolonged way, consider disability as a financial, as well as a therapeutic option.

The financial life you save might be your own.



Ants, Angels and Armor: Further Conversations on Human Nature

“The big system can be pretty overwhelming. We know that we can’t beat them by competing with them. What we can do is build small systems where we live and work that serve our needs as we define us and not as they‘re defined for us. The big boys in their shining armor are up there on castle walls hurling their thunderbolts. We’re the ants patiently carrying sand a grain at a time from under the castle wall. We work from the bottom up. The knights up there don’t see the ants and don’t know what we’re doing. They’ll figure it out only when the wall begins to fall. It takes time and quiet persistence. Always remember this: They fight with money and we resist with time, and they’re going to run out of money before we run out of time”
― Utah Phillips


Graphic Source

Six Walton family members on the Forbes 400 had a net worth equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans.  Source

After I posted “Sustaining Our Better Angels,” Bill Rees and I got into an email conversation, drawing into the dialogue, other wonderful thinkers, including Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace International, who decided to pull from this conversation and write an article for the Watershed Sentinel.

I would like to make a few brief comments before you read this article.

The first is what I believe are the dangers of discussing a human’s “animal nature” that require “supra-instinctual survival strategies” to overcome.  My question is:  Who is capable of “supra-instinctual survival strategies”?  Our leaders?  A few elites who can overcome their ‘baser’ instincts and see beyond their immediate needs? To quote my early post: “As people living in the wealthiest of nations, we may have, as Dr. Rees suggests, sunk to our lowest selves, become lost and destructive, plundering the planet while drowning in our sea of “stuff.” But this is simply a perverse and pervasive cultural meme promulgated by a powerful and influential oligarchy.”


It is a common strategy to dilute blame.  This strategy says “We are all to blame, not just the rich and powerful.”  This is horse manure.  As Utah Phillips has said:

 “The Earth is not dying – it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses.”

We don’t need new institutions, trans-national powers, or powerful elites- hundreds of people making decisions for the rest of us.  We don’t need to step out of our “animal nature” or be washed of the original sin of our biopsychological heritage.

Our “better angels” are not above us.  They are within us, ready to be called forth.

From:  Watershed Sentinel 25  November-December 2011 Environmental News from British Columbia and the World 


In 2010, UBC professor and “Ecological Footprint” originator, Dr. William Rees, wrote “The Human Nature of Unsustainability”  for the Post Carbon Reader, explaining evolutionary/genetic reasons that our “reasonably intelligent species” appears unable to recognize its ecological crisis or respond accordingly. Rees explains that most species share two traits that aid survival but risk overconsumption of resources:

  1. To expand to occupy all accessible habitats, and
  2. To use all available resources.

Humans are what biologists call “K-strategists.” The “K” stands for a habitat’s carrying capacity, which large mammals tend to fill, resulting in evolutionary pressure to gratify individual desires for food, sex, etc. These tendencies – to expand, consume, and satisfy short-term desires – have survival value until the species overshoots its habitat capacity. Thereafter, without a predator or other force to check growth, such species can obliterate a habitat as reindeer did on St. Matthews Island and as humans are doing on Earth as a whole.

“Certain behavioural adaptations helped our distant ancestors survive,” writes Rees, “but those same (now ingrained) behaviours today … have become maladaptive.”

Better Angels

Fair enough, thought clinical psychologist Dr. Kathy McMahon, but what about our “better angels?” Do we not, “have within us, the very innate altruistic qualities needed to work our way back to that simpler, communally-focused way of life …that will bring us back to our senses? It is happening already.”

McMahon, who posts stories of environmental trauma on her website, knows full well, “We’re bombarded with alarming headlines on a daily basis. How do we find the sane space between Doom and Denial?

In a response, McMahon asks,

Does our understanding of the economic and socio-political dominance of ‘Homo Economicus’ inform all we need to know about human nature to motivate behaviour change?” She writes, “We must pause again to ask ourselves: ‘Which humans are we talking about?’ We may need to look outside The First World for insights and broader understandings.

This post led to an enlivened email dialogue between Rees and McMahon, a model discussion that our world needs, between two engaged thinkers. Here are some excerpts:


Rees: Kathy, thanks for your detailed and sensitive dissection …Humanity is a conflicted species … [torn] between what reason and moral judgment say we should do, and … what pure emotion and baser instincts command us to do. In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I suggest a way out, not far removed from your own analysis:

 We have reached a crucial juncture in human evolutionary history … genes and ideology that urge ‘every man for himself!’ might well mean destruction for all. Long term selective advantage may well have shifted to genes and memes that reinforce cooperative behaviour. Emotions such as compassion, empathy, love and altruism are key components of the human behavioral repertoire. The central question is whether we can muster the… political will … [to] reinforce these natural ‘other regarding’ feelings.

To reduce the human eco-footprint, the emphasis in free-market capitalist societies on individualism, greed, and accumulation must be replaced by a renewed sense of community, cooperative relationships, generosity, and a sense of sufficiency.… We must self-consciously create the cultural framing required for the brighter colours to shine.

McMahon: Bill, thank you. We aren’t far off in spirit. I was most disturbed by no mention of corporate advertisers when you discuss the power of memes to shape thought.  I substituted the word “corporation” in your article for “human” and I found the result a running, raging polemic. Here’s a sample:

Given the availability of cheap energy, regulatory relaxation, technological innovation and social manipulation, corporations became a dominant force in the human endeavor worldwide…. The size and scale of corporate growth and influence is unprecedented…. The expansionist myth is a central tenet of corporations.

The violent mindset … impacts the collective community consciousness in areas of creativity, ruthlessness, economic prosperity, inner peace, outer peace, power struggles, greed, envy, materialism and narcissism.  This violent meme has so dominated discourse in the USA, that our unconscious assumptions about what is “human nature” are debased.

We have another equally powerful and “evolutionarily based” nature: altruism.

Rees: The corporate sector …spends billions of dollars to create advertising ‘memes’ that play to peoples unconscious fears, desires and insecurities… turning people into consuming cogs in the capitalist machine. In other writings, I have condemned the role of corporate advertising:

“Consumption … has become the meaning of life … the criterion of existence, the mystery before which one bows (Ellul 1975) … the consumer society was actually a deliberate social construct … a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is still dedicated  to making people unhappy with whatever they have … Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life …” (From “Toward Sustainability with Justice” in Colin Soskolne’s Sustaining Life on Earth).

The same general pattern applies to the … anti-science narrative sweeping the US and elsewhere today. We have entered a “new age of unreason.” Powerful corporations and individuals (e.g., the Koch family) fund think-tanks designed specifically to mis-inform the public … [A] perverted individualism abhors laws and regulations, diminishes community and generally undermines … the public good.

In “What’s Blocking Sustainability,” I mention that repeated exposure to ideological assertions “actually help[s] to imprint the individual’s synaptic circuitry in neural images of those experiences … People tend to seek out experiences that reinforce their pre-set neural circuitry and to select information from their environment that matches these structures.”Conversely, “when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information,” (Wexler 2006, p. 180).

This is why it is so difficult to induce social change. The neoconservative right-wing has so skillfully exploited this dimension of human biology, that vast numbers of Americans and Canadians are persuaded to vote against their own interests. The entire manipulation is oriented toward protecting the interests of the owners of capital, the corporate sector and their acolytes.

There is no hope for change if we mis-define the problem and fail to understand the deep bio-psychological roots of cultural inertia. By contrast, the opposition are doing everything imaginable to entrench that inertia. If enough people come to understand… that they are being manipulated, there may be a groundswell of resistance before it is too late to turn things around.

McMahon: You’re correct that the values of Homo Economicus are deadly to the planet. But it is dangerous to confuse the dysfunction of humans impacted by global free market capitalism, with the norms of human psychology. Unipolar depressive disorders are the leading causes of disability worldwide. Is this a normal human state?

The solutions are local, not global… communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” are features that all humans crave, and therefore there is no need for “supra-instinctual survival strategies.” We live in an insane culture.

Rather than marginalize the cries for reform, we need to normalize the pain. Protest and concern are healthy reactions to loss and grief … We should study those who aren’t suffering these symptoms. Those who can’t or don’t feel the loss or who don’t know why they are drinking and drugging themselves, that is the true tragedy.”


The key difference between Dr. Rees and I remains the emphasis we place on our better angels.  Evil exists.  However, I don’t see greed, selfishness or aggression as any more dominant than altruistic instincts.  Phrases such as ‘supra-instinctual survival strategies‘ make me nervous because they suggest an elitist top-down approach to the dilemmas of depleting energy reserves, degraded environment conditions and economic hard times.  Personally, I remain deeply suspicious of solutions that require thunderbolts from on high.   And, you’ll see a lot of proposals out there that argue that centralized solutions are our only hope, suggesting we turn over the control to those who know better. The danger we face is not our nature, but the ease of which we see only the “knights” and miss the “ants.”  The ‘shiny armor’ is the media, which shapes the discourse.  The ants are all around us now, seemingly insignificant, camping out in parks, singing a new Handel hymnal about corporate greed, and paying off the K-mart holiday lay-a-way bills of complete strangers all across the USA.

I’d rather cast my lot with the ants.


Sustaining Our Better Angels

Walk with Angels by Amy White*

William E. Rees, FRSC is a man worthy of respect. He put forth the notion of an “Ecological Footprint” in 1992.  I had the pleasure of meeting him at a small dinner party when I spoke in Vancouver last year as part of my lecture tour. I read his latest piece: The Human Nature of Unsustainability, posted on Energy Bulletin with keen interest.

