We Americans have been unhappy, depressed, dissatisfied, demoralized, and hopeless for a long time … long before this election. In fact, it’s because of this unhappiness that Donald Trump, promising change, was successful.
It’s not just the poor. The wealthy are also unhappy. It’s not just the minorities. The majority are also dissatisfied. And it’s not just the atheists. Believers of all religions and spiritualties are losing hope.
So why are there so many unhappy people in our country of plenty? Because our culture has never been more toxic—and no amount of positive affirmations, therapy, meditation, yoga, drugs, or Donald Trump is changing that.
Why is our culture so toxic?
The Internet. The Internet has been a great invention and has made portions of our lives easier, provided business opportunities, and afforded us other advantages. But the application of this technology has also been harmful.
The Internet gives us the ability to obtain information instantaneously. It also enables us to buy products and have them delivered quickly—the next day in many cases. As a result, we’ve developed an expectation that we should have everything right away: instant gratification. But that expectation has come full circle because now people expect things from us instantly. In virtually every profession we’re now expected to react and respond right away. Everything has to be answered immediately. And thanks to smart phones we’re able to do that. As a result we’re connected to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And because of the Internet, we’re working more hours than ever before.
The Internet has also all but completely killed social connection. While the Internet has facilitated a bond for those who aren’t in close proximity—either through email, text, or video chat—live, in-person meaningful connection is all but dead. People have grown accustomed to and have accepted communication in short form—texting, emailing, etcetera—as a method of significant relating. We’ve either forgotten, are unwilling, or just don’t know how to connect to one another in meaningful ways anymore.
We humans thrive on connection—love, intimacy, and friendship. These elements make us happy in a deep, significant, and long-lasting way. But because we’re working so hard, we have less time to connect with each other. And because we’ve accepted texting and emailing as a primary method of communication, we’re not relating to one another in a way that feeds us emotionally. This lack of significant connection leads to stress, loneliness, and depression.
Why else is our culture so toxic?
Competition. Despite what we’ve been taught, competition is not good. Let’s take sports out of this equation. I’m referring to competition in business and life. When you’re competing in business, the stakes are terribly high: your salary, your welfare, the welfare of your family, the food you’re putting on your table, and the roof over your head. With stakes such as those, it’s no wonder so many people are under excruciating amounts of stress.
The reality is that I don’t need to crush you to make my business grow. There’s enough business to go around. If I own a watch company, I can manufacture my watches and make a healthy living without having to outsell you or shut you down. The same goes for software, smart phones, automobiles, aluminum siding, widgets, and just about everything else we manufacture or the services we provide. We don’t need to compete with each other in business. We would be much better served if we helped one another.
Our businesses can coexist. You can make a living, I can make a living, and we can do it in a relatively stress-free manner which will provide a great quality of life for you, me, and our families. But most of us don’t recognize this opportunity because making a living isn’t enough: we need the biggest and the best of everything because we’re also competing with one another in life. We want the nicest clothes, the fanciest car, the biggest house, and so on…
We humans thrive on connection—our happiness and longevity are greatly influenced by the quality of our interpersonal relationships. When we compete with one another in life, we build obstacles to those relationships. How can I get close to you or support you if we’re competing and comparing what we have? Competition leaves no room for an intimate connection.
And the stakes in the competition of life are exceptionally high: our egos. Your value and self worth are linked to external factors such as how much money you make, the possessions you own, and how you’re perceived by others. As a result, your self-esteem and confidence fluctuate based on external factors that are out of your control. The result is a Ping-Pong of emotion leading to stress, anxiety, confusion, loneliness, fear and depression.
Another consequence of competing with one another in business and life is that it fosters an unsupportive culture. We live in a country where we don’t support one another. It’s every man and woman for themselves. And when we don’t feel like we can compete with someone, we try to tear that person down.
This toxic, unsupportive environment can be agonizingly stressful. It makes people fearful of making mistakes and failing because there’s no net to catch them. If you fail, you’re on your own. And if you succeed, people are going to try and tear you down. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s no wonder that stress, anxiety, fear and depression are so prevalent in our culture and that so many use drugs (legal and illegal), food, alcohol, Internet surfing, binge watching TV, and other distractions to make ourselves feel better.
And the irony about competing with each other in life is that it’s a competition that you’ll never win—there will always be someone with more. And even if you think you’re victorious, what have you won?
Another reason our culture is so toxic is Capitalism.
I define capitalism as the blind pursuit of green pieces of paper without any thought as to how it will impact people’s lives.
Consider the CEO who lays off thousands of people not because the company is losing money but because he or she wants the company to be more profitable. Think about the impact of laying off a thousand employees. Many of them have families, so the layoff of a thousand individuals may negatively impact the lives of four, five or six thousand. And not because the company is losing money but because the CEO wants it to be more profitable.
Are you aware that each year there are 1,460,000 new cases of cancer and 550,000 people die of the disease, including children? I’m not sure how many people know this fact because we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a drone program to deliver packages more quickly to consumers, autonomous cars, space travel, mobile app games and other even less noteworthy things. Where are our priorities? With so many people dying of cancer, why is any time being invested on a method of delivering packages to consumers? Who cares about developing an autonomous car, space travel, or mobile app development when 45 million Americans live below the poverty line and struggle to put food on their table and a roof over their heads? Again: Where are our priorities?
