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Neurasthenia — The Scourge of Modern Life (Whenever It May Be)

Neurasthenia — The Scourge of Modern Life (Whenever It May Be)

Neurasthenia today

If you’ve been tuning into this blog often over recent months, you may have noticed a bit of a thematic shift. With the debut of our remote office solution The Lifestyle Workplace(TLW), we have become increasingly interested in the concept of happiness — how to spark it, how to cultivate it, and how to carry it with you in a world where over-connection is king.
 
TLW is a new initiative to help users strike a balance between work life and home. But this effort is not a new one.  Achieving that balance is a struggle of modernity: and, really, when you think about it, every time period can consider itself the most “modern,” in comparison to what came before.
 
Julie Beck at The Atlantic has written an interesting breakdown of a neurasthNeurasthenia suffererenia — or “Americanitis” — a terribly modern condition that came to attention during a time when America suddenly realized its modernity: immediately post-Civil War.
 
It was a time of great social upheaval, not just because the country had just hauled itself out of the deadliest conflict it has ever been involved in but due to the technological leaps the culture was making. More people were moving to cities, the railroad was expanding westward, photography and the telegraph were reaching popular saturation, and women were making more inroads into public life and higher education.
 
This was all too much for the neurasthenic, resulting in headaches, body aches, indigestion, anxiety, and lethargy. This was because, the prevailing theory went, the overloaded human machine, having expended too much of its “nervous energy” on managing the speed of modern life, collapsed into psychological malaise. Sound familiar? 
 
“It was a bit of a grab bag of a diagnosis, a catch-all for nearly any kind of discomfort or unhappiness. […] This vagueness meant that the diagnosis was likely given to people suffering from a variety of mental and physical illnesses, as well as some people with no clinical conditions by modern standards, who were just dissatisfied or full of ennui. ‘It was really largely a quality-of-life issue,’ [author of Neurasthenic Nation, David] Schuster says. ‘If you were feeling good and healthy, you were not neurasthenic, but if for some reason you were feeling run down, then you were neurasthenic.’
 
This phenomenon was almost a badge of honour — after all, one had to be a member of a quickly advancing society (i.e. American), in order to be neurasthenic at all. (It also had unfortunate classist and racist implications as well: Dr. George Beard, coiner of the term for the condition, claimed that non-white people and members of lower classes were free of neurasthenia because they lacked minds active enough to be affected. Ugh.)
 
What’s really interesting to me is the fact that you can transplant the laments of the 1860s about how we’re all moving too fast to today and they still sound solid. Any bets the next hot de-cluttering regime or self-help system will command us to slow down, turn back the clock to a simpler time, and unplug from our technology! It’s a problem that has kept and will keep cropping up, at least as long as we keep getting more modern — though TLW, as a toolbox, can certainly help!