At the risk of using hyperbole, this book will change the way you look at the world. I can say, without exaggeration, that it is possibly the most interesting book I’ve ever read.
Storr sets out to examine raised suicide rates in the west by studying our relationship with the notion of self, starting with chimpanzees before focusing in on the technological age, with a dash of Greek history and a dollop of Christian doctrine along the way.
It’s filled with fascinating insights, such as the idea that gossip is used by chimps and humans (and only these two groups) to control social groups – a notion that becomes even more relevant when considered in the age of social media. Within each chapter, there are a number of shocking reveals, such as a study that put 409 people into a room without their phones or distractions for 15 minutes and observed 67% of men and 25% of women shock themselves for want of ‘something to do’, proving that we’d rather be doing something than nothing, even if it’s negative. As someone who struggles with sitting still, this was a revelation.
In the second chapter (or “book”), Storr examines the notion of individualism at the centre of Greek philosophy, making reference to the fact that it is here that many of our problems begin. In subsequent chapters, he frequently refers back to what we’ve carried over from Greek society, a people who fetishized the talents of remarkable peoples and “valorised those who gave for the tribe and punished those who selfishly took”.
While the chronological structure of the book makes the development of the findings very easy to follow, one complaint is that it jumps from Christianity to the 20th century, glossing over Freud and the Enlightenment before landing in California where Storr takes himself on retreat again.
The book is so accessible because each chapter opens with some sort of personal experience – we feel we are also making this journey of self-discovery. In Book 4, Storr becomes the guinea pig in the therapy at Esalen, giving us a detailed insight into the process that revolutionised Western thought in the 20th century. The therapy sessions at Esalen were everything you’d think a Californian therapy retreat would be: OTT and ridiculously self-indulgent. To his own surprise, he is broken down and I started to wonder if indeed there was any weight to the assertion that “all men somehow possess a divine potentiality”.
But it is here that things become more sinister as he examines the impact this school of thought grew to have on governmental policies, both social and economic and how a small band of fanatics managed to manipulate government purse strings to preach their doctrine which then became accepted in California, then the US before trickling across the oceans to the Western world. It combined with other doctrines (Ayn Rand gets a whole chapter) to create ‘neoliberalism’ and eradicate the idea of society, directly influenced from the meeting of ‘individualism’ and Rand’s philosophies in the melting-pot of Esalen.
The structure of the book shows how insidious these developments have been, and the pace is relentless, showing how they layer and mingle with one another to culminate in the perfect storm of our current age of ‘perfectionism’.
It is the later chapters that really shock. With statistics showing that between 1990-2016 there’s been a 7 point increase in average Narcicissm Personality Index scores in US college students and a 40% drop in empathy between now and the 80s in the same group, it’s chilling stuff. He comes back to the notion of suicide and I was stunned to read that there were 10,000 extra suicides across the world in the years 2008-2010 when the banking crisis collided with the inflated self-esteem epidemic.
Discussions and interviews with Silicon Valley types reveal that the personal computer was originally designed to free the potential of the individual – with the internet becoming an echo of the theories abundant at Esalen. The phoenix that rose from the ashes of the dot com bust declared that the “future of the internet would be ‘social’ and reassert the power of ‘I’”. What makes it so terrifying is that it taps into a “primal need for reputation, competitiveness, moral outrage and tribal punishment”, a notion so repulsive I nearly deleted all my social network accounts then and there.
The outcome of the interviews demonstrates that the people at the forefront of the industry today have a strong distaste for altruistic government (they have no empathy) and a disgust for what they see as a “victim mindset”, believing that if people had more self-esteem they could think their way out of impoverished situations – which isn’t surprising if tabloid headlines are anything to go by, treating large swathes of people without a scrap of humanity.
Despite all this, it ends on a note of hope. We are us. Broken. Flawed. Nothing can change us – we are hotwired by genetics and millennia of cultural conditioning. So therefore, we should stop trying to ‘perfect’ ourselves and celebrate the flaws in others – not to be seen to be ‘good’ but to just be.