In fact, when we talk about mental health issues like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, in my view as a mental health clinician most often there is a connection to the legacy of violence. While these issues are typically thought of and categorized symptomatically, psychology as a practice has long made the connection with not only childhood experiences of types of violence (not only physical), but social and cultural forms of violence, and the manner in which the individual internalizes messages about themselves and thus enabling the individual to perpetrate violence against themselves in negative self messages to the extremes of suicide (which as far as we know, no other animal intentionally does- see, Hayes, Steven C.)
As we have become more aware of the effects of violence on our bodies and minds (see research on post-traumatic stress disorder) we have also become aware that exposure to violence actually can alter our DNA for generations. Furthermore, this scientific view can not begin to capture the psychological ramifications of the exposure to violence on our sense of self, family, community as the legacy is passed from generation to generation.
In fact, I would argue that many mental health issues are actually our increasing social awareness of the consequences of our legacy of violence as it manifests in a world where many of us are alienated (although those who live in poverty are not) from direct survival situations (think of ancestors being hunted by a sabretooth tiger). You ever wonder why people get road rage, or get so upset when they are cut off in traffic? Could part of the reason be that being cut off is interpreted by the body system as a threat, similar to a tiger, and so the individual makes him or herself angry and inflated as a survival tactic (you don't want to look small in front of a large tiger)? This is just an example of the challenge of translating old survival systems, inherited from our ancestors (all the way back) as they translate into the day to day challenges of 21st century life.
There are some, however who would argue that alongside the legacy of violence we have inherited a legacy that is far more benevolent; that is a legacy of kindness. Robert Thurman magnificently described a Buddhist theory on the evolution of the human hand. He stated that if the human hand were evolved for violence, shouldn't their be some kind of claws, spikes, or swords that come out of our arms? Instead we have a tender, frail hand, our nails can break easily and for most of us wouldn't do much damage. Instead, Thurman stated that according to Buddhism the human hand evolved out of generosity, out of repeatedly giving and letting go.
This legacy of kindness is usually associated with exemplary (and perhaps idealized) religious figures and saints such as Jesus Christ himself, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Siddartha Gautama... However I would argue that the danger in viewing these figures only in their idealized forms is that we can create a dynamic where their goodness, their kindness, their care and compassion was so great that they must have had such characterological differences from ourselves, we will never be able to embody those qualities to that degree. Even worse, we could beat ourselves over the head by comparing our limitations to their greatness, thus perpetuating violence against ourselves in the name of some holy person...
Maybe we won't ever accomplish the things our ideal figures did, maybe we will never be saints or sages, however to deny that within our nature exists the very same qualities that were exemplified by them seems to be the exact opposite of what each of them pointed to in their own unique ways.
We all are at a crossroads, together in our global society. We all carry within us this legacy of violence and this legacy of kindness. Increasingly, we have become aware of the physical, psychological, and generational consequences of violence which perpetuate immeasurable, unquantifiable, suffering. Knowing this, being aware of this we have a choice. Which will we invest in? The investment in violence for us will never, ever pay dividends that promote well-being. Hatred, and violence by nature are ruled by dis-satisfaction, dis-harmony, pain, fear. Investing in this will lead us to continue to stay stuck in our earlier brain systems or fight, flight, and freeze, of domination and control, of craving, dis-satisfaction, and greed. As stated in the Daodejing "where an army has passed, thorn bushes will grow."
However, the research has shown, and will continue to show that when we invest in kindness, we feel better. Our emotional and mental health improves. The Dalai Lama has said, if you want to get happy the first thing you can do is to be altruistic. Observe yourself. When you are kind, how do you feel? In order to deal with the challenges we have coming in our collective future, how we each answer this question is of utmost significance. Which legacy will we embody? Which legacy will we leave behind? What keeps us from kindness? How do we deal with the legacy of violence within us and surrounding us? The next step is collective kindness, which we can build the entirety of our lives around if only we can see its value. The research seems clear to me.