A healthy society is one which provides for the wellbeing of all its members. It is one which enables its members to strive to satisfy their needs and which does not put obstacles in their way. In practice, this means equitable access to resources and protection from the anti-social needs of others. However, society is rarely, if ever, perfect and some examples of the difficulties we currently face in the West are described below.
In early, small scale societies relationships were complex. Between each pair of individuals there were several types of relationship and the quality of each had to be balanced with the quality of others. This type of society is the one in which we have evolved to live. In modern society, relationships between individuals often serve a single, relatively simple purpose and people learn to act out a role.
Furthermore, even these relationships are being replaced by technology, and we are beginning to interact either with, or via machines to a significant extent. Indeed, the difficulties involved in learning successful social interaction and in building our social capital have not been helped by the comparatively recent intervention of technology and commerce in our social lives. Social media have communication benefits, but have also led to more distant, impersonal social connections, to online bullying, grooming and exploitation, to commercial opportunities, the spread of fake news, the spread of conspiracy theories, and pressure to conform to fast changing fashions.
The pressure of producing and consuming in an economy which relies on constant growth means that the time available for more complex interaction with family, children, and friends is much reduced. Thus, we are no longer interacting with one another in the way that we have evolved to do. Our social nature is not being satisfied, and we are suffering a poverty of relatedness needs.
Security in the satisfaction of our needs involves an accumulation of material capital, for example the deposit for a home. However, several factors currently conspire against this: the ever-growing wage gap; insecurity of employment; the high cost of purchasing a home; the availability of cheap credit; the pressure to accept it; social and advertising pressures to purchase consumer products; and so on. These are all consequences of consumer-capitalism which, because of its in-built reliance on economic growth, has become exploitative and is approaching the limits of sustainability. The Office of National Statistics Survey reports that “An increasing proportion of young people aged 16 to 24 years in the UK reported that they were finding it difficult or very difficult to get by financially.” In 2016/17 this was 6%. In 2017/18 it had increased to 9%. In particular, “the increase was significant among young men of this age.”
In his book “Cultural Evolution”, Ronald Inglehart says that, in a post-industrial culture, we place greater emphasis on the growth need of self-expression, and data from the World Values Survey bears this out. Culture affects what we believe our growth needs to be and how we go about satisfying them. However, our culture is often steered by royal, aristocratic, political, religious, or commercial elites in their own interest, rather than in that of the general population.
Some have argued that the free-market, consumer economy in the West was brought about by elites as a reaction to a decline in their relative wealth after the two world wars. Again, the statistics bear this out. The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis also provides convincing evidence that the present emphasis on individuality has been steered, by commercial elites and consultant psychologists, into self-expression through consumption. The concept of lifestyle has been promoted, primarily via advertising, and we have been encouraged to see it as a way of expressing our individuality.
If a need is satisfied, then it no longer motivates us. So, to persuade us to buy products, advertising offers false promises. It is often suggested, incorrectly, that a product will satisfy our needs for relatedness, belonging, and self-esteem. Furthermore, it does so in a subliminal manner, often not recognized by the conscious mind.
The involvement of commerce in the way we make our social connections adds an extra layer of complexity and difficulty to the satisfaction of our relatedness needs. For example, social media influencers are, essentially, engaging in lifestyle-based advertising and earn their living by promoting products. However, they are also role models in terms of behaviour, social status, and appearance. Most cosmetics, for example, are now sold to the 20 to 23 age group, which, ironically, is when the majority of us are physically at our most attractive. There is also a growing tendency for men to use cosmetics.
Whilst people imagine that they are satisfying their needs for individuality, self-esteem and belonging in the way they consume products and services, this is merely a pseudo-satisfier. It is unsurprising, therefore, that mental ill-health is becoming a significant concern, particularly among the younger generations. The survey by the UK’s Office of National Statistics also found that:
- “Several measures of personal well-being of young women aged 20 to 24 years in the UK have declined in March 2020 from five years previously”.
- There was “a fall in the percentage of young women in this age group reporting very high life satisfaction and happiness, and very low anxiety.”
- “There is evidence of increasing anxiety and depression among young women aged 16 to 24 years”. In 2016/17, 26% reported some evidence of depression or anxiety . In 2017/18 this increased to 31%.
- “There was a decline in young people’s satisfaction with their health …”. In 2016/17, 59% of those aged 16 to 24 years said they were mostly or completely satisfied with their health. In 2017/18, this fell to 52%.
- “Young people aged 16 to 24 years” … “may also be feeling more disconnected from their communities”. In 2014/15, 57% agreed or strongly agreed that they felt a sense of belonging to their neighbourhood. In 2017/18, this fell to 48%.
To truly satisfy our need for individuality, it is necessary to build up a resistance to these advertising pressures. We can learn to resist some of them, but others are beyond our individual control. As Mark Carney, a past governor of the Bank of England, put it in his 2020, BBC Reith Lectures, the economy is driving society’s values and not vice versa. He argues that we now need a post-consumer economy which delivers on society’s values. That is, what society holds to be good, rather than what has a monetary value. However, he also believes that this cannot be left to free markets, which tend to follow the same path until a bubble bursts. One way in which the latter can occur is through the over-exploitation and wastage of resources and it is quite likely that we have now begun to see the effects of this. He argues, therefore, that government intervention is needed to steer markets in the appropriate direction.
Unfortunately, politics has taken a lesson from commerce and is beginning to operate in a similar way, employing psychologists and, with their advice and insights, also exploiting our needs.
2 replies on “Obstacles to Wellbeing in the West”
Right on point, man. A lot to think about here. I wonder how many people are feeling this in their bones… a subtle suspicion that consumer-capitalism “has become exploitative and is approaching the limits of sustainability,” as you put it. I think we will wake up or be rudely awoken.
Thanks Jason. If it weren’t for the Atlantic I’d buy you a Scotch. I suspect that a lot of people feel it in their bones. The problem is one of overcoming the barriers to acceptance and the even greater barriers to action.