The Problem with Individualism
1/3 of Americans have never interacted with their neighbors
Individualism is a belief system that champions individuality. It is the backbone of most of the value systems in the United States, which therefore makes the U.S. an individualistic society. Individualism allows a philosophy of life where people are offered almost total personal freedom. Unlike members of non-individualistic societies, you don’t have to conform to the ideas, values or behavioral norms of other people or organizations, such as living by the norms and values dictated by political leaders or religious institutions.
Those norms and values represent various things those other people want you to think, value or do. What about the things you yourself want to think, value or do? Individualism invites you to answer this question for yourself, and encourages you to follow your own desires. Individualists encourage you to do whatever you want, as long as it does not interfere with other people’s ability to do the same. In the ideal version of an individualistic society, we can all peacefully coexist and do our own thing alongside each other.
Considering its promise of almost unlimited personal freedom, individualism might sound like an appealing way of life. When it becomes the dominant philosophy of an entire society however, it can lead to many problems. This is because the more we focus on ourselves, the less we focus on each other and on the tasks of building, maintaining and deepening our social connections. For instance, take a look at how social connections are fraying as a result of rampant individualism in modern-day United States. According to a 2015 report from City Observatory, about one third of Americans say they have never interacted with their neighbors; chronic loneliness plagues 35 percent of Americans aged 45 or older; and the fastest-growing political and religious groups in the U.S. are “unaffiliated” — these people are disconnected from any community in two of the main areas of social life.
As Americans lose their social connections to each other, they also lose their trust in others and in the institutions that are meant to bind them together. From the 1950s to the present, the percentage of Americans who trust their neighbors has fallen from about 60 percent to approximately 30 percent among the general population, with millennials dropping all the way down to 18 percent. Meanwhile, over the same period, the percentage of Americans who trust the U.S. government has plummeted from around 75 percent to less than 25 percent. If church attendance is a proxy for trust in organized religion, then this appears to be taking a nose-diving as well, having dropped by almost 50 percent since the 1960s.
Consider a young adult living in the individualistic U.S. society, about to begin her pursuit of the American Dream. She just graduated from a top-rated university with a marketable degree, so we could say she is well-equipped to succeed. The only thing left for her to do is to answer the dreaded question: Now what?
This has proven to be a tough question for many young adults to answer. They won’t really get to enjoy all of the personal freedom that individualism promised them until they finish their education. Up until that point, they spend most of your time attending school, or doing school-related activities that contain rigid schedules and rules to follow. Their teachers set out clear expectations for them, and their grades tell them how they are measuring up to those expectations. They know that if they get good grades, they will be able to get into a good university. There is a clear path to follow.
Then they graduate, and suddenly there is no one to tell them what to do anymore, so they have to figure it out by themselves. Since there are no set paths to follow, they each have to blaze their own. That might sound like the beginning of a great adventure, but it is also quite a daunting prospect — especially since they live in an individualistic society, and lack a sense of connection to a community that could give them a sense of guiding purpose.
Feeling adrift in the open sea of an individualistic society, many young Americans feel desperate to find something to which they can anchor themselves — which often ends up being their professional lives. They try to find positions in companies that will provide them with a clear sense of structure, like the one they experienced at school. They inevitably embrace a life of workaholism — they go to work, put in long hours, please their bosses, gain promotions and achieve higher levels of status and wealth. Pursuing status- and wealth-oriented ambitions by accumulating materials and worldly success gives many people a sense of purpose and direction but it is not a reliable path to fulfillment that comes at great cost.
What’s (Still) Missing?
Imagine the best-case scenario: the young adult made it and became successful. She has ascended to the top of her career ladder, and is now a highly respected professional in a highly respected field. There is just one problem: she still doesn’t feel a sense of fulfillment. She feels like something is missing from her life, but what could it be?
Some clues to the answer to this question could be found by looking at the worst-case scenario. Imagine that instead of becoming successful, she got derailed on her success journey by some terrible events in her personal life, such as losing her job, getting divorced, developing a disease or experiencing the premature death of a family member. Such losses could make her lose her sense of direction, meaning and stability, which will further deepen the pain from the loss. Some people ease their pain by trying to blot it out with palliative activities such as drinking, but these are only temporary solutions that create further problems of their own. A healthier response is to lean on friends and family members for support, whether by way of a sympathetic ear, kindly words of advice or simply a nice meal together.
