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The demoralized mind

April 2016

Western consumer culture is creating a psycho-spiritual crisis that leaves us disoriented and bereft of purpose. How can we treat our sick culture and make ourselves well? asks John F Schumaker.

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Our descent into the Age of Depression seems unstoppable. Three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling with each successive generational cohort. At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation, aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age. Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression.

By contrast to many traditional cultures that lack depression entirely, or even a word for it, Western consumer culture is certainly depression-prone. But depression is so much a part of our vocabulary that the word itself has come to describe mental states that should be understood differently. In fact, when people with a diagnosis of depression are examined more closely, the majority do not actually fit that diagnosis. In the largest study of its kind, Ramin Mojtabai of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health sampled over 5,600 cases and found that only 38 per cent of them met the criteria for depression.

Contributing to the confusion is the equally insidious epidemic of demoralization that also afflicts modern culture. Since it shares some symptoms with depression, demoralization tends to be mislabelled and treated as if it were depression. A major reason for the poor 28-per-cent success rate of anti-depressant drugs is that a high percentage of ‘depression’ cases are actually demoralization, a condition unresponsive to drugs.

Existential disorder

In the past, our understanding of demoralization was limited to specific extreme situations, such as debilitating physical injury, terminal illness, prisoner-of-war camps, or anti-morale military tactics. But there is also a cultural variety that can express itself more subtly and develop behind the scenes of normal everyday life under pathological cultural conditions such as we have today. This culturally generated demoralization is nearly impossible to avoid for the modern ‘consumer’.

Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment. The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction. Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing battle. The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to the circumstances impinging on the person’s life.

Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life

As it is absorbed, consumer culture imposes numerous influences that weaken personality structures, undermine coping and lay the groundwork for eventual demoralization. Its driving features – individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt – all correlate negatively with psychological health and/or social wellbeing. The level of intimacy, trust and true friendship in people’s lives has plummeted. Sources of wisdom, social and community support, spiritual comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up. Passivity and choice have displaced creativity and mastery. Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life.

Research shows that, in contrast to earlier times, most people today are unable to identify any sort of philosophy of life or set of guiding principles. Without an existential compass, the commercialized mind gravitates toward a ‘philosophy of futility’, as Noam Chomsky calls it, in which people feel naked of power and significance beyond their conditioned role as pliant consumers. Lacking substance and depth, and adrift from others and themselves, the thin and fragile consumer self is easily fragmented and dispirited.

By their design, the central organizing principles and practices of consumer culture perpetuate an ‘existential vacuum’ that is a precursor to demoralization. This inner void is often experienced as chronic and inescapable boredom, which is not surprising. Despite surface appearances to the contrary, the consumer age is deathly boring. Boredom is caused, not because an activity is inherently boring, but because it is not meaningful to the person. Since the life of the consumer revolves around the overkill of meaningless manufactured low-level material desires, it is quickly engulfed by boredom, as well as jadedness, ennui and discontent. This steadily graduates to ‘existential boredom’ wherein the person finds all of life uninteresting and unrewarding.

Moral net

Consumption itself is a flawed motivational platform for a society. Repeated consummation of desire, without moderating constraints, only serves to habituate people and diminish the future satisfaction potential of what is consumed. This develops gradually into ‘consumer anhedonia’, wherein consumption loses reward capacity and offers no more than distraction and ritualistic value. Consumerism and psychic deadness are inexorable bedfellows.

Individualistic models of mind have stymied our understanding of many disorders that are primarily of cultural origin. But recent years have seen a growing interest in the topic of cultural health and ill-health as they impact upon general wellbeing. At the same time, we are moving away from naïve behavioural models and returning to the obvious fact that the human being has a fundamental nature, as well as a distinct set of human needs, that must be addressed by a cultural blueprint.

In his groundbreaking book The Moral Order, anthropologist Raoul Naroll used the term ‘moral net’ to indicate the cultural infrastructure that is required for the mental wellbeing of its members. He used numerous examples to show that entire societies can become predisposed to an array of mental ills if their ‘moral net’ deteriorates beyond a certain point. To avoid this, a society’s moral net must be able to meet the key psycho-social-spiritual needs of its members, including a sense of identity and belonging, co-operative activities that weave people into a community, and shared rituals and beliefs that offer a convincing existential orientation.

