For sentient beings, life means approaching pleasure and avoiding pain. Pain may be physical or psychological. If psychological, it is perceived as unease or anxiety. Our vulnerability to anxiety is the biggest threat to our well-being. Escaping from anxiety is a powerful motivator. Why do we suffer so much from anxiety?
The master emotion
If humans have a master emotion, it is probably anxiety. We are anxious about whether people like us, anxious about our physical appearance, anxious about diet, anxious about world peace, anxious about sexuality, anxious about the weather, anxious about travel, anxious about insects, anxious about germs, anxious about despots, anxious about surveillance, anxious about vicious dogs, anxious about our golf handicap, anxious about investments, anxious about Thanksgiving, anxious about public speaking, anxious about heights, anxious about drowning, and so on.
Such anxieties are a natural aspect of being alive and being designed by natural selection to remain that way as long as possible. Yet, our regular anxiety levels are unnaturally elevated. It is as though modern conditions are flipping far too many on buttons and and far too few off buttons.
This is not an original idea of course, and despite having an unprecedented quality of life, people in developed countries are succumbing to all manner of anxiety-related disorders, including heart disease that remains the leading cause of death, depression, insomnia, and drug addictions.
Modern causes of anxiety
So what are the buttons that get flipped to turn on anxiety? What are the off buttons that are ignored.
Psychologists have identified a long list of modern experiences that evoke generalized anxiety. In this list, I add a few others.
Such lists may be endless in principle but even this short list includes some of the key stressors of modern life that are predictive of depression and other anxiety disorders. Another, equally important list involves off buttons.
Off buttons for anxiety
Just as psychologists are well aware of many everyday experiences that promote anxiety, we are also aware that modern lifestyles omit many of the off buttons for anxiety enjoyed by people in more laidback communities.
The bad news is that anxiety is not going away. The good news is that we have plenty of information about why modern life is so anxious and what we can do behaviorally to relieve anxiety.