The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health

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Of the reviews that have been carried out on this topic, most have concluded that individualism is associated with specific social and psychological ills, including clinical depression, suicide, crime, divorce, child abuse, stress, and anxiety-related disorders. Although collectivist cultural structures have certain potential drawbacks, research shows that they are more conducive to mental health. One explanation is that collectivism emphasizes harmony within the group, which, in turn, reduces the stresses and conflicts of everyday life.

The Age of Insanity : Modernity and Mental Health by John F. Schumaker (2001, Hardcover)

The fact that collectivism is associated with lower levels of competition may lead to greater security and perceived coping ability. It seems that collective coping eases the persons task of dealing with difficult life experiences. The burdens of life are lightened when the group can absorb some of. In a related way, members of collectivist cultures make internal attributions of failure less frequently than their counterparts in individualistic cultures. Many traditional cultures have not even evolved lexical concepts to communicate the possibility of an autonomous self.

The rituals and customs in such settings tend to revolve around sociocentric themes, with the aim of forging identity along the lines of group solidarity. One psychological advantage of such an arrangement is that members have ready access to well-established formulas that provide structure to their sense of self. They feel supported by historical templates that facilitate the interpretation and management of life events. The utilization of socially sanctioned identity templates promotes an other-connected self in which the person is keenly aware of his or her place in the group.

The self achieves depth and substance only when it has been defined in a broader social context. But modernity has brought about a situation wherein identity is forged within a partial social vacuum, thereby replacing official practices with discretionary techniques. A variety of psychological disturbances became more likely once Western culture grew individualistic to such a degree that people lost membership with the group. This is reminiscent of mile Durkheims claim that Western culture has become a disorganized dust of individuals who have been freed too much from all genuine social bonds.

Martin Seligman argues that, as hedonistic islands adrift from a larger social support network, increasingly we have come to function as market pawns who closely resemble the commodities we are being conditioned to consume. This California self is the ultimate expression of modern individualism in its most inward, narcissistic, self-centered, and self-serving form.

To the California self, the primary reason for living is to make the right choices and to consume the right things in order to maximize pleasure and minimize pain and, in general, to get the most from life.

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Yet this identity structure operates at a distance from the stabilizing effect of the wider community. The California self succumbs easily to states of psychic disruption due to its lack of emotional commitment to the commons and an identity that places inordinate emphasis on personal and product outcomes. Generally speaking, it is not difficult to understand why collectivism might be more friendly to mental health than individualism.

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In the Cook Islands, for example, one is quickly struck by a profound sense of belongingness that derives from their collectivist orientation. It is interesting to note that no cases of homelessness have ever been documented in the Cook Islands. Members of this culture speak with pride about the Cook Island family and the way in which one never feels alone there.

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  • The overarching social embrace experienced by members of such a culture are certain to impede the psychopathology-proneness that seems to exist in the West. Whereas individualism tends to be associated with mental ill health, it has been argued that there are different types of individualism and that some types may be less harmful psychologically than others. For instance, one can distinguish between alienating individualism and reciprocal individualism. It is associated with anxiety, loneliness, existential isolation, powerlessness, and compensatory egocentric preoccupation.

    By contrast, reciprocal individualism involves a form of independence and self-reliance that remains tied to the goal of group harmony and concern with the welfare of the collective. As we have seen, the individualistic activities found in some non-Western cultures are acted out in the wider perception that the person is fused to, as well as responsible to, the community.

    Individualism of the reciprocal variety entails self-differentiation that is associated with high affiliation and with a social distancing process that entails a simultaneous relatedness. The community remains the persons center, rather than the persons becoming centered in himself or herself. This permits the unfolding of the individuals potentialities while he or she enjoys the benefits of a symbiotic connection to the wider community.

    In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah refers to the radical individualism that exists today in the West, noting how it yields a disorienting nihilism that leaves people with a disturbing compulsion somehow to overcome the emptiness of purely arbitrary values. It is true that the modern self is an adaptable, improvising, and malleable one that has less psychological grounding than in previous ages. But there is a functional aspect to the cultural practice of constructing identity as a constituency of self-investments.

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    • It makes possible an unprecedented degree of pragmatism that is not diluted by ingrained histories related to obligation, duty, and morality. The self is free to profit, and that capacity is the underlying all-pervasive cultural motivation that is absorbed by members: I profit; therefore I am.


      As a bundle of desire requiring utmost maneuverability of identity, the interchangeable feature of the modern self enables the person to stay dissociated from an enduring core, and that dissociation in turn allows it to manipulate better, and profit from, fluid and novel circumstances. The free-floating nature of the modern self is consistent with the growing impression that ones fate is determined at all levels by market forces, rather than sources of power that reside in the social domain.

      This situation does not mean, however, that individuals are doomed to doubt and uncertainty. Most members are able to superimpose cognitive biases on market unpredictability in order to extract hope of winning as a result of favorable market movements. Beyond that, a certain solace can be forthcoming from the knowledge that one can tip the market odds in ones direction through acquired expertise or clever manipulations.

