Blaming the Culture

I recently read yet another overheated article suggesting that huge numbers of people in Western democratic countries are either depressed or demoralized, and blaming this “psycho-spiritual crisis” on our consumerist culture.

Our descent into the Age of Depression seems unstoppable. Three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling with each successive generational cohort. At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation, aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age. Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression.

The article does concede use of a rather over-inclusive definition of “depression;” evidently, when people who have been diagnosed as depressed are examined more closely, the majority don’t actually meet the clinical criteria for that diagnosis. The rest are merely despondent, or as the article labels them, “demoralized.”

[D]emoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment….

In a paragraph that certainly demoralizes me, the article describes the attributes of this social angst, and ascribes them to consumer culture:

As it is absorbed, consumer culture imposes numerous influences that weaken personality structures, undermine coping and lay the groundwork for eventual demoralization. Its driving features – individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt – all correlate negatively with psychological health and/or social wellbeing. The level of intimacy, trust and true friendship in people’s lives has plummeted. Sources of wisdom, social and community support, spiritual comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up. Passivity and choice have displaced creativity and mastery. Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life.

I’m not sure what constitutes a “masturbatory approach to life,” but it’s an interesting term…

The article continues at some length, condemning the “void” in which contemporary citizens find ourselves. You can click through and evaluate the argument for yourselves. In my case, although I found several points persuasive, taken as a whole, I would classify this as one of a growing and unhelpful number of  “pox on modernity” diatribes that assumes a rosy and ahistorical past of human connection and satisfaction, and simplifies a complicated issue that philosophers have wrestled with for a very long time: what gives our lives meaning?

How do we create a culture that provides everyone with a sense of purpose while avoiding a coercive imposition of collective norms and the “uniformity of the graveyard.”  

There is much to criticize in consumer culture. There was also much to criticize in the cultures that preceded it. Singling out consumerism writ large as the sole driver of contemporary angst, however, misses the point.

Our problem is larger: how do humans create a society that respects our differences and facilitates individual moral autonomy, while still providing the social infrastructure necessary for meaningful community? How do we create a society in which we can be fully realized “I’s” within a co-operative and nurturing (but not stifling) “we”?

Somewhere between a stultifying communitarianism and a dog-eat-dog libertarianism there’s a (non-masturbatory) “sweet spot.” We need to locate it.


  1. An excellent article. Michel Houellebecq in his novel Submission deals with this same malaise. His protagonist, François, a Sorbonne academic is portrayed as a victim of a venal and corrupt society where he has lost his bearings and succumbs to abhorrent behavior like masterbating in front of youtube porno videos.

  2. Demoralized, we think we are entitled to “something” and we experince an”existential crisis” when that “something ” eludes our grasping, wanting, clinging. Practicing being in the only reality you actually have, this actual moment, this now, as it is happening is the antidote. It is that simple, and that hard.

  3. Most of what is in the paragraph listing the characteristics of social angst could be used to describe the results of a free-market economy, totally unfettered by regulations that protect people from the excesses of large corporations. So, thanks to the current administration, we have a prediction of the future.

  4. Of course there is “social angst”. There always has been, probably was even back in the caveman days.

    Cave Daddy… “I just don’t feel like going out there and doing the hunter/gathering thing
    Cave Mama… “Well, I don’t feel like cleaning up this old bear skin rug either, but you don’t hear
    me complaining.”

    IMO depression is natural… natures way of telling you that you need to change some part of your life. Use it.

  5. Overheated BS with an agenda. Yes, depression diagnoses have gone up since three decades ago. Do you know what else happened three decades ago, in 1987?

    “Fluoxetine appeared on the Belgian market in 1986. In the U.S., the FDA gave its final approval in December 1987,[94] and a month later Eli Lilly began marketing Prozac; annual sales in the U.S. reached $350 million within a year.[92] Worldwide sales eventually reached a peak of $2.6 billion a year.”

    Wikipedia –

  6. In my opinion the best way I find my satisfaction in life has been to chart my own course. By not falling into the keeping up with the Jones’s. I decide what I want and I go after it, that has not worked as often as it has worked.
    My goal has never been to make money to buy things, and if I have it I tend to spend it on things that improve my life dreams, technology ability to compete in the changing skills and abilities World.
    I have suffered depression at times but it was relationship inflicted and took a long time to recover from.
    I believe part of Americas problems today is consumerism, and the envoy it invokes between the have and have nots, I don’t feel that way, I’m glad for what you have and pleased with what I have which has a times been only myself.
    I believe that’s what gives you the edge over many others. When you have little the only way you can go is up if you try. If you have everything, direct experience has shown me most wealthy people are trying to hang on to things they own, never realizing it’s only an allusion and we are only the stewards of our things, auction houses are full of other people’s dreamy treasures that go for penny’s on the dollars they spent.
    Respectfully; Captain Ray
    Seek you happiness in experiences not things, nothing is more fleeting than that consumer shine and sparkle.