Planet Killers

In this article, Rees discusses how the scientific community has gone on record to tell us we are killing the planet.  He presents us with a dilemma:  If we know that what we are doing is bad for us, why do we keep doing it?  His emphasis in this article is to look at human nature, itself, to find an essential part of the answer.

According to Dr. Rees, humans are “K-strategists:”

“K” stands for the long-term carrying capacity of an ecosystem; K-strategists are species that tend to have relatively stable populations approaching that carrying capacity…Their individual survival and overall evolutionary success depend on competitive superiority at high population densities when resources are scarce.

Growth Memes

He points out the powerful impact that our collectively shared beliefs have on economic growth:

The entire world today is in the thrall of a particularly powerful “meme complex” whose effect is to reinforce humanity’s K-selected expansionist tendencies….This growth-oriented mythic construct has shaped the lives of more people than any other cultural narrative in all of history.

As an influential memetic construct, the growth imperative is actually just two generations old. Only in the 1950s did economic growth emerge from nowhere to become the “supreme overriding objective of policy” in many countries around the world.

In this discourse, the damage done to the planet by “Homo Economicus,” becomes a description of Homo Sapiens as a collective whole, and we humans are allegedly, a competitive, destructive bunch:

…we habituate to any level of consumption (once a given level is attained, satisfaction diminishes) so the tendency to accumulate ratchets up. This is particularly so if we perceive that another social group—or country—is “getting ahead” faster than we are.

In making his argument, Rees moves from genetics to evolutionary biology, neurobiology and cultural memes seamlessly, linking concepts of emotionality, competitiveness, irrationality and human selfishness as defining human traits we need to overcome.

From a systems perspective, we might say that our current “unsustainability” is a product of the natural system…

There are certain behavioral adaptations that helped our distant ancestors survive—and thus those predilections were passed on to us. But those same (now ingrained) behaviors today are decidedly not helpful in solving our sustainability crisis—they have become maladaptive.

According to Rees: We…cannot assume that global society will necessarily deal rationally with the data documenting accelerating global ecological change,” and, he reminds us, as we are all too familiar: “passion will trump reason in shaping one’s responses to emotionally charged or life-threatening encounters.”  Quoting neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, he argues that to survive as a species, we need to rise above our innate proclivities and employ:

…supra-instinctual survival strategies that have developed in society, are transmitted by culture, and require for their application consciousness, reasoned deliberation and willpower.

While he’s careful to add that “[T]his perspective is not rooted in genetic determinism;” and doesn’t deny that “other factors contribute to humanity’s sustainability dilemma,” he nonetheless argues that “unless we factor in the bioevolutionary contribution, our understanding of the modern human predicament will remain unintelligibly incomplete and any “solutions” hopelessly ineffective.”

He writes:

Humans like to think that we have arrived at the free-will end of this spectrum, but much of modern cognitive science suggests that this is largely illusion. Psychologist Robert Povine argues from the available evidence that the starting assumption in behavioral psychology should be “that consciousness doesn’t play a role in human behaviour. This is the conservative position that makes the fewest assumptions.”

…To reestablish cognitive consonance between ingrained perceptions and new environmental realities requires that affected parties engage in the willful restructuring of their belief systems and associated neural pathways. These efforts require conscious effort and will not always be successful: “There are indeed potions in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us behaviours that we may or may not be able to suppress by strong resolution.” Even when people accept that such a change in their beliefs and their thinking is necessary, the process can be lengthy, difficult, and unpredictable.

International Global Solution?

He ends the piece on quite a different note, arguing that while “[m]odern society has been paralyzed by cognitive dissonance, collective denial, and political inertia in dealing with the sustainability conundrum” his hope is that with “international agreement on the nature of the problem, a global solution is at least theoretically possible.”  His dreams are for a global centralized solution where by the force of “unprecedented political will,” and “creative engagement of modern communication technologies” the entire “world community” will develop a “commitment to a collective solution.”  The exclamation point at the end of this sentence implies that he, himself, sees little hope of that happening.  Yet, according to Rees,  “[t]hese are the minimal cultural tools needed to socially reengineer ourselves, and to educate the next generation from scratch, in a whole new sociocultural paradigm for survival. (emphasis added)

Will the Real Human Please Stand Up?

I suggest, however, that we must pause again to ask ourselves: “Which humans are we talking about?

For Rees, “Homo Economicus,” so involved as he is in world domination, is Homo Sapien. The hegemony of global capitalism is subsumed into “the expanding human enterprise itself.”  But does our understanding of the economic and sociopolitical dominance of “Homo Economicus,” inform all we need to know about human nature to motivate behavior change?

Consciousness Doesn’t Count?

In this argument, Rees puts front and center a quite powerful meme in its own right. The implication is that cognitive psychology is itself a “hard science” able to say anything as concretely as the absurd post-modern notion that human “consciousness doesn’t play a role in human behaviour.

As a clinical psychologist who maintains an interest in social, cognitive and evolutionary psychology, I’ve become increasingly hesitant to agree that rescuing the future survival of a livable planet rests so soundly on acknowledging the limits of free will.  While I often get a kick out of  the inventive conclusions my colleagues reach, based on the severely limited social science research they conduct, my amusement ends when these same conclusions are used to generalize these findings to all of humanity.

We Are the World, We are THE Humans…

As Steven J. HeineProfessor of Psychology, University of British Columbia points out, the field of psychology itself is a very narrow, ethnocentric place:

…both the people conducting the research and the people who are the targets of the research largely come from a select few cultural backgrounds. Here are some indicators of the narrowness of the field: A review of international scientific productivity found that American-based psychologists accounted for 70% of the citations in psychology, a proportion higher than any of the other sciences reviewed (and approximately twice the proportion of chemistry). The next biggest contributing nations are all English-speaking ones: the UK, Canada, and Australia, respectively.

Likewise, my colleagues, Joe Henrich, Ara Norenzayan, and I, have calculated that a randomly selected American college student is more than 4000 times more likely to end up as a participant in a psychology study than is a randomly selected person living outside of the West. These nonrepresentative samples wouldn’t be such a problem if people everywhere thought in the same ways, but the available evidence shows that in many key ways they do not.

Unlike chemistry, where the object of study is independent of the researcher’s political or cultural perspective, psychologists study people. They often get the inspiration for their ideas by their own introspections and by observing those around them. A narrow range of perspectives isn’t a problem if one hopes to explain just those people who share those perspectives. But often psychologists purport to be studying human nature, and when the field only attracts those with a limited range of political and cultural perspectives, they may produce an incomplete and misleading caricature of that nature. (emphasis added)

If we, then, recognize this cultural bias, what is the meme that goes along with First World culture?

Pragmatic Altruism vs. Violent Mindset

As Stuart Twemlow, M.D. points out, we in the US are exposed to an”endless deluge of unmitigated violence, in the media, on the Internet, and in print, which subtly and gradually helps to shape a defensive “violent mindset” that reflects in the way we treat each other.”  In this violent mindset, people attempt to “spend much time trying to win at any cost” and “gauge personal success by economic and material gain.”  Despite the overwhelming evidence of the harmful and shaping effects of exposure to violence and its cancerous effects on communities, a “debate” about the impact of violence on the psyche continues.  Dr. Twemlow compares the “debate” about these facts as similar to the lengthy antique “debate” about cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

The violent mindset vs. what he calls the “pragmatic altruistic” mindset impacts the collective community consciousness in areas of creativity, thought patterns, ruthlessness, economic prosperity, inner peace, outer peace, power struggles, greed, envy, contempt, materialism and narcissism.  This violent meme has so totally dominated the discourse in the USA, that inevitably, our habits and unconscious assumptions about what is “human nature” are debased.  Our children are taught through the media that “winning isn’t everything, its the only thing.”

For more than 30 million years, as Twemlow points out, we have another equally powerful and “evolutionarily based” nature:  altruism.  The notion of “pragmatic altruism” is ridiculed as soft-headed and idealistic, and hardly a shaping factor of human evolution.  It therefore seldom considered as  a viable pathway to resolve the problems we face.

Monkeys and apes engage in reconciliation and forgiveness.  And even our complete understanding of “dominance” as one that benefits reproduction among the great apes has to be questioned when females apes sneak away with less dominant males.  Alpha male apes are often under greater physical and psychological stress, and have much higher levels of glucocorticoid stress hormones in their blood, which can result in impaired immune systems.  Dominance has its costs.

This powerful meme too often misreads the “selfish gene” as the “selfish human.” As I have argued elsewhere, “[t]here is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative.”  Herbert Spenser altered Darwin’s biological theories to fit his own philosophical economic notions in 1864.  It turns out that this narrative of a nasty, competitive selfish world, is only based on partial recollections of the data, and not only doesn’t it tell the whole story,  it presents a political (power) explanation for oppression using biology as a justification: “Nature is selfish so I can be selfish.” It is a narrative of genetic classism. It is also a narrative of domination and imperialism.

In emphasizing, as he does in this article, the competitive, destructive, self-focused and unconscious, irrational elements of an elite group of wealthy humans, Rees not only duplicates this same error, but leaves the reader feeling hopeless as to any clear pathway out of this horror.

Hardly idealistic ramblings of social scientist dreamers, Twemlow, Sacco and their colleagues point to concrete ways to alter this dreary outlook on the future.  The solutions are local, not global.  According to these researchers, communities deteriorate in predictable ways, but they can also be healed systematically when the will to do so is present. “Comfort,” “belonging” and “protection” are features that all humans crave, and therefore there is no need for “supra-instinctual survival strategies.”

