One of the most powerful aspects of culture is its ability to shape our assumptions about “the good life.” Over the past couple of hundred years, Western societies have embraced a model that increasingly has favored free markets and personal freedom as essential to a good life. Nowhere is that more the case than in America, a nation that celebrates individualism and levels of consumption so high that if everyone else in the world tried to follow suit, we would need the resources of several additional planets.
To most Americans, however, this extreme consumerism is simply what they see around them. It doesn’t seem at all astonishing to them that a nation with less than 5 percent of the world’s populations uses 25 percent of the coal, 26 percent of the oil, and 27 percent of the natural gas; that America has more cars than people; that houses are about 40 percent larger than in the 1970s, even though the average number of people per house has declined; or that American children make up 3 percent of the world’s children, yet play with 40 percent of the toys.
And yet, surrounded by wealth unimaginable in most of the world, Americans suffer from unusually high levels of depression. New York Times columnist David Brooks brought up this point in a recent and intriguing column, “The Great Affluence Fallacy.” Here’s how he began it:
In 18th-century America, colonial society and Native American society sat side by side. The former was buddingly commercial; the latter was communal and tribal. As time went by, the settlers from Europe noticed something: No Indians were defecting to join colonial society, but many whites were defecting to live in the Native American one.
This struck them as strange. Colonial society was richer and more advanced. And yet people were voting with their feet the other way.
Such notable figures as Benjamin Franklin wrote about it at the time, perplexed why so few indigenous people chose to live in the so-called “civilized world,” while there were plenty of examples of the opposite. And the trend continued. Brooks again:
During the wars with the Indians, many European settlers were taken prisoner and held within Indian tribes. After a while, they had plenty of chances to escape and return, and yet they did not. In fact, when they were “rescued,” they fled and hid from their rescuers.
Sometimes the Indians tried to forcibly return the colonials in a prisoner swap, and still the colonials refused to go. In one case, the Shawanese Indians were compelled to tie up some European women in order to ship them back. After they were returned, the women escaped the colonial towns and ran back to the Indians.
Even as late as 1782, the pattern was still going strong. Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become European.”
Brooks said he has been “haunted” by these facts ever since reading Sebastian Junger’s book, “Tribe:”
It raises the possibility that our culture is built on some fundamental error about what makes people happy and fulfilled.
The native cultures were more communal. As Junger writes, “They would have practiced extremely close and involved child care. And they would have done almost everything in the company of others. They would have almost never been alone.”
If colonial culture was relatively atomized, imagine American culture of today. As we’ve gotten richer, we’ve used wealth to buy space: bigger homes, bigger yards, separate bedrooms, private cars, autonomous lifestyles. Each individual choice makes sense, but the overall atomizing trajectory sometimes seems to backfire. According to the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression by as much as eight times the rate as people in poor countries.
Brooks is hopeful about the Millennial Generation, which he says is moving away from the extreme individualism of the Baby Boomers and recovering a communal spirit:
Millennials are oriented around neighborhood hospitality, rather than national identity or the borderless digital world. “A neighborhood is the place where you live and sleep.” How many of your physical neighbors know your name?
Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, I get the sense a lot of people are actually about to make the break and immerse themselves in demanding local community movements. It wouldn’t surprise me if the big change in the coming decades were this: an end to the apotheosis of freedom; more people making the modern equivalent of the Native American leap.