Irrational Antagonism - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Irrational Antagonism

In the book Packing for Mars, author Mary Roach was very interested in what space travel does to the human mind. Not necessarily the effects of zero gravity on the mind or the effect of being outside the Earth looking back on the planet, but the effect of being stuck in a small space, where everything is monitored, with other people, and no way to escape it all for 6 months or longer. What Roach learned is that irrational antagonism can set in, putting the whole space voyage at risk.
She writes, “Psychologists use the term irrational antagonism to describe what happens between people isolated together for more than about six weeks.” People stuck in a single spot with only each other to keep them company begin to find petty annoyances in the behaviors of the people they are with. Roach uses a quote from a French anthropologist in the Arctic to demonstrate irrational antagonism. The man came to see the very traits he initially admired about the person he was isolated alongside as annoyances and points of frustration. In other examples, people began to intentionally annoy their isolated compatriots, deliberately doing things they knew would slightly grate the other people. Even close friends can find that they begin to hate the people they are with, to pick small fights with them, or to act out passive aggressively toward them. Cooperation, coordination, and cordiality all break down as small acts of defiance build up.
In 2021 it is safe to say that many of us may have experienced some degree of irrational antagonism in the last year or so. As we have been in varying stages of lockdown across the planet, some of us have effectively been in isolation with a spouse, a roommate, or a family member whose company we genuinely enjoy…at least when we can get away from them for a little while. Humans are social creatures and we seem to desire very close relationships with immediate family members and a handful of friends. At the same time, we seem to also like our space and independence from others, and we like to (at least occasionally) also engage with groups of people, not the same small dyads or clusters. Being able to move about freely and being able to interact with numerous other people seems to help us stay balanced and helps us enjoy the people in our lives. Being too isolated with a limited number of people seems to make us less sociable and less cooperative with others. I’m sure this goes for just about everyone, regardless as to whether we consider ourselves introverts or extroverts. We need connections, both close and distant, to keep us functioning and keep us engaged in a positive sociable manner.
An Epidemic of Disconnection

An Epidemic of Disconnection

Over the last few years I have become increasingly aware of the importance of developing real senses of community and connection between everyone in our societies. Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream was one of the books that kickstarted these ideas in my mind. We are social creatures, and we create the worlds we live in together, through shared efforts and visions. As we have lost our shared visions and isolated our efforts, our communities have suffered, and people have responded with drugs, addiction, and further isolation. We have created an epidemic of disconnection, and we have been facing the consequences for the last several years.

 

In his book, Hari writes, “The places with the biggest opioid crises are also the places with the highest suicide rates and the highest antidepressant prescriptions—which help us to see that what is really going on is an epidemic of deep disconnection.”

 

Drug abuse, addiction, and overdose are common across the country, but are not evenly distributed. There are parts of our country where deaths of despair are a major concern and are so prevalent that among some demographics overall life expectancy is decreasing. People are facing incredible challenges, and don’t have the support systems and communities that they need to help them through their challenges. Drugs are a way to blunt the pain, to numb the constant worry, and to try turn off the part of the mind that only sees life as downward spiral. The epidemic of disconnection that we see in our country is self-reinforcing and threatens lives and communities.

 

We need to find more ways for people to belong, for people to matter, and for people to be engaged in creative endeavors in their community. Isolating ourselves with Netflix, gating off our communities, and building walls between ourselves, our property and the outside world of trouble will only exacerbate the epidemic of disconnection and further the inequalities which lead to our societal problems. We have to find more ways to invest in our communities, to do things together (even in a pandemic), and help encourage people to be responsible to each other and society. We cannot only be responsible to our own homes, families, and bank accounts. In order to combat the opioid crisis, we have to reconnect with people who feel disconnected and isolated, and help fill their lives in ways that opioids never will.
The Importance of Respect

The Importance of Respect

In my life, many family members, friends, and elders have warned me against drug use by belittling those who are addicted to drugs. Words like junkie, derelict, waste, and zombie are commonly accepted words that are used to denigrate drug addicts (and that’s the tame end of drug user insults). The common stance, from what I always saw growing up, was disrespect and disgust toward people addicted to drugs. The importance of respect for these individuals, always seemed to be lost.

 

I studied public policy at the University of Nevada, and one of my favorite frameworks for understanding the legislative process is Ingram and Schneider’s Social Construction Framework. By looking at the social constructions, that is the framings and structures through which we understand target populations, of those who will receive the cost or benefit of a policy, we can understand how society thinks about who is deserving and who is undeserving of aid. The framework helps us think about power in politics, and whether we like or dislike specific people or characteristics of people.

