by Umair Haque
(Even) More Stressed Out Than Venezuelans,
or Why Happiness and Capitalism
People in Venezuela and Iraq feel less stressed than (North) Americans.
Just think about that for a second.
It's a survey about how people feel, all over the world. Feel - not just how much they're making, Instagramming, tweeting, etcetera - but what their lives really feel like.
Gallup didn't quite see it - or maybe didn't want to talk about it - but the facts say… surprise, surprise:
It's more stressed than many middle income countries, and even poor ones (like El Salvador, Panama, and Guatemala).
But we shouldn't rely on isolated statistics - and self-reported ones at that - to tell us (North) American life is in a singularly, weirdly, uniquely bad place, a place that feels like paralytic, crippling helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness.
(Nor do we have to debate whether (North) Americans are "really" more stressed than Venezuelans - that's missing the point.)
The evidence is everywhere - and it's far more voluminous than a single survey. There's the skyrocketing suicide rate. There's plummeting happiness. There's collapsing trust.
There's a loss of meaning and purpose.
There's a culture of bitter cynicism. There's the expectation the
future will only get worse. There are depression and anxiety,
surging like a tsunami.
The world's least stressed out place, in fact, aren't rich countries - they're Latin American countries, places with strong communities, enduring social bonds, shared values of decency and humanity that prevail.
Yet if anything, self-reports are vastly understating just how bad (North) Americans feel.
(North) Americans are traumatized, en masse.
They are traumatized repeatedly, every day, and traumatized badly - just by the hard work of surviving another day. And the forces traumatizing them, weirdly, are their institutions, their norms, and their expectations.
is, in other words, the world's first institutionally traumatized
I mean it this way:
I think that (North) Americans face a psychological trilemma between every human being's (even every living being's) three deepest primal fears:
Their institutions make them choose between these three fears, over and over again - but they can never not choose a life free of any of those fears.
And anyone that has to face that day after day, night after night, will end up badly traumatized, unable to cope, needing to self-medicate, and barely functional (and that's if they're strong).
I'll come to all that shortly
But the textbook definition of trauma is,
(North) American kids are literally being
traumatized…just by going to school…where they have to pretend to
die… and nobody much seems to care.
Why is that?
Why? So that their families can keep their homes, and not face bankruptcy. They choose to die, so that their families can live? What the...?
But that's the textbook
definition of trauma - exposure to one's own death of that of a
loved one - all over again, in an even more severe way. And many
(North) Americans worry about just such a fate befalling them - which is
They're traumatized just by existing, just by being there, just by struggling to live another day. But literally nobody seems to have noticed, or to care.
And I mean nobody...
Take another example still. Just going to work...
I could go on endlessly with examples.
School and work are just two. I could tell you about my little cousin who was badly traumatized by going to an Ivy League university - just existing. Or my friend who was traumatized by starting up a Silicon Valley business - because she's not a tech bro.
But let's dig beneath all the examples - the point is simple:
But I want to ask two deeper questions.
The answer to the first question - why are (North) Americans institutionally traumatized - is that they are forced to live at the perpetual edge of ruin. They are kept in a state of forced precarity.
No matter how nominally "rich" they get, they never have enough to make ends meet.
That is because while the price of basics skyrockets every year,
...incomes don't ever rise.
The (North) American is something truly unique, weird, novel: he
is kept artificially poor in a rich country, artificially broke in a
wealthy one, and artificially powerless in a powerful one.
America is the world's most capitalist country, by a very, very long way - 75% of its economy is capitalist, compared to just 50% in Europe. Capitalism has been given free rein in America to do whatever it wants. And it turns out that what capitalism wants is, just as thinkers have long suggested, is to prey on people.
The more powerless they are, the poorer they
are, the more vulnerable they are - the more they get preyed on.
Hey, did MegaCorp X meets it share price target! Yup!! Woohoo!! GDP's growing!!
But the result on the flip side is that (North) Americans live in this bizarre, unique, astonishing state of being the world's first poor rich people.
