The cultural messages that have now spread from the western world all over the globe, and are often mistaken for signs of ‘success’ and ‘development’, are examined in depth in the second chapter of the volume Toward Socially Responsible Psychology for a Global Era (titled Transforming a limited social function into a viable global action agenda.)
In a nutshell, central in these messages are the values and assumptions of extreme individualism, materialism and competitiveness. They set people against one another, and create the illusion that everything is a scarce resource (success, recognition, attention), for which we have to outcompete the next person over. Even though it is now common knowledge in the social sciences that we thrive when we uplift one another, and when we serve the well-being of others and our communities, we continue to be under intense social pressure to do just the opposite.
The social messages we get every day are that our worth is contingent on status, that status has much to do with the appearance we project, and that success is defined as being smarter than, more good looking than, and better off than the next person. These intense social pressures that prize power over others, and fast profit, create nerve-wrecking stress, and foster hectic hare-brain living and working, which further frays social relations.
All we have to do is take a look at the day-to-day atmosphere of a good public high school in the U.S., where school officials and educators work hard to create a school climate that fosters social capital. Yet, we will see young people who are already reeling under conflicting social pressures – both trying to resist them and remain true to themselves, and also succumbing to them, lost in cliquishness, cynicism, drugs and promiscuity. They know college admissions officials look for the well-rounded personality with a balanced record of academic success, sports and service. Yet, under the pressure of the cultural messages in which they are immersed, young people’s lives are about everything but balance, well-roundedness and service. And we adults have little to say to them about how to navigate this conspicuous contradiction and find uplifting meaning and purpose. No wonder they don’t talk to us, and increasingly self-medicate; no wonder anxiety and depression are on the rise among younger and younger people in the western world.