by Richard Eckersley, NCEPH, ANU
Presented at the Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas, Manning Clark House Canberra, 9 March 2003.
The dominant view of science these days, especially by government, is as a source of innovation, the engine of economic growth, the foundation of material progress. And most people, in thinking about the question of whether science can save us, would immediately think about science in these material terms: new technologies to cure disease, grow more food, provide clean energy.
I want to talk about science as culture, as a powerful source of changing the way we understand the world and ourselves, and so inform the ethical choices we make as individuals and societies. What we do in the world depends on how we interpret the world. I will address this cultural dimension at: a very broad perspective on the human situation; and a more specific look at the impacts of cultural trends on wellbeing
The state of the life
My work examines the question, 'Is life getting better, or worse?' At first glance, the answer seems pretty positive. In the past one hundred years, Australians have, on average and in real terms, become about five times richer, generating benefits in many areas of life. We are living, on average, more than 25 years longer. These improvements have been part of a continuing global success story. Worldwide, life expectancy has doubled in the past century and per capita income has increased eight-fold in the past two, with all parts of the world sharing in the gains.
There have been impressive gains in democracy and human rights over the past few decades. According to the United Nations, 81 countries 'took significant steps towards democracy' in the 1980s and 1990s, and today 140 of the world's nearly 200 countries hold multiparty elections. In 1990 only ten per cent of the world's countries had ratified all six major human rights instruments, covering issues such as civil and political rights and gender and racial discrimination; by 2000, nearly half of all countries had.
So is all well and good? Not exactly. There is growing evidence that standard of living is not the same as quality of life, and that how well we live is not just a matter of how long we live, especially in rich nations such as Australia. Nor do constitutional rights and the rule of law encompass all other dimensions of human life that bear on wellbeing.
Against these gains we have to set the following qualifications:
- The material benefits have been unevenly distributed globally. Historically, this inequality has grown (although it may now be reducing) and there have been recent reversals in both per capita income and life expectancy in some nations, notably in the former Soviet Union and in sub-Saharan Africa.
- The benefits of rising income to quality of life diminish as income increases, and in rich nations health and happiness are at best only weakly related to average income levels.
- Economic growth is not the only, or perhaps even the main, factor behind improving health and wellbeing. Increased knowledge, better education and institutional reforms have also made major contributions, even in the absence of sustained growth. The happiness of populations shows a clearer relationship to democratic freedoms than it does to income.
Beyond these qualifications of the benefits, we must also acknowledge several formidable and growing costs of progress as we have pursued it:
- The destruction of the natural environment of which we are an intrinsic part. However much we seem to be able to defer or side-step ecological limits through increased wealth and technological innovation, the evidence suggests we are disrupting planetary systems on a scale that grows ever greater and more pervasive. These impacts have potentially immense implications for human health and wellbeing.
- Increasing inequality, sustained high unemployment, the growth in under-employment and overwork, pressures on public services such as health and education, and the geographic concentration of disadvantage. These developments in Australia and many other developed nations are leading to deeper and more entrenched divisions within society. In contrast to earlier times, when economic and social development worked to break cycles of poverty, today these inequalities are being perpetuated from one generation to the next. Some of these problems, notably increasing income inequality, are also affecting developing countries.
- Psychic costs that relate to meaning in life - a sense of purpose, autonomy, identity, belonging and hope. These qualities derive primarily from our personal relationships, social roles and spiritual beliefs. In Australia and other Western nations, meaning in life has become more individualised and materialistic, reducing social cohesion, confidence and stability, and leaving us personally more isolated and vulnerable.
Cultural change and wellbeing
I want to look now in more detail at the last point, or aspects of it. I stress this is just an overview of the richness and complexity of patterns and trends in human wellbeing, and the role of values in shaping wellbeing.
