small change toward a rich life

How American culture is causing widespread misery

One of the fun things about reading extensively in different disciplines — psychology, history, sociology, economics — is that I sometimes encounter essentially identical motifs in unrelated sources.

For example, I recently ran across a striking quote from President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he acknowledged the declining trust in government, and then went on to lament:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The warning against hamster-wheel consumerism has been a recurring theme throughout dozens of books and psychology studies I’ve read in the past few years, but the connection Carter made to the erosion of our social identities is less common, and immediately put me in mind of Martin Seligman.

yellowjacket trapped in spiderwebOne of the most influential psychologists of the past century, Seligman revolutionized the scientific understanding of depression in the seventies and eighties by proving that depression is, quite simply, the state of ‘learned helplessness’. It is the giving-up that follows from the belief that nothing you do can make things any better.

“Life is inevitably full of personal failures,” says Seligman in his book Learned Optimism. “We rarely get all we aspire to. Frustration, defeat, and rejection are daily experiences.” What matters most, according to his research, is whether you respond to setbacks and losses from a position of optimism and energy, or pessimism and malaise.

In the 1980s several large studies showed an alarming surge in the incidence of depression among Americans. People born in the 1950s had been depressed ten times as often as those born in the the 1920s, even though the latter had lived twice as long. People who were thirty years old in 1980 were twenty times more likely to have experienced depression than people who were thirty in 1940. Surveys in 2006 and 2008 by the CDC suggest that one in eleven Americans is depressed at any given moment.

Seligman believes that this unprecedented psychological misery is the result of the confluence of two societal trends: a growing focus on individualism, and a declining commitment to the common good.

As our culture shifted to exalt the benefits of personal choice and individual success, Seligman explains, we were also losing confidence in the larger constructs of society. Previously, he says, Americans lived in “a context of meaning and hope.” When we encountered failure, we could take reassurance from something larger than ourselves: “a belief in the nation, in God, in one’s family, or in a purpose that transcends our lives.” But as Carter noted, in the middle of the twentieth century that reassurance began to disintegrate.

piglets in sunshineAmong the Kaluli tribe of New Guinea, depression is nearly non-existent: an anthropologist who lived with them found only one instance of depression among over two thousand tribespeople in nine years. The anthropologist, Edward Schieffelin, believes this is due to an elaborate system of ‘social reciprocity’ between the individual and the tribe. For example, when a person’s pig runs away, the tribe gives him another pig. Even intangible losses are subject to societal redress. Thus recompensed by the group, as Seligman writes, “helplessness does not escalate into hopelessness, loss does not escalate into despair.”

By contrast, our modern American culture glorifies ‘bootstrapping’ and ‘self-made men’, and our society offers scant comfort in the face of personal loss. We are constantly told that failure is our own fault, that if we suffer a setback or fail to substantially improve our lives it is because we are lacking in personal qualities. When help is available — as with bankruptcy, or food stamps — it comes with a crushing dose of shame attached.

smog over downtown Los AngelesIn his famous 1958 book The Affluent Society, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith warned that the United States had become a nation of “private opulence and public squalor,” much to our detriment. Then as now, American industry had become concentrated upon individually owned goods to the neglect of the corresponding public services. We have a surfeit of automobiles, but potholed roads and polluted air; we have grander houses, but not enough police to enforce our safety; we have better food, but inadequate health care; we have an abundance of televisions, but impoverished schools.

Individual development and personal freedom are wonderful things, and I’m not at all suggesting that we weaken them. But Galbraith argued for a ‘social balance’ between private and public progress. And if Seligman is right, the cost of our current imbalance has been widespread and frequent despair.

•   •   •

So how do we, as individuals, reverse this trend? I offer three suggestions.

Stained glass window, St. Mary's Basilica, PhoenixOne way is to align your time and efforts with a larger community or a greater purpose. At one time, as Seligman and Carter both note, most Americans identified with their religion, family, or country.

I’m not, myself, a religious person, being of a strictly scientific mindset. My family-of-origin was not merely dysfunctional but crazy and violent — never anything from which I could draw support or comfort. I would like to have faith in my country, but honestly I think it’s kind of a mess.

But there are other options for “a purpose that transcends our lives.” I’ve rearranged my priorities so that I can spend more of my time creating things that I hope will make people’s lives better, instead of helping a corporation Sell More Stuff. I feel a sense of greater purpose every time I communicate something I’m passionate about — even the very article you’re reading right now. I feel it whenever someone tells me that something I’ve written has touched or helped them.

Four years ago my life was very different: I had a lot more money, nicer possessions, and greater prestige conferred by my job. By all the outside measures of society I have come down in the world quite sharply. But I am unequivocally happier now, in large part because I have managed to create my own “context of meaning and hope.”

kids using public library computersSecond, we need to remember that personal and societal improvements are not mutually exclusive, but inextricably interlinked. Ignoring either one devalues the other.

Think about this the next time you’re filling out a ballot. It’s easy to look at a referendum and imagine the extra hundred bucks that you, personally, will lose over the next year in property taxes or car license fees. It’s harder to grasp the societal benefits — the small improvements made in thousands upon thousands of lives because people have access to library computers or another math teacher in school or a bus route that goes to their job. You can’t see the cleaner air that results from better public transportation, or the economic boost that an entire community gets from better educating its children. But those gains are just as real as that hundred-dollar bill you may be afraid to lose.

soup kitchen volunteersThird, research has proven that altruism is an excellent antidepressant. But shopping? Not so much. President Carter had it right over thirty years ago: “piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness.”

