Sebastian Junger: Is Our Material Wealth Undermining Our Happiness & Health?

One the most personally meaningful podcast interviews we’ve done over the years was Our Evolutionary Need For Community, recorded with Peabody award-winning author Sebastian Junger. Junger is well-known for his NYT-bestselling books The Perfect Storm and War, the latter of which was written after a 15-month tour of duty in the most dangerous outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

Based on his observations while in Afghanistan, Junger noted how much troops in combat valued the social solidarity of their units. In fact, he noted that the loss of this cohesive community, with its sense of purpose and shared responsibility, created prodigious psychological strife when these soldiers returned and tried to re-integrate into civilian life. This dynamic is not just limited to the military; any collection of humans working in tight-knit groups under stress, united in purpose, evidences similar behavior (Peace Corps volunteers, trauma care physicians, etc).

In his excellent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger explored our evolutionary wiring for community, and paradoxically, how our modern aspirations for “success” and “wealth” attempt to distance ourselves from it — making us unhappier and emotionally unhealthier in the pursuit.

Since recording our initial interview with Sebastian, we’ve often shared the insights from it with the Peak Prosperity tribe at live events and in our writings. So this week we decided to reconnect with Sebastian, and hear how his thoughts and conclusions on the topic have evolved since we last talked with him.

It’s clear that he believes more than ever that the future prosperity of our society will be rooted in rediscovering how to create and foster the communal bonds our tribal ancestors lived by. And that begins by taking an honest look at the narratives, behaviors, and modern conveniences and temptations that keep us trapped in unhappy, unhealthy isolation:

We live in the largest economy in the world. We’re arguably the most powerful country in the world and one of the wealthiest. But we also have some of the highest rates of depression, and suicide, and addiction of any country in the world.

In material terms, we’re doing incredibly well. But in basic human terms, we seem to be in a huge amount of psychological and maybe even spiritual distress. Is our material wealth undermining our psychological health? It’s not a stupid question.

Of course, there are stressors that come with poverty as well. But one thing you lose with affluence is you lose close communal connections with other people. The less you have, the more you need other people to make up for the shortfall. In a poor African village, everyone is pulling their water out of the same well, literally and metaphorically. We mustn’t romanticize poverty, of course, and the stressors that are associated with that and all kinds of other ills. But it does seem to mitigate psychological harm.

One study that I cited in my book, Tribe, was a cross-cultural look at depression levels. People with the highest rates of depression were urban dwellers in North America. That was the highest income group. The lowest levels of depression were people in rural Nigeria. The poorest.

So I look at our society and I think okay, the Amish don’t drive cars. They have very low levels of depression and suicide. The car brings great benefits, but if you really wanted to make a more cohesive communal society, you might think about getting rid of the car. That’s not going to happen. But if you want to really have an honest conversation about solutions to this particular problem, I would say the car is a great stressor in terms of social cohesion.

Another is the smartphone/social media. I think the smartphone is psychologically catastrophic for people. What a misnomer: “social media”. It’s an outright lie to call it :social" when it really is profoundly antisocial. To me it’s like the lie perpetrated by the tobacco industry in the 1970s that tobacco wasn’t bad for you. It’s on that level of deceit. People in Silicon Valley who engineered this stuff, who developed the social medial tools and all the software and the hardware that support them, as parents they’re not allowing their children screen time because they know it’s so toxic.

So when people ask What can we do? I advise going to the nearest body of water, taking your smart phone out of your pocket, and seeing how many skips you can get out of it before it drops to the bottom of the lake forever. That’s something we can each do to rejoin the human community.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Sebastian Junger (46m:28s).

Other Ways To Listen: iTunes | Google Play | SoundCloud | Stitcher | YouTube | Download |

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Excellent podcast ranging over a variety of important topics! Thank you for this one. I’m glad you brought Sebastian Junger back on.

