This article was originally published in Discourse Magazine
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Clay Routledge, a professor of business at North Dakota State University, about the correlation of material prosperity with mental decline, the challenges of pluralism, the importance of finding meaning outside the self and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today our guest is Dr. Clay Routledge. He is a leading expert in existential psychology. His work examines how the human need for meaning in life influences and is influenced by different cognitive processes, self-regulation, momentous life experiences, personal and professional goals, creativity, social connections, spirituality and religiosity, entrepreneurship and pro-social behavior.
Dr. Routledge is the Arden and Donna Hetland Distinguished Professor of Business at North Dakota State University, a faculty scholar at the Challey Institute for Global Innovation and Growth, a senior research fellow at the Archbridge Institute, a visiting fellow at Mercatus and an editor at Profectus. Thank you for joining us, Clay.
CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Thanks for having me, Ben.
Mental Decline in Material Abundance
KLUTSEY: Let’s just dive in. Now, you’ve recently launched a new area of psychology focused on human progress, dubbed the psychology of progress. There’s this line from your Profectus piece recently, and the title of the article is “Meeting the Challenge of Mental Decline in the Age of Material Abundance.” Here’s the line, which I think captures what you’re trying to do with the psychology of progress.
It says, “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.” Clay, tell us what’s going on, and is this why you’re studying the psychology of progress?
ROUTLEDGE: Well, I can answer the second question more easily, I think. The first question, what’s going on, is (not surprisingly) a complicated one. You hit the nail on the head when you said we have this time of great abundance juxtaposed with not a celebratory attitude about the abundance, but quite the opposite actually, like a pessimism, even a nihilistic attitude about the future.
I think there are many causes, and we can certainly get into some of them that I studied. As far as the psychology of progress, part of the goal is to expand our thinking about progress and, I would say more broadly, human flourishing, to look beyond material progress or even beyond economic progress. To think about, even if your belly is full and you have a nice, warm, safe place to sleep, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily mentally flourishing.
I think that’s important, and I think the two are very much connected because they influence each other. On the one hand, you can say, the more secure people are to meet their basic needs, that allows them to pursue other, higher-order interests. You have to feed yourself; you have to meet survival needs. This is the old hierarchy of needs idea. So, on that hand, material abundance is very good for flourishing.
On the other hand, if people have a pessimistic attitude, and that threatens to undermine the very material affluence that has put them in the position to have the ability to focus on matters related to psychological well-being, I think the two feed off each other. And then on top of that is this interesting possibility that there are vulnerabilities created by material abundance. Particularly what I think might be existential vulnerabilities, in which people have met all their needs and don’t necessarily feel challenged or they have a real purpose, it’s harder for them to figure out their place in the world.
I think the psychology of progress is very much about that too. How do we thrive in different environments from what perhaps our ancestors lived in? How do we continue to not just maintain material wealth and abundance in our own society, but expand it to others, and then take on the challenges of tomorrow as well?
KLUTSEY: Great. Can you talk a little bit about the trends that you’re seeing? I think in the article you call it the pathologies of passivity, or the symptoms of a meaning crisis—these things that are pointing to deeper concerns of existential health. Because I think it’s quite ironic when you think about the innovations that we’ve experienced—the medical innovations, as well, that help people to get better health and access to all kinds of things—that kind of improvement to one’s well-being, one might expect that it will generate a lot of happiness and maybe human flourishing. What is underneath this?
ROUTLEDGE: Well, first, at some level, it does. Anyone who has ever had a child with an illness that has been able to survive and recover as a function of medical innovation is definitely thankful for that. A lot of the times when you see even criticisms of modernity, oftentimes, it’s from a place where people just haven’t really thought about how much they’ve benefited from it, or the potential for them to benefit from it. I think some of it’s just the neglected awareness of these things.
In addition to that, I think one of the challenges that people have is, it’s one thing to say society is doing better, and there are people that have made breakthrough innovations that we can all benefit from. It’s one thing to appreciate that at a broad level. It’s something else to focus on, “Well, what am I doing to contribute? What am I doing that matters?” We do have a lot of data on what that tends to be for people. Most people aren’t going to be scientists who come up with breakthrough discoveries or treatments or whatever.