Next time you’re feeling down, instead of indulging in ‘retail therapy’, try doing something in service of a greater good. Pick an organization — a school, a church, a nursing home, a soup kitchen — that tries to improve people’s lives, and support it with the time and money you would otherwise spend pampering yourself.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the happiness you’ll feel as a result will be stronger and longer-lasting. And who knows how far the ripple effects will go?


15 responses

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  1. SMB says

    Fabulous. Sharing with friends.

  2. Dogs or Dollars says

    A thought provoking topic for me. As you know, I’m struggling to get off the oh-so discouraging corporate hamster wheel, and find more meaning with less means. Unfortunately, we’ve often built these lives around the more means (kids,dogs) which leads us back to the circular discussion about priorities.

    I love the historical references to what we consider modern problems though.

    • Karawynn says

      Plus ça change …

      “More meaning with less means”: nice.

      I know what you mean (ahem) about the lives we’ve built. I’m in favor of radical, out-of-the-box solutions whenever possible — so maybe some of us walk away from our mortgages, and others pick up and move to another country, kids and all. But radical is not always possible, or ethical. Jak only has partial custody, so we’re here in expensive Seattle for a few more years. And you have seven dogs. So we make the changes we can without jeopardizing the commitments we have to keep, and plan for the time when we have more freedom.

  3. Stacy Cowley says

    I recently came across a line from Walden’s “Economy” chapter that immediately reminded me of you: “Instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.”

    • Karawynn says

      The next line: “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind.” :)

      I’ve never read all of Walden; I really need to. Thoreau was very much a Stoic.

      • Stacy says

        I’ve never read all of it either (parts of it are total slogs), but one play I’ve always really wanted to see performed is “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.” On paper, it’s one of my favourites.

  4. terisa says

    brilliant. and important. thank you.

  5. Michelle says

    Karawynn, I really enjoyed this post. Isn’t it interesting that the U.S. has such a large number of people volunteering compared to other countries. It’s like we have discovered how to self-medicate and get that happy feeling through helping others. . I included a link on the statistics of volunteering from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


    Btw if you lost your pig I would get you a new one!

    • Karawynn says

      Awww. :) (Silly that I’m touched by the virtual offer of a hypothetical pig for which I’d have no use anyway, but I am!)

      It’s difficult to precisely compare volunteering statistics across countries, because counting methodologies differ, but the U.S. seems to be about middle-of-the-road for first world countries. The Scandinavian countries have volunteer rates roughly double ours — all over 50%. Britain, Germany, Italy, and Australia all out-volunteer us, but we volunteer more than Spain, Portugal, and Japan.

      Also, there’s an issue of formal volunteering vs. informal ‘helping’ within a large social network. Mexico has an almost nonexistent volunteering rate but I can promise you that’s not because they’re unhelpful or selfish; there’s just a lot more assistance passing between friends, family, and neighbors than is common in the States. Plus, the more of a population is at or near poverty, the fewer resources are available for dissemination outside one’s immediate family or group.

      There does seem to be at least some correlation between the more highly individualistic societies and formal volunteerism. But it’s far from total, or the U.S. would be outstripping everyone. :}

  6. Kokuanani says

    To me one of the things that’s so sad is that Jimmy Carter is reviled and/or treated as a joke or failure.

    Instead, he had good ideas and good qualities. [I was alive during his presidency,] And look at what he’s done since leaving the presidency. Contrast his building of Habitat for Humanity homes with the mindless consumption of Nancy Reagan, the insular self-satisfaction of the Bushes.

    • Karawynn says

      I was ten when Carter lost to Reagan, so … not really paying attention yet. :}

      But I agree with you completely — he deserves so much more credit than he gets. I read that whole speech of his, that I linked above, and just wanted to weep at how right he was (and still is) about so many things.

      Among other things, if Carter had gotten his way, 20% of the nation’s power would have been solar by 2000.

  7. Kokuanani says

    Although this is slightly off-topic, I’d like to share a strategy I’ve developed with several of my friends.

    All of us are at that point in life [old] where we don’t need any more “stuff.” So we’ve agreed — among family and friends — that when a birthday or holiday comes along, the appropriate “gift” is a contribution to a charity close to our hearts. We each have our “list,” and we share this. Sometimes someone surprises us with a new acquaintance. But each time, we know that we’re NOT adding “stuff” to the world [or rewarding the sellers of "stuff"], but instead making other lives better.

    As an outshoot of this, I have one particular friend who shares my vice of “too much stuff; need to discard/downsize.” An additional part of our “gifting agreement” is that the gift recipient will pick out one, two or three items that she would LOVE to get out of her house but just hasn’t had the wherewithall/determination/whatever to do. The gift-giver will come over on the appointed celebratory day and pick up the one, two or three items and dispense with them. Sometimes it’s a designated dispensing: “give this to the XYZ thrift shop; I really want to support their work.” Sometimes it’s an “I don’t care; just get the damn thing(s) out of my house. Thank you very much.”

    I am the one who came up with this little idea, and I love it.

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