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Is Capitalism Making Us Unhappy and Therfore Ill?

  1. Feb 10, 2009 #1
    I've just read 'The Selfish Capitalist' by Oliver James. I highly recommend it, especially for the final chapter. His arguments are very compelling with hard scientific evidence in support. He states that in the last 30 years the English-speaking West has become over selfish for own good. The statistics tell a discomforting story. Is reality too much to bear? Will Obama rise to the challenge? Newspaper article.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 10, 2009 #2


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    Happiness is a state of mind, and people make choices, which make them unhappy.

    Certainly materialism (rather the capitalism) has contributed to the unhappiness for some. It's the age old problem of materialism and unsatiated self-gratification or hedonism. Buddha mentioned it more than 2500 years ago.

    James has a point about the consipicuous consumption, which perhaps exacerbated by 'irrational exhuberance'.

    So people can choose not to be that way.
  4. Feb 10, 2009 #3
    Correlation does not imply causation
  5. Feb 13, 2009 #4
    You may be right in thinking about an individual, but the statistics show that there is a lot more to this issue.

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  6. Feb 13, 2009 #5

    Ivan Seeking

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    What about of the other capitalist countries that do not have high rates of emotional distress? What is unique about the US or the West?
  7. Feb 14, 2009 #6
    Good question. The second graph above shows Singapore to have an even greater difference between the rich and the poor, yet a relatively low distress rate. My first thought is that the English-speaking West has a very high rate of education and very advanced television programmes. Is it that we have become more aware of economic reality, which has increased competition to unprecedented levels and therefore reduced general altruism and our well-being?
  8. Feb 14, 2009 #7


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    It would be interesting to quantify rates of education, and more importantly, the level or quality of education.

    What is meant by 'advanced television programs'? I see a lot of mind-dumbing garbage on television interspersed with commercial advocating unnecessary products, services, or behavior. Consumer-oriented TV is a wasteland.

    One would have to look at individual and cultural expectations. I get the impression that many people are clueless about economic reality, hence the sub-prime mortgage mess, the financial meltdown and credit crisis, . . . .
  9. Feb 14, 2009 #8

    D H

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    The cited charts are rather suspect. First off, they should be exactly the same, as both are of exactly the same statistic -- emotional distress versus income disparity. Four new countries appear in the second graph. What other countries has the author excluded?

    Secondly and more importantly, the "emotional distress" metric is a rather lousy metric. It depends in part on perception of emotional distress. The US cherishes emotional distress. You can buy pills, well-advertised on TV, to fix your emotional distress. If one pill doesn't work, try another, as advertised on TV. The high emotional distress rate in the US depends in part on things on differences between the US and western Europe other than economic disparity such as time spent in traffic, traffic fatality rates, homicide rates.

    Japan, Belgium, and Germany have incredibly low emotional distress rates. They also happen to have incredibly high suicide rates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate), much higher than the US suicide rate. How to rectify these discrepancies?

    But it might well imply cherry-picking.
  10. Feb 17, 2009 #9
    I broadly agree with what you are saying. I think the television programmes of the West have become more consumer-orientated, promoting aggressive competition.

    The author is a respected top professional in his field. If there was any obvious 'cherry-picking', this would almost certainly have been picked up by his peers.

    The author covers the notion of emotional distress being beneficial to the companies who produce pharmaceuticals, pills etc. A perpetuating wheel.

    A good point, although Germany's rate is comparable to the U.S.A now that I have looked at the table (you are guilty of what you are accusing others of). Japan has a cultural inclination to hari-kari, but I don't know why Belgium should have such a high rate. There's no easy answer of course.
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2009
  11. Feb 17, 2009 #10
    There seem to be a lot of isms that make people very unhappy, and some unhappily dead. What sort of ism would be preferable over capitalism in your opinion?
  12. Feb 17, 2009 #11
    There will always be capitalism, it just doesn't have to be so aggressive or selfish. I've heard comments in discussion articles which say things like: 'America worships money like a god'. The 'credit crunch' could be a practical example of such a statement, perhaps? I'm not anti-West or anti-capitalist, incidentally. Oliver James does seem to make a good point though with regard to the attitude towards capitalism in the last 30 years.
  13. Feb 17, 2009 #12
    I'm sorry but this really confuses me. Are you saying that by watching television, stress will be imparted on you ? It's very possible, but it certainly does not make you "more aware of [any] reality". I tend to think, the more you watch TV, the less connected to reality you are !

    Second, as has been said already, and I'd like to repeat : where is the indication that education rate is high in the US ? Especially, I'm sorry, when comparing to Singapore. Education is expansive in the US, but it does certainly not make it better !
  14. Feb 17, 2009 #13

    Head on - apply it to your forehead
    Head on - apply it to your forehead
    Head on - apply it to your forehead

    gotta agree with that :grumpy:
  15. Feb 17, 2009 #14

    D H

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    This is a lay book, not a peer-reviewed paper. Graphs like those cited would not have (or should not have) passed peer review.

