Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Myth of the Self-Made Man

By Lokee...

Whether it’s Batman standing atop a building, John Wayne casting a shadow in an empty desert, Ayn Rand’s character Howard Roark, or the array of reports we’re handed of people who “go-it-alone” and become millionaires, one story that is tightly-woven throughout western culture is that of the self-made man. A person who breaks free from the pack, to make it on his own, and apparently succeed without the need for, or help from, social connections.  The problem with this story is it’s a myth and one that on closer inspection has evolved from a reality in which people, whether they like it or not, have always needed other people, and as far as research can predict, will always need other people.

This myth has been embraced and held up as a symbol of western individualism since the time of the “Wild West”.  If this unrealistic myth is the template western society and thus its people use when planning how best to approach their life, in order to experience success and happiness, what are the consequences?

Every time I talk to my friends, switch on the television, read the newspaper or browse the Internet, I’m confronted with the following two underlying themes, depression and loneliness.  Depression is at the highest it’s ever been in western culture, affecting not only adults, as it typically used to, but youth as well. It accounts for more of the burden of disease than heart disease or cancer, with suicide ranking in the ten leading causes of death for the overall population, and the number one cause of death for people under 40.

There is also good evidence to suggest that the number of people experiencing social isolation or loneliness is increasing dramatically. Moreover in a number of studies people have reported a reduction in the number of people they could call close "confidantes", with the number being zero for as many as 25% of participants. What makes the increase in social isolation and depression even more troubling is that they are related, meaning where you find one, you often find the other.  Still more concerning is that those who experience depression require social support structures to be in place in order to aide their recovery.

I, along with many others, argue that the increases in both depression and social isolation are related to the effects of living in a western individualist society, in which myths of self-made men and going-it-alone are foolishly held up as a good idea, and even something to be idolised.

It seems fair to say we live in an individualist society. The extreme form of western individualism is defined by the motivation to become self-reliant, where the independent individual is valued and individual rights are trumpeted.  Going further, it could be argued that extreme individualism is about severing oneself from the obligations of and commitment to the group, in order to decide for yourself what is in your best interests, and to look out for those above everything else (think of Howard Roark).  There are two problems with this form of individualism, one of which is supported by countless studies, the other is a matter of muddled definitions, however both share similar consequences, which is that people are failing to get their needs met due to erroneous notions.

Firstly, those who argue for this extreme form of individualism have confused autonomy (self-government) with independence. They believe that in order to have a sense of control over their lives and to be free to be themself, they require a limited to non-existent social structure, the absence of which will support them to achieve, by not being present (the unconstrained self-made man).  This is however not the case, as the concept of autonomy shows. Autonomy is defined by the ability to make your own informed decisions, to act according to your own beliefs, to be responsible for your own life path, and therefore authentic.  None of these things require severing yourself from those around you, and as Self Determination Theory shows, autonomy and relatedness (social connections) actually go hand in hand. In fact, it’s through our social connections that we are better able to grow and develop who we are. For who else do we learn and gain support from, but others? 

It should really come as no surprise (research has consistently demonstrated that we are social animals after all) that there is over-whelming evidence to demonstrate that for people to have any chance of happiness they need to have a strong sense of relatedness. Not only, as cynics like to suggest, as a survival strategy (safety in numbers), although evolutionarily-speaking that appears to be how the need came to be hard-wired into us, but because people need a network of family and friends that they not only feel connected to, but that they can depend on, feel supported by, and confide in. As I stated above, social isolation is consistently positively related to depression, and even more than this social isolation is related to ill health, stress and the shortening of life.  In addition, those who have their relatedness needs met have better health, live longer and are more likely to experience well-being and happiness. Yet this form of relatedness, while a basic human need, is thwarted by the extreme form of western individualism, in particular when autonomy is confused with independence.

Before I go any further (in order to pre-empt some criticisms), I would like to clearly state that I recognise the many benefits that come from living in the West, and I am by no means advocating that we rid ourselves of individualism or capitalism altogether. I am suggesting that it would appear that we’ve gone too far in one particular direction (the myth of the self-made man), which has led to the problems I describe. This is also why I’m defining the kind of individualism and capitalism I’m critiquing, as extreme, the kind of individualism that denies that we are in fact dependent on, and influenced by, others.   

