Hungarian Conservative

How Modernity Has Diverted Us from Meaning — A Mental Health Crisis

Edward Munch: Melancholy (1894-96)
Melancholy by Edward Munch (1894–96)
Wikimedia Commons
‘Instead of alienating modern man and calling him weak, conservatives should put forward mankind's greatest treasure: a transcendental focus towards meaning. Only then can this time of polarisation and erosion of mental resilience, social cohesion and institutions be turned into a renaissance of society.’

The Unfulfilled Promise of Modernity

Advocates of modernity often praise it for its benefits to human flourishing. Human emancipation is often, rightfully so, highlighted as one of its crown achievements. Moreover, modernity is worshipped for its prosperity and opportunity creating properties. The debt that arises is the transformation of the homo universalis, humanity as a versatile creature focused on the good, the just, and the beautiful, into homo economicus, a creature focused on obtaining and consuming goods.

One might ask if this is such a big price to pay for the shine that modernity seems to bring. After all, the perceived increase in human happiness and opportunities makes modernity self-evidently worthwhile for modern man. It almost seems like a perfect picture. Yet, the devil is in the details. Detrimental to the promise of modernity is one misleading axiom: the nature of humanity does not change to fit the new modern dream.

Humanity is culturally and socially very adaptable. Yet, the roots of human nature are like a canvas on which culture is painted. When forgetting the canvas underneath the paint, no matter how bright the colours might seem, you are in for a great deal of surprises and confusion. Even when speaking evolutionary, the language preferred by modern man, it is important to realize that culture, in the form of transmittable ideas or memes, can change incredibly fast, especially in modern times. The human genetic makeup, on the other hand, works on a completely different timescale. Therefore, the time required for humanity to adapt to cultural changes very different from its original state makes human nature in fact unchangeable and unable to adapt to truly contrary ways of being. This is one of the core problems with progressivism detached from normative structures. Therefore, modernity, both theoretically and practically, as we see on full display in current society, brings forth tremendous problems, among which one is the erosion of mental health.

A Mental Health Crisis: How Bad Is It?

The state of global mental health can be a depressing fact to witness. The endless news articles in the west about the fragile mental state of the younger generations experiencing nihilism, confusion, loneliness, insecurity, anxiety, and depression are alarming, to say the least. The question is regularly asked whether these symptoms are indeed a reflection of a mental health crisis or whether they are a consequence of an increasing awareness surrounding mental health, also called the prevalence inflation hypothesis. This hypothesis states that the increase in mental health awareness has contributed to the rise in reported mental health issues. Let’s look at some of the statistics to see just how bad (or good) mental health in Hungary is to see if we are truly facing a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the need for action to decrease mental suffering is “indisputable and urgent”. Does this also apply to Hungary? I would argue that it does, as 14% of the Hungarian population has a mental health condition. This is slightly below the European average of 17%, but it still poses a serious problem. Additionally, when it comes to other indicators of mental health, Hungary does score average. For example,  7% of the Hungarian population aged over 15 lives with depression. When it comes to suicide rates, Hungary has an annual suicide rate of 47.4 (per 100.000 inhabitants) due to mental and behavioural disorders. This is in line with global trends, as according to the WHO, 700.000 people annually commit suicide globally (compared to 619.000 people who die because of malaria). Additionally, the rate of the most prominent mental health disorders, depression and anxiety, seems to increase rapidly. In 2023 alone, the presence of global depression and anxiety disorders skyrocketed by 28% and 25%, respectively. These trends do not stand alone and build upon many years of increased rates of mental disorders and suffering.

The mental health crisis has negative impacts economically as well.

Lost productivity and poor health due to anxiety and depression cost the world economy approximately 2.5 trillion USD in 2010, which is estimated to increase to 6 trillion USD in 2030. In Hungary, the GDP is lowered by 3.1% as a result of mental health problems among the population due to direct and indirect expenditure. As we can see, Hungary mainly faces similar challenges to other western countries. Therefore, to understand the underlying mental health issues facing Hungary, we must zoom out to understand the underlying problems which are not unique to Hungary.

How big is the impact of the mental health crisis on a global scale? At least one in eight people in the world currently live with a mental health disorder, with this rate increasing drastically. This is approximately 970 million people currently, with no sign of slowing down. Additionally, this number does not even include the people with mental suffering that do not meet all mental health disorder criteria. This begs the question: where does this mental erosion end?