      This carries with it the positive illusion that market success could be converted eventually into greater social visibility and reward. However, the emotional attachments that can be made with the market are less sustaining than those that develop from a sociocentric milieu. Likewise, market support lacks many of the mental health advantages of social support, a rapidly disappearing facet of contemporary life. Gergens concept of the pastiche personality captures the notion of a self that is constantly adrift from any stable core.

      He defines this new creature as a social chameleon, constantly borrowing bits and pieces of identity from whatever sources are available and constructing them as useful or desirable in a given situation. This type of self is provisional and pragmatic, pieced together in order to extract the full potential from any presenting set of circumstances. The person is deposed sufficiently from a deep abiding self that shame is not experienced as a result of inauthenticity and self-serving manipulation. True character loses its value as the person becomes an exercise in false advertising, and as life becomes a kaleidoscope of fleeting and ever-changing choices that feed ones developing appetites.

      In this vein, Robert Jay Lifton uses the label the protean self to describe a modern self that is preeminently adaptable, with few of the traditional psychological moorings.

      It also traces to a cultural environment where beliefs, partners, jobs, and residences change on a regular basis. Like the modern world itself, the protean self is inconstant, unpredictable, and unattached. This self structure allows short-term allegiances, but, when the need arises, the person can just as easily discard these and move on to the next set of demands. Proteans are even reluctant to forge a relationship with thoughts and ideas since those too may need to be modified on short notice. Modernity has been compared to a type of psychological exile wherein individuals become metaphorical strangers as a result of detachment from overarching cultural schemas.

      In the absence of adequate boundaries, the self also lacks the ordering capabilities.

      Many types of psychopathology can emerge when the boundaries of the self collapse, and when the person is left with insufficient structural integrity to experience inner mastery. This freedom impacts upon our moral relationships, and in turn upon some important determinants of psychological well-being. As modernity continues to liberate the self from time-honored sources of definition, individual members find themselves unable to discern moral reference points beyond themselves.

      Throughout much of human history, moral anxiety served to ensure an adequate adherence to social restraints, while also unifying members in relation to agreed-upon taboos and ethical improprieties. Collective morality played an integral role in regulating integration into the community and establishing the basis of difference and hierarchy. Similarly, moral codes were extensions of larger social institutions and represented guidelines that held communal value.

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      By contrast, the moral center of the modern age has shifted to the individual, with ever smaller amounts of moral order being coordinated at the level of culture. The good person of today is one who is good at something, or good in the respect of being well equipped to succeed.

      Unlike that in many traditional cultures where success was defined primarily in social terms, the new success story is a tale about private glories that, if well promoted, enjoy the additional satisfaction of distant applause. Contemporary society is characterized by moral individualism, and in particular an amoral immediacy that uses the principles of mass consumption as moral placebos that serve private interests. It is becoming difficult to identify activities, beliefs, or inclinations that raise social eyebrows. Through the demotion of the social conscience, individuals are now free to invent their own moral commandments in relation to their own perceived wishes, and to absolve themselves for infractions arising outside them.

      The ascendancy of the personal conscience reflects a new dynamic in which individuals form moral contracts with themselves. Without the so-. This is reinforced by the breakdown of morally meaningful relationships.


      Friendships have become largely symbolic, with the myth of their genuineness maintained mostly by a series of impression management strategies. Exploitation of others no longer registers as a taboo infraction, but rather as a creative and morally neutral strategy that contributes to effective engineering of the alien external world. Inhabitants of this cultural milieu of self-justification have a very weak sense of service to community, or even to those who are perceived as friends.

      They attach moral significance to instant gratification, while remaining largely oblivious to moral satisfactions involving selflessness and social sacrifice. With a dearth of genuine social interest, even the most advantaged moderns have a tendency to regard themselves as somehow deprived, and deserving to be considered their own charity cases.

      Moral tension is now roused when the individual betrays himself or herself and participates in enterprises that contravene the self-contract. This usually means that the person diagnoses an internal process that could prevent a result of maximal personal gain. But moral codes have come to subsist in an ambience of nearly total freedom, which releases the person to construct any moral order that is within the scope of imagination.

      Increasingly, morality consists of the moral deals that individuals make with themselves. Social image remains important, but the goal of being celebrated has been substituted for the former pressures to be good. The most celebrated of us are nearly free of moral obligation and moral misgiving, with that freedom being both a gift and an invitation to self-destruction.

      Socialite tendencies of the past have given way to tendencies that entail attempts to make a favorable impression on oneself. This is a simple extension of the perception that my only real friend, and my most dreaded potential enemy, is myself. Modern immorality communicates itself to the individual as a variety of guilt that stems from self-disappointment and the letting down of oneself. In some cases, this can escalate to an angry self-condemnation that spills over into aggression displaced onto others.

      With self-satisfaction as the new basis for moral evaluations, moderns have become removed from traditional goodness opportunities that historically have served as the basis for self-regard.

      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health
      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health
      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health
      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health
      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health
      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health
      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health
      The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health

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