The values of Homo Economicus are deadly to the planet.  But it is dangerous to confuse the dysfunction of humans impacted by global free market capitalism, with the norms of human psychology or psycho-evolutionary biology.  Unipolar depressive disorders is the leading causes of disability worldwide.  Is this a normal human state?

Are Fragmented Communities Killing the Planet?

As Bruce Alexander, Ph.D. points out, we live in a civilization that has become psychologically fragmented. Free market capitalism, now the dominant ideological economic system, has systematically displaced people, fragmenting Third World attachment to the land, a sense of:

“..identity that comes from secure families, stable communities, and a predictable future; we lack the sense of meaning that comes from shared values and religious beliefs; and we lack the confidence that comes from being part of a nation, a civilization, or an economic system that warrants our deep respect. More and more people are finding that addiction and other destructive lifestyles the most effective ways they can find to fill the social void and control the anxiety. Addictions, whether they center a person’s life on drugs or anything else provide some kind of a substitute for real identity, meaning, and confidence. Having found a substitute for what they lack in their inner core, people cling to it for all they are worth – addictively.” link

Among these addictions are compulsive shopping and other forms of consumption.  When basic human needs for belonging are met, attachment happens not only between people, but to the land they live on, as well.

As Chief Seattle wrote of the invaders:

Your dead forget you and the country of their birth as soon as they go beyond the grave and walk among the stars. They are quickly forgotten and they never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful earth. It is their mother. They always remember and love her rivers, her great mountains, her valleys. They long for the living, who are lonely too and who long for the dead. And their spirits often return to visit and console us.”

Similar ecoes are expressed in Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie MacLean’s 1988 lyrics in Solid Ground:

It’s the Land. It is our wisdom
It’s the Land. It shines us through
It’s the Land. It feeds our children
It’s the Land. You cannot own the Land. The Land owns you.

Alexander points out that the highlands of Northwestern Scotland provide an Anglo example of the dislocating effects of free markets on traditional society.

Until the second half of the 18th century, highlands society was little touched by free markets. The local economy was a network of traditional obligations among people living in stable families and occupying well-defined social strata…. Although highland society suffered from famine in poor years, it offered psychosocial integration to even the very poorest, and emigration was uncommon.  After the last major armed uprising against British rule was defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government began the systematic destruction of highland society.  The traditional bearing of arms was prohibited, as was traditional dress, including plaid, tartan, and kilt.

Group identity is maintained through “threads” of shared traditions and cultural characteristics of dress, celebrations, and customs.  Quoting songwriter Neil Young, I call this phenomenon becoming a “patch of ground people.”

Drs. Twemlow and Frank Sacco use of “pragmatic altruism” and “community stabilization systems” is transformative in a relatively brief period of time.  In a few years, a violent and degraded school in Jamaica, where truancy exceeded 70% and knife fights and rape were commonplace, became a peaceful place where former schoolyard bullies assumed a “non-bullying role, and even became “community helpers.” Montego Bay’s police force, once considered “animals” by the citizenry, were increasingly regarded as benevolent helpers and keepers of the peace.  These sorts of cultural shifts do not require neurological reprogramming, but instead, a consistent message of common purpose, community spirit, and what they call “mentalizing.”

With stunning examples of social change in dire communities drenched in violence, and with very little outside monetary input,  these people embraced and held onto their best selves.

We have a long history of attachment to each other, even in the “Me! Me!” USA, as I’ve outlined here.  This “hidden history of cooperatives and communialism,” is outlined in a riveting book by John Curl called “For All the People.”  But this long history didn’t simply disappear:

It was deliberately written out of history books, and now a powerful meme seeks to write it out of our conception of human “nature.”

While Dr. Rees maintains that the “influential memetic construct” of pursing  unrestrained economic growth as a matter of policy emerged in the 1950s “from nowhere,” I would argue that “nowhere” has never been a reliable source of ideas.**

As Alexander wrote:

“England successfully dominated the 19th century world, and English free market economics, with its intrinsic destruction of traditional culture, spread across the map of western Europe…Because free market society now dominates the world, the destruction of traditional culture has become ubiquitous. In an ultimate irony, tens of thousands of Latin American peasants, some of whom grew coca on their tiny farms, are currently being dislocated in the interest of preventing addiction through the War on Drugs.”

His point is that this very dislocation causes the very “addiction” the War on Drugs aims to eliminate.

The Better Angels of Human Nature

As Abraham Lincoln said in his first Inaugural Address, “the mystic cords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better Angels of our nature.”

We have no choice but to deal with these troubling times with either our best, or our worse selves.  I find it disturbing when brilliant thinkers suggest that our only hope lies with a dramatic change of heart among global elites who have, at this point, consistently demonstrated no interest in curbing their own rapacious appetites.  They have consistently used their influence in the media, government and the funding of social science research to not only shape the nature of the discourse, but to shape our collective values.

Our hope doesn’t lie with our leaders, Dr. Rees, or in looking to a few elites who can provide the needed “supra-instinctual survival strategies.”  As people living in the wealthiest of nations, we may have, as Dr. Rees suggests, sunk to our lowest selves, become lost and destructive, plundering the planet while drowning in our sea of “stuff.”  But this is simply a perverse and pervasive cultural meme promulgated by a powerful and influential oligarchy.

It is now time for careful thinkers to propose an alternative view of what it means to be fully human.  We may need to look outside The First World for new insights and broader understandings.

What we need are constant reminders in every media, school, and community throughout the world of another way of being.  Bullying and the acceptance of violence as a “natural human state” cannot be tolerated.  We have within us, the very innate altruistic qualities needed to work our way back to that simpler, communally-focused way of life– the 75% reduction that Dr. Rees said was possible–that will bring us back to our senses.  It is happening already.

Locally.  Methodically.  Little by little.  Step-by-step.


*Amy White’s artwork can be found at

**Richard Heinberg has done an excellent job of charting the pathways of growth in his book: The End of Growth


Perhaps you are a bit confused by the titled of  this blog entry.  So am I, but that’s what’s  increasingly being posted on

If you don’t have a job, you’ll find that it becomes the basis upon which you’ll be discriminated against.  And unlike age, race, or gender, you won’t have a leg to stand on in the courts.

The new “discriminated against” minority are the nearly 25% of Americans (higher in some, lower in other states) that are too “jobless” to get a job.  How “jobless” is “too jobless?”  Well, just like the panties of B-rated actresses and schoolgirls in Japan, that have an expiration (“sell by”) date, the jobless can be without a job a bit too long to be considered eligible to land work.

Are we talking about people without a track record for looking?  Nope, these are folks who could have sent out hundreds of job applications, but if nobody wanted them within six months of their last job, they are increasingly finding that nobody wants them now.

That’s 6.3 million Americans who are jobless longer than six months, and are likely to stay that way.


Keep working!

How to Win Friends and Detain People

The Kubark Interrogation Manual CIA 1963                                         

In 1963, the CIA fielded an Interrogation manual designed to help their agents secure confessions and actionable intelligence from prisoners. It was de-classified in 2004.

From the Kubark Manual:

“The CIA structures its non-coercive interrogations in four main parts, loosely corresponding to each section of Dale Carnegie’s book.  The influence techniques promoted by Dale Carnegie and perfected by the CIA have and upgraded by a wide variety of industries……..

Why did the CIA embrace Dale Carnegie? Simple.  They looked at the contemporary American Industry of 1963 and recognized that professional salesmanship was  incredibly effective.

“… induce disorientation, regression, transference and compliance…Specialists in larger businesses like retailing, marketing, and, perhaps, automobile sales have learned to systematize the tools of the hand-to-hand coercer for more effective use. Today,car salesmen work from prepared scripts that are revised and improved based on our increasing resistance to their methodology.  It amounts to a tactical war between America and its automotive industry.  Douglas Rushkoff Coercion

And it was a war that in 1963 the automotive industry was winning.  But why were car salesmen in particular such powerful closers that the CIA would take notice?

“While traveling salesmen and government operatives depend on their own limited experiences and the insights of psychologists, car dealers are the beneficiaries of corporate sponsored research. It’s a big business one that dwarfs mechanical bed salesmen and counter-espionage agents alike.

The millions of us who have been through the car-buying process serve as the massive experimental sample on which the system is refined. If too many of us learn to resist a particular technique, that method is re-worked and then camouflaged into a new one.”  Douglas Rushkoff Coercion

” How to Win Friends and Influence People “ was one of the most influential books of all time. It not only helped salesmen sell cars, it helped Spooks crack detainees without torture.

But if coercion was necessary…..even that process had an oddly humane regime of psychological manipulation.

Kubark Again:

“One subjective reaction often evoked by coercion is a feeling of guilt. Meltzer ( consulting psychologist?) observes:

“In some lengthy interrogations, the interrogator may, by virtue of his role as sole supplier of satisfaction and punishment, assume the stature and importance of a parental figure in the prisoner’s feeling and thinking. Although there may be intense hate for the interrogator, it is not unusual for warm feelings to develop. The ambivalence is the basis for guilt reactions, and the interrogator nourishes these feelings, the guilt may be strong enough to influence the prisoner’s behavior…..guilt makes compliance more likely.'”

Ah…..1963.  It was a great year for hungry car salesmen, humane CIA guilt-tripping  interrogators,……….and a Golden Horde of consulting psychologists.


