For the vast majority of human history, the struggle for survival, let alone the aspiration to flourish, has been defined in large part by the battle against material scarcity. Our challenges were those of simply not having enough of life’s basics. Not enough food, not enough shelter, not enough security, not enough time. Most people lived their entire lives in close proximity to the threat of death from starvation, exposure to the elements, disease, disability, and violence. However, the last three centuries have been marked by tremendous progress on this front. Whether this period is recognized as “the great enrichment”, simply “the miracle”, or it is understood by some other name, it is clear that the conditions of extreme material scarcity that once defined the human condition have significantly abated.
Across large swaths of the globe, rates of starvation, violence, and death from a wide range of medical conditions continue to decline, living standards continue to rise, and opportunities for individuals to pursue goals beyond mere survival have skyrocketed. Examples of the incredible progress human beings have made in terms of material abundance and dramatically higher living standards over the past several centuries are far too numerous to fully list here. Suffice it to say that food shortages and incidents of starvation have markedly declined, life expectancy has significantly increased, and the kind of economic security that was once confined to a rarified few has spread to an increasingly large portion of the population. For a more detailed look at these trends check out Humanprogress.org or Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know.
The turning of the tide in the battle against material deprivation was not merely a natural consequence of time passing. Rather, it was the result of a revolution in the attitudes, modes of thinking, and institutions that comprised the social, political, economic, and scientific structures of everyday life. The exact details, origins, and causes of this sea change in human history are still hotly debated and others have developed detailed theories and arguments about this phenomenon at length. However, despite these differing accounts, a few key themes have emerged as important aspects of this story.
To oversimplify, an emphasis on individual rights, including property rights, religious tolerance, and broader political participation formed the outlines of the Liberal political tradition. At the same time, Liberalism’s emphasis on open inquiry and the use of reason, what we might call enlightenment rationalism, spurred the scientific and industrial revolutions. These forces were at least among the driving factors that led to the dramatic increases in living standards and human well-being that many of us now take for granted.
In the United States, our most pressing challenges are no longer consequences of material deprivation. Of course, there will always be those without enough and in need of material assistance, but those numbers have dramatically dwindled in the last two hundred years. Instead, just when we find ourselves inhabiting the wealthiest and most materially well-off society that the world has ever known, new kinds of challenges have emerged. Rates of depression, suicide, and loneliness are at all-time highs and continue to climb. A new phenomenon so widespread as to warrant serious academic study and the dark moniker “deaths of despair” has entered the lexicon. A rising number of prime-age able-bodied men, replete with levels of material abundance and economic opportunities that their ancestors could only dream of, are dropping out of the labor force entirely. Rates of marriage and family formation continue to decline, to the point of new births falling below basic population replacement levels. The optimism that once defined the American identity is giving way to growing pessimism about the future of our nation and distrust of our fellow citizens. Even many of the Americans who are relatively happy with their own lives and optimistic about their own futures have a pessimistic view of the future of their nation and the world.
These distressing trends are not the result of material deprivation and scarcity. Rather, these trends, deemed by some to be “pathologies of passivity” or the symptoms of a “meaning crisis,” point to deeper concerns of existential health. If these trends are left unaddressed, the magnificent progress modern societies have made so far could become increasingly less relevant as they slip into a new and unfamiliar form of decline.
Mental Decline in the Age of Material Abundance
Though we live in an age of relative material abundance, there is clearly something amiss. In 2021, the US surpassed 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses—up 15 percent from 2020. Economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have studied the growing rates of so-called “Deaths of Despair.” Their research reveals that deaths resulting from drug overdoses, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease now average about 70,000 people per year—a figure that has risen between 56 percent and 387 percent over the past two decades, depending on the age cohort.
Between 2007 and 2018, the rate of suicide increased by nearly 60 percent among teens and young adults aged 10-24. By some estimates, adolescent mental health boarding—instances in which teenagers pose too great a risk to themselves or others to go home—might be at a level such that “at least 1,000 young people, and perhaps as many as 5,000, board each night in the nation’s 4,000 emergency departments.” Between 2007 and 2019, the percentage of adolescents reporting a major depressive episode increased by 60 percent and 44 percent of American high school students reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” an increase from 26 percent in 2009.
And it’s not just teens who are suffering from issues of mental health. In 2019, nearly 20 percent of American adults, almost 50 million people, experienced some form of mental illness and 4.58 percent of adults reported having serious thoughts of suicide—a figure that has increased each year since 2011-2012. A 2020 survey found that more than 60 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely, “like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.”
Even beyond these life-threatening trends, it seems like an increasing number of people are struggling to achieve even more regular everyday goals. As Yuval Levin has noted, “both marriage rates and fertility rates are at all-time lows in the United States. Total fertility in our country is now about 1.7 births per woman, well below the population-replacement rate. Younger Americans are having trouble pairing off—so that not only teen sex but also teen dating have dipped dramatically.”
