We're Unhappy, and We Know Why

Drinking alone in the age of the immersive Internet

The more I talk to people my age, and the more I read from others of my generation, the more I think a fair share of us are pretty miserable. Millennials, more than their Gen-X older cousins and even more than their Gen-Z younger siblings, seem generally unhappy and generally unable to conceal it. I don’t know that I would describe it as an ambient sadness, as much as a low-level frustration, which is perhaps a good word to describe how most people talk about depression. When people are depressed they talk about it not as if they are crying uncontrollably, but hitting a wall unstoppably. Literature of emotion dominates much of the online writing by Millennials, and lots of it comes off to me as deflating frustration.

I’m torn between two competing beliefs. On the one hand, I doubt that we are actually that much unhappier than our parents or grandparents. Human nature is what it is, there is nothing new under the sun, if anything our cultural practice of paying very close attention to our emotional state is probably what makes us think we’re unhappy. On the other hand, there are signs: depression and suicide are up among the age groups that have everything to live for. Alcoholism, acknowledged and otherwise, is surging after a long decline. Pop culture is incredibly dark, seemingly oscillating between political apocalypticism and pornographic nihilism. If we are not actually more unhappy than before, I don’t want to know what an authentically depressed cultural milieu would feel like.

This is almost certainly a complex and multifaceted trend, attributable to a variety of things. One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about though is: how much of my generation’s unhappy sense of being frustrated is cultivated—and perhaps even created—by online life? Before you roll your eyes and pigeonhole me as the “blame the internet guy,” let me make something clear: I don’t think the existence of the Internet creates anything. It’s the immersiveness of the Internet that shapes us. When it comes to internet technology, there isn’t a sufficient way to express just how beholden Millennials are. How many people below the age of 50 do you know that spend a significant of their week learning, communicating, and/or working away from the environment of the Internet? Those people are out there, certainly (and you can usually tell who they are from a few minutes’ interaction). For the rest of us, we reckon not with the mere possibility of the Internet, but with how almost every facet of life has become remade in its image.

There are, of course, studies and charts about this. They are controversial. One study suggests a clear correlation between smartphone usage and poor mental health in teens, but then another study says, “Not so fast.” Perhaps we can arrive at a conclusion that seems self-evident: even if the immersive age of the Internet is not actually making us feel worse, it is certainly not helping us feel better.

This idea is reinforced by a piece you really should read in the Atlantic about the rise of American drinking. Since the Atlantic is not operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s probably worth taking note that it published a lengthy and fairly disconcerting piece of journalism about why younger Americans especially are drinking more than is good for them. Read the whole thing, but I want to zero in on a particular theme: American solitude. In short, the author writes, Americans struggle to drink moderately because they struggle to drink with others. It’s not that Americans love alcohol that much more than the Brits or Italians; it’s that, culturally, Americans love drinking alone far more than other cultures. Whereas social drinking can correlate with healthy friendships and meaningful membership in a commons, solitary drinking is overwhelmingly self-therapeutic…and thus, far more powerfully addictive. Read this, cited from near the end of the piece:

Even drinking in bars has become less social in recent years, or at least this was a common perception among about three dozen bartenders I surveyed while reporting this article. “I have a few regulars who play games on their phone,” one in San Francisco said, “and I have a standing order to just refill their beer when it’s empty. No eye contact or talking until they are ready to leave.” Striking up conversations with strangers has become almost taboo, many bartenders observed, especially among younger patrons. So why not just drink at home? Spending money to sit in a bar alone and not talk to anyone was, a bartender in Columbus, Ohio, said, an interesting case of “trying to avoid loneliness without actual togetherness.”

This is obviously a portrait of a very sad kind of social isolation. But we need to ask an important question of these solo drinking screen lookers. Are these folks going into bars and being glued to their phones because they are lonely? Or are they lonely because they go into bars and stay glued to their phones? In this scenario, do the smartphones represent earnest effort to pursue happiness despite unfortunate circumstances, or are the phones themselves the unfortunate circumstances?

My point here is not to overanalyze nameless bar hoppers. My point is two fold: first, the single most transformative aspect of Millennial culture is our immediate, unmitigated access to an immersive technological experience, and second, we don’t seem to be doing very well when it comes to the things that make life worth living. And here, in the pages of a major news magazine—a news magazine certainly not beholden to any contrarian view of technology or traditionalist account of human flourishing—we see a portrait of how one of the few genuinely social rituals in our culture can become little more than a liquid drive-thru for the tech-hooked.

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We need to seriously consider the possibility that our despair comes in large part from a sense that we enslaved to things we don’t even enjoy. What is addiction if not an ever increasing compulsion for an ever diminishing reward? The language of addiction is indeed appropriate for talking about digital habits, especially in light of how social media and streaming platforms engineer their products to be as binge-able as possible. Tech-enslavement does not necessarily mean that we don’t do anything other than drowning in the Twitter or YouTube algorithms. No, it need only mean that as mindless use of digital technology becomes more established in daily life, our minds and emotions rebel against it in the form of an unshakeable sense of frustration.

As Matthew Crawford recently wrote, “What are we to make of the fact that so many people who use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube also complain bitterly about their own habit of spending too much time on these things? Nobody is forcing anyone to do anything, yet people report that they feel somehow unfree…Precisely because our brains are so plastic and formable, the grooves that we wear into them through repeated behavior may become deep enough that they function like walls.”

Attributing a chronic sense of unhappiness to technological habits doesn’t sound intuitive at first. But this is because we do not actually believe that internet technology is a substance to which we might become addicted. Not long ago the internet was a tool that had to be deliberately used in a physical space, with relatively immobile technologies. The internet was contained to a place, and a person who spent 18 out of 24 waking hours in that space would likely have been tagged as having developed an unhealthy relationship with the tech. The internet is no longer a tool, it is an ambience, unleashed from the constraints of space. We do not perceive our enmeshment in the internet because basically nothing is required of our persons to be enmeshed. We don’t have to be anywhere but wherever we are, and thus, wherever we are becomes—for the purposes of digital enmeshment—indistinguishable from everywhere else.

Kind of like drinking alone.

Ancient wisdom held that there was a connection between happiness and self-mastery. Why? Because the alternative to controlling oneself is to be controlled by someone or something else. In the Bible, mastery is part of what it means to be human. God, the creator, forms the world (which was formless) and then fills it with his creatures. Forming and filling are what God does, and it is what he commands his image-bearers to continue doing. The only way to form and fill is to take mastery, dominion, over that which is to be formed and filled. When things are mastered well, they reflect Eden. But the effect of sin is that them who were meant to master become mastered, like Cain.

Frustration is the ground we tend’s bearing thorns instead of fruit. Frustration is the searing pain and viscera of childbirth. Frustration is looking up and realizing that yet another day has been wasted in the pit of autoplay, or the emotional tyranny of trending topics, or the lonely envying of a feed full of picture-perfect lives. We get past this frustration by accepting it as normal, as inevitable, perhaps even as the price of participation in modern life. We get past it by not thinking about it, only swiping one more time, perhaps only pausing to take one more drink.

Yet we shouldn’t overthink this. A media revolution would be a good thing, yet none of us can start there. We have to start literally where we are. Where are the gaps in daily life that we fill with technology? Find those gaps: a sense of meaninglessness at work, a feeling of being isolated from others, boredom because we don’t know what to be doing. We need to find those gaps and master them. We need to stop hiding behind artificial “personality types,” telling ourselves our lonely nights of drinking are necessary introversion time. Forming and filling are not Enneagram numbers. They’re written deep in the recesses of our frustrated souls.