How to Be Maladaptive: Fourteen Tips for Mental Activities Guaranteed to Enhance your Misery during Bad Times

Those who learn about Peak Oil, climate change, and economic hard times show a series of short-lived symptoms of stress over several months, but these are normal and expected reactions to these stunning findings.  Roughly 50-60% of adults in North America are exposed to traumatic events, but only 5% to 10% develop maladjusted PTSD and related problems.  What sorts of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors promote the development of longer-term traumatic reactions? Read on:

1. Mess with your sense of agency:

Put yourself into double-binds where you are either totally responsible for everything that happens to you or totally helpless to modify the course of events.

“I’m Totally Responsible!”

If you choose this route, you should entertain any and all thoughts that suggest your culpability and negligence or that will intensify your feelings of guilt and shame: “I should never have gotten into so much debt! What could I have been thinking?!? I am such a loser!”

Let others in on your asinine behavior, prepping them with lines such as “wasn’t that really stupid of me?”  Choose people (such as those who hate debt) who will be more than happy to assist you in believing that you are, indeed, a loser, lazy or stupid. Their help will reinforce your thinking, making this a particularly easy option to accomplish.

“I have no control!”

Or, if you prefer to be totally helpless, repeat “I have no control over anything,” whenever you begin to feel a sense of direction, possibility, or purpose. This should be repeated like a mantra.  “I have no control over anything. I have no control over my feelings or thoughts. I have no control over my actions. I have no control over (fill in the blank.)”  Focus on ignoring the basics that are most impactful to people right after a disaster, such as food, water, shelter, coordinating the reunification with loved ones, and health care supplies.  Don’t think out possible outcomes, alternatives, and the like.  Remain as ignorant as possible to the areas of control you do have.

2. Perfect your paranoia:

Don’t let down your guard! Be hyper-vigilant, ruminating, and brooding.

There are two versions of this option you can choose from, depending on your natural bent. The first is the milder form and involves entertaining thinking that goes against countervailing wisdom just BECAUSE it is contrary.  Act counter to expert advice, even in cases when it agrees with your own best evaluation. Then, worry that you aren’t doing anything constructive.  Repeat.
The second version is for the more hard-core. This involves monitoring the “doomer news” multiple times every day and searching for deeper “meanings” or patterns in past and current events that will help you uncover the “why” questions for which there are no satisfactory answers. As an adjunct to this, continually share your most outlandish theories with family, friends, and strangers, especially during times of intense conflict and stress between you. Be sure to talk as fast as possible, as loudly as possible, as insistently as possible, and connect every conversation back to your theories. Be single-minded.
As Churchill reminded us:  A fanatic is someone who won’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.
Emulate this.
As your family, friends, and acquaintances begin to avoid you, tie this in as evidence of their involvement in the conspiracy or blame it on their utter “sheeple-ness.”  Feel free to share this opinion with them.

3. Focus on the personal “unfairness” of the situation:

Make yourself the victim:

“I’m a walking target!” “Other people have it better than I do. Why is my life so much worse than everybody else’s?” “Why do I have to have problems other people don’t have to have?” “What did I do to deserve this?”  “Why me?”  “Why now?”

Look at others whose situations appear better than yours and envy or blame them. “That jackass! He’s an idiot! What did he do to deserve a doomer retreat in the hills and a Prius while here I am stuck in a crappy suburb driving a gas-guzzling SUV?” You have to be capable of lots of self-deception to do this one well; rationality is your enemy.  If they have no retirement accounts, resent them that they’ve got nothing to lose if the market crashes.  “Ya, sure.  It is easy for them.  They’ve never had anything to lose, so what do they care!”

If you have ever engaged in sports or watched them on TV, you will have incorporated the winners and losers mentality, the competitive drive, which will assist you in this endeavor. Just feel your “Inner Loser;” this will motivate you to feel victimized, because after all, we all want and deserve to be winners.

Believe nothing positive will result from the experience.

4. Assume you are worthless or incompetent:

Emphasize how incapable you are of dealing with the new reality and how you can’t rely on yourself for anything. Reiterate over and over that you have no skills and couldn’t, for example, grow a garden if your life depended on it (and when you realize your life does depend on it, go on to Number 5).

Believe that anything you do to try to mitigate the effect of hard times will be inadequate, wrong-headed, and counterproductive.  See yourself as continually vulnerable and dwell on how your inability to cope will bring you and your family to the brink of utter destruction and beyond.

Reject any attempts at goal-setting as fruitless and if you do make a “Goal, Plan, Do, Check” approach, lose the list or don’t follow through with it.

5. Engage in “head in the sand” behavior:

Persistently pine for the days when you were ignorant of what was coming and believe that this ignorance was bliss.

Better yet, refuse to believe any evidence of current financial, cultural, political, or environmental degradation or devolution. When you have to come up for air, be sure to keep your eyes and ears covered; after all, as long as you can’t see or hear it, it is not a reality in your world.  TV is safe to watch, even the nightly news.

6. Don’t allow yourself to feel bad:

Instead, medicate stress

Drugs, alcohol, sleep, or lots of ice cream (or chocolate, if you prefer) and any other avoidant behaviors you can devise. Then, assume that you are overreacting to the stress that everyone else is effectively coping with better than you. Use more drugs, alcohol, sleep, and sweets to keep yourself from feeling bad about that.  You will have bought into a perfect circle of feeling bad, self-medicating, feeling bad, self-medicating…

Ignore relaxation-based interventions such as controlled breathing techniques or mindfulness strategies that have proven to be effective.  Ignore your ‘body wisdom.’

7. Focus on what other people think of you:

Be preoccupied with their opinions of you and be sure to assume the worst.

If there are people in your life who think well of you, you must discount their opinions, cut them short, reject a  complement, look down, and walk away with a scowl. It should be obvious they either don’t know you very well or they aren’t very bright. If they do know you well and they are bright, assume you have hidden the worst from them. Focus on the people in your life who you imagine think badly about you; hyper-focus on them. Then, be angry or rejecting toward them for what you imagine they must be thinking.  As you acquire more evidence for their negative opinions, obsess even more.  And, finally, allow what you imagine they think of you to dictate your behavior, so that you are acting counter to your own intuitions and truths. This will help to divorce you from your internal beacon of what is right or wrong and will  cause you to flounder about in indecision and confusion. It will cause you to distrust yourself. It will also help to deaden you emotionally.

8. Project future doom:

No matter how bad things get, always assume the worst is yet to come.

If you still have a job, imagine joblessness.  If you still have family who love you, imagine their death or abandonment. If you are hungry, imagine starvation will soon kill you. If you are cold, assume you’ll freeze to death.

This is the slippery slope option. Climb up and start on down.  Make no distinction between “then and there” and “here and now.”  Overgeneralize.   Assume an endless state of doom, a huge on-going collapse that will keep you in a permanent state of terror.   See yourself as the father in the movie “The Road” who never reaches the coast. Imagine not only what might happen, but how you will be particularly susceptible, vulnerable, AND helpless to impact it.  Don’t try to rein in your imaginings; really let yourself go.  Share these flights of fantasy with your nearest and dearest, especially those with tender sensitivities. This will hasten your abandonment and bring you evidence that you are right. And it is always nice to be proven correct.

9. Convince yourself that you are on your own:

Assume no one is safe, predictable, or trustworthy, especially those closest to you.

Include your spouse, relatives, and best friends. Better yet, assume that everyone is acting against your best interests. Give no one the benefit of the doubt. Twist something you overheard into a damaging accusation of you. Be courageous in your convictions. If  you can find no bad intentions or untrustworthiness, you can at least  believe that everyone around you is stupid and/or ignorant and makes bad decisions, so that you would be unsafe if you followed their ideas or advice. I mean, chances are excellent that those closest to you are incompetent and worthless, since they are associating with you, so that makes it doubly imperative that you rely on no one but yourself. And, I know there must be some people of your close acquaintance who are moody, volatile, changeable, and just flat out wacky. Assume you must come up with all the answers by yourself, must do all the work yourself, are all alone in the midst of a maelstrom with no anchor.

Ignore those who have survived hard times and don’t listen to their accounts of how they felt and what they did to survive.  Grieve and memorialize in private, assuming no one could possibly help you by engaging in social problem-solving or exploring meaning.

10. Be vigilant against change:

Believe nothing good will come from any attempt to improve any situation.

Counteract any thought that there could be positive benefits from making changes by projecting even worse outcomes for those actions. Be vigilant. Vigilance in this instance implies rigidity. Stand unbending; do not sway in the breeze like a tree. Rigidity means not just rigidity of posture; it means not just rigidity of action; it also means rigidity of thought. Keep your same beliefs, your same opinions, your same values, your same routines, your same activities, your same skills, your same abilities regardless of what changes in your outer world. After all, those changes are always for the worst, aren’t they? You’ve got plenty of evidence for that; just marshal your data and start spouting.  It follows, does it not…that change is a bad idea in ALL instances? Rigidity is the way of the vigilant future warrior who makes war against the future.

11. Be guided by meaninglessness:

Believe that life has lost all meaning and value.

Most of us have some family or cultural history, and some have religious faith to bolster our self-confidence.  Reject these as meaningless to the situation at hand.  Assume your higher power has rejected you. Wallow in depressive “What’s the use?” thoughts while lying on your bed and staring at the mottled ceiling. Count the cobwebs in the corners. When your loved ones try to roust you out of bed, tell them to  leave you alone; fight with them; drive them away. If you are of a studious inclination, read Nietzsche; embrace nihilism; throw out your moral principles; lose faith in everything. Or, alternatively, if you haven’t got the energy to give up, watch TV.  The twin goals of propaganda and distraction will dull you. Embrace shallowness, and allow meaninglessness to permeate your environment and your thinking.