Furthermore, the number of working age males in the labor force continues its 60 year decline, falling from 96.9 percent in 1961, to 80 percent in January 1970, to 69 percent in January 2020. According to Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied the decline in (mostly male) labor force participation extensively, it isn’t the case that men who are not in the labor force fill that time with socially or personally productive activities like either volunteering or education. Instead, he points out that most of their time is spent at home, typically spending 2,000 hours a year in front of screens.
In addition, Americans, once defined by their optimistic outlook, are increasingly pessimistic about the future of their nation. According to Pew Research Center, 65 percent believe the US is only going to become more politically divided in the coming decades, 60 percent believe the US will become less important to the world, and 73 percent believe the gap between rich and poor will grow. A recent survey of graduating U.S. college seniors conducted by the Psychology of Progress Project found that 62 percent are pessimistic about the future of the United States and the majority are pessimistic that in their lifetime humans will make significant progress on climate change, poverty, and political polarization.
We could go on. There are a wide range of trends regarding emotional wellbeing, social relationships, family formation, community engagement, entrepreneurial activity, interpersonal and institutional trust, and future-oriented thinking that modern Americans are mentally suffering in ways that may ultimately undermine societal flourishing. What is causing these problems? And why are they on the rise in an era of material abundance?
Is Material Abundance Part of the Problem?
Undoubtedly, the psychological and social ills Americans are facing have many causes. There is no simple answer. However, in the present analysis, we focus on the potential role that material abundance has played in cultivating these trends because to continue the Liberal tradition that ushered in our era of material abundance, it is vital to identify relevant vulnerabilities that the successes of Liberalism have created or amplified.
Indeed, there is a growing anti-liberal or post-liberal movement focused on these psychological and social ills that argues that in order to make progress in addressing them, a broad rejection of Liberalism is required. We believe that the benefits of Liberalism outweigh the potential costs, especially when compared to the proposed alternatives, but also that to continue the cause of human progress and flourishing it is important to examine and address problems Liberalism might have ultimately contributed to through the material abundance it helped create.
First, material abundance can reduce social interdependence. The less money people have, the more they rely on the development and maintenance of the types of deep family, friendship, and community bonds that provide protection against alienation and loneliness. For instance, if people can afford their own car, they don’t need to carpool. If parents can afford to pay a babysitter, they don’t need to ask family or friends for help watching their children. If people can afford to hire professionals when they need help around the house, they don’t have to ask a neighbor. And so on. In addition, the richer a society is, the more culturally individualistic it becomes. Cultural individualism has many benefits but its emphasis on personal feelings, preferences, and ambitions can undermine social bonds. Indeed, a 2021 global study found that the more individualistic a nation is, the lonelier its citizens are. This means that the social interdependence that was partially driven by necessity in the past requires more conscious effort in the present.
Second, while material abundance has made life increasingly comfortable, many people, including many scholars who study human wellbeing, mistakenly equate flourishing with the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Of course, people will not flourish if they are miserable most of the time. Happiness is important but flourishing is much more than being happy. In his recent book The Sweet Spot, psychologist Paul Bloom makes the case that “the projects that are most central to our lives involve suffering and sacrifice.” In fact, research finds that the personal memories that people find the most meaningful are not those that are purely emotionally positive but are instead emotionally complex, involving both negative and positive psychological states. Think about the movies and books people find the most inspiring. They aren’t stories in which characters enjoy an easy life of constant pleasure. They are stories in which characters must overcome hardship or tragedy to achieve a meaningful goal. If material abundance has encouraged and enabled people to privilege what feels good now over the goals and activities that are often unpleasant or stressful in the present but that contribute to future individual, family, and societal wellbeing, then this may ironically be causing misery among the very people who are focused on avoiding it.
Third, material abundance has perhaps encouraged people to rely too heavily on rationality. The scientific, technological, and medical advances that have improved human life in many ways depend on the type of logical and empirical thinking that discourages more intuitive cognitive processes. When deciding what to believe and how to focus their energy, people are told to put science over faith, facts over feelings. It is certainly true that evidence-based thinking can help people make good decisions and has played a vital role in human progress. But it is also worth noting that it is psychological states that rely on intuitive cognitive processes – states such as love, awe, and spiritual transcendence – that are experienced as the most meaningful and inspiring. And these states are often inspired by traditions and rituals that are rooted in faith, not science. The types of knowledge that comes from these types of feelings, intuitions, and experiences are glossed over in favor of articulated propositional forms of information that, while essential, only represent part of the full picture of the human experience.