In addition, within Psychology there is a branch dedicated to studying human well-being and happiness, and while there is much disagreement and debate about what definitively contributes to a person feeling happiness, there appears to be consensus with respect to Self Determination Theory.  Self Determination Theory argues that people require the following needs to be met, in order to experience a level of happiness; those are autonomy (self-government or a sense of control over your life), competence (a feeling of skill or ability in a choice of activities) and relatedness (good connections with family and friends).  In the extreme form of individualism highlighted above, we can already see that two of those needs aren’t going to be easily met; autonomy because we’re made to reach for independence instead and relatedness because we’re made to think we need to and are better off going-it-alone.

The myth of the self-made man and thus the extreme individualist element of western society is also the setting for not only our materialism, but in turn our pursuit of extrinsic goals. Materialism, otherwise known as consumerism places material wealth, and the accumulation of assets, as the primary goal of our daily lives.  Within the context of Psychology, materialism is demonstrated when people value, and are motivated towards attaining goals aligned with, the accumulation of possessions, attractiveness and popularity, or put more simply, money, fame and image.  These are described as extrinsic goals or are seen as forms of extrinsic motivation, because people are engaging in activities for the environmental incentives, such as money, praise, attention, approval and public recognition. In other words, “Do this and you will get that” (Reeve, 2009, p. 113).  This is in contrast to intrinsic motivation or intrinsic goals where people engage in an activity for the sake of the activity or rather they engage in an activity to experience the inherent satisfaction it brings.  Studies have shown that people who are focused on extrinsic goals or who are extrinsically motivated experience less well-being and poorer health, with the addition that they very rarely ever feel satisfied.  In fact, further studies have shown a positive correlation between materialism, narcissism, egocentrism, a lack of empathy for others and depression, as well as anxiety. 

While intrinsic motivation and intrinsic goals are positively correlated to greater well-being, happiness and satisfaction. As Reeve (2009) states, “it (intrinsic motivation) is worth nurturing and promoting because it leads to so many important benefits to the person, including persistence, creativity, conceptual understanding, and subjective well-being” (p. 112). Adding more weight to the argument that autonomy, competence and relatedness are the driving force behind a person’s actions is that intrinsic motivation emerges from these psychological needs.
Extreme western individualism also teaches us that the onus of success or failure is on the individual (we’re all doing it alone after all, like the myth of the lone Cowboy), so if for whatever reason, you can't succeed to the level that is mythologized within the culture because of, for example, socioeconomic status, education, family, or environment, then the individual is to blame. There's little to no social support structure and the burden is placed on the individual’s shoulders alone. When we consider that statistically speaking this person is also more than likely suffering from depression and social isolation, we get a rather bleak picture of what it’s like to be an individual in the West.

Everything research has shown us about people and what will guide us towards a level of well-being and happiness is that we need others.  Yet much of what is promoted by the individualist West and the myth of the self-made man is that a person can and should do it alone.  This conflict has led to people struggling to find happiness, and often instead finding depression and social isolation.  If we want to get ourselves back on track we need to show this myth for what it is, a fictional story that is not reflective of reality.  We need to demonstrate that social support, family, friends and community are not only important, but integral to an individual’s life.  We need to stop suggesting that being autonomous requires that you be independent, or that to be an individual requires you to be free of a group.  For of all the myths I described above, Batman had Alfred, the traditional cowboy was actually not a lone wolf but generally an employee on a farm, the Wild West survived only as long as it did because communities were formed and the American military brought in, Rand’s Howard Roark is seen by many who study, teach, or are in business and politics, as an example of what not to do, while her philosophy within that particular text is widely and heavily criticised, and the self-made millionaire, well the reality varies, but they often have family, friends, co-workers, business connections and so on.

There are some truly enlightening ideas and thus quotes by some of the most respected thinkers throughout history on friendship, but I’m going to end on one that always brings a smile to my face…

Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. – Albert Camus. 

There's also an interesting show that describes the science and philosophy behind friendship here: 
http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/catalyst - Series 15, Episode 13 "Falling in Friendship"

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