12. Perfect the fine art of blame:

Whenever anything bad happens, don’t waste your time trying to come up with solutions; instead, ask whose fault it is.

Blame others by actively targeting your anger. Whose fault is it? The government’s fault?  The oil companies’? The corporations’?  Your employer’s?  Your in-laws’?  Your spouse’s fault?   You can while away many happy hours in this pursuit. Surround yourself with other people who share your villain, so you can reinforce each other’s beliefs.  “Those g-damn mother-f-king sons a-itches! If it weren’t for them, we’d still have a good life. We’d still have jobs; we’d still have houses; we wouldn’t be living in this tent city waiting for the next measly food hand-out.”

But, in the sad event that you can find no one else to blame, turn your hand around and point your finger at yourself; at least that way, you can feel guilt, shame, and humiliation and won’t lose out entirely. Whatever you do, don’t plan to take any action or cause any trouble.  Just complain.  It’s easier and safer.

13. Shun social support:

When facing crises, deny to others that you are experiencing any negative feelings.   Make up weird excuses as to why you are crying, kicking things, refusing to leave your room. If you get on a weirdness loop and stay on it, you will soon feel really crazy, and then you will act crazier, and then you will feel even crazier and, well, you get the picture. Or, alternatively, blurt out your feelings and thoughts without regard to the setting, picking the most unsupportive people to confide in, thus guaranteeing that they will fail to understand or empathize with you.

Cultivate an air of indifference, criticism, and “you’re an idiot” reactions to others. When they act in like manner to you, use that as evidence that you were correct in your loner stance.

Don’t tell your story about what happened to you and how you felt about it.  Assume you have nothing to learn from others and nothing to offer them.

14. Control every emotion & thought or none of them:

Actively attempt to control all unwanted thoughts either by dissociation, suppression, by engaging in repetitive undoing behaviors, or through magical thinking.  Alternatively, lose it emotionally.

Think positively no matter how negative the situation may seem. Let nothing less than perfect sunshine enter your consciousness. Use addictive substances, if necessary, to paint reality with a rosy glow; stick with your normal routine even though, by any objective standards, it has become irrelevant; continue to believe nothing bad can happen as long as you don’t believe it can.  Assume you are going crazy if you are unable to dissociate, suppress, or otherwise keep at bay these unwanted thoughts. At all costs, refuse to think about the possibility of lack of abundance, discomfort, deprivation, insecurity, pain, disease, or the death of yourself or a loved one.

Refuse to come to terms with any aspect of reality; this might lead to living in the here and now and enjoying the time you have, which is certainly not maladaptive behavior and, therefore, cannot be allowed.

If you can’t control all of your thoughts and emotions, try to control none of them.  Model emotional dis-regulation.  Laugh hysterically; then, cry pitifully.  Demand attention for no real reason. Make a nuisance out of yourself by taxing everyone’s patience and then crying out “Everybody’s mad at me!” Freak out under pressure, lose it over the slightest difficulty. (“We’re all going to DIE!)  Refuse to accept what is right in front of you and show little tolerance for things not being perfect.  Focus on the past or the future, but don’t focus on what is immediately in front of you.  When things begin to calm down, stir them up again by doing dangerous or thrill-seeking or sensation-seeking actions because “nothing matters anyway…”

But if you aren’t really into being miserable…

In a real crisis, survivors keep their heads while other people are losing theirs.  They set important personal goals and take incremental, purposeful actions to achieve them.  They not only offer help to other people, but they seek help themselves when they need it.  They engage in acts of kindness, connect with others, and don’t reject help.  They tell themselves they can get through it, while acknowledging full well that they may not make it.  They believe in themselves.  They see all experience as offering them something they can learn from.  They aren’t afraid to look at awful feelings, the worst in themselves, and still believe in the best they have to offer.  They actively prepare themselves for what they can realistically do, and prepare to the best of their abilities, incrementally.  They aren’t afraid of change, because they accept that it it inevitable.  They savor daily pleasures that they never knew were valuable before the disaster.  They see the disaster as having unexpected benefits like bringing people closer, accepting responsibility for other people, recognizing their personal limitations, and how things could have been worse than they turned out to be.  What is important to them changes.  They see new possibilities and goals to work on.  They learn about strengths they never knew they had, and chose life instead of death.  They don’t see themselves as ‘victims,’ and they don’t expect other people to rescue them.  They see their survival as having a purpose, and accept the responsibility to keep alive the memories and stories of those who did not make it.  They don’t see themselves as heroes or villains even when they did heroic or less than positive things.  They can put to words or in some other form of expression what happened to them without minimizing or hiding important parts.  They have learned how to be compassionate with themselves as well as others.  Their religious beliefs have been strengthened, not weakened, and they appreciate their lives more than ever before.

Footnote:  Donald Meichenbaum, professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, wrote a great article  on resilience in children and adults facing traumatic situations.  This post owes major credit from his section “A Constructive Narrative Perspective of Persistent PTSD.”

Courtship, Cooperation & Negotiation: What Darwin Got Wrong about Human Emotions

Many social critics in the Peak Oil community are fond of saying “Men do what they do driven by the desire to please women.” But what if that notion is just plain wrong? Is there power in the narrative that redirects our energies away from helpful pursues believing that such striving are “against the laws of nature?”

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. Charles Darwin

Most of us in the Western world have accepted a story about sexual selection, and by extension ‘human nature,’ that goes something like this: Men are aggressive, and fight each other in order to win the chance to mate with desirable females. For the love of hot babes and Babettes, they burn a lot of fossil fuel, build a lot of corporations, rape and pillage other nations and destroy the planet in order to be powerful and desirable to us gals.

This, as the story goes, is for very specific biological reasons: They have small sperm, and lots of them, (making them “cheap”) so they can throw them around with very little “invested” in an attempt to impregnate females. From an evolutionary standpoint, this horn-dog behavior promotes their own gene pool, beating out some other guy’s gene pool. Men (and all males in general, to use Darwin’s terms) are “passionate” and women are less eager or “coy.”

Women are “coy,” because they have large eggs, and a whole lot fewer of them, and becoming pregnant requires a large investment of energy and time dealing with pregnancy and caring for the offspring that result. Their eggs are “expensive” to them, in evolutionary terms. Therefore, evolution demands that they carefully look over their choice of males and choose the “fittest” one for mating. Women do the choosing. So, as the theory goes, men compete with each other for females’ attention, and women have innate preferences about which males they choose to mate with…and may the best man win.

The female is less eager than the male,” Darwin wrote, “She is coy,” and when she takes part in choosing a mate, she chooses “not the male which is most attractive to her, but the one which is least distasteful.” (1)

Darwin’s World
Charles Darwin was a man who once lamented that his own fragile physical state would clearly prevent him from producing great works. He had multiple psychosomatic ailments that kept him from socializing without great cost to his health. “Darwin worked alone at home, leading the life of an independent scientist.”

His decision to marry was an intellectual one, as he weighed the pros and cons:

After drawing up lists of the benefits and drawbacks of marriage, he proposed to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, whom he married on Jan. 29, 1839. She brought fortune, devotion, and considerable housewifely skills that enabled him to work in peace for the next 40 years.

Together they had 10 children.

He needed quiet during the day in order to work. She dutifully brought him meals and tea in his office, at which time she might request to borrow the key to the drawer where he kept all of the keys to the rest of the household pantries.

Although he considered all young people immature like adult females, at 39 years old, he considered his own wife “always the mother, never the child, Darwin always the child, never the father.” Darwin gave his wife the nickname “mammy”, writing, “My dearest old Mammy … Without you, when sick I feel most desolate .. Oh Mammy, I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe.” (2)

While Darwin began to write down his theories of evolution in the early 1840’s he was reluctant to make them public. “He was a beneficiary of this conservative English society, and his fear of ostracism was one of the forces that prevented him from publishing his theory sooner.“(3) The world was evolving and the political climate was welcoming to evolutionary notions. While still reluctant, on June 18, 1858, he received a paper that summarized his own twenty years of work, written by Alfred Russel Wallace. He shortly afterward presented a paper jointly with Wallace.

In 1871, Darwin elaborated upon the theory of sexual selection. Darwin observed that in some species males battle other males for access to certain females (“aggression”). But in other species, such as peacocks, there is a social system in which the females select males according to such qualities as strength or beauty, like a fabulous tail.

Beyond “He” and “She”
Darwin lived in a binary world of males and females, but today’s science tells us that these represent a minority of the Earth’s living things. We live in a complicated world of uni-gendered, bi-gendered, and even cross-gendered living species. You’ve got remarkable creatures like Clownfish (4) that are born male and turn female (called sequential hermaphrodites); you’ve got hermaphroditic fish. The world is full of homosexual, asexual or autosexual creatures, and gender behavior of all descriptions.

These aren’t just the exceptions to the rule, this IS the rule.

We can’t put labels like “coy” or “passionate” on these things. It doesn’t fit the vast majority of living things.

Beyond the Dating Game
Darwin’s analysis appeared to stop at mate selection. However, mating is the start, not the end of the genetic path to reproductive success. The “passionate” (later labeled “promiscuous”) male isn’t an example of evolutionary success, if most of those offspring die before they, too, get the chance to reproduce. The male who can raise the larges number of children successfully and brings them effectively into the next generation is the real genetic winner.

The male, to be maximally successful, is proactive in assuring that his offspring grow up and make it into the next generation.

