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It’s Harder Than Ever to Care About Anything

12 minute read

They say never to read the comments, and that’s generally good practice for mental health on the internet. But sometimes you can’t resist. And so it was while reading the comments on a January David Brooks column in the New York Times (because what even is fun anymore?) that I felt what a colleague calls the “yes! that!”: the recognition that someone has put something previously unnamed, but undeniably true, into words. The commenter wrote of having “checked out of our national project” in response to feeling that society had already done the same, and having “withdrawn into just minding my own family.”

A few weeks later, there it was again, in the New Yorker, in the form of a Roz Chast cartoon that ran under the heading “Weird Feeling.” In one panel, three recognizably Chastian figures stand thinking about the stuff that used to fill our brains. “Things that once mattered don’t matter,” run the words over their heads, “at least not in the way they did before.”

Looking back at the things one cared about just a few years ago—restaurant openings, performance art, other activities that involve being crowded together with other people—can feel like visiting an alternate dimension, Chast says of the thought process that produced the piece. “That just has not really been a part of my life, probably most people’s lives, for the last couple of years,” she says.

The list of examples Chast offers in the cartoon is cheeky (“gluten gluten gluten”) but a slew of recent surveys suggest that the roll call of things that don’t seem to matter, at least not the way they once did, is a lot longer than that. In early 2022, Americans were shrugging at even the country’s most pressing problems: A Pew survey conducted in January found that, when asked which issues should be priorities for Congress and the White House in the coming year, even the highest-rated concern—strengthening the economy—drew less overall interest than it did in 2021.

A global report released in January from Oxford and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that, in the U.S., online news consumption fell significantly between late 2020 and late 2021. There could be some natural reasons for this: a new presidential administration fell into a groove, vaccines helped the pandemic enter a less terrifying phase. But even the arrival of the omicron variant and its high-speed spike in cases didn’t cause a major surge in interest in pandemic headlines. The Olympics? They didn’t stand a chance. Nearly half of respondents to an Axios-Momentive poll, also conducted in January, said they were less excited about these Olympics than the last winter games, and most could not name even one athlete competing. More people are even taking a nihilistic approach to their own health; cigarettes are cool again.

In the early days of the pandemic, shared strife and appreciation for front-line workers drove people around the world to bang on pans nightly, to serenade their city neighbors from their balconies, to organize socially distant neighborhood games for children. The pandemic isn’t over, and we’re still surrounded by essential workers whose lives consist of daily acts of caring, but banging on a pan every night just sounds so exhausting. We all have our own problems to think about, and sometimes it feels like that’s all there’s ever time for. The other problems out there—climate change, intractable political battles, war—are just so big, so what’s the point? John Krasinski must have known it couldn’t last.

Maybe you don’t need a survey to tell you that, in the first months of 2022, the things that once would have once driven you to action—from simply reading to the bottom of an article to marching in the streets—just weren’t doing the trick. Amid the omicron surge, and after noted periods of burnout and languishing, the year opened with a resounding, This? Still? Call it apathy, call it indifference, call it the Great Whatever. It was the dominant vibe with which this year began.

Recent weeks have provided some evidence that we’re still capable of tuning back in. Even as events in Ukraine have left many around the world feeling helpless, it’s undeniable that people are paying attention. But we’ll have to sustain that attention for more than a handful of weeks if it’s going to make a difference, and start being concerned about the rest of the world too; if we don’t, say experts who study what it means to care, the consequences could be grave.

The space between caring about stuff and taking care of people is a small one. Without caring in the first sense, it’s hard to engage in what Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist who serves as faculty director of the Making Caring Common project at Harvard, calls “the harder forms of caring”—that is, action.

Tellingly, happy people, rather than being complacent, are generally the ones engaged with the world. Sad people, generally, are busy with self-consciousness, self-awareness, self-focus. Research suggests that experiencing “negative affect”—a state that encompasses a range of bad feelings—makes people less likely to get up and do something. Even the motivation that comes from a negative feeling like righteous anger often only works if a basically happy person is hit with it, says Kostadin Kushlev, who leads the Digital Health and Happiness Lab at Georgetown.

“Being happy and feeling more energized can actually have benefits for how people conduct themselves, being concerned with other people,” Kushlev says. In surveys, “those who experienced more positive affect in the past month were actually more likely to be concerned with a variety of issues and, most importantly, they were more likely to take action to do something about it.”

So what manifests as a lack of engagement with the world may well be a symptom of an underlying unhappiness. And why might people have been unhappy at the dawn of the year 2022? Choose your own “duh.”

The experience has been divided by class and race, as Harvard’s Weissbourd is careful to point out. His students from communities hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19, he says, are grieving and have experienced illness and trauma as the dominant threat of the last two years, on top of the isolation. For his students from other—whiter, wealthier—communities, that isolation has played the leading role. “This has been the same storm, but really different boats,” he says. While the resulting tendency to turn inward may be the same, the causes, and their psychic tolls, are vastly different.

