When disaster strikes, people come together. During the worst times of our lives, we can end up experiencing the best mental health and relationships with others. Here’s why that happens and how we can bring the lessons we learn with us once things get better.
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”— Sebastian Junger
The Social Benefits of Adversity
When World War II began to unfold in 1939, the British government feared the worst. With major cities like London and Manchester facing aerial bombardment from the German air force, leaders were sure societal breakdown was imminent. Civilians were, after all, in no way prepared for war. How would they cope with a complete change to life as they knew it? How would they respond to the nightly threat of injury or death? Would they riot, loot, experience mass-scale psychotic breaks, go on murderous rampages, or lapse into total inertia as a result of exposure to German bombing campaigns?
Robert M. Titmuss writes in Problems of Social Policy that “social distress, disorganization, and loss of morale” were expected. Experts predicted 600,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries from the bombings. Some in the government feared three times as many psychiatric casualties as physical ones. Official reports pondered how the population would respond to “financial distress, difficulties of food distribution, breakdowns in transport, communications, gas, lighting, and water supplies.”
After all, no one had lived through anything like this. Civilians couldn’t receive training as soldiers could, so it stood to reason they would be at high risk of psychological collapse. Titmus writes, “It seems sometimes to have been expected almost as a matter of course that widespread neurosis and panic would ensue.” The government contemplated sending a portion of soldiers into cities, rather than to the front lines, to maintain order.
Known as the Blitz, the effects of the bombing campaign were brutal. Over 60,000 civilians died, about half of them in London. The total cost of property damage was about £56 billion in today’s money, with almost a third of the houses in London becoming uninhabitable.
Yet despite all this, the anticipated social and psychological breakdown never happened. The death toll was also much lower than predicted, in part due to stringent adherence to safety instructions. In fact, the Blitz achieved the opposite of what the attackers intended: the British people proved more resilient than anyone predicted. Morale remained high, and there didn’t appear to be an increase in mental health problems. The suicide rate may have decreased. Some people with longstanding mental health issues found themselves feeling better.
People in British cities came together like never before to organize themselves at the community level. The sense of collective purpose this created led many to experience better mental health than they’d ever had. One indicator of this is that children who remained with their parents fared better than those evacuated to the safety of the countryside. The stress of the aerial bombardment didn’t override the benefits of staying in their city communities.
The social unity the British people reported during World War II lasted in the decades after. We can see it in the political choices the wartime generation made—the politicians they voted into power and the policies they voted for. By some accounts, the social unity fostered by the Blitz was the direct cause of the strong welfare state that emerged after the war and the creation of Britain’s free national healthcare system. Only when the wartime generation started to pass away did that sentiment fade.
We know how to Adapt to Adversity
We may be ashamed to admit it, but human nature is more at home in a crisis.
Disasters force us to band together and often strip away our differences. The effects of World War II on the British people were far from unique. The Allied bombing of Germany also strengthened community spirit. In fact, cities that suffered the least damage saw the worst psychological consequences. Similar improvements in morale occurred during other wars, riots, and after September 11, 2001.
When normality breaks down, we experience the sort of conditions we evolved to handle. Our early ancestors lived with a great deal of pain and suffering. The harsh environments they faced necessitated collaboration and sharing. Groups of people who could work together were most likely to survive. Because of this, evolution selected for altruism.
Among modern foraging tribal groups, the punishments for freeloading are severe. Execution is not uncommon. As severe as this may seem, allowing selfishness to flourish endangers the whole group. It stands to reason that the same was true for our ancestors living in much the same conditions. Being challenged as a group by difficult changes in our environment leads to incredible community cohesion.
Many of the conditions we need to flourish both as individuals and as a species emerge during disasters. Modern life otherwise fails to provide them. Times of crisis are closer to the environments our ancestors evolved in. Of course, this does not mean that disasters are good. By their nature, they produce immense suffering. But understanding their positive flip side can help us to both weather them better and bring important lessons into the aftermath.
Good times don’t actually produce good societies.
In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger argues that modern society robs us of the solidarity we need to thrive. Unfortunately, he writes, “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate commitment to the collective good.” As life becomes safer, it is easier for us to live detached lives. We can meet all of our needs in relative isolation, which prevents us from building a strong connection to a common purpose. In our normal day to day, we rarely need to show courage, turn to our communities for help, or make sacrifices for the sake of others.
Furthermore, our affluence doesn’t seem to make us happier. Junger writes that “as affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up, not down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in society seems to foster it.” We often think of wealth as a buffer from pain, but beyond a certain point, wealth can actually make us more fragile.
The unexpected worsening of mental health in modern society has much to do with our lack of community—which might explain why times of disaster, when everyone faces the breakdown of normal life, can counterintuitively improve mental health, despite the other negative consequences. When situations requiring sacrifice do reappear and we must work together to survive, it alleviates our disconnection from each other. Disaster increases our reliance on our communities.
In a state of chaos, our way of relating to each other changes. Junger explains that “self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside of group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” Helping each other survive builds ties stronger than anything we form during normal conditions. After a natural disaster, residents of a city may feel like one big community for the first time. United by the need to get their lives back together, individual differences melt away for a while.
Junger writes particularly of one such instance:
The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that—for a while at least—everyone is equal. In 1915 an earthquake killed 30,000 people in Avezzano, Italy, in less than a minute. The worst-hit areas had a mortality rate of 96 percent. The rich were killed along with the poor, and virtually everyone who survived was immediately thrust into the most basic struggle for survival: they needed food, they needed water, they needed shelter, and they needed to rescue the living and bury the dead. In that sense, plate tectonics under the town of Avezzano managed to recreate the communal conditions of our evolutionary past quite well.
Disasters bring out the best in us. Junger goes on to say that “communities that have been devastated by natural or manmade disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals.” When catastrophes end, despite their immense negatives, people report missing how it felt to unite for a common cause. Junger explains that “what people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender.” The loss of that unification can be, in its own way, traumatic.
Don’t be Afraid of Disaster
So what can we learn from Tribe?
The first lesson is that, in the face of disaster, we should not expect the worst from other people. Yes, instances of selfishness will happen no matter what. Many people will look out for themselves at the expense of others, not least the ultra-wealthy who are unlikely to be affected in a meaningful way and so will not share in the same experience. But on the whole, history has shown that the breakdown of order people expect is rare. Instead, we find new ways to continue and to cope.
During World War II, there were fears that British people would resent the appearance of over two million American servicemen in their country. After all, it meant more competition for scarce resources. Instead, the “friendly invasion” met with a near-unanimous warm welcome. British people shared what they had without bitterness. They understood that the Americans were far from home and missing their loved ones, so they did all they could to help. In a crisis, we can default to expecting the best from each other.
Second, we can achieve a great deal by organizing on the community level when disaster strikes. Junger writes, “There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to.” When normal life is impossible, being able to volunteer help is an important means of retaining a sense of control, even if it imposes additional demands. One explanation for the high morale during the Blitz is that everyone could be involved in the war effort, whether they were fostering a child, growing cabbages in their garden, or collecting scrap metal to make planes.
For our third and final lesson, we should not forget what we learn about the importance of banding together. What’s more, we must do all we can to let that knowledge inform future decisions. It is possible for disasters to spark meaningful changes in the way we live. We should continue to emphasize community and prioritize stronger relationships. We can do this by building strong reminders of what happened and how it impacted people. We can strive to educate future generations, teaching them why unity matters.
(In addition to Tribe, many of the details of this post come from Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies by Charles E. Fritz.)