For most people on the planet, regardless of culture, regardless of background, it seems like having a family, having other people that depend on you, making a difference in other people’s lives very, very directly. Your family, your friends, your neighbors, your community—those are the things that tend to generate meaning. We tend to focus on these big societal accomplishments, which are obviously important, but most of us have less grandiose—but no less important, because obviously you need people. You need to raise the next generation of people to further progress.
I don’t know if that makes sense. But I think that’s an issue, that we often jump to, “Look at these great innovations. Shouldn’t people be really high-fiving each other?” I think at some level, we all do take some pride when there’s a big societal accomplishment. That’s separate from the more micro, the more intimate struggles, which oftentimes don’t map on well to these bigger societal innovations, if that makes sense.
Tensions Between Cooperation and Dissent
KLUTSEY: It does. Do some of these issues relate to pluralism? The United States is a pluralistic country, and we have changed dramatically from our founding. John Inazu at Washington University in St. Louis says there are two important features of a pluralistic society. One is inclusion, that we continue to, over time, include more and more people who have been marginalized in society as we become more morally enlightened. At the same time, we have to allow for dissent for people who are at odds with what we might think of as progress or expansion of this inclusive society.
I wonder if some of these things are concerns about the new trends that others might see in society, new people that we’re welcoming into our broader society that make people feel as though the society is changing to a certain extent. Is that a factor?
ROUTLEDGE: I think that can be a factor. Certainly, in the study of group psychology, this is something that is often noted, the tension between what you might call group cohesion or group harmony and openness and diversity. I think it’s fair to say both these things matter.
At some level, in order to accomplish large societal goals, you need cooperation, you need trust, you need cohesion, you need a willingness for people to put the interest of the whole above their own immediate self-interest. You need a certain amount of self-sacrifice, and it just is the case, the way the human brain works. The way humans work as an organism is that we’re more likely to do those types of things—to cooperate, to sacrifice for others—the more we feel like we have something in common with them, that we’re part of the same group or (some people say) the same tribe. On the one hand, you do need some cohesion.
On the other hand—and I think the United States is a good example of the success of inclusion and diversity—is if you want to have new ideas, if you want to have a real marketplace of ideas, if you want to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink, then you need to bring in different people with different backgrounds and different experiences and different ways of thinking about things. Even ignoring the moral case for inclusion, just focusing on a practical societal level, unless you want your society to be really stuck in a place or really hard to innovate, then you want to be as open as possible.
But those things are in tension. I’m not saying the U.S. does this perfectly, but having something like—part of what it means to have the cohesive group identity, part of the narrative of that, is that we’re an immigrant country. We’re a country that welcomes people to join the project. It’s not something that you’re born into, necessarily.
Obviously, people are born into American citizenship, but to be part of America is something that people can aspire to be. I think that that’s key to a certain level of patriotism—not a nationalistic or xenophobic or dogmatic patriotism, but a patriotism that recognizes that we’re a dynamic society. Just being aware and honest about the tension between group cohesion and harmony and dynamism is important. And trying to, as much as possible, balance those two things is also key.
Benefits of Religion
KLUTSEY: Thanks, Clay. I’m curious about the role of religion in all of this. It seems to me that it used to be the case that religion was an opportunity for people to find meaning and purpose and a community and also practices that bring people together. Some of these existential questions that people might have—you could find a good religious community, regardless of what faith practice it is, to give you a sense of meaning.
It seems as though, as people have in some ways retreated (and we see this in the data), that there are fewer and fewer people who are subscribing to a particular organized form of religion—although they claim they’re spiritual but not religious. Does this contribute to some of the despair that people feel in a society even though we’ve achieved so much innovation and human progress?
ROUTLEDGE: I think so. There’s a long research history in the psychology of religion on the many benefits of religion. An obvious one that people often know is meaning in life. If you’re part of a religious tradition, it connects you to something transcendent, both in the spiritual space of connecting you to the divine, but also in a more social-psychological space of just feeling that you’re part of something that’s been around for a long time and will continue after you’re gone. There’s a certain symbolic transcendence to being part of a religious community as well. People often recognize that.
I think one thing that often isn’t recognized, but is also fairly well established in the research, is that religion really supports self-control. What I mean by that is religion gives people some discipline, some order in their lives and helps them regulate their own behavior.