In a Presidential address to the American Psychological Association in 1975, Donald Campbell chided his colleagues for their 'epistemic arrogance' towards religious teachings and their 'excessive and unjustified iconoclasm' in preaching self-gratification over traditional restraint and recommending we 'seek pleasure rather than enchain ourselves with duty'.
Campbell argued that scientific reasons exist for believing that there can be profound wisdom in the belief systems our social tradition has provided us with. He qualified this by noting that this wisdom is about past worlds, not ours, and aspects of those worlds may have changed in ways that make the traditional moral norms wrong (I think this applies especially to how abstract values are socially translated into right and wrong behaviour). Still, he recommends that as an initial approach 'we assume an underlying wisdom in the recipes for living which tradition has supplied'.
Campbell was right. Psychological research into happiness and wellbeing, which has grown over the past few decades, tends to confirm the legitimacy of traditional ' or universal ' values.
Values provide the framework for deciding what is important, true, right and good, and so have a central role in defining relationships and meanings. Most societies have tended to reinforce values that emphasise social obligations and self-restraint and discourage those that promote self-indulgence and anti-social behaviour. 'We define virtue almost exclusively as pro-social behaviour, and vice as anti-social behaviour', science writer Matt Ridley observes in his analysis of human nature and society, The Origins of Virtue.
Social virtues serve to maintain a balance ' always dynamic, always shifting - between individual needs and freedom, and social stability and order. The thirteenth century theologian St Thomas Aquinas listed the seven deadly sins as pride (self-centredness), envy, avarice (greed), wrath (anger, violence), gluttony, sloth (laziness, apathy) and lust; the seven cardinal virtues as faith, hope, charity (compassion), prudence (good sense), temperance (moderation), fortitude (courage, perseverance) and religion (spirituality). Other values widely regarded as virtues include humility, honesty, fidelity, generosity, simplicity and tolerance.
Virtues, then, are concerned with building and maintaining strong, harmonious personal relationships and social attachments, and the strength to endure adversity. Vices, on the other hand, are about the unrestrained satisfaction of individual wants and desires, or the capitulation to human weaknesses. Modern Western culture undermines, even reverses, universal values.
Take materialism ' attaching importance to money and possessions ' which underpins our consumption-based economy. Psychologists have shown that it is bad news for wellbeing. Materialism breeds, not happiness, but dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, anger, isolation and alienation. A recent Australian study showed that more materialistic people tended to be less satisfied with their lives as a whole, and less satisfied with several 'life domains' including family life, standard of living, amount of fun and enjoyment, their place of residence, accomplishments in life, and health and physical condition.
American researchers have found that people for whom 'extrinsic goals' such as fame, fortune and glamour are a priority in life tend to experience more anxiety and depression and lower overall wellbeing than people oriented towards 'intrinsic goals' of close relationships, self-acceptance and contributing to the community. People with extrinsic goals tend to have shorter relationships with friends and lovers, and relationships characterised more by jealousy and less by trust and caring.
Individualism ' placing the individual at the centre of a framework of norms and beliefs -is another cultural quality with profound significance for wellbeing, but here the evidence is contradictory. Wellbeing is associated with several qualities that individualistic societies encourage, including personal control, self-esteem and optimism. On the other hand, individualism has adverse impacts on other qualities that enhance wellbeing, including intimacy, belonging, self-restraint and meaning in life.
Can we reconcile these findings and positions? Individualism might be good for most people and bad for a few who can't handle the freedom and choice; or it might be good when things are going well, but bad when they aren't. Ed Diener, a world authority on subjective wellbeing , said it was great to be doing well in individualistic cultures because we were free to 'follow our bliss without too many pressures', but it was hard to be a failure because everything is attributed to the individual and there was less social support.
This is plausible, but the evidence does not show that people have become happier with the freedoms individualism has brought. And nor does it suggest that the deeply unhappy are a small, discrete minority clearly separate from a healthy, happy majority; instead, they represent one end of a spectrum or gradient of distress, suffering and alienation that affect a large proportion of people.
