The Poverty of Hyper-Individualism

By Tuesday, March 17, 2009 0 0

I notice that my most popular posts are generally the ones that help people save money. I suggest that the thing that would save all of us the most money possible is the building of community. There is much research showing that the happiest people are the ones with the most friends, family and friendly neighbors woven into their lives, and that after a certain tipping point, higher incomes do not lead to more happiness at all.

Rather, higher incomes lead us to depend on things and consumption at the expense of depending on each other. This is the opposite of how humans evolved. And overconsumption is driving global warming as well as making us socially isolated and less happy on the whole.

I have a friend who is a case in point. When Brad was in college he lived with others (like most of us at that age), played in a band, and interacted with people a lot, including me. There was a web of relationships, mostly platonic. He tended to be animated and happy despite having little money (again, like all of us at the time). Back in college Brad was poor in dollars, rich in community, good at give and take.

Almost 30 years later, Brad has a good career, a good-sized house in Southern California in which he has always lived all by himself, a big flat-screen computer and TV, and so forth. If he still has the social skills he had in college, I don’t ever see them. Brad now tends toward rigidity, toward wanting plans and interactions to be only on his own terms. He has a few friends, but spends most of his non-work time alone.

When Brad became ill with the flu a few years ago he became sicker and weaker at home by himself for a week before finally doing the near-unthinkable and calling a friend, who helped by taking him to the hospital. “I actually thought I might die, I was so sick,” he later told me. It was an awful experience for him, made much worse because he was so alone.

I forgot to mention Brad has a very large truck. With rare exceptions, he is the only one who ever rides in it, and it gets replaced by a new truck every two years. “Al, when it comes to cars, I’m a weak man,” he once told me. I disagree with Brad. I don’t think cars are his weakness. I think he’s weak in human relationships, that he is in a social and emotional ghetto of hyper-individualism. (I got the latter term from Bill McKibben’s excellent book Deep Economy. ) Brad has become rich in dollars and poor in community. And lack of community is one form of poverty, a common occurence in the United States.

I struggle to not be overly individualistic, myself. I love friendship and webs of interconnectedness, but it is often challenging for me. In my next post I’ll write about the various things I am doing to build community.

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