And this connects to the pluralism issue and to the mental health issue, to all these issues—because when people are better able or feel more in a position to not only regulate their own behavior in the way of avoiding bad things, but also in the pursuit of meaningful goals and long-term goals, they’re better citizens. They’re less impulsive. They’re less aggressive. They’re more tolerant. There’s something about having some self-discipline that I think religion helps provide. There is a strong relationship between self-control and meaning in life. I think that’s part of it too.
And then connecting it back to what you referred to earlier as passivity or some of these mental challenges is one thing that I really think about—and I don’t think other psychologists do as much, so maybe I’m wrong about this. One thing that I think about when I conceptualize human well-being, I don’t just think about it as an inward-focused psychological state, which I think a lot of people do. In fact, if you look at well-being questionnaires, they ask people, “Are you satisfied with your life? Are you satisfied with your relationships?” and things like that. These are very self-reflective questions. You’re supposed to think about, how do I feel, and that’s definitely an important part of well-being.
When I think about well-being, I think about a more expansive and a more action-oriented view of well-being, which it’s not just about feeling good, it’s about doing good. When people are out in the world acting, when they’re behaving in ways that are good for themselves and their families and their communities, when they’re entrepreneurial, when they’re charitable, when they’re taking care of their physical health, when they’re looking out for their neighbors, to me that’s also an indicator of well-being. This isn’t them looking inward about how they feel; it’s them acting in a certain way. Religion is one of those resources that pushes people outward.
There’s, of course, a very reflective and spiritual and communicative part of a religion. But in most religions there’s also a very action-oriented part, which is you’re supposed to be doing stuff. Of course, it’s not just religion that does that. But in general, I think that is an often-neglected way of thinking about human well-being. When you get to the passivity issue, if people are just sitting around and doing nothing and maybe spending a lot of time scrolling on social media, that’s an easy way to become very ruminative and very cynical and very pessimistic and just to see all the bad things going on.
The people in my experience that seem to be not only the most well-adjusted, but also the most interesting and have the most interesting lives, are the ones out doing things—whether it’s gardening, volunteering, starting a business, going to the gym, hobbies, all sorts of activities. Those are the people that I think are thriving the most. In my opinion, that’s why it’s important to have a more outward-focused, action-oriented view of well-being. And I think religion is one of the things that can inspire that or ignite that.
Patriotism and Meaning
KLUTSEY: That certainly makes sense. I want to come back to a point you made earlier about patriotism. Because I think that sometimes when people talk about patriotism, they mean different things. I think there is a benign sense of patriotism, like what you’re talking about, the community and citizen friendships and things like that. Then there’s also very jingoistic patriotism that can be quite unhealthy.
Can you talk about ways in which patriotism can help people to aspire toward something greater? At least for those who don’t have a religion or anything like that, there’s a way in which you can talk about having a shared community or having a shared purpose that could be inspiring to people who seek meaning and purpose and community and that type of thing.
ROUTLEDGE: You can think about meaning in life as multidimensional. At a basic level, you can think about meaning as pretty much just making sense of the world and your own existence. When we talk about meaning and we look at the type of meaning that is the most inspiring to people—and really is the most associated with physical and mental health—we’re talking about the more of the agentic dimension of meaning, the more goal-striving dimension of meaning, which very much connects to this issue, this action-oriented, outward view of well-being that I have.
I think a positive patriotism is one which supports meaning, because it signals to you that you matter. You have a responsibility to something besides yourself, something besides your family, something that pushes you a little bit outside of that more immediate circle you have. That circle’s very important, of course. It connects you to something bigger. Religion does, of course, as well. When you feel that responsibility, not only is society going to benefit from it, you actually feel like you have some skin in the game and you’re supposed to go do things, whatever those things are.
But also, you’re going to feel like you matter. That sense of mattering is really the key component of this type of personal agentic meaning that I’m talking about. This is going to sound unrelated, but there’s research showing that parents report higher levels of meaning than people without children. Now, that doesn’t mean that parenting is the only way to find meaning. Obviously, there are lots of people who don’t have children who live very meaningful lives. The reason parents report higher meaning than nonparents is because it’s a way to very easily see how you matter. You have these little people that depend on you.
In some way, you can think about that concept, that idea of having some of these people that depend on you is connected to patriotism. My country depends on me. My fellow citizens depend on me; they’re expecting me to do my part. When you have that attachment, it definitely can fit into a broader meaning portfolio. That can be other things—family, religion, occupation—but that sense of community, at that broad societal national level, I think is also important.