 

Drug addicts, in almost all examples of the Social Construction Framework, are viewed as deviants. They have no political power, and are not seen as deserving. Consequently, it is politically popular to put more punishments on drug addicts. Policies which aid drug addicts and provide some type of benefit to them are politically costly.

 

Unfortunately, as Johan Hari explains in Chasing the Scream, this framing can lead to isolation among drug addicts, making it harder for them to ever recover. Hari quotes Ruth Dreifuss as saying, “Prevention begins with respect.”

 

To help people recover from drug addiction, and indeed to stop people who use drugs from developing addictions, we have to show them respect. We have to acknowledge their humanity, and we have to be willing to work with them, rather than to only punish them further. When describing Dreifuss’s views, Hari writes, “She had always believed that everyone – no matter how seemingly lost – can be empowered if you do it right.”

 

We may never be able to help everyone completely overcome addiction. We may never be able to stomp out addiction and drug abuse entirely, but we can work with people and show them respect, even if they have made mistakes and even if they do something we don’t want to see, such as abuse drugs and develop drug addictions. We can work with everyone to help them become better and more well adjusted versions of themselves, but it requires respect and a recognition of their humanity. We can’t just see people as deviants and heap piles of punishment on them, and then wonder why they never rise up. Not everyone is going to be a perfect success and some will still fail, but they will always deserve respect and to be treated as fully human. If we can’t provide those two pieces, then we will certainly fail to reduce drug use and addiction, and we will continue living with people we classify as outcasts and deviants.
An Addiction to Consumerism

An Addiction to Consumerism

Johann Hari doesn’t believe that the answer to solving our nation’s drug problems lies in locking up drug users and dealers. He doesn’t believe that those who develop addictions are some type of moral failure. He doesn’t think that what we need is better enforcement of laws, more policing, and better deterrence through the criminal legal process. What Hari believes is necessary is that we focus on reducing the harms of illicit drug use, and start asking larger questions about what motivates all of us, and how we interact and connect with one another.

 

There is a larger addiction than drug addiction that Hari is concerned about, addiction to consumption in general. As a culture, the United States has spent years believing that we could be content and happy in our own homes, as long as we can buy lots of things to fill our homes. We moved to suburbs where we could drive to and from work, park our cars in our garages, hire people to do our yard work, and never have to see or interact with people we don’t know. We watch TV, scroll through social media, and stay inside where it is safe and where we can be around our possessions.

 

“We all know deep down it doesn’t make us happy,” Hari Writes, “to be endlessly working to buy shiny consumer objects we have seen in advertisements. But we keep doing it, day after day. It in fact occupies most of our time on earth. We could slow down. We could work less and buy less. It would prevent the environment – our habitat – from being systematically destroyed. But we don’t do it, because we are isolated in our individual cages. In that environment, the idea of consuming less, in fact, fills us with panic.”

 

Across the United States we have developed an addiction to consumerism. We have lost the sense of community that has held together human beings for our evolutionary history, and we have limited our interactions with people in the outside world to meaningless transactions. We then criticize those who cannot find meaning in our consumerism and turn to drugs. We failed to provide them with a community and real relationships with other humans, and as a result people turned to drugs and we further outcasted them. Our consumerism has many negative externalities, and Hari would argue that isolation and addiction are consequences of our consumer culture. To solve drug addiction, he believes, requires that we re-think our ideas of consumerism, and start to look more toward re-engagement with community over individual purchases of things.
Addiction and Loneliness

Addiction and Loneliness

A little while back I wrote about the connection between isolation and addiction that Sam Quinones described in his book Dreamland. I wrote about the Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Mirthy, who has also recently published a book about loneliness in the United States, arguing that we have a loneliness epidemic that is causing a number of health issues for people across the country. Mirthy was interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast, and the idea of loneliness has been one that Klein has returned to over and over in his show, with small comments or questions to many of his guests during conversations about a wide range of problems in American life.

 

The connection between addiction and loneliness is also something addressed by Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari focuses on the importance of community in helping people avoid drug misuse and addiction, and in helping people recover from addiction. On loneliness he writes, “One recovering heroin and crack addict on the Downtown Eastside [of Vancouver, CA], Dean Wilson, put it to me simply. addiction he said is a disease of loneliness.”

 

Addiction is not limited to people who live on the streets or who have no friends and find themselves in an apartment, isolated from any friends or family. However, isolation in that manner does make illicit drug use, prescription drug abuse, and addiction more likely. Addiction is also not limited to chemical substances. Hari argues that when we feel isolated, when we lack meaning, when we have no community to participate with as part of a broader mission than buying shiny consumer products, we are more likely to form bonds with chemicals, with sex, or with behaviors such as gambling. A sense of loneliness leaves us wanting something more and something different, and often, we can find ourselves addicted to something to distract from our loneliness.