A key issue may be that, over time, individualism has come to mean something different and that, increasingly, we are confusing autonomy, which is good for wellbeing, with independence, or separateness, which is bad. Autonomy is a matter of volition, the ability to act according to our internalised values and desires. Its opposite is not dependence, but heteronomy, where we feel our actions are controlled by external forces and regardless of our own values and interests.
Confusing autonomy with independence would affect other human needs such as relatedness and competence and, ultimately, autonomy itself. It could lead to greater heteronomy because there is less perceived congruence or connection between the self and others, between our values and theirs. The more narrowly and separately the self is defined, the greater the likelihood that the social forces acting on us are experienced as external and alien.
New research in the United States by psychologist Jean Twenge throws fascinating light on these social effects. In a series of studies drawing on personality tests conducted with children and college students over periods of up to over fifty years, she has found large shifts in a range of personality traits and qualities. She says her findings show that broad social trends - not just genes and the family environment, as psychologists have assumed - are important influences on personality development.
She quotes an Arab proverb: 'Men resemble their times more than they resemble their fathers'.
Twenge found large increases in trait anxiety (or neuroticism), self-esteem, extraversion and, in women, assertiveness. In her most recent research, she shows social desirability, the need for social approval, declined up to 1980, after which it increased slightly but not significantly; young people's sense of control over their lives has also declined. In the case of anxiety, she says that 'the average American child in the 1980s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s'.
Twenge links most of these trends through a range of indicators to rising individualism and its corollary, declining social connectedness. Economic factors such as unemployment and poverty seem not to be involved.
Now these trends are a mixed bag as far as wellbeing is concerned. Increasing extraversion is good; increasing anxiety and loss of control is bad, while the effect of higher self-esteem is uncertain. Anxiety has been associated with depression, suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse and poorer physical health. A low sense of control is associated with lower wellbeing, depression, anxiety, poor school achievement, helplessness, ineffective stress management and decreased self-control.
How these trends interact also poses interesting questions and fascinating possibilities. For example, individualism should increase a sense of control over one's life, but it also increases self-esteem, and an external locus of control can be part of a defensive self-esteem maintenance strategy.
This cognitive juggling or trading off might be effective over the short term. But when things get too out of balance for too long, and the adjustments constitute a response to sustained changes in our way of life rather than temporary shifts, this strategy may not work so well. Another psychologist said the personality changes sounded like a recipe for narcissism or 'contingent' self-esteem ' fragile, needing constant validation and reinforcement.
You can probably see how this works. High self-esteem and extraversion make us more outgoing and outwardly confident ' we have 'attitude'. But greater neuroticism undercuts this with anxiety and doubt, while a lesser sense of control over life adds a sense of insecurity and impotence, and so a tendency to disengage from the bigger picture and to focus on more personal issues.
Broadly speaking, it would seem that cultural trends like individualism and materialism promote the creation of an 'empty' or 'inadequate' self: socially and historically disconnected, discontented, insecure; pursuing constant gratification and external affirmation; prone to addiction and self-absorption. The picture emerging from recent psychological research is consistent with much contemporary social commentary about the 'culture of complaint' that marks our times, our 'victim' mentality, our 'self-watchfulness', and our desire to regain some sense of equilibrium in our lives. It is also remarkably consistent with public perceptions of modern life.
Public attitude surveys suggest a deep tension between people's professed values and the lifestyle promoted by modern Western societies. Many people are concerned about the greed, excess and materialism they believe drive society today, underlie social ills, and threaten their children's future. We yearn for a better balance in their lives, believing that when it comes to things like individual freedom and material abundance, we don't seem 'to know where to stop' or now have 'too much of a good thing'.
Given the subtleties and complexities of these issues, it may well be that science will never give us clear-cut recipes for how we should live. And neither science nor religion has the moral authority they once had. But both are now telling a similar story about living a good life. Both have an important role in guiding us in our choices about what matters most.