A Pluralistic Patriotism
KLUTSEY: I’m thinking of a couple of different directions, but let me go in this direction where you ended. That there was a way in which you can find meaning when you think about how your fellow citizens are expecting you to play a part and you do something. In my conversations with Kevin Vallier, who wrote the book “Trust in a Polarized Age,” we talked about how we’ve lost a sense of trust in society.
He defines trust as the expectation that your fellow citizens will follow certain norms and certain behaviors, do things in certain ways. But we’ve seen how politics has saturated every aspect of our lives. When we expect people not to behave in certain ways politically in terms of how they might cast their vote and what they might support, and they do not, it seems as though we lose a certain level of social trust. How do you square that with this sense of progress and all of that?
ROUTLEDGE: At some level, I think people need some political humility. I think a good step is trying as much as possible to divorce political ideology from patriotism. This gets back to the pluralist idea that our conception of patriotism shouldn’t be that you’re a patriot if you have the exact same political and public policy beliefs that I have. It should be you’re a patriot if you’re devoted, as I am, to the American cause. We might have different visions of how to execute that, but what we should share is a commitment to the project. Political divisions, of course, can lead some to some nasty fighting.
I think as much as possible we should say, that doesn’t mean that you’re any less patriotic than I am. Of course, there are people—but I think the data indicate that they’re in the fringe—there are people in our society that are openly unpatriotic and anti-American and will say America’s the worst country on the planet. For the most part, I think we should try to ignore that, and the data suggest that the vast majority of Americans don’t feel that way. Now, I do think there are some reasons to be concerned about these attitudes growing in some subsets perhaps, but that might not be the biggest threat to a patriotic worldview.
The biggest threat might be what you’re talking about, which is to the extent that patriotism becomes associated with a particular political side. Sometimes you see both the far left and the far right trying to associate patriotism with the far right. To be patriotic is basically code for being a right-wing nationalist or something like that.
I think that’s a big mistake in that we should—and I could be wrong about this—but I think historically we’ve had at least some good political leadership where people have stood up for their opponent. Do you remember this? Didn’t somebody try to say something about Barack Obama, and then John McCain—this was like a town hall—said, “No, he’s a good American.” I can’t remember what it was, but there was something like that.
KLUTSEY: There was a lady who was in the audience who said that she didn’t trust Barack Obama because, in her words, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s an Arab.”
ROUTLEDGE: That’s another—
KLUTSEY: Exactly. Another layer of challenge there about pluralism. John McCain, in his decency, defended—in fact, just challenged the fact that that was inaccurate, basically.
ROUTLEDGE: I suspect he didn’t mean, “No, he’s not an Arab. You can’t be a good American if you’re Arab.” I suspect what he meant was like, “No, you’re misrepresenting him as not being trustworthy, as not wanting to serve this country,” or something like that.
ROUTLEDGE: Maybe that’s not the most eloquent example, but I think that’s an example. You could imagine somebody saying, “No, you might disagree with this person, my opponent. I disagree with their politics. I do, obviously; that’s why I’m running against them. But that doesn’t take away from that they’re a patriot.”
I think that a pluralistic view of patriotism is important, and it gets back to the marketplace of ideas. Another way to say this is, yes, we all tend to have our ideological biases and our own ideas of the best way to advance progress and flourishing in our country—this is where I brought up the humility idea—but we can’t be right about everything all the time.
It’s good to have a diversity of ideas, but what we should share is the motivation. Our underlying motivation should be the same, which is to serve the country. I think if you start from that, then that doesn’t take away that there’s going to be some nasty fights. Some of these issues cut to very, very deep philosophical positions. But at least there, you’re not seeing your opponents as evil or as working against—trying to destroy America. You’re seeing them as also trying to advance the cause of progress.
Are Younger People More Pessimistic?
KLUTSEY: Now, in terms of the existential issues, the lack of meaning or a sense of meaninglessness, let’s say, the fear, anxiety about progress—do you see a generational divide in these attitudes? You had mentioned earlier that parents feel a bit more fulfilled. It might have to do with age as well as parenting itself. I’m just curious as to whether you were seeing any generational differences with this.
