Nov 20, 2010

Capitalism, Individualism and Loneliness

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how different governing and economic systems/methodologies affect happiness levels in the population. America, as a democratic/capitalist country prides itself in having a free society where its people can choose how they want to live their lives. The U.S. capitalist economy, however, with its emphasis on wealth creation, consumerism and free enterprise has created an environment where corporations treat and view people merely as consumers. Though the free market economy leads to healthy competition between companies, innovation, jobs, social entrepreneurship, better quality of life , etc., it's important to recognize that because of how the stock market measures company performance (emphasis on quarterly profit margins and speculations about the future of the company) most public companies' first priority is to make profits. It is true, America is a free country and people are free to make life choices as they please but I wonder how free those decisions are when we are constantly bombarded by marketing ads and commercials, often unconsciously forcing us to make a choice we would not have made otherwise. Today, Americans have more choices than ever and are also more informed than ever, but my question is: are we happier as a result than say we were 40 years ago? My quick answer is no and the cause in short is "Individualism". Let me elaborate by referring to an excerpt from a book called Artificial Happiness by Ronald W. Dworkin:
"Recent scholarship confirms the sad state of affairs. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans had no discussion partner of any kind; by 2004, that number had increased to 25 percent. In 1985, 15 percent of Americans had only one person to talk to about a life problem, which even optimists call inadequate social support, since it makes a person very vulnerable to losing that lone relationship. By 2004, that number had increased to 20 percent. Half of all Americans today are lonely. Not only lonely but also unhappy. An estimated 20 percent of the population exhibits symptoms of anxiety and depression, and in some states the prevalence of symptoms is closer to 30 percent. An estimated 95 percent of Americans have low self-esteem. Consistent with these trends, at least 15 percent of Americans are now on a psychoactive drug at any given moment."
Okay, so we are less happier than we were in the 80's but when did this negative trend really begin and why? Dworkin believes what he calls the "mass loneliness" in the American society began in the 1950's after World War II when the American economy began to improve and shift to a consumer driven economy which gave birth to the modern individual.
"For example, people's obsession with being popular, or the oppressiveness of the peer group. The American character paradoxically remained a lonely member of the crowds because he never came really close to the others or to himself. This was internal loneliness. It captured the paradox of a friendship without any real connection between people..."
Hence, consumerism lead to individualism and that trend has been continuously growing as the consumer driven economy encourages it to do. It has all become about the self and how to better position the self in a highly competitive society where everyone tries to gain an advantage by having more degrees, having gone to a better school, more certificates, better cars, houses, clothes, facebook pictures, travel history, etc,. It is no longer possible for people to live through others or be happy for other people's accomplishments or achievements. It's a constant competition, even among best friends, to a top that is unknown, to a top that does not exit in reality. It's important to point out that competition among people is good, it encourages people to be more ambitious and work harder but my question still remains, does this kind of over competitive life full of milestones, events an accomplishments that we get to put on our facebook pictures, profiles or resumes really make us happier? My quick answer again is no. The individual always measures himself/herself against society and his or her surroundings but in today's social networking age our comparison point is no longer our close coworkers or friends but it's the entire world through the eyes of social or entertainment media. That being said, perhaps this never ending struggle to greatness is happiness 2.0 or as close as we'll get to happiness as we know it. After all true moments of happiness and euphoria are brief and short lived so to make them repeat is a struggle, a struggle to achieve perfection as defined by the self. This struggle is fine but it comes at the cost of losing strong/close social ties and trading them for weak ones that we get to show off our accomplishments and great life style to.....

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