We are long overdue a cultural revolution that would force a radical revamp of the political process, economics, work, family and environmental policy

Similarly, in The Sane Society, Erich Fromm cited ‘frame of orientation’ as one of our vital ‘existential needs’, but pointed out that today’s ‘marketing characters’ are shackled by a cultural programme that actively blocks fulfilment of this and other needs, including the needs for belonging, rootedness, identity, transcendence and intellectual stimulation. We are living under conditions of ‘cultural insanity’, a term referring to a pathological mismatch between the inculturation strategies of a culture and the intrapsychic needs of its followers. Being normal is no longer a healthy ambition.

Human culture has mutated into a sociopathic marketing machine dominated by economic priorities and psychological manipulation. Never before has a cultural system inculcated its followers to suppress so much of their humanity. Leading this hostile takeover of the collective psyche are increasingly sophisticated propaganda and misinformation industries that traffic the illusion of consumer happiness by wildly amplifying our expectations of the material world. Today’s consumers are by far the most propagandized people in history. The relentless and repetitive effect is highly hypnotic, diminishing critical faculties, reducing one’s sense of self, and transforming commercial unreality into a surrogate for meaning and purpose.

The more lost, disoriented and spiritually defeated people become, the more susceptible they become to persuasion, and the more they end up buying into the oversold expectations of consumption. But in unreality culture, hyper-inflated expectations continually collide with the reality of experience. Since nothing lives up to the hype, the world of the consumer is actually an ongoing exercise in disappointment. While most disappointments are minor and easy to dissociate, they accumulate into an emotional background of frustration as deeper human needs get neglected. Continued starvation of these needs fuels disillusion about one’s whole approach to life. Over time, people’s core assumptions can become unstable.

Culture proofing

At its heart, demoralization is a generalized loss of credibility in the assumptions that ground our existence and guide our actions. The assumptions underpinning our allegiance to consumerism are especially vulnerable since they are fundamentally dehumanizing. As they unravel, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify with the values, goals and aspirations that were once part of our consumer reality. The consequent feeling of being forsaken and on the wrong life track is easily mistaken for depression, or even unhappiness, but in fact it is the type of demoralization that most consumer beings will experience to some degree.

For the younger generation, the course of boredom, disappointment, disillusion and demoralization is almost inevitable. As the products of invisible parents, commercialized education, cradle-to-grave marketing and a profoundly boring and insane cultural programme, they must also assimilate into consumer culture while knowing from the outset that its workings are destroying the planet and jeopardizing their future. Understandably, they have become the trance generation, with an insatiable appetite for any technology that can downsize awareness and blunt the emotions. With society in existential crisis, and emotional life on a steep downward trajectory, trance is today’s fastest-growing consumer market.

Once our collapsed assumptions give way to demoralization, the problem becomes how to rebuild the unconscious foundations of our lives. In their present forms, the psychology and psychiatry professions are of little use in treating disorders that are rooted in culture and normality. While individual therapy will not begin to heal a demoralized society, to be effective such approaches must be insight-oriented and focused on the cultural sources of the person’s assumptions, identity, values and centres of meaning. Cultural deprogramming is essential, along with ‘culture proofing’, disobedience training and character development strategies, all aimed at constructing a worldview that better connects the person to self, others and the natural world.

The real task is somehow to treat a sick culture rather than its sick individuals. Erich Fromm sums up this challenge: ‘We can’t make people sane by making them adjust to this society. We need a society that is adjusted to the needs of people.’ Fromm’s solution included a Supreme Cultural Council that would serve as a cultural overseer and advise governments on corrective and preventive action. But that sort of solution is still a long way off, as is a science of culture change. Democracy in its present guise is a guardian of cultural insanity.

We are long overdue a cultural revolution that would force a radical revamp of the political process, economics, work, family and environmental policy. It is true that a society of demoralized people is unlikely to revolt even though it sits on a massive powder keg of pent-up frustration. But credibility counteracts demoralization, and this frustration can be released with immense energy when a credible cause, or credible leadership, is added to the equation.

It might seem that credibility, meaning and purposeful action would derive from the multiple threats to our safety and survival posed by the fatal mismatch between consumer culture and the needs of the planet. The fact that it has not highlights the degree of demoralization that infects the consumer age. With its infrastructure firmly entrenched, and minimal signs of collective resistance, all signs suggest that our obsolete system – what some call ‘disaster capitalism’ – will prevail until global catastrophe dictates for us new cultural directions.

John F Schumaker is a retired psychology academic living in Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 491 This column was published in the April 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Charles Hayes 30 Apr 16

    John F. Schumaker is one of my favorite explainers of the human condition and he packs a sentence like a Sherpa summiting Everest.