  7. I am bothered by the persistent erosion of high culture. I will not cite authoritarian figures on this complaint, because they have been part of the problem for three-quarters of a century. I will cite my parents and their friends, who sometimes touched on the subject on occasions when I could overhear. If we asked them what constitutes a nation’s culture, they would say, “Great poets, great authors, great philosophers, great scientists, great artists, great classical musicians, great preachers.” And they would mean the output of those finely-tuned talents, which history will cherish. I can project that if they were to be questioned hard, they would eventually tell us that culture is determined by the those long-lasting achievements of our most talented individuals. Long-range history, when writing of our twenty-first century culture, will not remember our choices in fashion or pop music or our attitudes regarding police, or any other of our gutter fetishes. But for some reason, the prevailing attitude in America is GUTTER FETISHES FIRST; HIGH CULTURE LAST. I think another word needs to be invented to distinguish between high culture and low culture. The “overheated” article seems to miss-apply “culture” to the present domination of gutter fetish in our daily life.

  8. In general, we find what we look for. Today we find more depression, but in today’s doctors’ offices, they ask if you’ve been depressed. It’s a good thing I didn’t have an appointment on November 9th.

  9. Mostly I’m happy. Worrying about survival either from climate change or Trump, who likes shiny things that go boom, make me anxious. Or I allow myself to be. Seems like having goals were working toward, like trying to electing people who can try to pass good laws, helps. Playing with babies helps too.

  10. Personally, I think Theresa Bowers nailed it – we do need a pill for “angst” badly. Eli Lilly & Company should get to work on this med right away. There’s trillions of dollars to be made!!!!

  11. Having false goals and thinking that Lilly will give us yet another pill to cure what ails us and Sheila’s rejection of consumerism give one food for thought. The Midas story and the Physician, Heal Thyself adages provide additional food for thought. We must at least flirt with counter-culturalism if we are to provide balance to the dominant culture’s thoghtless pursuit of the buck anchored in greed. I don’t know if there is a single answer to such a multi-faceted set of problems to be found in selfishness versus community good, but I think that democratic institutions and ultimately our very existence depend upon a robust practice of the latter.

  12. We don’t have a lots of valuable things. Both of our cars are more than 10 years old and are paid for. Our small cottage house is adequate for our needs for now. It may not work for us as we age. We don’t yearn for more stuff. What we do worry about is the increased demand on the savings we have worked so hard to put aside during our working life.

    The underlying, constant worry about unexpected bills (broken water heater, muffler going, etc.) watching utilities go up even when we are so careful about how we use them, makes every passing day feel like a crap shoot. What will happen today? Roll the dice.

    For people of color, immigrants, the poor and others facing even more obstacles that they have no control over, and especially their children, the anxiety must be almost unbearable.

    Demoralized is a first world description, third world is how to survive today, forget about tomorrow. With our world getting more and more chaotic, dangerous and unhealthy, I feel sadness for the future of my young family members and anger at those who seem so disconnected from our daily trials. It seems to be getting worse not better. Angst covers it very well.

  13. “I recently read yet another overheated article suggesting that huge numbers of people in Western democratic countries are either depressed or demoralized, and blaming this “psycho-spiritual crisis” on our consumerist culture.”

    Consumerism and culture comes is as many forms as skin color and forms of religion; we all must view both from our own vantage point…or point of disadvantage. I had an experience yesterday that I hope never to face again in what time remains to me on this shaky earth. My granddaughter’s wedding yesterday in Bloomington to a Catholic, staunch Republican, Trump supporting wealthy family from southern Indiana should have been a joyous occasion and I hope it was for my granddaughter. The evidences of wealth have been sneaking into my awareness only a little at a time; leaving me unprepared for the wedding of my beautiful granddaughter. There was no sign of marriage or what it entails as I know it; or as my granddaughter has lived her life with. FOUR HUNDRED guests at the wedding, the reception and dinner with dancing to follow. Nothing could prepare me for what my son, daughter-in-law, the bride’s mother and brother and I experienced…and her brother walked her up the aisle to give her away. He is in the Navy; flew in a few days ago for this event so he was unaware.