ROUTLEDGE: There are generational differences worth noting. It is true that when you look at some of the challenges that people have pointed out, which in many ways cross generations, like the problem of modern loneliness, that’s not necessarily a problem just among young people. But it happens to be the case that young people are lonelier—or I should say, report higher levels of loneliness, of feeling alone—than older people.
Young people have higher rates of anxiety than older people. At least not all of these, but in some of these dimensions, we have some evidence that at least allows us to feel like this isn’t just, well, young people are always more anxious, and then we have some evidence that young people today are more anxious than young adults were in decades past. We don’t have that for everything.
Some things like meaning in life is harder to separate age from generation because it’s a more recent thing that people have started studying. To the extent that we have some data that goes back decades, it does seem to be the case that in some of these indicators of well-being, such as anxiety, younger people are more anxious today than younger people were in decades past, or they report higher anxiety.
The reason I’m saying that is because there is, of course, the possibility that people are just either more likely to express these feelings out loud, or also the possibility that people are more sensitive now. You’ve heard some of these different things, but there are others—and I wanted to bring that up. I don’t want to dismiss those possibilities, but there are other indicators, more behavioral indicators that suggest this is more than just young people being sensitive.
You look at things like suicide rates, self-harm rates, and then more like what some people have referred to as this passivity issue of just being less inclined to do things. Young people today are less likely to get driver’s licenses, to get jobs, to date. And of course, then, one of the biggest issues is to marry and have children. The reason I say this is one of the biggest issues—it’s not a value judgment saying that everyone should have children, but at some basic level of human existence, we have to reproduce. That is literally an existential issue in the sense that a human existence can’t go on if we’re not reproducing.
If you look at those behavioral things, that is additional evidence beyond, “Oh, people are just complaining about their feelings more.” People are actually turning inward more, they’re becoming less engaged in the world. They’re becoming more risk averse. I think there’s a lot of different data points that suggest young people, in particular, are having some real challenges, and more so than older people, and more so than people in previous generations.
KLUTSEY: I suspect that is something that has some impacts on entrepreneurship and innovation and doing the things that generate progress and growth, if people are afraid to take risks in society, right?
ROUTLEDGE: Yes, anxiety and the social distrust, those two things are a bad cocktail, because being an entrepreneur inherently means taking risk. But people are more likely to take risks when they trust others. To borrow a term that’s often used in a different way, when they feel like they’re in a safe space. When they feel like if they fall down, if they fail, if they collapse, that’s okay. That’s not going to be the end of the world. In addition to that, there’s a reason to start a business. I have to live somewhere where I don’t feel like I’m going to be deceived or exploited or robbed. And so I think that that social trust is a part of that too, which obviously connects to anxiety.
The Role of Social Media
KLUTSEY: Now, I’m a fan of social media, but because happiness is relative too, sometimes we compare our lives with other people, and that creates a certain sense of lack or abundance, depending on where you are, maybe especially among the younger generation. Yuval Levin, in his book “A Time To Build,” says that everyone has become an aspiring celebrity, posting pictures of most extravagant experiences and how that might affect other people’s sense of maybe envy or jealousy or something like that. To what extent is living our lives on social media consistently producing that outcome?
I wonder if you’re seeing anything like this in the research that you’re doing that gives you a sense of the role of social media in some of this. Now, I say this, again, not to be anti-social media. I love social media. I think it’s great for people to connect, but do you see a role of social media in these trends?
ROUTLEDGE: This is definitely an area that’s not my expertise, but obviously very smart people like Jonathan Haidt have done good work focusing on this. Jean Twenge, who wrote a great book, “iGen,” has focused on this. I think they generally do find that the more people are in front of screens, especially young people, the more lonely they are and the more anxiety they have.
Now I think the research is getting a little bit more complex and nuanced, which is important because it speaks to the point you’re making, which is, you don’t have to think about it as necessarily bad. But using it in certain ways might be bad; using it too much might be bad. I could be wrong about this, but I think the current state of the science is that, especially for young women and girls, social media is a social comparison tool, a way to the fear-of-missing-out problem. It’s a way of constantly looking at what other people are doing, feeling like you don’t have that or you aren’t included. And of course, the cyberbullying element of that is particularly bad for young girls.