The Peacock Boy’s Club
Even the species that were suppose to be perfect examples of sexual selections, like peacocks, aren’t, according to evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden. They are “failed poster-child species.” Take pea hens. They are supposed to prefer the highly ornamented tail of males, the larger the better, which, supposedly, indicated “good genes.” However, in a 2008 study that actually looked at this in the wild; (a) there wasn’t much difference between tails and (b) the females showed no real preference. They ignored the tails, when selecting mates.

What researchers found, instead, was that the tails were sort of a ‘ticket into the boy’s club’ of other male peacocks. In fact, it turned out that a lot of stuff Darwin thought was for the benefit of the female was actually a show for other males of the same species.

Mommy Dearest
What about the notion that can be summarized as “females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males, and therefore in most species, females are a limiting resource over which the males will compete”? This theory, called the “Bateman Principle” was the work of British geneticist Angus John Bateman – and it turns out to be wrong. His research was fraudulent in all sorts of ways, even down to basic arithmetic mistakes.

Roughgarden (4) asks: if females keep choosing males who are the fittest, why do bad genes still exist in nature? Aren’t females supposed to be eliminating them through partner choice? After twenty generations, the choice for bad genes should disappear. Why isn’t that happening? Darwin says, “Nature needs to keep renewing bad genes all the time.” Why is that? So females can continue to choose the best mate? What are the best genes in an ever-changing environment? “Most theorists don’t appreciate how great this problem is for the theory of sexual selection.” according to Roughgarden.

Family of Tarzan

Cooperation and Negotiation
Through courtship (perhaps too strong a word for some species), the male and female, negotiate the cooperative relationship through which to raise children. Their cooperation allows them to act as a unit, in a ‘two heads are better than one’ sort of arrangement. The fitness is assessed in terms of a “couple team” who are able to place a large number of offspring into the next generation. The mating couples have a common evolutionary bank account and an overlap of interest. This model suggests that cooperation, not competition is the cornerstone of reproductive success. Conflict happens when they don’t strike an effective bargain with each other or they have different opinions about “what’s good.”

“A family like a ‘firm’ Roughgarden says ‘and the produce of the “firm” is offspring.’ The paradigm is “family as cooperative system” rather than “family as a cauldron of conflict.”

Joy in Your Company
But it’s not all ‘love and happiness,” as a quick glance at the front pages of newspapers or time spent at a family holiday dinner will tell you. Nevertheless, we aren’t living in a world of competitive stand-offs, like John Nash’s (“A Beautiful Mind”) theory of Competitive Equilibrium – but more like his notion of “Cooperative Game theory.” Here the sexes “negotiate from a position of strength,” and establishes a “threat point.”

Taking his lead from labor negotiation, a crucial aspect of effective negotiation is that each has to believe that the other is willing to suffer and see the other suffer, before they are willing to hash out a deal. They also, however, have to see the other has having “utility,” and a “position of strength.” They have to believe that each of them has something the other person wants, and is willing to give up something else to get it, and they have to realize the point beyond which the other person is unwilling to bargain.

If either player increases their demand beyond this limit, both players receive nothing. If either reduces their demands too greatly, they will receive less than if they had demanded more.

What is the “position of strength” in reproductive politics? It is the mechanism where the animals can experience pleasure in each other’s company-friendship and physical intimacy (including sex).

Contextualizing an Idea
Survival of the Fittest” were not Darwin’s terms, but those of Herbert Spenser. It first appeared in 1864, in which he drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin’s biological ones.

There is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative. It turns out that this narrative of a nasty, competitive selfish world is based on partial recollections of the data. It doesn’t tell the whole story. But it presents a political (power) explanation for oppression using biology to justify it. “Nature is selfish so I can be selfish.” It is a narrative of genetic classism. It is also a narrative of domination and imperialism.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Famous Charles Darwin misquote likely from L.C. Megginson (the quote was also imbedded as in foot-high letters on the floor of the California Academy of Sciences, so I don’t feel so bad…

It is time the world abandoned that narrative and launch a new one. Our very survival may well depend on it. A high fitness requires working together in teams. It requires us to choose to invest our collective energies carefully and cooperatively, and that includes our reproductive decision-making in an age of overpopulation.

What we are learning about emotions is helping us to see that selfish and destructive tendencies in humans, so lauded as “natural” and “normal,” are the extreme subset of sociopathic individuals who lack a capacity for several basic emotions that are intrinsic in humans as social animals. And we’ve modeled corporate institutions, in this image, with disastrous ends.

The theory of sexual selection put forth by Darwin fit well with a culture that told us that the “best man” was white, Western, upper-class, and, so obvious a fact as to be overlooked, “male.” The theory of sexual selection fit that current dominant paradigm of the 1860’s. At a time when the industrial revolution was wiping out the entrepreneur, the independent farmer, the home craft producer, it became “natural” for men to aggressively eliminate one another’s livelihoods, push them off their native lands, and participate in genocide in order to push forward their aspirations for genetic empire-building. The ‘losers’ lost the chance to mate and reproduce offspring because, after all, they weren’t the ‘fittest.’ It was all quite “natural.” It wasn’t “evil” or “good” in any moral sense. It was simply “how things are.”

Gone were notions of cooperative and collaboration as “natural” to humans and animals alike. Even actions that could be viewed as “altruistic” had to be framed as “deviant” or discussed away as ultimately benefiting selfish ends.

People made all sorts of extrapolations from this, including the notion that being blind to suffering was also “natural.”

Genial Gene vs. Selfish Gene
So, Roughgarden (5) proposes, the metaphor of the “selfish gene” isn’t accurate anymore. The theory worked in the early 70’s, but now we know more. Notions of “survival of the fittest” and “savage competition” is replaced by the empirical argument of cooperation in nature.

Less than the Ape
While Darwin argued that human ancestry descended from the ape, others argued that human evolution caused our social behavior to depart from that of other primates. Edgar Rice Burroughs was fond of using the phrase, “the thin veneer of civilization” to describe mankind’s condition in relation to his more fundamental savage makeup. The phrase was repeated in The Return of Tarzan, which he wrote in 1912.

However, in his book “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal used the term “Veneer Theory” to argue that the view that human morality as “a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature” is outdated, and that our morality and social relationships are also embedded deeply into our genetic make-up. We cannot live alone, and we, therefore, have within us the basic stuff it takes to figure out how to work together.

The last of Darwin’s sequels to the Origin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was an attempt to erase this last barrier presumed to exist between human and nonhuman animals–the idea that the expression of such feelings as suffering, anxiety, grief, despair, joy, love, devotion, hatred, and anger is unique to human beings.

Darwin connected studies of facial muscles and the emission of sounds with the corresponding emotional states in man and then argued that the same facial movements and sounds in nonhuman animals express similar emotional states. This book laid the groundwork for the study of ethology, neurobiology, and communication theory in psychology.

Paradoxically, it took neuroscientists beginning actively during a conference in 1995 to start focusing on a variety of these emotions we call ‘social emotions’ like embarrassment, shame, contempt, passion, admiration, pride, and guilt. These researchers suggest that in contrast to the notion that culture is a thin veneer, we are learning that what look strictly like ‘cultural’ features such as our rules of law are in fact, based upon the origins of these early pro-social emotions.

I’ll take that discussion up in greater detail in my next post.

1. In Descent:


3. In Descent:



The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

Could it be that “thinking positively” is contributing to our blindness and inaction around energy issues, environmental degradation and economic devastation? I’ve hammered this point home in a number of posts, the most widely read being “Do You Have a Panglossian Disorder?.” Now, a trenchant social observer provides a clear outline of how that may well be so, elaborating on the ‘dangers of positive thinking.’

Americans are “positive” people.”

So goes the first line of Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

(Metropolitan Books, 2009). This book points out the dark side of optimism. While Americans have crafted and embraced “happiness” ideology, arguing that a positive outlook can lengthen lives and improve health, Ehrenreich examines this “research” and finds its evidence flimsy and motivated more by financial success than scholarly rigor. What function does the evolution of “positive ideology” play in a nation that, even in prosperous times, ranks 23rd in self-reported worldwide happiness? Why do we embrace the ‘happy face’ while swallowing two-thirds of the global market’s supply of antidepressants, making them the most widely prescribed drug in the United States? Are we depressed because we aren’t happy or does the constant demand for happiness lead to depression? To address these questions, the author begins by defining her terms:

Elements of Positive Thinking

While we American citizens believe that an optimistic “can do” attitude is part of our national character, Ehrenreich concludes that being “positive” and maintaining a “positive outlook” is an ideological mandate. She defines “positive thinking” as having two elements:

“One is the generic content of positive thinking—that is, the positive thought itself—which can be summarized as: Things are pretty good right now, at least if you are willing to see silver linings, make lemonade out of lemons, etc., and things are going to get a whole lot better.” While often confused with hope, optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious expectation, which presumably anyone can develop through practice, while hope is an emotion, a yearning, and not entirely within our control.

The second meaning of “positive thinking” is the practice, or discipline of trying to think in a positive way. The author points out that researchers on positive thinking aren’t content to argue that positive thoughts lead to happy feelings. Why isn’t it enough to simply “feel happy?” No, the act of “accentuating the positive” must actually lead to happy outcomes. Optimism promises to improve health, heighten personal efficacy, boost confidence, and intensify resilience, making it easier for us to accomplish our goals. If you expect things to get better, the argument goes, they will.

