AlterNet.org: ‘American Mania’ Interview
By Laura Barcella
In American Mania: When More is Not Enough, renowned psychiatrist Dr. Peter C. Whybrow skillfully and sensitively critiques the mess America has made of its consumer culture.
What have we become? According to Whybrow’s scientific and philosophical analyses, we’ve devolved into a nation of overindulging, overstimulated flakes addicted to easy access and instant gratification.
Dr. Whybrow argues that our seemingly interminable quest for more — more money, more power, more toys, more cars — has in fact become a form of clinical mania marked by symptoms such as anxiety, depression and obesity.
To avoid suffering a collective mental breakdown, Whybrow implores us to stop focusing on things and instead turn our attention to people — family, friends and community. It’s a familiar refrain, but one that clearly needs repeating: If we are to be happy, Americans must stop superficially striving, and learn to prioritize people over products.
Dr. Whybrow spoke with AlterNet from his office in Los Angeles.
AlterNet: In your book, you write that America’s “migrant spirit” plays a key role in the development of our culture’s mania. Can you explain that idea for those who haven’t read the book?
The idea of American mania is that we are drawn into frenzied activity largely by instinctual strivings. This is very natural, and keeps us alive. But the migrant has this striving to an even greater degree than the average person — if you think about what it is that drives most of us, it’s curiosity, it’s self-preservation, and also social ambition. These are the three fundamental aspects of what drives individuals and what drives all market societies.
In America, one of the reasons we find the market so compelling and why we’re so good at it is that most of us came from somewhere else. Only 2 percent of the world’s population actually moves hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they were born; most people die within 50 miles of where they were born, believe it or not.
We’re a collection of survivalists; we’re a collection of people who are very curious, very assertive, able to figure out what to do with little, to make the best of things, and so on and so forth.
We’ve built ourselves this wonderful culture — this wonderful material pleasure palace — and we’re not quite sure how to stop. We’ve discovered an aberration of the human spirit a little earlier than most other countries — but everybody’s catching up, slowly.
What do you think is the scariest symptom of America’s collective frenzy for more, more, more?
I think the scariest part is that we have not started to question it as a nation. Lots of individuals have started to question it, and that’s partly why the book has become so popular. But we have to think through what it is that we’re doing to ourselves.
Take food, for example — instinctually we love to eat … salt; we love fat. And much of the food that we have available to us contains those things; we just overeat and do very bad things to ourselves.
The same is true in terms of our curiosity for information. We can inundate ourselves 24 hours a day now with electronic systems, and all of these things tend to actually push us to the edge of our sociological tolerance.
People are not supposed to eat all day and take no exercise. It’s very bad for the human body, and you eventually end up developing Type II diabetes. And if you don’t know how to control your time and the technology in your life, you can rapidly become anxious because you worry that you’re missing something.
The other thing which is very evident, though some people don’t even see it as a behavioral problem, and which you read about everyday in the newspapers, is that people become essentially seduced into engaging in practices which are not good for them.
I just got an email the other day from a person that’d been caught up in the whole dot-com craziness, and [he had] done some “creative accounting” in one of the companies. He realized later — when he was caught, and with terrible remorse — that he’d destroyed his life.
But the idea that one needs more — which is driven in part by social ambition — makes many people forget the reality of the world, which is, of course, that happiness doesn’t come from just material acquisition, whether that means more food, or more information, or more money. It comes from a totally different source: the way in which you spend your life with other people.
What would be the worst possible outcome if Americans continued down the path we’re on right now?
Well, on the individual level, which is the way the book is pitched, we will find a rising level of these sorts of disorders that I was just talking about. But I think the greed that we see will become much more individualistic, and much less socially involved. That will begin to slowly destroy the next generation of people, because the way we learn how to live in a society is from others. And if everybody is totally individualistic, we’re not going to learn.
But perhaps even more importantly, [we] will find that the economy will begin to collapse, because the signs are already out there. We are consuming too much; we’re going well beyond our ability to finance it. We’re the biggest debtor in the world now, and a lot of the world economy is based on American consumerism.
That can’t last forever. So one of the most painful course corrections could be something very similar to what happened in the 1930s, only it would happen more slowly at the beginning.
For example, as the housing market bursts — which everybody is beginning to think will happen soon — most people who have high costs on their mortgages now will find that their houses won’t be worth as much, and they won’t be able to afford the mortgage. So there’s going to be a major economic crisis in that regard. That could be a course correction that will be painful and very unpleasant for folks.
And what do you think we can do to help people understand that this consumer-mania is dangerous?
First of all, the sort of intelligent information-gathering that AlterNet provides with your website will be very helpful, because I think people do read. Americans are intelligent folks. We’re not greedy, if we begin to realize that we’re harming ourselves. Just as we did with smoking, we will decide to take a different course. The question is, how painful must it become before that happens?
For some individuals it’s already happening. For other people, it will probably take evidence — within their family or within their own economic circumstances — that things have changed, before they start changing their behavior.
What I would like to see is a growing movement — which is starting in some parts of the country — where people realize that they can actually be much happier by living within their means. One of the ways in which we tend to go to extremes now is by purchasing things that we can’t really afford and then we mortgage ourselves into the future.
There are a lot of people who are beginning to say, “You know, I don’t really want to work two jobs; I don’t think I need that second car.” It’s starting at the individual level, and once that really begins, then it will take hold.
Just let me say, parenthetically, one of the most important things about this country is the entrepreneurial spirit, and the fact that we’re very creative, and we’re very willing to take risks and so on and so forth. But we have to preserve that space for the seed corn of our culture, and it can only be preserved if we’re prepared to have a social infrastructure that allows people to take risks and doesn’t persecute them when they fall foul.