Why young girls more than boys? Well, I think they use it for that reason more. I think boys have other problems. Maybe they’re spending too much time playing video games when they shouldn’t be, which isn’t so much a social comparison. In fact it can be something that actually builds pretty good relationships. That’s time that they’re not doing something else, so boys have a different problem.
Girls might be doing more of that social-comparison side of social media. And it’s also just true that as a general rule, girls are more vulnerable to what we call more inward-focused psychopathology, so anxiety and depression. Boys are more vulnerable to outward bad behavior, violence and things like that.
I think you’re starting to get a more complex picture emerge, which is good, because hopefully it’ll allow us to develop a more surgical approach to diagnosing and treating the things that are the real problem, while also not throwing out the parts that, like you said, I think are really, really great. I mean, this is a silly example, but as someone who grew up in a relatively small town in the middle of the country—and I grew up pre-internet—I didn’t have a lot of access to something like international cinema.
Well, now you can be in rural areas, you can have internet and you can have Netflix and you’ve got this massive catalog. And I know that’s not social media per se, but this is an example of how the power of technology can let people access all sorts of ideas and content that would’ve been hard to access in the past, and also access people and form relationships and networks.
I’m with you; I think there’s a lot of positive things about the technology. But yes, there clearly seem to be some vulnerabilities and some challenges that it’s creating. I feel like people are appreciating that. And not surprisingly, there’ll probably be some overreaction, but I think we’ll figure it out and make it a healthier space.
KLUTSEY: Right. What do you think we should be doing? I mean, higher ed, nonprofit, local areas, community groups? What would be at the top of your list for how we begin to maybe foster a more positive sense of progress across the board from the younger generation to the older generation?
ROUTLEDGE: Well, at first I think educators have a lot they can do. I’ve done some surveys with the Challey Institute where we’ve looked at college students’ understanding of progress. And the most basic problem is, it seems like around half of them don’t even realize that things have gotten better in many ways, and not things that are debatable. You can define progress so abstractly that people might say, “Oh, no, things are worse because families used to eat dinner together and they don’t anymore,” something like that.
If you look at metrics like extreme poverty, hunger, literacy, a lot of the innovation, technological and economic progress we’ve talked about, then clearly the world is a better place today than it was 50 years ago. Clearly, the United States is better off today than it was 50 years ago in these metrics. It appears that a lot of young people don’t know that. Knowledge seems to be step one. That’s the job for educators.
Of course, parents can do that as well, but we need to do a better job at teaching young people that in a lot of ways we have a lot, comparably. They should be grateful. They should be thankful for the progress that has been made. And then when you have that kind of gratitude, when you kind of have that appreciation, it tends to promote a more optimistic mindset about the future. I think there’s a lot of work to be done in education.
I appreciate that a lot of media understands the “if it bleeds, it leads” business model, but it would be good to see more balance and more of a celebration of where people are coming together. Some outlets do a little bit, but it always seems like it’s a little bit of sprinkle at the end of the newscast. You’ve seen 20 minutes of depressing news—look, here’s one good thing that someone’s done.
I think it would be good to have more of that in the culture. Also—and this is going to sound, I guess, maybe cheesy at some level—but I think as a culture, we need to really do a better job getting back to the idea of we don’t just have rights in a free society, but we have responsibilities. A lot of the stuff I see on social media that does make me want to close my Twitter and throw away my phone is the constant blaming of other people. It’s the constant, “This side’s doing this, and they’re destroying America,” or “This side’s doing this,” or “These people are doing that.”
Not that you shouldn’t point out things you disagree with or problems, but I rarely see anyone saying, “Here’s some ways that I haven’t done enough for myself or my family or my community,” or “Here’s the way my side has fallen short of the ideals of our movement, and here’s things that we could do.” I think cultivating more of a culture of responsibility is important.
Viktor Frankl, the existential psychologist, who is a big inspiration for a lot of my work—he wrote the book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and a lot of it is a story of being a prisoner in a World War II Nazi concentration camp. This is how he developed his framework for existential psychology, which was very much focused on the idea of what I call psychological freedom. Frankl wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” He witnessed people who had everything stripped away from them, except their own mind.
Even though that was a rare occurrence, it was proof enough that everything can be taken from a man but the last of the freedoms, which is your freedom to choose of your own mindset, your own attitude. He has a line about we should complement the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast with a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast. I know that’s a broad goal, and I don’t think it’s a partisan issue.
