The value placed on individualism varies from one society to another. Some, like the United States for example, value it enormously. Others discourage individualism, considering it disruptive, selfish, even unpatriotic. But what impact do such attitudes have on mental health? Are individualists happier or more vulnerable to mental illness?
The idea that society is composed of unique individuals, with their own rights, inner lives, and distinctive personalities, is a relatively modern one. Traditionally, people were identified more by their social class. In a sense, behaviour was structured and ritualised. If you were a peasant or an innkeeper, you played that role, eating, drinking, swearing, and speaking like any other peasant or innkeeper. Any attempt to assert individuality would have been resisted.
Individualism as understood today arose in Europe between the early 15th and late 16th centuries. To fully grasp this, it is necessary to understand what came before. In around 1300, much of Europe was under the control of a supranational church which owned around a quarter of the land. This organization taught that salvation could be achieved by obeying its priests, not by independent thought and personal effort. In any case, the vast majority of people were illiterate and knew little about the world beyond their village. People lived in tight-knit agricultural communities, governed by rights and obligations. If you were a peasant, you were expected to work a certain number of hours in your lord’s fields and to contribute a tenth of your produce to the church. In return, the great landowners were expected to protect their tenantry in times of famine or war. The members of these communities were divided by class and occupation in ways unthinkable today. If you were born the son of a peasant or wheelwright, your chances of dying an aristocrat were small to say the least.
Since God had ordered everything this way, there was no need to analyze, doubt, or imagine alternatives. The only question that needed answering was “am I obeying?” As the German social psychologist Erich Fromm put it, “awareness of one’s individual self, of others and of the world as separate entities had not yet fully developed.”
The Birth of Individualism
In the 16th century, a widespread intellectual revolt began against the Catholic Church. The Bible was translated into native languages and individuals were taught to take personal responsibility for their soul rather than leaving it to a priest. A new individualism also appeared in the arts. And, finally, science was born. In the 1680s, this new scientific quest culminated in the writings of the Cambridge physicist Isaac Newton. Through private analysis and thought, this solitary Englishman had uncovered the laws that governed the workings of the universe. This in turn led to a new understanding of God. Far from a being who interfered in the world, he now seemed more like an engineer who had set things in motion. If that was the case, then it was up to the individual to take charge.
This new individualism can be seen everywhere. Medieval painting, though often vivid and beautiful, lacked individuality. The faces tend to be stylized, with one barely distinguishable from another. By the late 17th century, however, the Dutch painter Rembrandt was creating self-portraits that depicted the joys and sorrows of a lifetime: from a naive, pink-faced boy to an arrogant, prosperous thirty-something and finally a broken, poverty-stricken widower. At the same time, the Londoner Samuel Pepys was recording his most intimate hopes, fears, guilts, and regrets in a series of diaries. Nothing comparable to this survives from the medieval period.
Individualism and Mental Health
Of all nations, perhaps none so promote and celebrate this kind of individualism as the United States of America. And the effects are fascinating to observe.
Visitors to the U.S., especially from Europe, often note the limitless energy and optimism Americans seem to possess. Americans, by contrast, are often struck by the cynicism and pessimism of Europeans. Ray Kurzweil, the American inventor and futurologist, for example, frequently accuses his European colleagues of excessive pessimism regarding scientific and technological progress. Obviously, if you live in a society that values individual effort, lethargy and pessimism will hinder your chances of success. But there is a downside to this. Observers often comment on the dreamlike nature of American society. J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, speaking about the worldwide enthusiasm for his books, remarked in a BBC interview that “Americans are more easily kindled” than most people. While optimism can be very healthy, it needs to be balanced with realism. Indeed, realism is the hallmark of good mental health.
Perhaps the greatest downside to this sort of extreme individualism is the aggressive, even violent competition it can generate. When living in an individualistic society, there is always the danger that other people will come to be seen as objects in your way – rivals and competitors instead of fellow citizens. Sociologists have often speculated that this could explain why the USA, in spite of being a very rich society, is also a very violent one.
Another consequence of extreme individualism is a sort of dissatisfied straining or yearning. In his autobiography, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung recorded a conversation he once had with a Native American Indian. He asked the elderly man for his impression of the white Americans and Europeans he had met. The man replied that to him they seemed anxious and worried, as if they had lost something and were desperately trying to find it. “They always want something,” he said, and are never content just to sit still and be where they are. Individualism can be lonely. The paintings of Edward Hopper perfectly capture this American sense of isolation and disconnection. This possibly explains why Americans tend on average to be both more nationalistic and religious than comparable nations. A yearning to belong or re-connect can also leave you vulnerable to cults or mass movements. It is no coincidence that modern Christian fundamentalism originated in America.
Of course, the United States is not alone in exhibiting these traits. And while individualism can cause problems, so can its opposite. In highly conformist societies, like Japan for example, there can be a lack of spontaneity and free expression. And societies that prize conformity and social cohesion often create a great deal of emotional repression. As with so many things in life, balance is key. This may be why, according to a 2009 survey, the happiest nations are the ones that manage to combine individual freedom with economic equality.