Reading this underscores my longtime ache for the circle of friends I had back in the '70s: compassionate, funny, and any of them would drop what they were doing to come help you with anything. Then everyone moved on to new places, jobs, suburbs, and each sunk into themselves as they no longer had those deep connections with the new people they met. I’ve moved many times through many states, and although I always meet some nice people, our suburban layouts and over 40 hour workweeks vitiate against building community. Even in my Land Use course, I talk about the psychological separation that suburbs create, with everyone driving into their own garages and not getting out of the car until they garage door is down. Hard to chat with the neighbors when everyone is doing the same thing, right?
I also agree with the author about cell phones. I have been teaching at the university level since the '90s, and I have seen students go from being able to introduce themselves on the first day of class to someone they are sitting next to, to now never attempting to get to know the person on either side of them, but all just staring at their cell phones until I start class (where they are forced to put away cell phones, computers, ear buds, etc.) The addiction I see is flabbergasting, and it is bizarre to see students stay lonely all semester in my classes. Anxiety is way up and climbing through the years, with more and more students saying anxiety keeps them from making it to the test, or immobilizes them so they don’t come to school for weeks. As a result, I tell the few people I know who have young children to not use cell phones around their kids and to keep the phones away from their kids, so those children can grow up with parents modeling communicative behavior instead of isolating themselves in a virtual world. This was a great podcast, as it really brought out what people need more than money.

Reading this underscores my longtime ache for the circle of friends I had back in the ’70s: compassionate, funny, and any of them would drop what they were doing to come help you with anything.
I truly believe that we're living through the dark ages of technology - when it can seemingly provide anything and everything, but actually it's robbing us blind of the very things we need and desire most. It's going to be especially difficult to retrain a generation of people who grew up without learning the basics - how to make an egg, how to change a tire, and how to disagree with someone productively. The next community Evie and I are seeking to either join or form, will be dedicated to the pursuits of many passions, willing to push past the usual masks and shallow interactions, and dedicated to the idea of regeneration. In Ben Falk's book on permaculture, he nailed a set of definitions for me that were so good they have shifted my mental landscape a bit. Resilience he said, is about what is. It's about the things you have to work with and use to rebuild and react. Regeneration is about what's possible. It takes a ken eye to see something that isn't already there, but know that it could be. It's Singing Frogs Farm, or Polyface Farm starting with depleted, threadbare soils but knowing (and seeing) what was possible. I want to be in a community of people committed to what's possible. I don't want to be in a community that's all about doing things as they've always been done. No HOAs for sure(!), but not even local cultures that say "but this is how we do things..." if those things limit what's possible. We know, from history, that what's possible is simply mind-boggling. Walls that cover 1,500 miles, pyramids and stone works that cannot really be grasped in their skill, feats of navigation that seem impossible. Now we humans face another really daunting set of challenges. How to wind down from a chemical fueled rave, a massive orgy of burning through 400 million years of ancient sunlight in about 200 years? Nobody knows. How to return to alignment with natural rhythms and limits, when nobody has had to do that for too many generations so the knowledge is all but lost. How to live in beauty when my entire culture covets strip malls, wallows in celebrity worship, or happily puts in slightly cheaper concrete installations that will all have to be replaced at some all-too-soon and awkward moment in the future? I don't have the big answers to the even larger questions, but I am ready to live in and around people who are ready to live in alignment with what's possible.  

Yes tech exacerbates loneliness but it’s not the root of our community problem. Junger nails it:

People say...I haven't found my tribe yet. Which means you’re not going to…I mean, if you’re looking for tribe, your tribe is around you...I think the safe way to talk about it is, when you look out the window…the houses that you see and the people that you see, that’s your community. And those are the people you need to connect with.…I can't give you a sort of one-size-fits-all like how to create and bond in a community. But you have to…
We cannot "choose" community, or it becomes something else. Humans have universal evolutionary traits, e.g. what "makes us human" and is the glue for every culture in recorded history: 1) war, 2) religion, 3) trade, 4) arts, 5) a division of labor between the sexes. It's hubris to think we can eliminate or outsource these traits and still be a lasting tribe. Even more traumatic to modern tribal dreams is the loss of extended family & job mobility (isolation); <2.1 children/woman (extinction); & massive immigration (invasion). Institutionalization of the elderly helps to ignore/deny the reality of death & religion, but only for the young so it's a hollow victory.

It is much easier to feel a fraternal bond with someone who shares our important viewpoints. Climate change, Trump, 9/11, vaccines, GWOT. I am for “Issue A”, while my neighbor is against.
We BOTH feel both correct and righteous about our position and that having our position WIN feels imperative. We perceive the victory of Issue A as a part of the great archetypal battle of GOOD versus EVIL.
Our role is that of an Archangel fighting for Good.
We do not just disagree on Issue A, but far more. We feel the imperative to destroy the advocates of this “false truth” for righteousness sake. As if they are the devil’s minion horde threatening the Kingdom of Righteousness which I defend. (Deliberately being dramatic to paint a vivid picture.)

