When I was five years old and thought I knew everything, I put together a construction-paper traffic light with green at the top. Then I told my kindergarten teacher that all traffic lights ought to be made that way because the green light was the most important. After all, green meant that you could get to places faster, while red meant that you just had to sit and wait. Red lights were boring. Who needed them, anyway?
It took me a few more years to grasp the concept of danger well enough to understand why red lights had to be on top. Green lights, although useful for showing where intersections are, don’t require that we do anything differently. A red light grabs our attention, shouting: Danger! Stop! Right now!
I’ve sometimes wondered whether humans evolved to react to praise and criticism in much the same way. No matter how many compliments we get, we’re likely to take them for granted. As with green lights, they just go by as part of the social landscape, confirming in general that we’re on the right road. We don’t give them much weight in our minds. Criticism, however, weighs much more heavily; it can sting for many years. Even if we consciously know that an old mistake doesn’t matter, it still bothers us long after the fact.
Why do we find criticism so troubling? I suspect we may be hard-wired to process it as a danger signal, which would have made sense in the small villages of the past. Because primitive humans’ daily tasks were very simple and repetitive, there wouldn’t have been much reason for either compliments or gripes about the quality of a person’s work. As long as it got done, it was probably good enough. Criticism would have consisted of pointing out dangerous errors, such as picking a poisonous mushroom or not noticing a lion’s tracks near the river. The message would have been: Danger! Pay attention! Don’t ever make that mistake again, or somebody is going to get killed!
In today’s world, criticism usually involves trivial oversights or harmless differences in appearance and social behavior. Instead of the rare and memorable event that it might have been in our ancestors’ villages, it has become commonplace. Remembering criticism for years no longer has any significant survival value; on the contrary, it’s much more likely to shorten our lives by making us susceptible to depression and anxiety.
What’s to be done about it? Many people take medications to cope with depression and anxiety. Others self-medicate with alcohol, street drugs, cigarettes, coffee, et cetera. Finding comfort in food also is common. Some of us seek to modify our reactions to distressing situations by way of traditional psychotherapy or behavioral therapy. Another approach is to distract ourselves from our worries, such as with yoga, meditation, art and music, fiction, video games, gambling, sports, and hobbies in general—or perhaps by compulsively working long hours.
Of course, however effective they may be, all of these approaches to dealing with depression and anxiety are simply coping mechanisms. They don’t solve, or even acknowledge, the underlying problem of living in a highly stressful environment that bears little resemblance to the conditions under which humans evolved. As individuals, there’s not much we can do to avoid criticism and all the other stresses of modern society unless we choose to live as hermits or otherwise drastically isolate ourselves, which, needless to say, would have major drawbacks.
So the question to be asked is this: How can we change our culture to bring about a healthier social environment? On the specific issue of criticism and its effects, I believe we need to end the bullying and casual insults that pervade our social sphere. Today’s politics has degenerated into a lot more name-calling than substance. The Internet is full of nastiness. Although school officials and employers are starting to recognize that bullying is a serious problem, much more still needs to be done. It’s no wonder that so many of us struggle with depression and anxiety. But when we do, we should keep in mind that it’s chiefly the culture, rather than ourselves, that has something wrong and needs to be fixed.