Finally, material abundance may be making the search for meaning more difficult. Many of the problems we previously identified are rooted in or connected to the human need for meaning in life. When people view their lives as meaningless, they are more likely to suffer from depression, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to contemplate and attempt suicide, to withdraw from social life, and to be pessimistic about the future. People are most likely to feel meaningful when they can see clearly how their actions make a real positive difference in their own lives and the lives of others. In an age of material scarcity, actions oriented toward basic survival were not only necessary, but also obviously meaningful. Navigating desperation, especially with close reliance on others, breeds a certain camaraderie and uniquely deep bond—in which all members of a community are relied upon, valued, and value one another. Occasionally these virtues are romanticized, and the desperate atmosphere overlooked to glorify this kind of subsistence lifestyle, one which most of us would certainly recognize as far worse than our own, even if buoyed by these positive aspects. But in our age of abundance, it is often both possible and easier to throw money at problems than to look for ways to help individuals develop into valued members of society. It can also be more difficult for individuals to decide on a set of goals that they see as meaningful, both because such goals may be less obvious than they may have been in the past and the cost of delaying such decisions has significantly decreased.
Meeting the Challenge
While it’s clear that the trends of mental decline need our attention, solutions to these problems are much less obvious. One difficulty is that these kinds of problems are relatively new, at least in scope and magnitude. Also, the decline of traditional religions means that the mechanisms that might once have acted as a counterweight to these trends are becoming rarer. A further complicating factor is that the areas in which government excels, such as resource redistribution, are unlikely to effectively address these problems. Rather, the solutions are more likely to be communal, cultural, and individual in nature. Despite these challenges, there are at least some promising pathways that point toward a better future.
One essential piece of any potential solution must be to recognize the central role that meaning plays in people’s lives. Meaning helps people flourish because it serves as both a self-regulatory and motivational resource. Psychological research has shown that the more people perceive their lives as meaningful, the more they are willing to work toward achieving their goals, despite the difficulties they may face in so doing, and the more likely they are to act in ways that serve others. Recognizing the key role of meaning in both individual and societal flourishing should be the guiding principle by which other potential solutions are evaluated. This is particularly relevant when it comes to thinking about potential government-oriented solutions.
For instance, those who advocate for a universal basic income often argue that many of the jobs people do are not meaningful or that it is more efficient to simply give people cash to meet their basic needs than to implement programs that help them develop work skills or seek to build a culture that treats work as inherently meaningful. Such sweeping programs may be tempting in an age of abundance in which nearly all problems are assumed to be solvable with the correct allocation and application of resources. However, implementing programs that require nothing from recipients has the potential to send a strong message that some people have nothing of real value to contribute to society but are instead burdens to society. It is worth noting that feeling like a burden not only undermines meaning, it puts one at greater risk of suicide. Instead, programs should be oriented toward development and participation, with an understanding that participants (rather than mere recipients) are valued members of society and it is in the broad interest of the public to develop their personal capacities.
Another drawback of plans that rely primarily on resource redistribution is their potential to effectively finance further social isolation. Meaning oriented solutions support social interactions and interconnectedness. One helpful illustration of this lesson can be found in Mauricio Miller’s book The Alternative. Disappointed with the incentive structure and lackluster results of government assistance programs, Miller founded the Family Independence Initiative (FII), which provided no material assistance but acted as a platform through which families could connect, support one another, and ultimately invest in themselves. The success of the initiative was not in the wisdom of resource redistributors but was in the community members and families themselves. Social integration was foundational to betterment and programs that, even unintentionally, finance a further withdrawal from work, education, and ultimately other people, are much less likely to be effective in meeting these challenges.
Learning from stories like Miller’s and the families he worked with can be a helpful guide to developing solutions for the wide range of individuals and communities that are struggling. Whenever possible, we should aim to look at those communities that are doing well and strive to emulate, or at least understand, the mechanisms that are enabling their success. Care should also be taken to understand that such mechanisms are likely to involve sets of practices, social norms, and networks of people that are difficult to reduce to articulated statements that could be easily bullet-pointed in a formal way. Still, striving to understand the relatively high rates of social mobility in Utah, with its high concentration of adherents to the Church of Latter Day Saints, or why recent immigrants are proportionally more likely to become entrepreneurs and start their own businesses could offer clues that may be useful in thinking through these challenges more holistically. Studying those communities whose members are thriving, or at least not actively declining, is an important part of evidence-gathering for those looking to make a difference in their own communities.
Perhaps the most important factor in meeting these challenges is in the rediscovery of our own agency. Our age of abundance means that few of us are thrust into the once-common forms of social interconnectedness that helped foster meaning. Few of us are born into the strong communities and faith traditions that pre-defined a value framework that helped previous generations understand the world and set meaningful goals within it. Instead, forming important social connections in which we can rely on others and they can rely on us must be something we consciously choose to do. Finding a meaningful framework in which to set goals may no longer come pre-fabricated for many of us, but this does not mean that satisfactory answers are unattainable—but we must search for them. Ultimately, our willpower and determination, coupled with a culture that supports such choices and pursuits, will be among the key factors in meeting our current challenges.