No, I don’t think we need more existential terror
There’s a popular narrative that goes roughly like this: most of human history has been dangerous and uncertain, and that’s the kind of environment our minds work the best in. The reason why so many people these days are bored and depressed is because we’ve made the world *too* safe, we would actually be healthier and happier if the world was somewhat more dangerous and not so regular and boring.
I think that this narrative is intuitive, convincing, and mostly wrong, though it does have *some* truth to it.
Here’s a comment I wrote in response to an article which was arguing the above narrative, talking about a need for “mild existential terror”:
I think it’s worth distinguishing between two different possibilities: one, that mild existential terror makes us better off by itself. Two, that mild existential terror doesn’t actually contribute to well-being, but our work to protect against it historically did, and it’s us not needing that work anymore that’s the real culprit.
To take as an example one important component of well-being: meaningful relationships (not necessarily romantic). Hunting that tiger required working closely together, and being able to trust others in your hunting party – literally trusting them with your life. This facilitated – forced – the creation of very deep and intense bonds.
In contrast, these days it’s all too easy to drift through life without *needing* to form a close bond with anyone, because there are few existential terrors that we need to protect ourselves against by bonding together. But it’s not the existential terror, by itself, that causes the bonding. Inject some existential terror to the life of someone lonely and all you’ve done is make them even more miserable. Psychological research on people’s well-being finds the number and quality of close relationships to be one of the most important factors in well-being, not the amount of fear in their lives.
People can form bonds even without that terror, even quickly like with the “fast friends protocol” of just going through a series of increasing personal questions. Arguably the fast friends protocol, too, evokes a *bit* of fear by making people vulnerable to each other. But this is a mild enough fear that I wouldn’t put it in the same category.
Also, look at children: kids raised in healthy, loving homes, who’ve experienced the least amount of fear in their lives, tend to be pretty happy and content until they start getting thrown in unhealthy social environments (e.g. school) where they start developing worries and reasons for self-censorship and feelings that they’ll need to conform in order to fit in.
It’s the sudden appearance of existential fear that makes them worse off, not the lack of it.
When I was the most depressed, the problem was never “boredom”. The problem was feeling like I’d never achieve anything I wanted to, like I’d live in constant financial stress, like I’d never have a place where I’d feel I’d belong, like nobody would want me as a romantic partner. Again it was various kinds of existential fear that were hurting me, not the lack of them.
As I’ve started to recover, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that “being bored about life” isn’t really about having too few challenges. If you find things interesting, you’ll always discover new fascinating challenges. Rather the problem is in demanding too much of yourself, thinking that you need to self-censor in order to fit in, feeling ashamed about parts of yourself and wanting to suppress them. All things which cause you to (consciously or subconsciously) suppress your natural urges and your natural motivation to do things, and then you end up bored because you are not letting yourself be interested in any of the things that you are actually authentically interested in.
That, too, comes from a form of mild existential terror, the terror of not belonging unless you fit the mold X.
See also some interesting discussion on this on Facebook.