    The cited data are apparently from this WHO study: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/notes/2004/np14/en/. An article at Forbes, including discussions with the PI of the WHO study: http://www.forbes.com/2007/02/15/depression-world-rate-forbeslife-cx_avd_0216depressed.html. From that Forbe's article,
    Ronald C. Kessler, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School and principal investigator for the study, says the findings are likely related in part to Americans' willingness to talk about their depression.

    Americans, on the other hand, tend to be forthcoming and have had much more public education about mental illness than most other countries combined, says Mary Guardino, founder of the New York-based national nonprofit mental illness advocacy group Freedom From Fear. Direct-to-consumer ads promoting prescription drugs, which aren't legal in many countries, also encourage American consumers to seek treatment for depression.

    But those aren't the only factors pushing the country ahead of the rest in mood and anxiety disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder or panic disorder, which affect 18.2% of the population. The U.S. sees more violence, higher murder rates and more car accidents than in, say, Western Europe, Kessler says. That in part may explain why the U.S. has a high rate of another anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder.

    There's also the pressure of achieving the American Dream, the desire to live better than our parents and, through hard work, earn the big bucks.

    So, the American Dream (capitalism) is one cause, but far from the only cause, of our apparently high emotional distress rate. How much higher would the US distress rate truly be after accounting for the fact that we are simply more willing to admit we have emotional problems? That we spend more time in traffic jams? Is capitalism the leading cause of our distress? The author of the book appears to make that point. You most certainly do.

    Germany's suicide rate is 13 per 100,000. The US, 11 per 100,000. I would not call a relative increase of 18% comparable. Compare these numbers to the supposed distress rates of 9% or so for Germany, 27% or so for the US (taken from the graphs). The distress rates and suicide rates do not jibe.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  16. Feb 17, 2009 #15
    It is the boom of selfish capitalism in the last 30 years which the author identifies as the problem. You make a fair point about the willingness of Americans to talk about their emotional problems though.
  17. Feb 17, 2009 #16


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    http://www.selfishcapitalist.com/biography.html [Broken]
    He's a TV producer who twenty years ago was a psychologist! Please show a source that says a) he's respected and b) top? I'm curious, what led you to this book? Web or what?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  18. Feb 17, 2009 #17


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    Did you just make this up?
  19. Feb 18, 2009 #18
    Perhaps it is linked to the quality of the national welfare system of the country in question?
  20. Feb 18, 2009 #19
    What are we comparing capitalism to? To just say that capatilism causes emotional distress without comparing it to something else doesn't tell us anything. Capitalism has been around a lot longer than 30yrs. The only difference now is that we have a lot more people. A lot more people to write and buy crappy books for that matter.
  21. Feb 18, 2009 #20


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    Perhaps you have no idea and are pursuing an agenda.
  22. Feb 18, 2009 #21


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    The selection of particular countries, the unusual wealth disparity metric (why not the Gini coefficient or Theil index?), and the badly-measured emotional distress figure lead me to suggest that the books are cooked.

    Further, even if all of these were ignored, I don't think the thesis would follow. Japan is one of the bastions of world capitalism and they're on the other end of the chart from the US.
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2009
  23. Feb 19, 2009 #22
    Economic contraction causes distress.

    I imagine this could be swept to the side, substituted for capitalistic greed, and parlayed into a book. Wuddayu think?
  24. Mar 28, 2009 #23
    Capitalism has existed for thousands of years and there have always been the 'haves and have nots' I think most people in Asia are rather unhappy with their lives when you look at the suicide rates in Japan and China, they are among the highest in the world. I think in the west, especially America there are also many unhappy people mainly because Americans aren't easily satisfied with their power/achievement. They want more.. which can be a good and bad thing.
  25. Mar 29, 2009 #24
    Selfishness is bad? Perhaps rampant selfishness is, for example when you start to trod on people's freedoms but otherwise it's a damn good concept.

    What other alternative are you proposing? A world where everyone lived solely for their neighbor would be distressing and a stagnant, declining wasteland. Or you could try to force people to be 'less selfish' and live for some common good. I believe Russia tried that, and we saw how well that worked out. You can't just propose 'capitalism, but a nicer capitalism' without saying what changes would make it nicer and less selfish.

    I don't get up in the morning to learn physics in order to serve anyone; I do it because I like it (which is a selfish motive in the strict sense of selfishness) and I want to use it to make money later on (also selfish).

    And I would never take anyone's word that a study was true, accurate or even relevant based solely on the fact that it is published (lots of garbage gets published every year) or that the person who wrote it is well-respected or experienced (experienced and learned people still make flubs).
  26. Mar 29, 2009 #25
    I agree MissSilvy. Selfishness is a human passion to make things better for oneself. It's a part of human nature to progress.
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