If you have an economy that is so stretched out that nobody has any savings, and everybody is busy working as hard as they possibly can just to pay the mortgage, then that is not the social infrastructure that one needs to maintain curiosity and excitement. I think that we need to do this from the standpoint of the health of the culture, and there are some people who are beginning to realize that.
For example, there’s a whole movement in Vermont now to secede — believe it or not — from the U.S., because they believe that the lifestyle that we are perpetuating in many urban areas is destructive to the rural life. Whether this debate will go anywhere I don’t know, but the fact that the debate is beginning is fascinating to me.
What is the connection there between urban vs. rural life? Do you think that this frenzy is more common and more prevalent in urban centers?
Well, the seduction is greater in urban centers. There are two things that occur to me. One, for example, is the commercial drive. It’s all, of course, brought back to Wal-Mart, which happens to be the biggest commercial enterprise for the consumer in the country; in the world.
There’s overwhelming evidence now that when a Wal-Mart store comes into town, that although the prices at the Wal-Mart stores are lower, it forces out so many businessmen that the local economy is actually worse off at the end, and the taxpayer is worse off at the end.
Many of the jobs provided by Wal-Mart actually end up being without benefits, so employees end up on the public purse… Somebody calculated that the average person saves $58.48 a year by shopping at Wal-Mart.
Another aspect of how our lifestyle tends to erode our culture is that people are trying extremely hard to keep up — not only with their neighbors, but also just the two jobs they have.
There’s an amazing outbreak of amphetamines across the country that you’ve probably heard of. It’s rampant across the country now. Everybody talks about marijuana being the problem. That’s not the problem — it’s individuals who are essentially hijacking their pleasure centers, trying to stay awake.
Those types of erosions will, within a generation or two, have a massive effect upon what I consider to be the crucible of the culture: the stable family and community structures, which enable people to grow up and learn how it is to behave in a normal, balanced civil society. When you begin to get large numbers of people who are addicted to amphetamines or to material goods, this fragments families.
And once the family is fragmented and the community is fragmented, the next generation grows up with no real awareness of what it is that they need to do in order to be happy. So you get onto this strange treadmill situation — it’s even a slippery slope really — where they fall into something without even realizing it’s a genuine addiction.
So for all these reasons American Mania‘s subtitle, When more is not enough, tries to point out that more of what we’re doing is actually not going to bring us what we want.
In mania, what happens is that you shoot right past happiness into this terrible disorganized fireworks display which you have no control over. But happiness lies somewhere behind us.
You can be happy with much less information, fewer material goods, much less of the stuff that we have now. But nobody really looks in the rearview mirror — they’re all driving ahead. In fact, we need to do a U-turn, because happiness lies somewhere behind us, not down the road. More cars, more houses, etc., are not going to do it for us.
In the book you wrote about a cultural and biological mismatch that has been actually making us sick. Could you explain that?
The human genome was developed essentially over millions of years, and the only thing that distinguishes us from most other mammals is that we have much greater intelligence. The rational part of the brain that balances the instinctive part is much more developed in us than it is in other animals. That is our great advantage.
Unfortunately, we have used that advantage to create ourselves an environment, inadvertently, which actually is so pleasurable to the instinctual side of our behavior that we now are doing many things which we’re not physiologically cut out to do.
Let me give you an example. People who have the most problems with weight gain here in the U.S. are people whose ancestors migrated here long before the Europeans came. So the people who have American Indian blood in their veins, particularly in South America where the Indian-European mix is greater, are the ones who, when they get onto a high-carbohydrate diet, have much more trouble maintaining normal weight, because they’re used to very frugal circumstances.
In other words, their particular inheritance is that they can survive on almost nothing. And so when you then give them a high-calorie diet, there’s a mismatch between the environment, their diet, and their genome. The genome hasn’t changed.
We used to be in a situation where we would run for our supper and if we caught it, we’d eat it. And we had to wait until the next day [to eat again]. So we were much leaner and fitter before our present environment.
So nothing has changed in the genetics of the human being, but the environment we’ve created, this extraordinary affluence — we don’t really know what to do with it.
We have no experience with it; we’re much better at living with scarcity than we are affluence. So the mismatch is the affluent environment with this ancient genome that grew up under scarce circumstances. Only our intelligence will help us understand how to repair that, because the genetics are not going to change fast enough to save us.
But this propensity for affluence and extravagant lifestyles depends on class, education and where you live. What other factors are involved?
All of those things, I think. The people who are more affluent and have better educations recognize many of these things, and because of their resources they’re able to step back from the treadmill. But that’s not true of all affluent folks. Many affluent families, in fact, drive themselves because they are highly competitive, and they drive their children in a way that schedules them and makes them “little adults,” much too young.
There’s a lot of evidence, for example, that anxiety in families who earn over $150,000 a year is much greater in the adolescents than it is in those families that earn the average, about $50,000 a year. So affluence does tend to produce these things, but fortunately many people who are wealthier can avoid them once they become aware of them.
The other problem is people who are not as well off. As you know, America has an extraordinary spread of riches, the broadest spread from the poorest to the richest in the world. The poorer people are those who are much more open to eating a very high carbohydrate diet and taking no exercise, and they’re the ones who’re getting Type II diabetes and hypertension and all the difficulties which go along with overeating. So I think there is a social difference there.
There’s also something of a difference, in terms of the way people live, between the coasts. I mean, [people] in Los Angeles are much more frenetic than [people in] Vermont and New Hampshire, for example, as I try to explain in the book. So I think that where you live does tend to influence demand.