Philosophers and social analysts are questioning how the values we learn from the meritocratic system we live in contribute to anxiety and depression.
Meritocracy essentially divides the human population into the successful and the unsuccessful. In theory, if you are talented, single-minded, hard-working and driven, nothing can prevent you from being a success, but if you don’t make it to the top of the ladder, you are a failure.
Meritocracy promotes values and behaviours that are self-serving and often unkind and uncaring. Callous competitiveness and envy are products of meritocracy. Gore Vidal famously commented: “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a small part of me dies.”
American political and cultural commentator and author, David Brooks, describes “five lies our culture tells us.”
Career success is fulfilling.
This is a lie, Brooks says, that is imposed on the youth. It leads to status anxiety and also, obviously depression, because if you make it into your chosen career and you are not fulfilled, you might start thinking there is something wrong with you.
Alain de Botton, the contemporary philosopher and founder of The School of Life in the UK, says status anxiety is worse today than ever before in history. In a meritocracy, we experience status anxiety in various situations every day, he says. For example, somebody tells you about a party that you were not invited to, or your friend gets a promotion and you don’t, or somebody you were at university with buys a house in an expensive suburb that you can’t afford to live in. Things like this spark status anxiety. They are all about whether we are going up or down the social ladder.
Brooks says that if you are successful in your career, you may avoid feeling ashamed of being a failure but there is no guarantee that you will feel content and fulfilled and if you build your life around career success, you could find that your life lacks meaning.
I can make myself happy.
This is what Brooks refers to as the “the lie of self-sufficiency”. Individual accomplishment and getting stuff is supposed to be enough to make us happy but interviews with people at the end of their lives have shown that when they think back on their lives, it is acts of kindness and caring that made them happy.
Life is an individual journey.
“This is the lie that each person is on a personal trip and doesn’t need other people unless they can help them to get on in life. The idea is that you rack up “a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins,” Brooks says.
In reality, the people who live the best lives are aware that they have a responsibility to others. They respond to the problems they notice in their environment and are moved by compassion for others.
You have to find your own truth.
This is what Brooks refers to as “the privatisation of meaning.” The reality is, although we have our own values, we share values with friends, families, communities, colleagues. “Unless your name is Aristotle,” Brooks says, you find your way in relationship with others.
Values have a cohesive function. They are the cement that holds strong communities and institutions together.
Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.
According to Brooks, many people are in denial about this. “We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it,” Brooks says. The false promise is that you can earn dignity if you wear the right brands and drive a Ferrari. This implies that people who don’t wear the brands or don’t have an expensive car, are not valuable beings.
De Botton, says there is something poignant about somebody who has to prop up their self-esteem with an expensive car. “Next time you see someone in a Ferrari, this isn’t just someone who is interested in fast Italian engineering; this is someone who is using a car to make a very touching emotional point, which is: Please be nice to me. Please like me.” The truth is, de Botton adds, that people most probably will be nicer to you if you arrive in a Ferrari rather than a bicycle. “In a way all of us are implicated in a system whereby certain material goods confer honour,” he says.
He believes that a gentler, kinder philosophy of success is possible and suggests that we question some of our assumptions. “Let us accept the strangeness of some of our ideas. Let us probe away at our notions of success. Let us make sure that our ideas of success are truly our own,” he says.
Taking care of our mental health can be as simple as spending a short time every day doing things that bring us peace and joy: time spent with friends who share our deepest values, journaling, meditating, taking the dog for a walk in the park, working out at the gym, reading a book that is not work-related, or listening to soothing music – are some possible actions we can take.
This article was first published in Sunday Times Lifestyle