  2. #2 Freetobefree 11 May 16

    I just read, and re-read The Demoralized Mind.’ What an interesting and enlightening article and I thank you for it! It spoke to me clearly and realized that I have been in a ’demoralized state with an inner void experienced as inescapable boredom.’ I believe you hit the nail on the head regarding our society and culture. I intend to study more of your views and would like to learn to make a change in myself, in others and in our current culture. Thanks again for this article.

  3. #3 Allison 11 May 16

    yes. Let us take action within ourselves and spread it to others.

  4. #4 John Uebersax 13 May 16

    This is a very important topic. To what is said in the article, I would only add three things.

    1. Modern education has failed to equip people with the concepts and even the vocabulary with which to grapple with the problem. There is already a rich Western tradition of Idealism. We don't need to re-invent anything, as much as to avail ourselves of the moral tradition that has been ignored in the last 100 years or so.

    2. Along with this is the notion that this is not the first time there has been a crisis of meaning. Here the work of the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin is instructive. In a massive historical study he showed how human culture alternates between materialistic and non-materialistic phases. (We are today, he argued, at the end of a decaying materialistic phase.) For a little more on Sorokin's theories see here:
    https://satyagraha.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/pitirim-sorkin-crisis-of-modernity/

    3. So what is happening today is that intellectuals are trying to criticize the materialistic order within the materialistic mentality. And that can only work so far. We really need an Idealistic critique of materialism. For that we can go back to writers in the 18th and 19th century, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example.

  5. #5 John Dee 15 May 16

    This article expresses a worthwhile sentiment regarding the negative impact of pervasive consumerism on the human mind, body and spirit. Unfortunately some of the opinions it expresses regarding depression and demoralization appear to lack substantiation outside of the author's biases. Has anyone actually operationalized a discrepancy between depression and demoralization? Has anyone argued authoritatively that traditional societies did not experience depression, granted that various cultures may express suffering through different idioms? Has anybody not noticed that even animals appear to get depressed sometimes?

    Arguments agains the ills of Western consumerism and sociopathy are weakened by non-rigorous use of our mental health classifications.

  6. #6 Diana Carriere 22 Jun 16

    The article is amazing!!! I connected with it deeply “Demoralization” Disoriented and bereft of purpose!! – exactly how a lot of us are feeling – right!?. However, I believe it’s our age and the timeline in which we are declining, unfortunately! I believe as we move in the different phases of our life we have to accept and readjust our perceptions and emotional and physical changes, which seems to get us all into a panic/depressive mode! I will re-read it again and again as I really felt it did hit the hammer on the nail for me many times. I am sure John Schumaker wrote the happiness conspiracy … another test to prove we are really not happy – but really we have to keep working on it and continue to evolve as we become physical stones… LOL.

  7. #7 Diana Carriere 22 Jun 16

    The article is amazing!!! I connected with it deeply “Demoralization” Disoriented and bereft of purpose!! – exactly how a lot of us are feeling – right!?. However, I believe it’s our age and the timeline in which we are declining, unfortunately! I believe as we move in the different phases of our life we have to accept and readjust our perceptions and emotional and physical changes, which seems to get us all into a panic/depressive mode! I will re-read it again and again as I really felt it did hit the hammer on the nail for me many times. I am sure John Schumaker wrote the happiness conspiracy … another test to prove we are really not happy – but really we have to keep working on it and continue to evolve as we become physical stones… LOL.

  8. #8 Kinshuk Adhikary 15 Jul 16

    I have rarely read a more cogent article on the problem !

    I would like to ask you if any personal bias or author's likes and dislikes has enentered into it at all. I hope you do not mind this question, I am asking because it is bothering me just a little. Else I take it as pure facts.

    One more thing. I suspect ( being in software industry ) that a repititive dull work and play environment dominated by predictable machine behaviors further aggravates the problems.

    Thank you for such a fascinating read.

  9. #9 Erik Jensen 22 Jul 16

    Humbling, as such knowledge and understanding is of the essence. Very well said. Bless the truth tellers and thank you John F. Schumacher.

  10. #10 Keith Johnson - Wellington NZ 08 Aug 16

    Great article - if I'm elected Mayor of Wellington in October, I'll hire you as Sanity Czar!