While psychologists have attempted to prove this is so, through research, a far less rational theory also runs rampant in American ideology—the idea that our thoughts can, in some mysterious way, directly affect the physical world. Negative thoughts somehow produce negative outcomes, while positive thoughts realize themselves in the form of health, prosperity, and success. The explanations may vary, but the message is the same: whether by “reading the relevant books, attending seminars and speeches that offer the appropriate training or just doing the solitary work of concentrating on desired outcomes—a better job, an attractive mate, or world peace” can be ours if we put the effort into learning how to think positively.

A History of Positive Thinking and Modern Links to Consumer Capitalism

Ehrenreich traces the history of positive thinking, from the mavericks that inspired Mary Baker Eddy onto modern day ‘mega-church’ preachers. Dale Carnegie published the first great text on how to act in a positive way in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936, and still in print. Born “Carnagey” he changed his name to “Carnegie,” apparently to match that of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.

Carnegie’s book did not assume that his readers would feel happy if they took his advice, but that they could manipulate others to their own advantage by putting on a successful happy act. It was no accident that books like “How to Win Friends” and Napoleon Hill’s book, “Think and Grow Rich” were written and heavily promoted during the last Great Depression, because there was a lot of propaganda about the importance of having a “positive attitude,” a “pleasing personality.” The “right attitude” could overcome the massive structural and economic problems the USA was facing. Then, like now, what’s now thought of as “consumer confidence” would pull the country out of its morass once people “believed” that “prosperity was right around the corner.” We now call the anticipation of this prosperity “green shoots.”

While the early “positive thinkers” were reacting to the harsh judgmentalism of Calvinist thought about sin and damnation, modern day “positive thought police” maintain many of these same rigid features. Ehrenreich still sees the preservation of Calvinism’s more “toxic features—the same harsh judgmentalism, echoing the old religion’s condemnation of sin, and an insistence on the constant interior labor of self-examination.

The American alternative to Calvinism was not to be hedonism or even just an emphasis on emotional spontaneity. To achieve positive thinking, emotions must remain suspect, and one’s inner life subject to relentless monitoring. While the Calvinist searched for signs of laxness, sin and self-indulgence…the positive thinker is ever on the lookout for “negative thoughts” charged with anxiety or doubt.” Such efforts are, according to Ehrenreich, “a form of ‘secular salvation.’”

It is no surprise that “think and grow rich” should blend the notion of positive thought with the accumulation of material wealth. Hundreds of self-help books since the start of positive thinking have talked about how the right thoughts can “attract” money. They’ve also framed practical problems such as world-wide unemployment, low wages, or medical bills as “excuses.” If you can free your mind of the “real” obstacle to wealth—such as the harboring subconscious revulsion for “filthy lucre” or deep resentment/jealousy of the rich, you can have it all. It is not social class or larger institutional structures that limit the average person’s success but “negative self-talk” that impede your progress toward wealth accumulation.

Consumer capitalism is, according to Ehrenreich, “congenial to positive thinking.” It promises that we deserve more, and can have it, if we really want it, and if we are only willing to make the effort to get it. While she agrees that the notion of perpetual growth is absurd, a belief in positive thinking makes ‘having it all’ seem, “possible, if not ordained.” p.8. Think –the right way–and growing rich is yours.

Play-Acting Happiness to Happiness as a Predisposition

Happy shoppers, according to Les Slater, spend up to 20% more, and therefore one avenue to making customer’s happy is to have happy salespeople.

During the last Great Depression, workers were expected to ‘fake it ‘til they make it.’ Today, it is no longer enough to simply act happy. Employers now expect their workers to be happy. A reader of Ehrenreich’s work wrote to her about her experience working at a call center for Home Depot:

“I worked there for about a month when my boss pulled me into a small room and told me I “obviously wasn’t happy enough to be there.” Sure, I was sleep deprived from working five other jobs to pay for private health insurance that topped $300 a month and student loans that kicked in at $410 a month, but I can’t recall saying anything to anyone outside the line of “I’m happy to have a job.” Plus, I didn’t realize anyone had to be happy to work in a call center. My friend…refers to [simulating happiness] as the kind of feeling you might get from getting a hand job when your soul is dying.” p. 54.

Happiness: From State to Trait

“You can’t hire someone who can make sandwiches and teach them to be happy,” says Jay, “So we hire happy people and teach them to make sandwiches.”

“GET RID OF NEGATIVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE. Negative People SUCK! Avoid them at all cost. If you have to cut ties with people you’ve known for a long time because they’re actually a negative drain on you, then so be it. Trust me, you’re better off without them…”

The message is clear: go with the flow, or prepare to be ostracized or fired.”

Read this advice from a ‘management expert:’

“We knew what to do about increasing sales and cutting losses, but the morale problem had us stumped. We decided we really didn’t know what “morale” meant, or why the employees seemed down in the dumps. In true Machiavellian fashion, we had made the needed personnel cuts early and all at once. The deadwood was gone. The people remaining were the survivors, in for the long haul. They knew that. They should have been happy they still had jobs. Not everyone was unhappy, though. There was a solid core group of people who were up-beat and supportive. … [so] we decided to watch those positive, upbeat individuals more closely to see if we could get a handle on what made them that way.
After a couple of weeks… the answer hit us: The individuals in our upbeat group were just plain happy people, on or off the job. They had stable, fulfilling family lives, they had interests outside of work, they were confident in their abilities. Ups and downs were a part of their lives too, but in general they liked themselves. It was just that simple. [W]e had a disproportionately large share of basically unhappy people who were dragging the company down. Morale, being a group dynamic, was low because of all those unhappy people…Our solution was to hire happy people…
The [previous research study’s] assumption was that morale is determined by the conditions of the workplace–the “work environment” The reports of such studies routinely and dutifully concluded with suggestions to employers about what they could change in the workplace to increase the general level of job satisfaction. Implicit in such admonitions was, first of all, that job satisfaction actually needed changing, and second, that making the specified changes would indeed have the effect of raising morale. We now have reason to believe that, for any given person, job satisfaction is …accounted for by what is in, as opposed to what is around, the person.”(emphasis added)

In other words, people are not made happy by decent working conditions, fair wages, or good benefits. Happy people are hired. Happy people are happy regardless of how miserable their jobs are, and as early as the teen years, “cheerful” adolescents, as rated by their guidance counselors, have job satisfaction 30 years later, regardless of their type of work.

The message is clear: ‘hire the happy’ and rid your company (and your life) of “negative people.”

But what about that “downer” auto executive who questions the company’s overinvestment in SUV’s and trucks? Or that worry-wart financial officer who says the bank is overexposed in subprime mortgages? Get rid of them! In a world of positive thinking, “if you cannot bring good news than don’t bring any.” Reality checks or negative predictions of any kind become evidence that someone is ‘unwilling’ to be nourishing, full of praise, or affirming and therefore is a downer and must go.

The Business of Being Happy

Clearly if the reader walks away with one unfaltering message from Ehrenreich’s book, it is that positive thinking is big business. After laying off “deadwood,” most large companies are still faced with the task of shaping the thoughts of its remaining workers in a positive direction. In 1994, the same day that AT&T announced it would lay off fifteen thousand workers, it sent its San Francisco staff to a big-tent motivational lecture by Zig Ziglar who told the crowd:

“It’s your own fault, don’t blame the system; don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more” p. 115.

Businesses were willing to pay big bucks to the “power of positive thinking professionals” who promised to emotionally prepare the remaining workers who were facing increased pay cuts, fewer benefits, longer work hours, heightened work loads, and decreasing job security. Corporations could boost a book to the best-seller list by purchasing tens of thousands of copies to be distributed to their remaining workforce.

This “happiness” industry produces an “endless flow” of books, DVDs, and other products and provides corporate employers with tens of thousands of “life coaches,” “executive coaches,” and motivational speakers” as well as the cadre of psychology profession willing to train them.

Quantum Flapdoodle
Positive thinking had now become so ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged, that it became the stuff of runaway best sellers like the 2006 book The Secret. What’s the secret? It has an unmistakable resemblance to traditional folk magic—that like attract like. Like a fetish or a talisman, the ‘thought’ brings about some desired outcome. But no one in this industry would be happy to be linked with the word “magic.” They prefer to link their efforts to “real” science such as quantum physics. In Bright-sided, Ehrenreich goes on to list a series of assertions about how this “scientific” principle works; theories Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle.”

Happiness Academy
Fortunately, for this industry, the lure of lucre has motivated even the crabby halls of mainstream academia, to entered the fray, with courses in “positive psychology” designed to help students “pump up their optimism and nurture their positive feelings”–no doubt as an antidote to their soon-to-be-faced dismal job prospects and inescapable student loan debts.

Ehrenreich is perhaps, particularly hard on my own profession, psychology, because she sees it as having sold out true research in favor of fad and fashion. Arguing that while insurance companies have gutted incomes for clinical psychologists, the corporate role of “positive thought coach” and “trainer” offers a new avenue to financial stability.

She quotes from a 2007 article in the New York Times, describing the course “Happiness 101.” It has “the sect-like feel of positive psychology” and suggests that “the publicity about the field has gotten ahead of the science, which may be no good [science] anyway.” “Poor science” worries its leading advocate, Martin Seligman, also, according to this same article: “I have the same worry they do,” states Seligman. “That’s what I do at 4 in the morning.”

Ehenreich continues her brutal critique:

“At a late afternoon plenary session on “The Future of Positive Psychology,” featuring the patriarchs of the discipline, Martin Seligman and Ed Diener, Seligman got the audience’s attention by starting off with the statement “I’ve decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong.” Why? Because it’s about happiness, which is “scientifically unwieldy.” Somehow, this problem could be corrected by throwing in the notions of “success” and “accomplishment”—which I couldn’t help noting would put the positive psychologists on the same terrain as Norman Vincent Peale and any number of success gurus.”

