Tocqueville on Why Americans Are Agitated and Depressed While Living in Great Abundance

(Alexis de Tocqueville, cir. 1850)

Why are Americans agitated and depressed while living in great abundance?

I don’t think the premise of this question needs qualifying, but for the sake of argument consider this piece from the Commonwealth Fund. It contains several disturbing statistical charts comparing American mental illness and substance abuse with several other high-income countries. America consistently tops the charts in all the bad stuff: diagnosed mental illness, emotional distress, suicide, drug abuse, etc., while also topping the charts in all the good stuff: luxury goods, household income, quality of life, etc.

Is it just opulence in general that makes a society agitated, or is America, and most of the West for that matter, a special case in history?

I argue that while this situation has its unique aspects, it is the highly predictable result of indoctrinating the masses with ill-defined notions of success combined with ill-defined notions of equality.

Recently reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has me thinking about the problem from a fresh perspective. In a brilliant article entitled, Why the Americans Show Themselves so Restive in the Midst of their Well-Being, Tocqueville took aim at diagnosing this very problem which he found alive and well in America almost 200 years ago. He touches on something fundamental yet easily forgotten in our post-aristocratic age.

“When all the prerogatives of birth and fortune are destroyed, when all professions are open to all, and when one can reach the summit of each of them by oneself, an immense and easy course seems to open before the ambition of men, and they willingly fancy that they have been called to great destinies.”

I italicized the last line because it touches on what I believe is the single most relevant psychological factor in our agitation, that is: foolish expectations of life.

Nearly all of us in our childhood were at some point told by an adult, “You can be anything you want to be,” or, “You can achieve anything you put your mind to.” This is an American mantra. Historically, no one really believed this mantra except for ruling members of an aristocracy or some other privileged, elite group. But in America, from the start, as Tocqueville put it, “all prerogatives of birth and fortune are destroyed.” Which means that all options are on the table for anyone with enough ambition to get there–you have been called to a great destiny. You want to be a doctor, an astronaut, a firefighter, the Princess of Monaco? You can do it! Just believe in yourself!

But at some point most of us discover that this is the worst kind of make-believe ever pushed on an unsuspecting child. This mantra leaves the child (and the immature adult) with the impression that the only limits to success are those found in one’s own head.

It is an Enlightenment fiction; a delusion that once civil equality is achieved then all serious obstacles are at once eliminated, and the individual’s material success is the inevitable result of right thinking and right willing. Raised on this fiction newly formed adults rush into the world believing they are the superstars of life’s grand story. All of them. Stars.

Eventually, reality teaches the sane ones a harsh lesson. Tocqueville teases it out like this:

“In democratic peoples, men easily obtain a certain equality; they cannot attain the equality they desire. It retreats before them daily but without ever evading their regard, and, when it withdraws, it attracts them in pursuit. They constantly believe they are going to seize it, and it constantly escapes their grasp. They see it from near enough to know its charms, they do not approach it close enough to enjoy it, and they die before having fully savored its sweetness.”

He then makes a bold statement relating this process to our unique mental illness:

“It is to these causes that one must attribute the singular melancholy that the inhabitants of democratic lands often display amid their abundance, and the disgust with life that sometimes seizes them in the midst of an easy and tranquil existence.”

As Tocqueville discovered, it is in fact a perverse view of equality that creates this agitation amidst abundance. Though the average American lives the life of a king when compared with 99% of all human beings who have ever lived on planet Earth, this does not stop him envying his neighbor’s bigger house, or feeling cheated when he enters a downtown center full of enterprise, skyscrapers, luxury apartments, and a million other evidences of other people living a “better” life than he.

“They [Americans] have destroyed the annoying privileges of some of those like them; they come up against the competition of all… When men are nearly all alike and follow the same route, it is difficult indeed for any one of them to advance quickly and to penetrate the uniform crowd that surrounds him and presses against him.” 

In other words, when everyone is equal and told that they can achieve anything they want, and then all are set loose at once to actualize their dreams, they quickly run into the competition, not of a few similarly privileged people, but of masses of people with like strengths and passions aiming for the same prizes. This Tocqueville says is the unexpected misery of an ill-defined equality (my words).

“The constant opposition reigning between the instincts that equality gives birth to and the means that it furnishes to satisfy them is tormenting and fatiguing to souls.”

Equality gives new life to the possibility of success, not by way of privilege, but by way of individual passion and hard work (since equality destroys birth privilege and allows meritocracy to reign in its place), but equality cannot actually provide the means to succeed in one’s quest for greatness.

Guaranteeing equal outcomes is not the promise of equality, but the lie of equity.

Today our degree of equality–easily the envy of the world–has made the prospects for an otherwise abstract utopia so seductively close-at-hand that the socialist-minded among us have sought to turn the old law of equality into the new gospel of equity. Equity is preached from the rooftops at all levels in academia and has taken the fiction, and the agitation, to new heights. Not only are we groomed as children to harbor the expectation of being something great in the world—of having all things laid prostrate before our every desire—but the new promise is that all the competitors—all of us—will achieve our dreams: intelligence, ambition, biology, hard work, luck, and all other constraints be damned.

“One can conceive of men having arrived at a certain degree of freedom that satisfies them entirely,” Tocqueville continues, “But men will never find an equality that is enough for them.”

This reads like a prophetic anticipation of the Marxist-like dogma that would conquer many minds in the generation immediately following Tocqueville. He attempts to pull up these thought-weeds already sown in the soil of democracy using the trowel of basic logic:

“Whatever a people’s efforts, it will not succeed in making conditions perfectly equal within itself; and if it had the misfortune to reach this absolute and complete leveling, the inequality of intellects would still remain, which, coming directly from God, will always escape the laws.”

Perfect inequality is pure fiction. If nothing else, our individual biological and intellectual differences will always ensure different outcomes for people starting off on equal footing. And, ironically, the more equality is gained the more unsatisfied people become with it.

It reminds me of my own childhood expectations of becoming a music superstar. All through high school, like many kids my age, I was involved in bands and worked tirelessly at making it big. In college it was even more the case, but by then I had chosen music as my major and devoted everything to the craft of songwriting. I attended a private Christian college and it didn’t take long to attract several friends on the same path. We’d spend endless late nights in our dorm rooms picking at our guitars and writing till the wee hours of the next morning. None of us had an upper hand. We started in the same place, same connections, and essentially the same skill. However, one of us did eventually become a superstar—the one with actual genius-level talent. The rest of us got day jobs. But for years (decades actually) whenever I would hear this friend’s music on the radio I would immediately become agitated. The agitation would swiftly turn to a low-hum depression and leave me melancholy for the rest of the day. I hated it. I knew I was acting like a First World, privileged ninny, but I couldn’t help it. His music would trigger childhood fantasies of greatness–a “great destiny”–that somehow slipped away.

In time I conquered the mind game, but the experience showed me just how powerful a misconceived expectation can be on the human psyche, even one as seemingly universal as the dream of fame and fortune. This is essentially what happens en mass in America.

So, what is the answer? Would we be happier, less depressed, less suicidal, less dependent on chemicals to wake up, to stay awake, and to fall asleep if we returned to the days of aristocracy? Not likely. I doubt we would be happier; we would simply have an entirely different set of problems to deal with. But I think one is foolish to define our efforts as “progress” when compared to past ages. We certainly have higher levels of abundance, but we lack the ability to enjoy it.

And we might say that this lack of ability to enjoy abundance is the curse inflicted on all who fail to properly define success and equality. If success is too much about titles and material possession, and if equality is too much about fantastical notions of fairness and equal outcomes, can life be anything other than perpetual agitation?

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