  11. #11 Scott 01 Sep 16

    Limited hangout. No discussion of the real things contributing to this because the cultural marxist establishment wanted this all along. Consider the link between being demoralized and IMMORAL. There is a reason for the similar root there but the theology of cultural marxism doesn't want to talk about the latter. No, they have pushed immoral behavior for well over half a century to bring down this country and culture so they sure don't want to assign it any blame. The lower prevalence of depression in the not-too-distant past is cited yet little is mentioned of what changed and that was overwhelmingly the moral structure of our society.

  12. #12 Michael Pariser 14 Sep 16

    I agree with almost all of it. As a psychoanalyst, I responded most to Schumaker’s description of the cultural problem and its impact on the individual. I think he’s accurate and insightful when he points to the destruction of meaning effected by “cradle-to-grave” propaganda and misinformation, and there is no doubt that we are raising generations of children who are incapable of wrestling their way out of the materialist boredom that results. He is less eloquent on solutions, but I’m not sure there are any, tell the truth (more below). His last sentence, in which he implies a population hurtling toward world destruction, has, in my opinion, a pretty fair chance of being our collective future, sad to say, because no one wants to be the first to give up the money or the power or the goodies. Certainly no country or culture does, even if individuals or small bands of individuals do.

    One thing I’d add, though. In my experience with patients, I find that depression interacts with existential demoralization, in that a psyche prone to despair, helplessness, hopelessness, futility, and loneliness (all important emotional aspects of depression) will be additionally unequipped to tackle the challenges posed by any attempt to confront a massive consumerist culture and its overpowering psychological impact. So the effect is additive, and the possibilities reduced.

    From an individual therapy standpoint, therefore, a good approach is to battle through the depression, even as one adopts a critical stance toward materialist capitalism. The war needs to be simultaneously fought and won on both the emotional and the cultural fronts. Only then will there be hope of change.

  13. #13 Michael Pariser 14 Sep 16

    By the way, if anyone has any doubt that we're living in age of boredom and short attention spans, just look at the top of this very article, where a legend warns us: ’Long read: 7 minutes.’

  14. #14 Dr Geoffrey Berry 21 Sep 16

    An excellent explanation of where we are at in terms of mindless consumer culture and a lack of meaning. Sometimes it takes an academic who has retired to come out and call a spade a spade; higher education is now so enmeshed with the capitalist machine hurtling us over the abyss of overconsumption that its proponents can only rarely escape their newly forged 'iron cage of reason' (Weber).
    And psychotherapy only has real merit today if it places the wounded self in the context of our wounded ecosystem; healing without activism on this front is mere indulgence today, i'm afraid.
    If you are interested in how an 'ecomythic' response might being to look - something that re-places our drive towards meaning in our deep evolutionary history of biophilia at the same time as communicating it as story - please feel free to explore my work at www.belonging.org.au

  15. #15 Elizabeth Romero 22 Sep 16

    Excellent article. In a society entirely dominated by greed and competition it seems almost impossible to become a psychologically, intellectually or spiritually healthy individual. I'm always amused when people quote the Bible to prove their points when greed and envy, specifically forbidden in the 10 Commandments, are the foundation of the corporate/capitalist society.

  16. #16 david bower 23 Sep 16

    Excellent!

  17. #17 Roslyn Ross 24 Sep 16

    If you live in non-Western cultures, as I have done for decades, you realise that it is not Western culture per se: which faces such issues, but most of humanity.

    There are other factors at work in the world in general and particularly in the Western, developed world and one of them is vaccines. We have gone from two or three at older ages for a child to more than fifty in the first five years of life, beginning within hours of birth and all of them containing, beyond disease, toxins, animal, human and bird material, Aluminium which is known to be toxic to brain function.

    In addition, vaccine theory and methodology was developed in a time of egregious ignorance when science/medicine believed there was no connection between the brain and immune system. But there was, as non-Allopathic medicine always intuited, and it is a powerful physical link, the discovery of which will rewrite textbooks and neurological disease.

    Surely we also need to rewrite vaccine theory and methodology given that we have epidemics of Autism and behavioural and learning difficulties in children, Brain Cancer as the biggest Cancer killer of children and young people and epidemics of Alzhemier's and Dementia in the aged, and not so aged, another vulnerable and highly vaccinated group.

  18. #18 Santiago 07 Oct 16

    You know trance is the new god when a 7-minute read is considered long...