 

Punishing people with addiction challenges, making it harder for them to be part of society, limiting the opportunities for them to have a meaningful job and work toward a social goal makes it harder for them to overcome their addiction and loneliness. Hari writes, “The heroin helps users deal with the pain of being unable to form normal bonds with other humans. The heroin subculture gives them bonds with other human beings.”

 

If we try to fight the addiction and the drug itself, we create a subculture of other lonely humans, who bond together through  their shared addiction and isolation. We almost guarantee that people struggling with addiction will be trapped, unable to find meaning in their life, stuck in isolation, and miserable. The answer from Hari is to instead focus on redeveloping our communities and social infrastructure. To fight loneliness and not addiction, to give people more meaning in their lives by developing more connections between us, and to reinvest in our communal spaces. By building institutions and cultures that push back against loneliness we address the upstream causes of addiction, and help cut away from the pressures that drive toward addiction. This is the ultimate message of Hari’s book, and it is not just a way to fight addiction, but a way to help us all have more meaningful lives.
More on Isolation and Addiction

More on Isolation and Addiction

I previously wrote about pain medicine ideas that Sam Quinones presents in his book Dreamland. He is critical of the idea that we can take a pill to alleviate chronic pain without making substantial changes in our lives to address the root cause of our pain. Even if we can’t completely stop chronic pain by changing our habits, our environment, and our lifestyles, Quinones shares information which suggests that our experience of pain is connected to many parts of our lives, and that we can change how we think about and relate to pain, even if we cannot eliminate it completely. This is a holistic approach to pain and pain management that Quinones thinks is a crucial piece for understanding our nation’s current opioid epidemic.

 

Chronic pain and its mismanagement is a common route to opioid addiction. Quinones views opioid addictions similarly to how he views chronic pain. In his book he writes, “Chronic pain was probably best treated not by one pill but holistically. In the same way, the antidote to heroin wasn’t so much Naloxone; it was community.”

 

Naloxone is a drug that helps prevent opioid overdoses by binding to opioid receptors in the body to block the effect of opioids like heroin. This drug has helped save thousands of lives, but on its own it won’t stop addiction. Quinones argues that a big problem with addiction is the way in which we hide it from others, whether it is addiction to drugs, gambling, or something else, we don’t allow anyone to know about our addiction. Without talking about addiction, without acknowledging that it has had impacts on our families and lives, and without having meaningful connections with others, we languish in our isolation and addiction.

 

The argument that Quinones makes in his book is that we need more community. We need more things in our lives where we interact meaningfully with others. We need to find more ways to be in service to other people, to work together for meaningful causes, and to have greater social connections with the people around us. By developing meaningful relationships with others, we provide community for everyone, and that helps push back against the forces that drive toward isolation and drive many of us toward substance addiction. Community provides us the space to discuss our challenges, our addictions, and our discontents, and hopefully gives us the chance to build constructive spaces in which we can connect and find solutions to problems that we cannot find in isolation.
Isolation and Addiction

Isolation and Addiction

American’s are isolated, and it’s not just because we have all been asked to work from home, stay inside, and intentionally distance ourselves from others to prevent the exponential transmission of COVID-19. We have been isolated for a while, so much so that former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, recently published a book about loneliness and the importance of human connection. Loneliness and isolation are new problems that we are starting to look at in new ways. In his book Dreamland, Sam Quinones connects isolation and addiction in ways that change the discussion we have about addiction and our values as Americans.

 

Quinones is critical of how our society interacts today, or rather how our society doesn’t interact. He writes, “the most selfish drug [opioids] fed on atomized communities. Isolation was now as endemic to wealthy suburbs as to the Rust Belt, and had been building for years. It was true about much of a country where the streets were barren on summer evenings and kids no longer played Kick the Can as parents watched from porches. That dreamland has been lost and replaced, all too often, finally, by empty streets of bigger, nicer houses hiding addiction that each family kept secret.”

 

To atomize means to convert into very fine particles or droplets, and is used by Quinones to show that we have separated our communities into individual, isolated nuclear units. We hide inside our houses, rarely venturing outside to just be outside. We drive to our suburbs, stop at the mailbox from our car, park in our garages, and rarely spend any time outside. If we do get out, we are in our private backyard where we cannot be seen. We have cut out everyone else, leaving us with just ourselves in our ever larger houses filled with ever more things for our individual enjoyment.