    Two days before, her Aunt Judy and responded to my comments regarding Trump’s wall by stating “he should build a wall around the entire country. Go Trump!!!!!!” You know I HAD to respond to that with “…it would wall in all of the evil. Go Trump…to Russia where you will be welcome.” Aunt Judy was to be seated at our table; she greeted everyone but me with hugs and warm conversation, ignoring me thankfully and completely. She walked away and sent a man to our table to mover her chair and table setting to another table, leaving the message she didn’t want to sit at our table. She proceeded to insert herself into the wedding party to take selfies and in front of the photographers to use her camera phone to take their pictures. The entire afternoon and evening was the ultimate in consumerism and culture shock for those left at our table; also relief that Aunt Judy didn’t care to join us. Depressed; yes, hoping the bride and groom weren’t aware of these events. It was also demoralizing to witness such idiocy from a woman in her 70s and a severe case of Trumpism attitude.

    “Somewhere between a stultifying communitarianism and a dog-eat-dog libertarianism there’s a (non-masturbatory) “sweet spot.” We need to locate it.”

    Let me know if you find that sweet spot, please.

  14. A demoralized army does not fight, and a demoralized citizenry does not participate. Myself and my fellow travelers who are on the Progressive Left, see a rigged system. The DNC certainly did not act as neutral party in the last election, and the Super-Delegates were there just to make sure they could place their collective fingers to tip the scale.

    We have in many state office districts here in Indiana essentially one party rule.

    Health Care in the USA is a frankenstein monster of grafted on parts. It could be ACA (Obamacare) or Ryan-Trumpcare. We know countries in Western Europe, Canada and Japan have much better heath care, in terms of cost and results. However, our politicians categorically refuse to consider these other models.

    Mind numbing consumerism does not explain this demoralization. Mind numbing consumerism , or mind altering concoctions (from Timothy Leary – Turn On, Tune in, Drop out) are the result at least IMHO our inability to change the political reality to serve the needs of the 99%.

  15. An interesting and relevant article in today’s Times about, of all people, Tarek and Christina Elmousaand why they’ve been so prominently featured in the tabloid press concludes that “there is no mass, there is only niche.”
    The only positive I gleaned from the story is that the Kardashians ratings have tanked so that there’s fewer distractions when checkingout at the supermarket.

  16. depressing? watching and masturbating to you tube videos? maybe. just got a pressure washer, now studying adding a foam cannon per u tube video. foam cannon = a penis shaped device clipped to the pressure hose that ejaculates white foam as you hold it. maybe there IS a sexual content to u tube videos. at least you learn something useful, like cleaning your MAF air flow sensor, full of rich symbolism. maybe ALL u-tube videos are really made in France. But wasn’t the 7 Suzuki’s a Japanese u tube video?.

  17. Joann Green – I admit the sweet spot is elusive. Never the less I found it Friday evening when the soloist at the Steinway played an encore in response to the overwhelming approval of his playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. Beats anxiety drugs. Turn on the volume, relax and click:

  18. Louie:”Health Care in the USA is a frankenstein monster of grafted on parts. It could be ACA (Obamacare) or Ryan-Trumpcare. We know countries in Western Europe, Canada and Japan have much better heath care, in terms of cost and results. However, our politicians categorically refuse to consider these other models. ”

    They refuse these systems because our politicians and their political organizations are addicted to the funds provided by the lobbying efforts of those that benefit from our shit system. Former President Obama (as I’m sure current Pres Trump is in agreement as well) and his predecessors (including candidate H Clinton) believe it’s much better to have many Americans suffer under our current nightmare of the system, than to have any of the executives from said industries suffer any slight indignities (such as not having the funds to pay 6 or 7 figures for a yearly country-club membership). There’s a reason why politicians look forward to their retirement years,$400,000 hr speeches.

    Our political-class in America would much rather see the lives of Americans ruined by health problems and/or medical bankruptcy than to have the executives of pharmaceutical and insurance industries have a fleeting moment of sad.

  19. I’m persuaded by Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on the failings of moral philosophy, as defined by the Enlightenment Project, but the fragments he alludes to still remain. We do need to do some house cleaning and tidying up. The firmest approach to that endeavor is to examine everything from the standpoint of real-life practices and whether they produce results that are good for everyone, not just a select few. From that perspective, a lot of ideologies die from exposure.

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