04 May Social Balance
A 10-fold increase in depression in our society is caused by a culture of individualism. This is the view of psychologist Martin P. Seligman, and it makes sense to me. Our pleasures, our pains, our successes, our failures – all are seen as significant concerns of the individual, rather than concerns of the group or community.
Commitment to the common good has been eroded – at the level of family, neighbourhood, community, and country. We need to find a healthier balance between the strengths of individualism and the wide-spread benefits of living in community. As older adults, we can consider Seligman’s two recommendations and determine what role we might play in reducing pessimism and depression and promoting the common good.
The deepest form of happiness comes from purposeful and meaningful occupation that arises from our deepest values. This means putting time, effort, and money into something larger than ourselves. The rise in environmentalism and in fundamentalist religions may reflect a modern-day search for this kind of connection.
At a practical level, doing something for other people (or for nature or beauty, for example) is a highly effective antidote to individualism and depression. We could search for activities that include children and grandchildren, so that we model meaningful occupation that contributes to the common good.
Examples might include helping out at a soup kitchen, connecting with others to plant a community orchard, or mentoring youths. We can also demonstrate a concern for others by donating money ourselves, and encouraging children to give away part of their allowance.
Because the current focus in society is on individuals, any failures someone experiences are likely to be attributed to personal failings rather than circumstances, both by the individual and by others. There is still plenty of room for personal responsibility if we counteract the resulting pessimism and depression by teaching optimism.
Seligman recommends cognitive therapy, which boils down to teaching people how to counteract negative thoughts, and shift the emphasis away from themselves. Adults in the lives of children shape how children view themselves. Their way of thinking is far more learned than inborn, and can be re-learned and re-shaped.
Older adults’ role
As grandparents or older adults, we can help our children and grandchildren to
- recognize negative automatic thoughts
- challenge and dispute such thoughts by marshaling contrary evidence
- make different explanations or interpretations.
For example, suppose a grandchild drops and breaks a dish and responds with “I’m always clumsy”. Help the child to see that idea as just an automatic thought and not a fact.
Challenge this thought with evidence, such as “I see how well you run and jump, the way you ride your bicycle, and the careful way you build models. I’d say you’re co-ordinated!”
Make an alternative interpretation, such as “The dish soap made your hands slippery.”
Mentoring younger generations is a natural role for older people. Let’s help them learn a healthier balance between individualism and the common good.
Reference: Learned Optimism by Martin P. Seligman. 2006. Vintage Books, 319 pages.