 

Quinones argues that this lifestyle has been brought on by our own selfishness. We want our own stuff, we want to show it off, and it holds more value today than it did in the past. Consequently, we are also more jealous of those who have more than us, and more guarded of our things. We lock out other to protect our stuff, but in the process we locked out a crucial part of our humanity: our connections and community.

 

Community shows us that there is more to life than just our desires. Isolation and addiction are linked because when we withdraw from community, when we focus only inward on what we want, our purpose of helping others and interacting with others disappears. Quinones believes that a lack of interaction with others fueled the opioid crisis. We hid addiction in our homes, withdrew from community, and and took away the joys and connections that made us human. We left ourselves vulnerable to pain killing addictions, and took away the best tools to cure the epidemic we now face.

When Are We Happy?

“During any given day people are typically least happy while commuting and most happy while canoodling,” writes Dan Pink in his book When. I currently have a long commute, and I have found that a long drive makes me more irritable, makes me feel more rushed in general, and really does lower the quality of my day. I’m working to make changes so that my commute is reduced, and it has me thinking about how I spend my time in general.

 

I like to be busy and active, but often end up working on things individually. I spend a good amount of time listening to podcasts by myself while doing dishes, cleaning my car, and putting away laundry. These things beat TV, but still don’t bring me a lot of deep value.

 

As Pink’s quote above suggests, we are more happy when doing things with other people. We like to do social things, to interact with friends and family, and to be around others. The time when we are by ourselves – isolated from the world, not engaging in deep ways with other people – is when we are at our lowest. In our daily lives we should consider what we are doing in isolation and what we are doing as a social group, and shift toward the latter.

 

I remember hearing Tyler Cowen on a podcast say that joining a social group that meets once a month is equivalent in terms of happiness production as doubling one’s income. If this is accurate, then we should shift our jobs so that we don’t take careers (or stay in careers) where we are pushed toward isolation (in terms of commute or other factors) and ultimately have our time wasted instead. We should try to find ways to open more time for ourselves, and then we should try to fill that time by participating in social endeavors. If Cowen is correct, starting new clubs and participating in groups will not just increase our happiness, but the happiness of others who can join in.

 

We shouldn’t necessarily just pursue a life of continuous canoodling, but we can pursue a life of real world connections by limiting our isolationism. It is hard, especially if one lives in a sprawling suburb, to maintain good connections, but by being intentional about our time and lifestyle, we can slowly shift ourselves back to a more communal lifestyle. Some of us are lucky enough to decide we don’t want to keep the job that forces us into a miserable commute, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to move to different cities or parts of town where the traffic isn’t so bad. The research from Pink on happiness, and Cowen’s thoughts on social connection suggest that a cut in pay may make us much more happy if it frees our time and allows us to connect with others. Prioritizing social connections over cash might be the best thing for our happiness.

Culture Busting

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call for culture busting among city leaders who want to find new solutions to pressing problems. One of the challenges we face is that in general, the public doesn’t understand governance well. We operate with set ideas about what governance is, who sets rules and regulations, and the roles that private companies, local community groups, and formal government agencies play. In the future, as problem solving becomes more local and as we try to tackle major challenges we will need to get beyond these simple models from our high school civics classes.

 

This is what Katz and Nowak call culture busting, “culture busting is a form of risk taking and a fundamental shift in understanding that many responsibilities in a city and metropolis lie with the community broadly rather than with the government narrowly.” The role of government, the role of businesses, and the role of everyday citizens needs to change if we are to truly address the big problems in our societies. If we want to tackle climate change, if we want to reduce healthcare spending, and if we want to spark economic development, we have to realize how interconnected all of the challenges we face are, and we have to develop a community focused action plan to make the necessary changes. Thinking that problem solving is the role of government or that economic development is purely a free market phenomenon will not help us jump to be dynamic leaders in a globalized economy.

 

Part of what culture busting calls for is more education around governance and part of it is a reemergence of community action. A major failure of suburban life is that we drive from our homes to our places of work or commerce, and rarely interact with anyone else along the way. We let others deal with problems unless they happen to be unavoidably right in front of our face. We might get out for a sporting event or a conference, but otherwise we are just as content to watch Disney+ at home. Culture busting replaces this individual isolation with networks that want to see real change and are willing to own part of that change.

 

Culture busting requires that we re-imagine what is possible for governments and redefine the role of businesses and civic organizations. It requires that we think about the challenges our communities face, and ask ourselves what resources and advantages do we have that we can use to make a difference. Rather than waiting for government to make a decision, it requires civic and private energy to clear the path and display a public will for government to direct resources in the direction that the populace already wants to move. It shifts leadership from government back to the people and aligns actors to make the community a better place.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.