Here are two approaches to reading “American mania”: (1) View it as a description and analysis of American society. Or, (2) use it to analyze your own life, looking for help with your own attempts to make intelligent decisions about what is best for your life and needs. This book and Whybrow’s analysis are valuable in both ways.
Whybrow claims that too often we are not rational and not intelligent when making decisions about how to spend our money and how to spend our time. There are actually two claims packed into that: We both (1) make poor decisions and (2) we do not choose consciously. This book is a guide to correcting both of those problems.
He encourages us to stop measuring our social success and even our well-being based on an excess of material goods.
Often when we spend extravagantly on material goods that do not even make us happy of content, we go into debt. When we go into debt, we have to work harder and longer. When we work harder and longer, we become stressed. This is the process that Whybrow warns us about. We have, he believes, created many environments that are ideal for creating stress and anxiety.
Whybrow refers a number of times to the writings of Adam Smith. He wants to balance the acquisitiveness and self-seeking described in “The wealth of nations” with the communitarian attitudes advocated in “The theory of moral sentiments”. This is a balance that he feels we have moved away from and lost, to our detriment, since the 1960’s. In fact, he devotes most of a chapter to a discussion of how to obtain this balance. See chapter 9.
Whybrow claims that we as a nation are genetically disposed to an excess of materialism, self-seeking, acquisitiveness, etc. It’s because, he claims, we are a nation of immigrants, and immigrants are self-selected to be adventurous, hard working, inquisitive, etc., all trains which give us a predisposition in a land of excess material goods to spend and purchase irrationally. Possibly, but another explanation for our tendency to over-indulge, over-spend, and over-work in an attempt to pay goes something like this: our grandparents came to this country to gain a better life and they wanted a better life (better than their own) for their children; our parents (our grandparents’ children) wanted a better life and they wanted an even better life for their children; now we want that better life and we want a yet more better life for our children. So, it’s not surprising that our children (adolescents, teenagers, young adults) end up pampered, self-indulgent, self-centered, self-seeking, and spending too much money on too many things that are not enriching and not doing much to make us happy.
Whybrow does, briefly, consider the effects of the extremes of wealth and poverty and the extreme disparities of income size in the U.S. But, for his purposes, he considers that mainly to explain our desires for excess, unneeded material goods: members of the middle class are being enticed into attempting to live in a upper class lifestyle. He does not spend much space considering the reality that many in the U.S. face, namely that they are barely able to afford and pay for necessary goods and that one reasonably large, unexpected expense (car repairs or a set of tires to replace dangerously worn ones, medical or dental care for themselves or their children), let alone “unnecessary” but very valuable expenses (placing their child in a school that is not dangerous, a child’s college expenses, for example). For these, material goods, the ones they purchase, are a necessity.
Whybrow considers the aggravating factor that full-time, predictable, long-term employment is becoming less common in the U.S. This transformation is a structural change in American industry and commerce, in part caused by information mangagement. And, as that change happens, Americans over-extend themselves, trying to maintain the pretense that they are still middle-class by going into debt, and perhaps even working extra hours just in the hopes of not being laid off. We should ask: are those extra work hours misguided, or is that a rational response to precarious times. Is that borrowing and spending frivolous, or is it a justified response to harder financial times? Those of us who are fortunate enough not to be forced into that predicament, and keep in mind that current trends indicate that we will all be contractors someday, should try to walk a mile in their shoes.
We should Whybrow to ignore those faced with more threatening economic times, I suppose. The people whom Whybrow treats as clients and who likely are the case studies that he describes in this book can, after all, afford his care and fees, so they are, we can guess, not people who are struggling to pay for groceries. But, many in the U.S. are.
It’s worthwhile, also, to consider another, small, class of people that Whybrow does not talk about: those for whom vast amounts of money comes to them, successful musicians, for example, and who cannot resist the extravagant lifestyle, the excess women and sex, and the alcohol and drugs that do more damage to their lives than good. But, that’s a topic for yet another book.
We, members of the human species, have evolved (1) to be curious and seek novelty and also to take risks. We have also evolved (2) to be conservative and to seek safety and security and also to form alliances and friendships and kinships that help to obtain and preserve that security. The need to obtain balance between these two tendencies is a theme that Whybrow returns to a number of times. He believes that our success in finding and living within that balance makes all the difference in living a successful life with a reasonable amount of stress and emotional discomfort.
And, in terms of evolution, Whybrow believes that traits like curiosity and the willingness to take risks breed true across generations. That’s part of his argument that our being a nation composed of a high percentage of immigrants, effectively people who have self-selected to be curious about living somewhere different and willing to take the risks to do so, is what explains the large number of people in the U.S. who spend excessively, seeking novelty and obtaining the material goods others have. I’m doubtful that this story based on evolution is very important for Whybrow’s attempt to explain the problems he sees or his attempts to help us with our lives, but I don’t believe that the possible weakness of the genetic argument affects the value of his book.
