Is Capitalism making us Crazy?

By Dr Benjamin Piper

London, a beacon of capitalism, is a great place to live and work as a Psychologist. At work I am confronted with so many different presentations and by so many different types of people. We are all living on top of each other, trying to figure things out both individually and collectively as groups. Working with clients from different cultures has made my field of work much more ‘internationalised’. And the prominence of social constructionist theory means that as therapists we work with the understanding that minds are created and maintained by individuals’ participation in social worlds – worlds defined (among other things) by country of origin and specific region, race, gender and socio-economic status.

This approach is incredibly effective as these social worlds can help me to understand influences on other peoples thinking and feeling and they can also suggest to me how people structure what they think and feel.  However, western cultural imperialism often leads therapists to overlook specific western cultural features for universal principals. This is hardly surprising considering psychological research from the last 100 years has come pretty much exclusively from American or European psychologists. This research is rooted in Western philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a group member in an individualist orientated society.

I first began thinking about the effect of western culture and capitalism on psychological functioning the day Margaret Thatcher died. I learnt of her death on arriving at Liverpool Street Station, through a copy of the Evening Standard. As I walked through the city, that sort of insular, business – ghetto, on my way to my offices in Bishopsgate, I thought about who Margaret Thatcher was to me. It is safe to say, more so in retrospect, that I am a child of Thatcher. As an actual child I guess I recall her as something of a headmistress – a stern matriarchical figure, hair like an iron helmet, that instantly recognisable voice, shouting at the IRA, the miners, the rioters, the single mums, the Argentineans; well everyone really.

I walked past people on that day and saw myself reflected back in their faces, slightly tired and pensive tired, rushing to get back to work – just as Thatcher would have wanted. And it made me realise the effect western neo liberalism can potentially have on our psychological structuring. We heard a lot about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy that day, from how she broke the glass ceiling for women, (in so far perhaps that the falling shards of glass impaled any women that came after her) and more importantly that she created an ‘aspirational’ society, somewhat contradictory perhaps as it was Margaret Thatcher who told us there was no such thing as society.

I certainly would not argue that an ‘aspirational’ society would be detrimental to someone’s psychological processing, however we need to consider what we were told to aspire to – things. Things are incredibly important to us these days and the words of Oscar Wilde of 100 odd years ago never ring more true today ‘we know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Very often we end up loving the things we have and using the people we know. If we look at some of the main components of capitalism, we start to see potentially serious psychological structuring issues.  Free market enterprise and capitalism often do not promote efficiency or abundance, but rather they instead encourage artificial creation of scarcity to maximize profits, encourage suboptimal technological development in order to maintain cyclical consumption and put the interest of people second to monetary gain. Capitalism is a zero sum game, where in order to win you have to be better than everyone else because there isn’t enough to go round. This idea can feed into western social problems where ‘failure’ creates a sense of inadequacy, and being born at a socio economic disadvantage creates a feeling of inferiority.

Capitalism as an ideology perhaps owes it success to one of the few universal norms of human behaviour. The one constant force we all share is desire. It propels us to acquire our most basic needs and wants, such as food and to be safe, to wanting the new Samsung Galaxy android phone. We constantly desire something, and when capitalist marketing strategies tell us what to desire, we expect to be fulfilled once we have acquired it.

However in my practice, I work with extremely wealthy clients who have everything they could desire. I also have clients who would not be considered wealthy. On psychological wellbeing measures they score almost identically. Neither is more or less happy than the other. There is plenty of research to support my personal findings, lottery winners have been found to be no happier than before their win and successful Olympians are remarkably prone to depression after sporting success.

The internal dialogue we have with ourselves where we expect or ask ourselves why we aren’t getting the things we want, whether it be from inanimate objects or our relationships with others, can manifest itself as psychological problems when we view not having certain things as the reason for being unhappy. Obtaining the things that we want and being successful is great. It also goes a long way to changing your living situation. But it can’t change you. After the initial surge of happiness we can eventually become dissatisfied with our new situation, or the new situation presents us with a whole new list of problems.

In a sense, it appears our capitalist attitude towards money and possessions can make us unhappy. It can cultivate core beliefs about not being good enough, being a failure, feeling inferior and worthless and even that we are unlovable. These types of internal beliefs can lead to anxiety and a heap of unhappiness. Please do not get me wrong, I am not against financial success and certainly strive for this myself but for me success is also defined in other ways.

I guess what I am suggesting is that you should not allow the side effects of capitalism to get you criticising yourself and comparing yourself  unfavourably with others. Feeling negatively about oneself certainly does not promote motivation for you to chase your dreams. The best way for most of us to achieve is to set very personal goals and not to measure all our success on possessions and how much we earn. So, what I am getting at is: be aware that the structure of our society can lead to self-critical rumination and self-doubt.  If you are able to look past this it is more likely that you’ll be happier. And when we are not criticising ourselves it is more likely that we’ll reach for and achieve what success means for each of us personally.