Why all the angst in an age of abundance?

Barry Schwartz

Everyone wants a good, meaningful, and productive life.  Many people think that is just what we have in contemporary American culture.  “Not so,” according to psychologist Barry Schwartz.  If it were true, we would not be experiencing an explosive growth of unhappiness and depression. “Some estimates are that depression is ten times as likely to afflict someone now than at the turn of the [19th] century.”


According to Psychology Today, the literature on the quest for happiness has “proliferated in recent years.”  So has the use of medications as a remedy for everyday unhappiness. Ronald Dworkin, a physician and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has discussed extensively the medicalization of unhappiness.  He writes, psychoactive medications are frequently prescribed for “the purpose of insulating people from everyday disappointment.”  Dr. Dworkin argues against the increasingly common idea that unhappiness is a disease to be treated with external cures.


Why all the unhappiness?  Or, in the words of Barry Schwartz, “Why is this so in a age of abundance?”


I think it is only a slight exaggeration to say that for the first time in human history, large numbers of people can live exactly the kind of lives they want, unconstrained by material, economic, or cultural limitations. … [O]ne might expect clinical depression in the United States to be going the way of polio.


Dr. Schwartz presents a list of benefits unimaginable to most people down through history and even throughout the world today.


Extraordinary material wealth enables us to consume an astonishing quantity and variety of goods. And the magical mechanism of the market allows us an almost limitless array of choices: milk with or without lactose and with whatever percentage of fat one wants; jeans of every conceivable cut; restaurants serving foods from all over the world; cars of almost an infinite variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and prices. On and on it goes: if you want something, no matter how odd it is, chances are there is someone, somewhere ready to sell it to you. …


With regard to higher education, curricular requirements have almost vanished, and to the extent they still exist, they can be satisfied in so many different ways that they might as well not be there. … [Higher education is almost universally accessible.]


With regard to entertainment and culture, the range of what is available is staggering. Cultural invention has enormously expanded the variety of options, and advances in media technology have made most of these options accessible, in one way or another, to almost everybody. …


With regard to careers, there is an enormous degree of mobility, both in career-type and in geographical location. People are not constrained to do the work their parents did, in the place in which their parents did it. Nor are people constrained to have only a single occupation for their entire working lives. And for the most part, success and advancement in work are based on talent and achievement. So, almost anything is possible. …


With regard to personal life, religious, ethnic, racial, class, geographic, and even gender barriers to mate selection are rapidly disappearing. Moreover, one is free to choose whether to have kids or not, whether to have them early or late, whether to bear them or adopt them, whether to have them as part of a traditional marriage and family or as part of any of a host of non-traditional family arrangements. And it is remarkably easy to get out of marriages that have turned sour, and having done that, to arrange child custody in ways that suit the involved parties.


Quite simply, according to Dr. Schwartz, we moderns can’t have what we want on the terms that we want it.


1.       Increases in experienced control over the years have been accompanied, stride-for-stride, by increases in expectations about control. The more we are allowed to be the masters of our fates in one domain of life after another, the more we expect to be. Education is expected to be stimulating and useful. Work is supposed to be exciting, socially valuable, and remunerative. Spouses are supposed to be sexually, emotionally, and intellectually stimulating and also loyal and comforting. Friends are supposed to be fun to be with and devoted. Children are supposed to be beautiful, smart, affectionate, obedient, and independent. And everything we buy is supposed to be the best of its kind; with all the choice available, people should never have to settle for things that are just “good enough.” In short, life is supposed to be perfect. Psychology has, I believe, contributed to these unrealistic expectations via its cultivation of a kind of cult of psychotherapy intended not to relieve suffering but to engender “self-actualization”—satisfaction in all things. …


2.      American culture has become more individualistic than it ever was before. What this means, I think, is that not only do people expect perfection in all things, but they expect to produce this perfection themselves. When they (inevitably) fail, I believe that the culture of individualism biases them toward making causal attributions that focus on internal rather than external causal factors. That is, I believe that the culture has established a kind of officially acceptable style of causal explanation, and it is one that focuses on the individual. As Seligman’s research has led the way in demonstrating (eg., Peterson & Seligman, 1984), this kind of causal attribution is just the kind to promote depression when people are faced with failure. And if my first point is correct, despite their increased control, people will inevitably be faced with many occasions that, by their own lights, count as failure. Psychology has contributed significantly to this excessive focus on the individual with its emphasis on personal growth and autonomy, and on “looking out for number one.”


3.      Finally, the emphasis on the individual to which psychology has contributed may well be undermining what may be a crucial vaccine against depression: deep commitment and belonging to social groups and institutions—families, civic institutions, and faith communities, as several contributors to this volume … have suggested. There is an inherent tension between doing one’s own thing, or being one’s own person, and meaningful involvement in social groups. Doing the latter right requires submerging “one’s own thing.” So the more people focus on themselves—with respect both to goals and to the means of achieving those goals—the more their connections to others will be weakened. Political scientist Robert Putnam has recently attracted a great deal of attention to this deterioration of social connection in modern America (eg., 1993, 1995, 1996). And in this connection it is relevant to note a study by Egeland & Hostetter (1983) that showed an incidence of depression among the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, that was about 1/2 the national rate while other forms of psychopathology were much closer to national averages. The Amish, of course, are an extremely cohesive, tightly knit, traditional community.



“Pitfalls on the road to a positive psychology of hope,” by Dr. Barry Schwartz, is available online here.  The observations quoted above are in the context of Dr. Schwartz’s assessment of the challenges facing the newly developing field of positive psychology.  This essay was originally published as a chapter in The Science of Optimism and Hope, edited by J. Gillham.




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