Venture capitalists. These individuals have enough money to last the rest of their and their children’s lifetimes. Yet they continue to run like hamsters on a wheel trying to make more green pieces of paper that they don’t need. Venture capitalists have vast resources at their fingertips—money, intelligence, and creativity—and have the potential to make significant and lasting changes to our society but instead most choose to remain on the hamster wheel making more green pieces of paper that they have no need for. Imagine the impact a venture capitalist might have if he or she selected a community that was suffering and developed a plan to raise their quality of life? And not just by throwing money at the problem. You know the adage: give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. The venture capitalist and his team could develop an intelligent and creative plan to provide education, role modeling, and opportunity that would inspire the community to thrive. Venture capitalists could help millions of people if they chose to. Why don’t they?
This selfish, self-centered, myopic behavior doesn’t just apply to the wealthy. Many Americans, regardless of financial status, live this way. We only care about ourselves.
Why else is our culture so toxic?
Because authenticity and honesty are all but dead. We put masks on every day—with our friends, our coworkers and even our loved ones. And it separates and alienates us. Authenticity and honesty are missing in this country because we’re afraid to be vulnerable in our unsupportive, competitive culture. We’re afraid of what others might think, say, or do, and the setbacks that we might experience by sharing our vulnerability. That fear compounds year after year after year, grinding away at our enthusiasm for life and our hopes and dreams while producing an array of issues including anxiety and depression.
Another reason our culture is so toxic is because we believe that we are individuals. We aren’t. We are a community of humans. We are not countries, we are not races, we are not genders, or any other limiting labels. We’re a community of humans and we’re in this life and on this planet together. To think otherwise is ignorance or denial.
Do you remember when 9/11 happened? I don’t know what it was like in the rest of the country but here in the NY area people became uncharacteristically friendly and warm. It was like someone sprinkled magical dust on the population. I also experienced something similar when I tore my ACL and had to walk with crutches. People were unusually friendly and helpful.
We have the ability to be this pleasant and supportive every day. But our culture prevents this. How can I be friendly with you when I’m competing with you for my survival? How can I be warm, open, and loving when I’m working harder than ever before and feel like I’m constantly being pulled in one direction or another? How can I care what others feel when I don’t feel safe and supported?
We place our highest priority on money without taking into account how it will affect people’s lives. We let technology manage us rather than us managing technology. We’ve lowered our standards for relating to one another to the bare minimum: text and email. And don’t get me started on the status of the dating world! It’s a complete disaster.
We can’t live like this any longer. It’s unsustainable. We’re on a breakneck pace to emotional collapse. The level of emotional misery in this country is reaching a boiling point, and it has to change.
So how do we Americans become happier?
Treat people better. This is more effective than yoga, meditation, drugs, or positive affirmations ever will be. Treat people with respect, courtesy and kindness. Say please and thank you. Hold the door open for someone. Exercise good manners. Help your neighbors. If you see someone struggling, offer your assistance. Let the car in front of you merge. If you see someone with a flat tire, stop and help. If a person is carrying heavy packages, offer assistance. Take a moment to listen to someone’s problems.
Treat people the best that you possibly can in every facet of your life. Treat them well until it hurts. And be prepared: sometimes you’ll have to put the needs of others ahead of your own.
Treating people well also means being patient and compassionate. We weren’t all born at the same starting point in life. Some of us were born to wealthy families and some of us weren’t. Some of us had loving and caring parents while some of us were abused. We all weren’t afforded the same opportunities in life, so be patient and compassionate with others. And be the best person that you can be with them.
Treating people well includes empathizing with them. Place yourself in someone else’s shoes. Imagine what it’s like to be them—where they live, how they grew up, and how that impacts the way they interact with the world. If you have the responsibility of making a decision that will affect someone and you’re not sure what the right choice is, place yourself in his or her shoes. How will your decision impact their life? Empathizing with people will help you to understand, communicate, and connect with them more deeply and that connection will make you happier.
If you suffer from depression or loneliness, make one day a “treat people better day.” Go out and spend all day treating people the best that you possibly can. Help as many as you possibly can. It’s tough to be depressed and lonely when you’re connecting with others.
So how will treating people better improve our toxic culture?
If you’re treating people well, you won’t be a blind capitalist. You’ll still make money, but you’ll likely find more meaningful ways with other’s welfare in mind. And you won’t be wasting your time creating a faster package-delivery system or making more green pieces of paper that you no longer need because you’ll know that your time is better spent helping others in a way that really matters. If you’re treating people the best that you possibly can you won’t be competing with them because you’ll be too busy connecting with them. You also won’t expect your employees to be attached to their phones 24/7. If you’re treating people the best that you possibly can, you won’t be wasting so much time texting and emailing because you’ll be connecting with people in a deeper more meaningful way.
There’s a long list of additional recommendations for improving our toxic culture, but that would be putting the cart ahead of the horse. We Americans are at our worst right now. We need to crawl before we can walk.
The first step is to treat people well.
Treat people well until it hurts.
You will never be happier.
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