Still, while the exhaustion of the young working parent without reliable childcare is different from the exhaustion of the ER doctor, one thread that often ties them together is the feeling that the world doesn’t care about their pain—whether that feeling tracks with reality or not. The immunocompromised feel it from the mask-refusers. The teachers feel it from the parents, and vice versa. The rural Republicans feel it from the urban Democrats.

“If you feel like ‘nobody cares about me,’” says Niobe Way, a developmental psychology professor who founded the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at NYU and has been researching social and emotional development for over three decades, “why would you care about the climate?” With only so much energy to spare, turning inward is natural; it feels like a waste to spend it on a world that has turned its back on you.

Meanwhile, even as working from home has been a boon to many, the isolation of the pandemic has meant we’ve lost out on the everyday interactions that replenish even introverts. “We know that even a 30-second chat with a barista in a local cafe helps make you feel more connected to those around you,” says Noreena Hertz, an economist and author of The Lonely Century, “and we’ve been depriving ourselves of that.” Without a little dose of connection, we’re suffering from what Hertz calls “resilience fatigue,” contributing to a “collective exhaustion.”

Scholars like Hertz theorize that this state of what she calls “contactless living” is a major factor in the worldwide experience of negative affect. For some, the impact has been acute: The WHO reported in March that the first year of the pandemic saw a 25% spike in anxiety and depression worldwide. But even those who have been mostly keeping their heads above water may be part of a societal case of the blahs, a feeling that Weissbourd identifies as akin to dysthymia. “I think it’s that steady drizzle that a lot of people are dealing with right now, of helplessness and hopelessness,” he says. “The feeling that their lives have been really constrained and there’s not much they can do about it.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that our pandemic isolation built on top of a lonely foundation that’s been in the works for a long time. Way says she has noticed that the number of students in her classes who are suffering with “deep depression, deep isolation, deep alienation” has never been higher. Getting there, however, took far longer than the two years of COVID-19, as research from Émile Durkheim to Bowling Alone has shown. We’ve had a century—with an exception of a brief breather in the 1960s and ‘70s when it appeared that society might embrace emotion more openly—in which “our culture” (individualistic, cold) has been “out of sync with our nature” (emotional, social), as Way puts it. That dynamic has intensified since the 1980s. In fact, to her, the mental health problems that so many workplaces and schools have promised to tackle in recent years are not the real issue. No amount of company-provided mental health days can get to the root of it. “The problem itself,” she says, “is a culture that doesn’t value what we need to thrive.”

So is this our chance to change that situation? So many have chosen or been forced to reset during the last two years. As spring begins, we look forward, asking ourselves what the future will hold.

“It’s almost like we have a choice to make,” says Hertz. “Are we going to consign and resign ourselves to a life of increasingly contactless encounters, in which we become ever more isolated and ever lonelier? Or are we going to commit to reconnect? My hope is that it’s the latter. This demands action not only by us as individuals, but also by businesses and governments.”

If isolation causes disconnection from the wider world, and we need to engage for the good of the world, it follows that it’s important to avoid isolation. The stakes are high. Don’t we want to care, if not about the Olympics or online news or the latest restaurant opening, about something, anything at all? Our souls require the balm of another, even if that other is just the barista in Hertz’s example. Peace requires voices speaking against war. The earth requires human beings willing to act to confront the climate crisis. Democracy requires an engaged population. As Hertz points out, it was Hannah Arendt who laid out the stakes, in her 1951 treatise The Origins of Totalitarianism: Totalitarianism, she wrote “bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

During the last two months, as the war in Ukraine has galvanized support in many places across the globe, it has become impossible to deny that the world is capable of caring, that we are all capable of looking beyond our own friends and family, when it really matters. The pandemic did not extinguish that instinct.

So if we decide to re-connect, we can—even while keeping some of the pandemic innovations that are working for us, or choosing to connect in different ways or places than we did before. For one thing, Weissbourd says, people tend to be very “responsive to community norms” in this zone: if others around you act with care for people outside their inner circles, so do you. And once we start to care, it gets easier to keep doing so. Kushlev cites a theoretical model known as “broaden and build,” formulated by the scholar Barbara L. Fredrickson. “If you make yourself feel good for a moment that can then lead to you having more energy, to talk to people or go for a run or something that would cause more positive emotions, and so it’s this upward spiral that builds on itself,” he says. “When people are feeling good, they have more energy and more interest in other things, to actually engage in activities, which leads to more positive affect and more action.”

As for Roz Chast, she’s confident we’ll come out OK.

“I don’t think we don’t care about it,” she says of all that stuff that used to make up our interconnected pre-2020 lives. “I think it’s kind of like everything just feels still a little bit on hold. They will matter again. I’m pretty sure they will.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com