Endless pharmaceutical and psychological treatments are the primary modern answers in current society. For some people, these interventions do indeed provide tremendous help, but they consist mostly of symptom reduction. Therefore, the current strategy of increasing money spent on sociological issues such as loneliness, as well as treating psychological disorders does not seem to be an overall effective strategy while the underlying issues of modernity remain. Increasing the money spent on pharmacological and psychological research as well as treatment so far has resulted in a decrease of wellbeing and increased economic cost, which surely cannot be the desired outcome.

So, the question remains: what is an alternative vision regarding mental health which deals with the core underlying issues of the maladies of the modern psyche? I suggest that a focus on transcendental meaning is required to bring forth what modern man claims to desire the most: flourishing individuals. Therefore, instead of focusing on objective truth, which many conservative thinkers—rightfully so—tend to concentrate on, I state a case in which modern man can be persuaded using its own language related to happiness and individual flourishing. In a sense we go full circle back to a meaningful approach.

A Look Back: How Did We Get Here?

To understand why a focus on transcendental meaning is a solution to the mental health crisis, we first must understand how the psyche of modern man radically changed over the last few centuries. Both the Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th century and the following romantic period in the 18th and 19th century were psychologically crucial periods. Both emphasized either reason—in the Enlightenment—or feelings—in the romantic period—as dominant over the other. Psychologically implicit, both have something in common: an egocentric worldview. Either individual reason or feelings reign supreme in the modern mind. This unbalanced dominance of reason and feelings has gradually diminished the boundaries of social norms and institutions. This transformation has been one to cost a great deal of different things, most importantly: a broad transcendental focus. Not only did secularization make humanity the focus of the world but it also reduced the significance of institutions which are bigger than oneself: family, community, and regional and national society at large, to such an extent that they became increasingly submissive to serve the individual rationally or emotionally. In doing so,

modern man has gone against his own naturally transcendental focus.

A Humanist Universe: The Psychological Impact

To understand the origin of this egocentric worldview, let’s turn our attention more to humanism. Before the western humanism of the 14th century, the centre of the universe, no matter the cultural and individual beliefs, was primarily the transcendental realm, pre-eminently the Judeo–Christian religious sphere. Additionally, even outside the western religious sphere, a transcendental focus seems, based on religious cognitive research, to be universal in its conceptualization that the individual stands in awe of (ie love, responsibility for a family or community, and sacrifice for the sake of others).

This humanistic world view laid the foundation for the shifts during the Enlightenment in which the transcendental realm was slowly replaced with the humanistic realm. Individual freedom has gradually taken the highest hierarchical place in this new dominant world view. The nearly limitless freedom and seeking of short-term pleasure that followed have shaped itself as real-life ‘soma’, distracting modern men from their existential desires and needs. Therefore, as Nietzsche already predicted, with the ‘death of God’, individualization and nihilism, from which humans can only temporarily escape with short-term gratification and distraction, has appeared. In fact, this individualization has empirically been associated with isolation, an increased risk of depression, substance abuse, personality disorders, suicide, and overall negative mental health.

The Modern Solution of Authenticity

So how has modernity tried to wrestle with modern nihilism? With a quest towards authenticity. The famous psychologist Carl Rogers argued that by letting go of traditional social roles and self-identity, the ‘authentic self’ could emerge and develop by the self-actualization of individual goals and desires. Countless self-help book writers and life-coaches have filled this void with great (financial) success. Sadly, for those hoping to find the golden ticket in this quest of authenticity, plenty of psychological studies indicate that individuals who focus on the self-exploration of the ‘authentic self’ have worse psychological outcomes. This heavily contradicts the modern promise of ‘happiness through unlimited freedom and self-exploration’.

The missing ingredient in this modern recipe is that identity is not merely a personal quest, as it is negotiated with the environment as well. Thereby, it does not help that the most important relations, like those with one’s spouse and family, have eroded as well in modern times. Increases in divorce rates, single parent households, people living alone as well as a decrease in marriages and fertility are a good indication of what individualization truly results in. These trends constitute a breaking point from traditional society, in which marrying at a young age, long-lasting marriages, and a focus on a large extended family were the norm. With the erosion of social and family life, it seems instability and uncertainty regarding personal identity are unavoidable. One may imagine why this process has also had a negative and destabilizing effect on modern mental health.