I think partisans on the left and right are both guilty of failing to take personal responsibility and for blaming other people. I think that doing that will also be a good step, because when people start taking responsibility for themselves and think about ways that they can improve things—then this gets back to my view of outward-oriented well-being—then it turns out like they start feeling better about the chances of society flourishing in the future and the chances of progress because they’re in the game. I think we need more of a cultural movement as well, I guess is what I’m saying.
Overcoming Overly Inward Thinking
KLUTSEY: Right. Before we bring this to a close, I want to see if you can reflect on how you ended there about the outward-looking nature that can be very helpful. It seems there are some pathologies of an inward-focused approach to life. Especially among the young, it seems as though they’re relying more on their own feelings and immanent ways of understanding and being in the world, over institutional experts or transcendental ways of finding meaning.
And that’s not to say we should trust institutional experts, but going back to your note about the usefulness of the transcendent in a worldview, how might people find ways to overcome these strengths that push toward overly inward thinking? I suspect some of the stuff you’ve already mentioned address this, but feel free to elaborate on this.
ROUTLEDGE: Well, I mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth emphasizing, which is the biggest predictor of meaning or a feeling like your life has meaning is a sense of mattering, that you matter. In fact, a strong predictor of the desire to die by suicide is feeling like you’re a burden on others and a burden on society, which is the opposite of mattering. It’s like, “Not only do I not matter, I’m actually getting in the way of things.” Feeling like you matter is a big thing. Well, what makes people feel like they matter?
Well, it’s that we’re in a relationship in which I’m being counted on, I can be relied upon, that I have a duty. One of the problems I think with this new-age spirituality of “I just want to live my best life and figure out my true self”—and I’m not saying there’s nothing to the idea of authenticity or figuring out who you are—is that when that becomes the foundation or an all-encompassing spiritual worldview, then that disconnects you from the social duties that are the exact things that make you feel like you matter.
If you’re just sitting around reflecting on your own true self, you don’t matter. If you go to a church or to a mosque or a synagogue and people are counting on you to do things and you’re part of something, then you matter, and you’ll obviously be aware of that. Part of this is an issue that is often uncomfortable for people in the more freedom, libertarian movement or classical liberal movements.
I think part of this is a challenge of individualism, and the United States is the most individualistic country in the world. I say that as a psychologist. Within cultural psychology when they measure these things, the U.S. ranks at the top of individualism. That’s something to celebrate in a lot of ways because it means that we have a very strong emphasis on individual liberty and a very strong interest in individual potential, that people can find what their purpose is and pursue it.
That’s great. One of the vulnerabilities it can create is when, if that is not in any way balanced by religion or something else that pulls you back to the group, that pulls you back to something beyond the self, that individualism has the potential to take people down a more narcissistic path.
I think a lot of these new-age religious beliefs, they’re ultimately very narcissistic. They’re very much about living my best life. And if you look at traditional religions, not to say they haven’t caused any problems, but you’ll see more of not how do I live my best life, but more of how do I do my duty, and how do I submit to something bigger than myself. In a secular society, those are things that—I’ve talked to groups about some of this research, and people really don’t like the idea of you should submit to something.
People really don’t like the idea of saying you have a duty, and maybe it doesn’t matter what you think or what you want in every circumstance. Maybe there are circumstances in which you say, “You know what, this is not what I want to do, but this is what I should do.” I think in some ways that is lost in these new-age religions that are very much a product of extreme individualism.
A part of the problem is when you say “individual” and people assume that you’re talking about a political order of saying, “Well, so what, you want communism or socialism?” No, I’m talking about a psychological thing that obviously relates to these other issues, to these political issues. There is something about extreme individualism that cuts you off. In a way, it’s self-destructive to meaning because if you’re so individualistic that you have no duties to others, then that means they don’t have any duty to you. All of a sudden you don’t really have a purpose beyond yourself. That’s not a path to transcendence or to a larger, more enduring sense of meaning.
KLUTSEY: Fantastic. Well, I think this is a good place to bring the conversation to an end. Clay, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a very, very fruitful and insightful conversation. Appreciate it.
ROUTLEDGE: Yes. Thanks, Ben. It’s been great and a joy to talk to you.