Pictured above: Me, advocating for my position on a crucial topic. :slight_smile:
For me, letting my viewpoint and its importance fade back a bit has helped. Opening to the humanity and common ground of those who disagree.

Seeking to understand another, rather than convince. "Listening carefully with an open heart." "What do you need? What do you fear and hope for?" "I support you in meeting your needs."

The answer to all of this is simple, and it has been present across human cultures and civilizations since antiquity, and it’s communal and private prayer and meditation. The most beneficial prayer & mediation for me, outside the offering of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass (, is the Rosary ( Recently, I have also added further meditation ( to the mix. Very helpful, and no drugs or psychiatrists or costs of any kind required.
God’s Peace to all of you! :slight_smile:

Can this podcast be unlocked from the pay site so I can share with others?

I’m just now listening to this excellent podcast. It definitely makes me want to read the book! I think the lack of automobiles isn’t critical to the cohesiveness of Amish community; it’s their ATTITUDE. There are many Amish communities in Michigan, where I live. A decade ago (give or take) the keynote speaker at a small farm conference was an Amish gentleman. He began his talk thusly: " how many of you believe that television is bad for our society, please raise your hands (75% or so agreed). Now, how many of you are willing to give up television completely? (very few hands). To be Amish is to be willing to deny yourself a pleasure or convenience for the good of your community."

To be Amish is to be willing to deny yourself a pleasure or convenience for the good of your community.
Julie, this is true. But it’s more than that. Mennonites give up freedom and individuality as the price of admission, with strict obedience to a church authority (generally a bishop). This goes way beyond clothing, cars, phones, or media, and even to issues like no birth control/abortion (which has likely been key to their growth rate). Pleasure & convenience, although more visible, seem trivial in comparison.

I never take the “community!” lament from modern people seriously. One can have personal freedom or a tight community, never both. I thought Junger did a fair job of accepting this reality in his talk by redefining “community” as our whatever our current situation is, wisely knowing modern people will forever remain adrift due to the inability to enforce values. One sees this a lot with modern people being proud of being “spiritual” but “not-religious”.

SP (and jitiy), I hear you, I understand and agree with you regarding the situational facts as they exist in many so-called communities in the “developed” leviathan world where huge masses of people self sort at the local level into communities based on something other than basic survival in a local resource niche. “Fraternal Bonds” and “Prayer” may dominate such communities. But I think that “community” as existed for thousands of years before the matrix, and which we can consider for the future, may be outside the need to treat each other differently based on fraternal bonds and common prayer systems.
Things like praying , having the same politics, personal disposition, fraternal bonds and history, viewpoints etc. are not a basis of community in my opinion. In the sparsely populated agrarian boondocks, deep in a country that is depopulating or underpopulated and that can ignore the emperor/shogun/federal govt, the matrix, whether it is the electronic smart phone based or priest or famous person/politics based matrix that clusters small groups inside a larger leviathan does not rule. The small community is based on reality and what people can DO for each other. Not prayer, or politics.
When we suddenly need to dig a big grave because a popular pet goat just died, or we summon neighbors because the cherry tree now has ripe cherries, or the plum tree has plums that need to picked now or will quickly rot, someone has an unusually big harvest of a crop that will spoil quickly and needs help, needs to plant a big crop, the robot cultivator just broke at the worst time, the internet link broke, or the disparate people who live near each other meet for a public disaster drill on the top of the local hill, no one gives a rat’s as* about anyone else’s politics, religion, family bonds or favorite mania.
Community was (pre industrial revolution) and will be (post exponential growth) defined by how people living physically close in their unique niche harvest their unique local resources by relying on each person’s skill and willingness to contribute to harvesting the local resources. In my opinion real diversity is needed and appreciated when dealing with reality. Matrix or leviathan thoughts, religion thoughts, prejudices and biases are trivial.
I am very optimistic about this. People in a locavore (self produced/self consumed) resilient community appreciate each other for how they can help out with managing the physical reality that they share. They don’t have time to be bigoted or prejudiced over cups of coffee (or internet keyboard chit-chat crapping) contemplating how they are special or different.