Navigating the Storm: Modern Western Culture and the Growing Mental Health Crisis
28 September 2023
Western Europe, long regarded as a bastion of prosperity and progress, is facing an alarming rise in mental health crises, particularly among its youth. While numerous factors contribute to this disturbing trend, including the rise of social media and mobile phones, two key elements stand out: the economic and political volatility of the past two decades and the potential impact which the prevailing values of today and modern culture have on mental health.
Economic and political volatility has a tremendous negative impact on people’s lives, and the economic and political landscape in Western Europe has been marred by instability and uncertainty over the past two decades.
The global financial crisis of 2008, followed by the sovereign debt crisis, Brexit, and the various political upheavals in that time have left many individuals grappling with the unsettling feeling that their future is far from secure. Economic recessions, job instability and austerity measures have become the unfortunate norm for many Westerners, especially among the younger generation.
The constant fear of financial insecurity takes a substantial toll on mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. The consequences extend beyond mental health, including young families postponing having children, or having fewer children than planned.
Secularisation and Individualism – What are the Limits?
Western societies have undergone a significant transformation, with secularisation and individualism gaining prominence. While these developments have merits, they have also led to unintended consequences.
As societies become more secular, traditional sources of meaning and guidance, such as religion, have waned in influence. Consequently, individuals are left to navigate life’s complexities with fewer external moral compasses, enabling them to define their own values and purpose.
Individualism, in and of itself, is not a detriment to mental health. It fosters personal growth, autonomy, and self-expression. However, when coupled with the erosion of traditional norms and guidance, it can leave a substantial portion of society feeling adrift, without a clear sense of purpose or direction. As people abandon normative suggestions about the meaning of life, many struggle to find a sense of purpose, leading to a growing crisis of meaninglessness.
Have Westerners Lost Their Meaning? – Hedonic vs. Eudaimonic Happiness
The crisis of meaning in Western societies has given rise to a preoccupation with hedonic happiness, the pursuit of pleasure and immediate gratification. While there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking pleasure, relying solely on hedonic happiness as a life strategy has proven not to work in the long term. It can lead to a shallow and fleeting sense of satisfaction, leaving individuals perpetually dissatisfied and anxious about the next source of pleasure.
What many Westerners may need is a shift and return towards eudaimonic happiness, which involves pursuing a life of purpose, personal growth, and fulfilment. Eudaimonic happiness is deeply rooted in meaningful relationships, personal values, and long-term contribution to the greater good. Unfortunately, in the absence of clear societal guidance, the pursuit of eudaimonic happiness often takes a backseat.
There is an impression that Western culture has abandoned guidelines related to meaning, and individuals are encouraged to find their own meaning rather than accept what is given by society. The problem is that a large portion of individuals feel lost in the process and, while they do not find eudaimonic happiness, fall back to the hedonic approach. In the case of the youth, and sometimes among older people as well, purpose is often given by popular culture and social media.
The Path Forward: Science-Based Guidance
Finding a solution to the growing mental health crisis in Western Europe requires a delicate balance, and finding meaning plays a crucial part in the solution. On the one hand, Westerners value their autonomy and resist being told how to live their lives. On the other hand, they need guidance to effectively navigate the complexities of the modern world.
One promising approach is to emphasise science-based studies that provide value-free conclusions about good life strategies. For instance, the Harvard Study of Happiness has offered valuable insights into the factors contributing to long, happy, and successful lives. By disseminating such research findings widely, society can help individuals with knowledge about what leads to a fulfilling life without imposing normative rules.
Moreover, initiatives like the Yale Science of Wellbeing course, which have gained immense popularity, highlight the hunger for guidance on leading a more meaningful and satisfying life. Similar courses, not limited to universities but adapted in schools could offer practical tools and evidence-based techniques to enhance mental well-being, fostering personal growth and resilience.
The Need for a Paradigm Shift
To effectively address the mental health crisis in Western Europe, a paradigm shift is imperative. Instead of primarily concentrating on treatment, our endeavours should be channelled towards prevention and psychological empowerment.
Remarkable results have emerged from implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programmes in schools. If we incorporate these programs extensively into education and community settings, we can provide individuals with the emotional intelligence and coping skills necessary to navigate the complexities of modern life. By investing in mental health and psychological guidance, we are not only combatting mental health problems but also fostering the growth of an empowered, productive, and happier new generation.
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