Whybrow spends some time explaining the brain and neurological basis for our problems in terms of serotonin (calming), norepinephrine (activating, and dopamine (modulation of brain pathways with a central role in curiosity and novelty seeking behavior). Again, that’s interesting, but for us lay people, those of us for whom that explanation is not going to lead to any ability to deal with our behavior, I’m not convinced that this explanation is useful.
Whybrow is a bit obsessed with the idea that we live in a temptation rich environment. Much of that temptation is created by marketing, but even state governments add to it by running state lotteries, even though, Whybrow claims, the costs for the resulting needed rehabilitation exceed the earnings.
Another theme that Whybrow returns to repeatedly is that we as a society are transitioning toward more and more risk taking, toward more self-seeking behavior, and away from a communitarian lifestyle, away from an inclination to spend time with family and friends. Whybrow also describes a drift or transition away from civic mindedness, away from social activism and social involvement, and toward a self-seeking and self-interested and even selfish lifestyle, toward a more materialistic society, and toward focus on celebrity, fame, money, and possessions. He claims that this drift is causing an increase in stress and anxiety, even while it may be bringing an increase in wealth and material goods to some (perhaps for only a few, depending on how you measure). He views this transition as a failure of the kind of balance that Adam Smith envisioned and expected, a balance where greed and acquisitiveness are held in check by social concerns, by our empathy for others, and by, in Smith’s words, moral sentiment.
In terms of leadership, the elites whom we follow and attempt to emulate, are transitioning from being generative, humanitarian, and communitarian toward being competitive, self-seekers who follow a winner-take-all set of values.
I’ll agree with Whybrow about how we are often led to unwise choices by the ready availability of buying opportunities. Online merchants and brick and mortar stores, too, try to make it as easy as possible for us to make purchases. They would be incompetent and misguided if they did not. Online merchants, in particular, try to enable us to make purchases with as few clicks as possible. And, the ready credit and payment mechanisms provided by credit cards are key enablers of this all to easy ability to make purchases, whether we need them or not, and whether we can wisely afford them or not. Advertising, promotion, and marketing push us further in that direction. And, because it is important to their viability and profits, corporations have become very good at this.
We, as a species, are weak on our ability to determine when we have had enough of a good thing and to act accordingly. We did not evolve, as a species, to be able to deal with abundance. When we evolved, there was not much survival value in the ability to deal with abundance, whereas there certainly was survival value in being able to deal with scarcity. I suppose there is some truth to this, but, to me, it smells of the arguments in favor of a “paleo” lifestyle. If you need some caution about that, read “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live”, by Marlene Zuk. It’s an entertaining book, and one of Zuk’s points is that we have evolved plenty, and continue to do so, since paleolithic times.
Whybrow’s claim that we (now) live in artificial habitats sounds a bit like more of this warmed over “paleo” theory. Yes, we do, as Whybrow claims, need to adapt (or adjust) to our artificial habitat, but we humans live in so many artificial environments and have done so for so long, that talk about evolving to be able to live in them seems a bit hopeless. And, if we want to talk about individually adapting to the environment that each of us lives in, I believe that can best be viewed as making smart choices, which Whybrow is certainly advocating, rather than some kind of genetic adaptation.
Here are some of the causes of our difficulties, in Whybrow’s view: (1) our drift toward a celebrity model of success; (2) the ready availability of cheap food with lots of calories; (3) the mass marketing of food, especially food with artificial flavors, appealing textures and colors, and lots of calories; (4) our drift toward a more sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise; (5) our confusion of freedom to buy with real freedom, e.g. political freedom; and (6) mass marketing and big box stores. In general Whybrow advocates wise living and describes how we are not doing it. Mostly, it’s what your mother tried to teach you.
We are seeking prosperity, social success, financial success, abundance, etc. while ignoring whether it brings happiness and contentment and satisfaction with it. Prosperity and various kinds of success are good; they bring other and additional kinds of benefits.
In some sense, this book is analysis and recommendations on how to live your life well and intelligently, on how to align your efforts, work, and time with your real needs and wants, and especially hoe to not go chasing after things that would make you crazy and stressed and sick. That’s a lot; that’s very valuable, if you take it seriously enough to think through your own situation and choices. And, perhaps one of the biggest benefits of “American mania” is the amount of details and stories woven around these issues and the help they can give in trying to think through those problems.
I have one serious reservation about “American mania”: Whybrow assumes that the good life is a communitarian one, a life with lots of connections and time spent with friends and family, and a life where that time spent with others is what makes life valuable. But, I’m a loner. I’d be a member of The Loners Society”, except that loners can’t have a society. I’m most happy when most of my time is spent alone, with a reasonable amount of time with my wife, and a small amount of time with friends. So, while I’m all in on Whybrow’s advice to think through our life choices carefully and I’m very much in agreement with his claims about the importance of empathy and “moral sentiment” for our lives, still I’ve got to push back a bit about his encouragement to spend more time with family and friends. After a bit, that bores me. That’s to be expected I think, since I’m a computer programmer and computer programmers must be able to spend large amounts of time working alone. (We’re not the only ones, by the way. Think of writers and mathematicians.) So, for me, I attempt to follow some of Whybrow’s advice, but look for ways to get life’s satisfactions and contentment from time spent alone, too.