If this young adult takes this better path through her pain and suffering phase, she might end up learning some crucial lessons about what was missing from her life when she was on the road to being successful, along with what she needs to live a fuller human existence. This involves connecting with other people.
Pursuing Happiness is a Flawed Objective
In an individualistic society, people’s aims for embracing individualism vary, but an underlying reason is to just be happy. That might sound like a reasonable motive, but there is a problem with it, and the problem lies at the heart of the phenomenon of happiness itself. Basically, when you feel happy, it is because you have achieved one of your goals or fulfilled one of your desires — you earned a diploma, got a promotion, ate a delicious dinner, and so on. Happiness ensues, but not for long, because the positive after-effects of achievement and fulfillment soon fades away. You achieve a goal or fulfill a desire, you feel happy for a little bit, the happiness dissipates, and then it is time to move on to the next goal or desire. Happiness is a temporary state — therefore, a life dedicated to the pursuit of happiness becomes a life of constantly hopping from one short-lived episode of satisfaction to another, with long stretches of dissatisfaction in between.
In addition, the problem with happiness is not just that it is fleeting — the goals and desires upon which it rests are fundamentally self-oriented. They are all about achieving victories, gaining benefits or seeking pleasures for yourself. By the same token, they are rather small in the grand scheme of things. For example, think again about getting a promotion. Then compare this personal triumph with the moral victory of providing crucial aid to thousands of poor people in India, like Mother Teresa did. Now your promotion seems insignificant when compared to providing humanitarian aid in India. There is a smallness to a life lived in service to the self, while there is a grandness to a life lived in service to others.
Service is Hard Work
A life of lasting happiness is a life of service — and a life of service is a life of overflowing love. From poverty and homelessness to drug addiction and chronic loneliness, there are myriad problems to be solved in the world around us. And whether it is maintaining deep, healthy and loving relationships with our friends, family or romantic partners, there are many additional problems to be solved in our personal lives as well, such as working through communication issues and finding the time for others in today’s hectic world. If you believe in a monotheistic religion, you also have another problem on your plate: living a life of service to others while simultaneously living a life of service to your God and your religious community.
In other words, if you want to actually dedicate yourself to the service of others, you have to devote yourself to tackling some big problems. That means submitting yourself to difficult labor and exposing yourself to other people’s suffering. Picture yourself serving food at a homeless shelter — it is fulfilling, but it is also demanding, both in terms of the work itself and the emotional impact of seeing so many people experiencing hardship.
Service Requires Commitment
In order to make service more impactful, it requires making a commitment to the service of other people by adopting a set of rituals, protocols and agreements, which are designed to ensure that you continue to treat people in a loving manner even when your feelings of love flicker and fade. The most obvious example of this is the commitment you make when you enter a marriage.
It begins with a vow of dedication. In a traditional Christian ceremony, you publicly declare your allegiance to your partner at the altar. By making and then carrying out this vow, you are also closing yourself off to other options. By saying “I choose you” to your partner, you are implicitly saying “I don’t choose you” to the billions of other potential partners living out there in the world. Of course, taking a vow and closing yourself off do not by themselves make for a happy marriage. That requires a considerable investment of time and energy into your relationship with your partner. This means having intimate conversations with your partner, getting to know them on a deeper level, expressing appreciation for them, forgiving them for their flaws, doing kind things for them, finding time for them, going on dates with them and so forth.
More generally, it means putting the needs of your relationship above your own needs. For example, it might help to advance your career if you finish that proposal this evening. But if that means canceling your date night, then maybe you need to take one for the team and delay the work until tomorrow.
By undermining our social connections, individualism causes a range of societal and personal problems, which many people try to overcome by pursuing material success and happiness. But this pursuit ultimately leads nowhere. The real road to fulfillment leads to a life of service to other people, which can be practiced through our marriages, religions, the tasks of community-building, and many more.