5 Ways American Policies and Attitudes Make Us Lonely, Anxious, and Antisocial
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You would think that by the 21st century, we would know something about what it takes for humans to live fulfilling lives. After all, we’ve witnessed enormous advances in science, psychology, sociology, and related fields over the past couple of centuries.
The great mystery is that we seem to be doing worse, not better.
Clearly, a lack of information isn’t the problem. Between the academic conferences, whole sections of bookstores and armies of pundits like Harvard psychologist (and Prudential spokesman) Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, we are given the secrets of well-being and offered reams of data, advice and lessons on what to seek and what to avoid.
With mountains of knowledge, why aren’t we better at setting up our society in a way that helps us to prosper? Isn’t that the point of having a society in the first place? Unfortunately, ours is increasingly designed by politicians indebted to the 1 percent for the express purpose of enhancing and maintaining the power of the very top rung. The rest of us are left to cope with a rocky, competitive life path that leaves us isolated and exhausted. Inequality is stunting our growth as human beings.
We are doing an especially poor job at setting the conditions for our development as social beings. Recent research in Scientific American shows that today’s college students are less empathetic than generations past. We are less involved in our communities and less fulfilled in our jobs, our families, and our relationships. As the great psychologists have taught us, it is accomplishment in these areas that give us the feeling of significance as human beings. Yet at each stage of life development, we have adopted policies, practices, and habits of mind that thwart us and cultivate anxiety, loneliness and antisocial behavior.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, an American child called Jamie (or James, if you prefer) and follow her though the key stages of life.
1. The Child
From the very beginning, the American child faces grave challenges. There is a one in three chance that Jamie will be poor. Compared to other advanced countries, it will be harder for her to leave this condition. According to recent research, if the birth lottery sets Jamie down in certain parts of the country, like the Southeast or the Industrial Midwest, her chances of leaving poverty are lower still, and compounded if she doesn’t have access to good primary schools or has low family stability.
If Jamie is to grow up with a sense of ease and engagement with her peers and community, she needs to have a sense of trust in her caregivers. If Jamie is poor, this will be especially difficult to do. In most U.S. families, all of the adults work, and because America’s labor practices are outdated and incompatible with family life, even if Jamie is not poor, her caregivers are likely to have a difficult time balancing work and parental responsibilities. America’s lack of paid family and medical leave, workplace flexibility, and childcare will make things stressful for the family, and Jamie will absorb this stress.
To add to the strain, Jamie’s parents will probably experience job insecurity, so even if they are not out of work, they will constantly fear what will happen if the pink slip arrives. Planning happy things for the future, like vacations or summer camp , is always difficult when insecurity hangs in the air. Jamie’s circumstances will fluctuate with the level of unemployment, and since the social safety net is not robust in America, there’s little to shield her if something goes wrong.