Seligman suggested a new name, –“positive social science” capturing a ‘plural theory’ embracing anthropology, political science, and economics,” but this statement “created understandable consternation within the audience of several hundred positive psychologists, graduate students and coaches.” Changing the name was a mistake, argued Diener, because “positive psychology is a brand.” Besides, he argued, he ‘hates’ the idea of ‘positive social science,’ since social science includes sociology and sociology is “weak” and notoriously underfunded.”

The gathering agreed that despite the fact that the science wasn’t “keeping up with the applied work like coaching,” it was “meeting a need.” “Application,” it was argued, “sometimes gets ahead of science, and science later follows.” Despite the weak research supporting the field, ‘people want happiness’ argued Seligman and Diener (and apparently ‘positive thinking psychologists want income…)

While attempting to differentiate themselves from the motivational industry, Ehrenreich argues that “positive psychologists” are still attempting to corner a market in the corporate world. “The subject [positive psychology] she argues ‘seemed to have veered away from science to naked opportunism…When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology “applied behavioral economics,” because “it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,” nobody laughed.”

Thinking Your Way to Health
Positive Thinking as the new American theology is also now a ‘medical prescription’ for life-threatening illness. It reframes what is life-threatening, as a “gift,” that clarifies priorities, strengthens family ties and heightens spiritual connection. What a positive way of framing a disease that has a lifetime prevalence of 1 in every 2 men (killing 1 in 4) and 1 in every 3 women (killing 1 in 5).

As a result of treating her own breast cancer, Ehrenreich became intimately familiar with a culture that “had little tolerance for the expression of anger, discussion of environmental causes, or the fact that much of the immediate illness and pain was induced by the treatment.” She quotes Cindy Cherry in an article published in the Washington post who stated:

If I had it to do over, would I want breast cancer? Absolutely. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m glad I’m not…

“Cheerfulness is required, dissent a kind of treason” p. 31. “Never a complaint about lost time, shattered sexual confidence, or the long-term weakening of the arms caused by lymph nodes dissection and radiation. What does not destroy you, to paraphrase Nietzsche, makes you a spunkier, more evolved sort of person.” “If that’s not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells..[another cancer survivor insists] “

Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say it again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine” p. 28-29.

Positive thinking in cancer support groups were once thought to lead participants to cure, but this previous compelling evidence no longer stands up to scrutiny. In May 2007, in an issue of Psychology Bulletin, James Coyne and two coauthors systematically reviewed all the literature on the supposed effects of psychotherapy on cancer and found it full of “endemic problems.” A few months later, David Spiegel, an early researcher on support groups and cancer survival rates, reported in the journal Cancer that support groups conferred no survival advantages after all. “It might improve ones mood, but they did nothing to overcome cancer.” There are emotional and social benefits “but they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives” p. 37.

Nevertheless the bias favoring a link between emotions and cancer survival persists. When asked why, Coyne believed that it was because cancer-related grants to behavioral scientists were riding on it. Skeptics, like himself, tended to be marginalized. “It’s much easier for me to get speaking gigs in Europe” he told Ehrenreich.

With regards to her own struggles with breast cancer, happening a decade before writing this book, Ehrenreich reflects:

What [cancer] gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame ourselves for our fate.”

“He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Some would argue that political and business leaders set the tone for what attitudes and beliefs are acceptable to hold. Among American Presidents, while it has always been “Morning in America,” this mantra reached a “manic crescendo” of optimism at the turn of the twenty-first century initiated by Bill Clinton, and later George W. Bush who “took his presidency as an opportunity to inspire confidence, dispel doubt and pump up the national spirit of self-congratulation.” For George W., the key adjective was “optimistic,” and this demand for positive thinking shaped his advisers profoundly. According to Condoleezza Rice “the president almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.”

Bosses Drank the Kool-Aid
This same “Yes we can!” attitude led to delusional optimism and a demand for “bright thinking” on the part of bankers and a large part of the investment industry. After demanding that their work force digest positive thinking, the CEO’s themselves “drank the Kool-Aid,” with disastrous economic consequences. The image of a CEO changed from being a capable administrator to a leader—a motivating, flamboyant leader”—very much like a motivational speaker, in fact. Many business leaders, “developed a monomaniacal conviction that there is one right way of doing things, and believe they possess an almost divine insight into reality…they are charismatic visionaries rather than people in suits.” “Corporations are full of mystics,” a 1996 business self-help book declared. “If you want to find a genuine mystic, you are more likely to find one in a boardroom than in a monastery or cathedral” p. 112.

Both on a political and corporate level, this “reckless optimism” pervaded every aspect of American life, from the invasion of Iraq, to the mortgage and banking industry, as well as the delusional capacity to “dismiss disturbing news” about the levees breaking in New Orleans. While the tragedy of September 11 was blamed on a “failure of imagination,” Ehrenreich argues that there was, instead, plenty of imagination, but the type that imagined “an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy—there was simply no ability or inclination to image the worst.”

Avoiding the Misery
What’s the best trick to staying happy according to Happiness Gurus: don’t read or watch the news. Why is the news such a bummer? According to one theorist:

“The great majority of the population of this world does not live life from the space of a positive attitude. In fact, I believe the majority of the population of this world lives from a place of pain, and that people who live from pain only know how to spread more negativity and pain. For me, this explains many of the atrocities of our world and the reason why we are bombarded with negativity all the time.” p. 58-59

Starvation. It’s a bummer, man.

Ehrenreich argues that this fear of taking in bad news stems from a deep believe in one’s own helplessness, which she believes is at the core of this positive thinking: “It causes you sadness and you can’t do anything about it.”

Giving the Universe a Boost of Optimism

If things are truly always getting better, if we live in the best of all possible worlds and if the arc of the universe slants toward happiness and abundance, why are we required to put forth the effort to maintain a positive outlook? Because, apparently, we don’t believe that the universe can truly function on its own without our help. And this egocentric perspective leads us to believe that we are, truly, the center of the universe, G-d’s ‘special creatures’ and that therefore the universe, and the little planet we operate from, will remain a forever giving ‘Mother Earth,’ because of our positive thinking.

When we are confronted with so much contradictory evidence like the polar ice caps won’t stay frozen “because we say so,” or oil depletion continues unabated, our anxiety demands that we pump up our thinking. We run for the help of therapy, workshops, tapes and self-help books, given by the preachers, gurus and seminar leaders more skilled than we at “self-hypnosis,” “mind control,” and “thought control” who can instruct us. How else can we hope to maintain the constant effort required to repress or block out so many “unpleasant possibilities” and “negative” thoughts?

Those who are truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts” she argues. “It has become an American obsession because we are a terribly insecure nation.”

Massive Empathy Deficit
And just as “purely positive thinking” can allow us to deny the environmental, economic, and energy calamity happening all around us, it encourages us to reject and distance from the very same people who are most likely to call our attention to the plight that befalls us.

“Negative people have to go, even, presumably, the ones that you live with: “Identify the situation or person who is a downer in your life. Remove yourself from that situation or association. If it’s family, choose to be around them less.”

Keep away from victims and “Debbie Downers!” Their fate will become yours, as if by magic, should you allow yourself to be influenced by them.

Those that cannot help but be impacted to the core by deep fears of rain forests destroyed, species extinctions, or the dramatic impact of a fossil fuel-free future feel the depression and despair. They panic or are filled with immobilizing anxiety. They refuse or are unable to “put on a happy face” and their sensitivity is rewarded by job rejection for not being optimistic.

By logical extension, why should we tolerate the “whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager?” How could we put up with the depression of our unemployed husbands or the chronic pain vocalized by our dying parent? Rather than promote tolerance of the challenge, present in any family or group, to empathetically read and respond to the moods and messages of others, “accommodate to their insights and offer comfort when needed,” we are told to dump them and seek out the winners. Instead of becoming more closely connected to our bodies and to our emotions, we face the stress and emotional depletion when forced to remain ever cheerful and insensitive to the environment that surrounds us.

This is a horrible message for a difficult time.

But perhaps Ehrenreich gets at the heart of the matter when she says that:

“If the power of the mind were truly “infinite,” one would not have to eliminate negative people from one’s life; one could, for example, simply choose to interpret their behavior in a positive way—maybe he’s criticizing me for my own good, maybe she’s being sullen because she likes me so much and I haven’t been attentive, and so on. The advice you must change your environment—for example, by eliminating negative people and the news—in an admission that there may in fact be a “real world” out there that is utterly unaffected by our wishes. In the face of this terrifying possibility, the only “positive” response is to withdraw into one’s own carefully constructed world of constant approval and affirmation, nice news, and smiling people” p. 59.

And so, as we achieve success at positive thinking, achieved through discipline, we tolerate no possibility for planetary collapse, job loss, energy depletion or business failure that we cannot control. Refuse to let in such negative thinking, or the failure will be your fault. You are the world, and your thoughts require you to take full personal responsibility and to exert the necessary power of will to not allow the possibility of failure. If you should fail, only the “whiners” or the “losers” are disappointed, resentful, or downcast.

“Winners” make cancer a gift and a dead ocean a “unique opportunity.”

She ends her introduction stating her wish for:

more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and better yet, joy…but we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking….Why should one be so inwardly preoccupied at all? Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding?…Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?

Thank you, Barbara, for being MY Peak Shrink.