People in the world's wealthiest country… who feel worse about their lives than in much, much poorer ones… because they're so poor in real terms that what they mostly feel is,
Think about how each of my three examples of trauma is also an example of capitalism turning predatory, going extreme - people being kept poor, denied basic things, whether healthcare, education, money, safety, or inherent worth, just so that profits can keep growing.
In the healthcare example, a person's denied healthcare, or basic medicine… why? To jack up corporate profits, and meet share price targets. In the school example, a kid is made to do an active shooter drilll… why? To keep share prices growing - heaven forbid we take on the gun lobby.
In my work example, people are serially
abused… why? Because whatever the boss says goes… and the boss is the
But let me
explain the link more clearly, because I think this is the heart of
constantly made to feel that they could be annihilated, that they
could be abandoned, that they could be overwhelmed. In fact, I'd bet
that many days, most do.
Do you see what predatory capitalism has really done to (North) Americans? It's made them face an eternal, perpetual, terrible, impossible dilemma.
They have to choose between their three primal fears.
Let me make that crystal clear and razor sharp.
The sick person who chooses not to have chemotherapy - so their family can keep their home and life savings:
The schoolkid who has to pretend to die, in "active shooter drills" - he has to be annihilated and overwhelmed, so he's not abandoned.
bright young person who's forced to keep
that crap McJob where their
boss abuses them badly, never pays them a penny more, the one where
they're treated like they're nothing and nobody, where they'll never
really grow - they're forced to choose to be overwhelmed, so they're
not abandoned or annihilated.
hey have to choose one of the three great primal fears:
...so as to minimize the others… but they can never choose none of them.
profoundly painful place to be. Who can blame them for being angry,
stressed, distressed… depressed, anxious, suicidal?
But these are all textbook signs of trauma. Physiological and psychological both.
The answer to that question is even sadder...
What happens to someone if they've been traumatized long enough? They don't just consider it normal - they adopt the pose, often of their traumatizer.
Unfortunately, that's where many (North) Americans are.
The ones that want active shooter drills - instead of less guns. The ones that don't want their neighbors to have healthcare. The ones that think giving kids free college education is somehow a bad thing.
These are all people displaying textbook signs of having been traumatized so badly that they've adopted the aggression and rage of their traumatizers as a classic defense mechanism.
Against ever having to admit the truth to themselves. That truth is a difficult one...
Perhaps the most difficult of all.
Then come the tears.
But then comes something beautiful, at last. The truth, which sets you free...
Then, knowing that you are a person of genuine, intrinsic, inalienable worth again, a beautiful and wondrous thing, made of stardust, forged at midnight, reaching towards eternity - then you're whole again.
Or at least a little bit wholer, because the truth is there's always an emptiness inside us, a place of fear, deep and true as an old and mighty river.
But now we can step in
that river gently. Just dip a toe in. Instead of drowning in it.
That river of fear is the place where our primal fears of
abandonment, annihilation, and engulfment reside. They always flow
Did you know that?
Then relationship happens, like magic. Then we can love, hold, see, know.
But we can't receive those
gifts until and unless we learn to manage our fears a little. That
we are, if not their masters, then at least standing on their shore.
Capitalism made them face this impossible, terrible trilemma,
Over and over again, until they
identified with their aggressors, adopted the values and attitudes
of their traumatizers - and came as a culture to not just see trauma
as normal, but something to celebrate and applaud ("grit",
"resilience" "toughness", and so on.)
A rich country that won't take care of its young, old, and sick? What the...?
But (North) Americans had been so traumatized so long by now that they had become the traumatizers. The abused had become the abusers. Hurt people hurt people.
Being so badly wounded, they were endlessly trying to make others feel the terrible, piercing primal fears of abandonment, annihilation, and engulfment they themselves had felt, so they could feel a little powerful and strong at last.
But when you're busy doing that,
That's why America feels so uniquely and singularly bad as a country.
Why it's a place steeped in stress, worry, and anger - but even that understates a sadder, deeper truth. America's a place pulsing, throbbing, aching with trauma.
With the visceral,
omnipresent anguish and torment of the three greatest fears human
beings can have - re-enacted, day after day, institutionally, at
school, work, university, play.