Apathy Crisis: Why It’s Hard to Care About Anything Anymore

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. It happened while I was reading comments about a January David Brooks column from the New York Times. TimesWhy is it even possible to have fun? 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having “checked out of our national project” in response to feeling that society had already done the same, and having “withdrawn into just minding my own family.”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 more weeks passed and it was back 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.

In a global report, Oxford University and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released January that showed that online news consumption in the United States fell between the end of 2020 and the middle of 2021. It could be that the US’s online news consumption fell between late 2020 and 2021 due to a more stable presidential administration. Vaccines also helped the pandemic transition into a much less scary 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. What about the Olympics? They didn’t stand a chance. A poll conducted by Axios in January found that nearly half the respondents were less enthusiastic about this Olympics than they were for last year’s winter games. Many could not even name one of the athletes competing. People are taking a more nihilistic view of their health. Cigarettes are back in fashion.

In the beginning days of the pandemic there was a lot of shared struggle and gratitude for the front-line workers. People around the globe used to bang on their pans every night, serenaded their neighbors from their balconies, or organize games in their neighborhoods for kids. 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. The year started with a loud, despite the omicron surge and the associated burnouts and slowdowns. This? Still? You can call it apathy, indifference or the Great Whatever. This is the dominant vibe this year.

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.

It is difficult to distinguish between taking care of people and caring about things. 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.

It is clear that happy people are more engaged in the world than complacent. Sad people are generally busy with their self-awareness and self-control. 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. Kostadin Kushlev, who is the head of the Georgetown Digital Health and Happiness Lab, said that even the negative feelings like anger or righteous can only motivate people if they are happy.

“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.”

A lack of interaction with the outside world can be an indicator of unhappiness. What could have made people unhappy in 2022, when the world was new? Choose your own “duh.”

The experience has been divided by class and race, as Harvard’s Weissbourd is careful to point out. He says that his students who were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 are in grief and have suffered trauma and illness over the past two years. 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. Although there is a tendency for people to look inward, it can be caused by many different causes.

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. It is felt by the immunocompromised from mask-refusers. Teachers feel it more than parents. Rural Republicans sense it more than 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. Some people have felt the effects immediately: In March, WHO reported that there was a 25 percent increase in depression and anxiety in the world’s first year following the pandemic. However, even people who are able to keep their heads above the water might be suffering from a social case of “the blahs”, a condition Weissbourd calls 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 AlleyThis is what it has proven. 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. This dynamic has intensified over the past 20 years. She believes that the problems with mental health, which so many schools and workplaces have been promising to address in recent years, aren’t the true problem. It is impossible to get at the core of this problem with just a few mental health days provided by companies. “The problem itself,” she says, “is a culture that doesn’t value what we need to thrive.”

Is this your chance to improve the situation? Many have had to or chosen to change their lives in the past two years. Spring is here, and we are looking forward to see what the future brings.

“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? Are we willing to make a commitment 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. These are very high stakes. Don’t we want to care, if not about the Olympics or online news or the latest restaurant opening, about SomethingAnything? Our souls require the balm of another, even if that other is just the barista in Hertz’s example. For peace to be achieved, there must always be voices against war. Human beings must act in order to save the planet from climate catastrophe. Democracies require a engaged population. Hertz points out that Hannah Arendt was the one who set out the stakes in 1951’s 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.”

As the conflict in Ukraine has sparked support from many countries around the world, over the past two months it’s been impossible not to see that humanity is capable of care, and that everyone can look beyond their own family members when it truly matters. This instinct was not stifled by the pandemic.

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. It becomes easier to continue caring once you start to do 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 be important again. I’m pretty sure they will.”

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