Lastly, the quest for authenticity has also put an increased focus on the future, contrary to more transcendental embeddedness in religious and cultural traditions of the past, in which men rather experienced the present while being connected to the past. This increased focus on the future, just like the shift in social life, has also increased the experience of uncertainty. As the Yiddish expression goes: ‘Der Mensch Tracht, Un Gott Lacht‘, translated as: ‘man plans, and God laughs’. The future will always be unpredictable, thus, overly focusing on it enhances the feeling of lack of control associated with worse mental health. It is therefore no coincidence that mindfulness, which aims to divert attention away from the future and back to the present is nowadays an increasingly popular and effective psychological intervention. Thereby,

modern psychology is remedying surfacing symptoms, while the underlying problems of modernity remain.

What the different sociological and cultural changes that have rapidly occurred during the modern era all have in common is that they do not consider the human as a transcendentally focused creature. The attempted adaptation causes serious challenges to the human psyche. So far, modern psychology has been unable to find an answer to remedy the mental health crisis. I believe this is because it has been looking in the wrong place.

A Transcendental Protective Factor: How Does It Impact Our Psyche?

Now that we have looked at one of the root causes of the mental health crisis, let’s look at a path forward. The pre-modern world, for all its flaws, provided people with a hierarchy of values on how they ought to live. These propositions have had a powerful ability to help people sustain themselves throughout the most troubling of times. As Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), not even the hell-like conditions of Auschwitz were able to break one’s spirit if one could find transcendental meaning in their lives. As Thomas Szasz put forward in The Myth of Mental Illness (1983), the ‘problem in living’ that people face nowadays is the inability to deal with one’s troubles in life. Trouble always finds its way into our lives, so the only thing that can sustain someone through the toughest of times is the ability to find transcendental meaning in a dignified way to deal with life’s hardships.

From this perspective, the modern world as the age of depression should therefore be understood as the age of inability to deal with hardship due to a lack of transcendental meaning. Therefore, I see the tenfold increase in depression over the last fifty years in the western world due to a strong decrease in a transcendental focus. Modern man could thus learn from so-called primitive cultures, such as the Kaluli of New Guinea, full of religious community rituals dealing with hardship and pain, in which even after decades of medical anthropological research, no cases of clinical depression have been diagnosed. No pharmaceutical or psychological treatment have ever reported such an impact.

So how does a transcendental focus impact our psychological mechanisms? A psychological focus of the individual towards the transcendental and divine has been associated with both an increased theory of mind (the ability to assess the mental states of others) as well as an increased capacity in the abstract semantical networks and cognitive–emotional interfaces. Concretely, this means that a transcendental perceived centre of the universe helps people strengthen their capacity to understand other people’s mental states as well as connect these to higher abstract reasoning, and relate all this to cognitive and emotional meaning. In daily life, this may be beneficial in forming connections with others as well as associating past and current experiences with a broader psychological meaning. If that is not good enough, a transcendental focus has also shown to decrease depression, anxiety, and addiction. Due to a lack of research, mental health benefits in further depth are yet to be determined.

A Conclusion: Our Need for a Transcendental Focus

During these times, in which social cohesion has diminished and loneliness and isolation are prevailing, connecting to others as well as finding meaning seem to be more crucial than ever. And with the daunting mental health crisis in front of us, having added benefits to mental health shouldn’t be deemed a luxury. Additionally, with rising polarization in society, finding ways to bridge individuals and communities may help restore the social fabric of society. Overall, I think I can rest my case with the conclusion that transcendental meaning is essential to the development and sustainability of human motivation and mental flourishing.

In conclusion, conservatives need to realize the importance of the psychological needs of people. Psychologists increasingly see fewer patients who display clearcut psychological disorders and more patients with problems that relate to life itself and to the nature of human existence. Instead of alienating modern man and calling him weak, conservatives should put forward mankind’s greatest treasure: a transcendental focus towards meaning. Only then can this time of polarization and erosion of mental resilience, social cohesion and institutions be turned into a renaissance of society.

‘Instead of alienating modern man and calling him weak, conservatives should put forward mankind's greatest treasure: a transcendental focus towards meaning. Only then can this time of polarisation and erosion of mental resilience, social cohesion and institutions be turned into a renaissance of society.’