We are currently living in a stressed-out society, and while we may be emerging from the pandemic, the stress and anxiety it caused have no more disappeared than the virus itself has. As we attempt to get back to ‘normal’, we now find ourselves facing new stressors and struggling with different anxieties. On our own, these can seem insurmountable, but belonging to a supportive community has a huge impact on our ability to cope with adversity while maintaining a positive state of mental wellbeing.
Socialising with others has multiple benefits for our mental health. Whether it’s a sport, hobby classes or volunteering, activities like these all give meaning and purpose to our lives and make us more confident. Having the opportunity to laugh and chat with others in social situations serves to temporarily distract us from our worries by turning our focus outwards instead of inwards. And being able to talk through problems and share our worries with others decreases our stress levels. As the saying goes, a worry shared is a worry halved, and less worry equals less stress.
Unfortunately, people in Western societies tend to have a higher incidence of poor mental health than those in developing countries. This is because developing nations have a stronger sense of community than the West, and consequently they don’t struggle with mental ill-health to the same degree.
Conversely, the defining qualities of modern Western culture are materialism and individualism. But the importance we assign to money and possessions doesn’t make us happy. Instead, it leads to dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, isolation and alienation, and while these values predominate, our human need for autonomy and connection with others remains relatively unfulfilled.
Owning possessions and accumulating wealth and status are not innate parts of our nature – they originate from outside us. People who make these things their priority suffer more anxiety and depression and have lower overall wellbeing than those whose goals in life are related to close relationships, personal growth and contributing to their communities.
And when materialism extends from acquiring possessions to enhancing our person, which it inevitably does, we become dissatisfied not only with what we have but also with who we are. This creates an ongoing expectation that there must be more to life than that which we already have. Therefore, the more materialistic we are, the more stressed we become as we constantly move the goalposts in a bid to become richer, slimmer, or whatever it is we aspire to.
At this point, we have become individualistic, and although individualism is associated with positive traits such as personal control and self-esteem, it can be taken too far. Individualism should serve to free our human potential by loosening the hold that ideological repression (think religious dogma, oppression and discrimination) has over us. However, there is a fine balance between autonomy and independence. Put another way, it is the difference between thinking for ourselves and thinking of ourselves. Thinking for ourselves can still be a community-spirited action, whereas thinking of ourselves is self-centred and relates only to our own interests.
When we become materialistic and individualistic, we lose sight of the core values that provide the framework by which we measure what is, good, true and right. Broadly speaking, these values are similar to those espoused by Christianity – ie they pertain to selflessness and building harmonious relationships, whilst discouraging self-centredness and greed. Unfortunately, Western culture undermines these universal values with the result that we find a lack of harmony between our professed values and our lifestyle, coupled with a deepening cynicism towards our social institutions.
When we leave these values behind, we weaken our personal and social ties and start to become independent, as opposed to autonomous. When we confuse autonomy with independence, we start to believe that we are separate from both our environment and others. And separating ourselves from these things creates stress which in turn affects our mental wellbeing.
We are all individuals, and we each have a unique set of skills, knowledge and experiences. However, we are not meant to exist in isolation or feel alone. Instead, we need to share our talents with others in a way that will bring value to our communities. This is very much a reciprocal relationship as we will benefit from opportunities to grow and develop by learning from others too. Each is an essential component of the whole. And it’s the same for us, we are all part of something much larger, and we need the support of our communities if we are to live a happy and fulfilled life.