  19. #19 Veronica Spin 11 Nov 16

    Thank you Thank you Thank you .... for the vindication.... actual prayed for this truth in text ... thank you for the education and enlightenment.... thank you

  20. #20 Lewis 30 Dec 16

    only way to add to what he's saying really is to emphasise that then past was just straight worse. Otherwise I agree pretty much entirely. But go back through history and you might have felt less demoralised and more rooted in community, but the ravage of disease, the regular infantry wars, infant death rates, persistent hunger, those kind of things would have offset your feelings of existential purpose I reckon.

    I think by focusing on this fact, that human development on the whole seems to be progressing (in the 99 steps backwards, 100 steps forward sense), it stops you ending up coming to silly conclusions about how it happened and how to fix it..

    Like for instance..

    ’Human culture has mutated into a sociopathic marketing machine dominated by economic priorities and psychological manipulation.’

    When was culture literally anything other than something requiring advertising, controlled by material contexts and influenced by thoughts!

    ’Cultural deprogramming is essential, along with ‘culture proofing’, disobedience training and character development strategies’

    I mean I love lefty politics and abstract ideas, but cultural deprogramming?! A genuine suggestion in the actual non-dystopian world?! Not only will it never happen in a democratic society, to what body or institution would you hand that control? It's an suggestion not worth even considering.

    Actually what we need, is more of the success stories of histories no? Clever activism, mass movements, 'consciousness raising' - go pick an example!

  21. #21 maruchandayo 08 Jan 17

    I identify myself with this ’demoralized’ state. I read in some of the comments people deny it to a problem of western societies, but I have to disagree.
    I have lived in Western, Asian, and Westernized societies for years at a time and my impression is that, the more westernized a society is, the more you are bombarded with advertising telling you are incomplete, exhorting you to buy something you already have and/or don't need in the first place. Exactly as you describe it, these constant small messages slowly erode your self esteem and values. All age groups are targeted equally. Here in Japan they go as far as advertising funeral services promising to maximize your ’status’, there's quite a competition, and so the poor/petty dead and the wealthy/honorable dead 'classes' are created.

    A small critique about the wording in your article:

    I think your analysis clearly places the problem in the core structure of capitalism. Without prefixes like 'devastating' or 'neoliberal'. In the western world we are not only indoctrinated to consume, but also to fiercely defend our corpocracy and capitalism at any cost. When we try to think what is going on around us, and how to improve our world, we have to go through big amounts of effort twisting our own reasoning and making up words in order to criticize capitalism very cautiously, without breaking it, like trying to rescue a crumbling sand castle.

    I think it doesn't have to be like this.

    We have to get rid of the shield we place in our two sacred words 'capitalism' and this naive concept of 'democracy'. Only when we can free ourselves from them, shall we be able to make a new and better system. For getting rid of those yokes we need to face the corporations that promote them. And for that to happen we have to ’clean’ ourselves from this consumerism, develop an aversion for brands and unnecessary products, criticize, criticize and criticize incessantly, just as relentlessly as their tireless advertising attack. We can not fight that fight while protecting our untouchable words, tiptoeing to avoid our taboos.

  22. #22 Mark Nowakowski 15 Jan 17

    The diagnosis presented herein is largely prescient and quite astute - bravo! I have shared this with many friends, though I have a few concerns, as the conclusion which left me scratching my head. Logically speaking, a sick culture cannot magically revolt itself into unsickness. One is reminded of GK Chesterton's formulation that ’revolutions, by their nature, are 360 degree turnings, leaving us more or less right where we started.’ Furthermore do you really think that some kind of global body overlord/court could legislate meaning and happiness? What of free will? This is quite Orwellian and distressing indeed, and smacks of precisely the kind of progressive era intellectual snobbery that has lead much of the west into political revolt. Finally while there is some discussion of the psycho-spiritual, nothing of the spiritual is mentioned as part of the solution. Regardless of where such a conversation might lead, I'm quite sure that environmentalism - while a good thing - will not help imbue lives with ultimate meaning. Something far deeper is necessary. Luckily for us the answer has been given and only recently lost by our culture; we can only hope that any impending crisis leads us back towards the beautiful truths we have abandoned in favor of pursuing the very consumerist culture here lamented. AMDG.

  23. #23 michele peel 10 Feb 17

    Our industrial-consumer capitalist culture is literally destroying the Earth. There is no question that this culture is destructive. It is essentially sociopathic.

    It is a culture ruled by individual greed; it is necessarily aggressive.

    In a group-community oriented culture, everyone's needs are important, including other animals, wildlife, and the Earth itself. This is a far saner, more meaningful culture.

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This article was originally published in issue 491

New Internationalist Magazine issue 491
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