One subject I don’t see a lot of writing about, but which happens to be one of my primary interests, is how capitalism affects mental health. The effects are often so subtle implicit and woven into the fabric of everyday existence, it can be difficult to parse out. I am by no means an expert and have my own blind spots and biases but I will continue to try and do so in this post and future posts.
My work gives me a unique perch to see how capitalism affects individual psyches and can cause much psychic pain. Because of this perspective, I’ve decided to start writing about how capitalism can affect mental health. Today I’d to begin with depression.
“Keeping Up with the Joneses” or “The Comparison Trap”
The terms “Keeping Up with the Joneses” is an interesting one, as it implies buying and consuming to keep with up the material wealth of your neighbors and peer group. If the enormous credit card debt of Americans is any indication, “Keeping up the Joneses” (or the “The Comparison Trap” as I like to call it) is an American way of life as people consume and consume to live a life well beyond their means.
Depression and the Comparison Trap
Human beings are social beings and we live in relationship to others. And with the rise of social media, we have access to people’s personal lives 24/7. As a result, we get to see the best of people’s live: the vacations to exotic places, the fancy house, the new cars or the beautiful partner and children.
Of course, it rarely occurs to most of us that what people put on social media is a distortion of reality. It is cultivated self-image of their best, idealized lives. We don't get to see the late nights crying after a marital fight over infidelity or the anger and resentments that build up over years of marriage. Nope, we get to see the big smiles and suntans.
This seems like an obvious statement but worth stating: people on social media are wracked with the same insecurities and anxieties as you are. I say this not because of some psychic ability but because I know what human beings are like when the lights are off and they are alone with their thoughts. But many of us lack that self-awareness, mostly because it takes a very enlightened soul to be that self-aware.
What happens as a result? The comparison trap takes over and we feel like we are not enough. And so insecurity takes over. And thoughts about one’s inadequacy start to kick in. And this can lead to depression. This depression is not based on the quality of one’s lives-- most of my patients who are severely depressed have decent places to live, jobs that pay relatively well and good friends and/or family. No, the depression comes from a comparison to their peer group.
Anger, Resentment, and Competition
If a person becomes infected by the “The Comparison Trap”-- and no one is fully free of this trap-- depression can sink in. I’ve seen this type of depression lead to anger and resentment toward not only others but also to one’s self.
This resentment is an insidious force in one's life as it starts to eat at their souls. A person can see what they are lacking in relation to others and instead of being able to reframe this thought, they instead build up bitterness and anger toward others who have more.
How a person deals with this anger varies. Some take it out on their family and friends and become that bitter person all of us know. Others sink into despair and turn to drugs or alcohol. Others decide they are going to regain some power in their lives, and all of sudden, life becomes a competition for them. The drive to have more becomes the single, driving goal of their existence.
Greed and The Problem with Greed
Competition is, of course, the driving force behind capitalism as it encourages growth and profit margins. But one of the problems (or benefits, I suppose, depending on how you look at it), is that competition accentuates and encourages greed.
While some might called greed “good,” I view greed as maybe the most destructive force in human societies. The problem with greed is that it is never satiated. And unsatiated greed encourages above all else to look out for one’s self and one’s own interests above all else. ( I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the business has a higher rate of psychopathy than the normal population for example.)
This leaves little room for the values that every code of ethics has emphasized throughout human history: love, compassion, and kindness. In fact, I’d say those values and ethics are in direct opposition of capitalism's main objective: profit.
The Connection Between Christianity and Capitalism in America
I want to spend more time on this subject for a later blog article but I just wanted to briefly talk about the connection between Christianity and Capitalism.
Many smarter people have written about this, but one of the strangest contradictions of American life is the marriage between Capitalism and Christianity. I’ve read numerous pieces with people performing mental gymnastics, contorting themselves to fit their bad arguments into pinholes, to argue that Jesus above all else was a capitalist.
But, of course, this is horse shit. Jesus spent his life railing against the rich and powerful and preaching to poor and weak. And of course there are quotes like this:
“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me… truly I say to you that with difficulty a rich person will enter into the kingdom of heaven! And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24).
The real question, of course, is how can so many rationalize immoral behavior? It’s something I will write about in a future post.
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