by Umair Haque
April 25, 2019

from Eudaimonia Website





Why (North) Americans are

(Even) More Stressed Out Than Venezuelans,

or Why Happiness and Capitalism

are Incompatible...

Here's a fact that might shock and alarm you.


People in Venezuela and Iraq feel less stressed than (North) Americans.

Venezuela - you know, the poster child of social collapse, and, war-torn Iraq. How can Venezuelans and Iraqis be less stressed than (North) Americans? What the...?

Just think about that for a second.

I recently took a look at Gallup's World Emotional Temperature thermometer.


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:

America's the most stressed out, angriest, and worried country in the rich world - by a very long way.

It's more stressed than many middle income countries, and even poor ones (like El Salvador, Panama, and Guatemala).

(How much so? More than a majority of (North) Americans say they've felt stressed lately. That compares to 30 to 35% for European countries, Spain, France, Ital y - and even less so for Scandinavian ones.


Guess who was the most stressed out, worried, and angry? Young people, and poor people. And most young people, my friends, are poor people - 70% of them or so felt stressed.)

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.

(North) American life fell apart, my friends. No other rich country feels like this, feels so bad inside, feels so anxious, depressed, stressed, defeated - nor do many middle income or poor ones.


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.

55% of (North) Americans might say they're stressed out - but a fuller picture of society, taking suicide, depression, anxiety, rage, and grief - suggests to me a grimmer truth.

(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.


America is, in other words, the world's first institutionally traumatized country.

So what I mean by "(North) American life fell apart" is something precise and unique, something like this:

(North) Americans are traumatized, but they don't know it.

I mean it this way:

"it feels singularly bad to be an (North) American these days - it's a life made of fear, worry, discomfort, despair, and grief, like nowhere else in the world, except maybe other failing states.


To be (North) American now means a life that feels bad, not good: to be traumatized, and have nobody care, or even notice, but encourage, cheer on, and applaud just that process of traumatization."

I think that (North) Americans face a psychological trilemma between every human being's (even every living being's) three deepest primal fears:

  • being abandoned

  • being annihilated

  • being overwhelmed

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

Take the example of "active shooter drills." A sane country would have… banned guns, or at least limited them. America, instead, made it's kids literally pretend die at school, over and over again.


But the textbook definition of trauma is,

"repeated exposure to one's own death, or that of loved ones."

(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.

What the...? But do you see what I mean a little bit by "institutional trauma"? (North) American institutions are traumatizing the littlest, most vulnerable (North) Americans, not by mistake, but by design, and… nobody cares much.


Why is that?

Take another example. One that's infamous the world over. There are (many) (North) Americans who choose not to have chemotherapy, a life-saving operation, some life-saving therapy.


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 trauma, too.

Do you see what I mean now? (North) Americans are institutionally traumatized.


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...

(That also suggests that (North) American psychology has failed, and failed badly.


After all, a nation doesn't traumatize itself - if its psychologies are working.


(North) American psychology, with its incessant focus on self-treatment, positivity, and a forced cheerfulness at once minimizes the trauma of simply being (North) American, surviving another day, while stigmatizing it, while erasing it.


It's a great and grave failure, my friends. (North) Americans aren't allowed to say:

"Jesus, just existing is making me severely distressed. I can't cope. It shouldn't be like this!"

Instead, they have to go on smiling, and pretend, mostly, that everything's OK - recite that positivity mantra! - or else they'll be seen as weak, inferior, and frail, and therefore undesirable and unwanted.)

Take another example still. Just going to work...

In America, your boss can shout at you, demean you, insult you - not to mention overwork you, underpay you, and never give you a pension, benefits, or a sense that you count - in ways that are literally impossible to even imagine in other countries.


If your boss shouted at you or insulted you or raged at you the way that (North) American culture lionizes and celebrates… almost anywhere else - from France to Chile - it would be over so many, many lines that they're hard to count.


It would be considered unethical, immoral, shocking, disgraceful, and abusive. They'd probably be fired - and shunned. Yes, really.


How many abuse scandals do you see anywhere else? And yet (North) Americans don't seem to know it, to really understand it, because nobody tells them, and so they mostly think that this is normal, OK, acceptable.


But it's not. Work isn't something that feels so incredibly pointless, futile, bad, and terrible in most other places.


It can be a drudge, or a drag, sure - but "work" isn't the kind of profoundly, chronically, systemically abusive institution it is in America.

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:

(North) American life is uniquely traumatic, in the sense that just existing is an exercise in being traumatized, over and over again, institutionally - and that happens, really, nowhere else in the world (save maybe war-torn failed states), certainly nowhere else in the rich world.

But I want to ask two deeper questions.

  • First, how does a country end up being institutionally traumatized? Traumatized by the very arrangements - school, work, healthcare, etc - that are supposed to protect, nourish, and lift people up?


  • And second - what does it really mean to be "institutionally traumatized", in a precise and exact way?

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,

healthcare, education, decent food, and so on,

...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.

Why? What produces these weird contradictions? The answer is as obvious as the problem. Capitalism does.


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.

(North) Americans are kept in a state of artificial precarity, of forced poverty, of captive impoverishment, that grows more severe by the year, because that's the only way capitalism can keep on increasing its profits - which is all that anyone in the system cares about.


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,

  • anxiety

  • powerlessness

  • helplessness

  • despair...


(Remember, by "capitalism", I mean the real thing - your local baker, brewer, butcher aren't capitalists any more than than Stalinist communism was European social democracy.


Capitalism is,

  • Wall St

  • Goldman Sachs

  • Facebook

  • hedge funds looting pensions

  • private equity funds deliberately bankrupting great and historic companies

  • share price targets set for no reason other than profit,

...and your local brewer isn't doing any of that.


So there's a huge, huge difference between decent, sane, ethical business, enterprise, trade, endeavor - and predatory capitalism - but (North) Americans seem not to have ever been told that.)

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 capitalist.

Capitalism has made America a country of institutionalized trauma. That's not a coincidence. That's a relationship. The profit rate can never be allowed to fall in a purely capitalist economy - even if it means driving every last soul except Jeff Bezos and the Waltongs into abject misery, despair, anxiety, and poverty.


But let me explain the link more clearly, because I think this is the heart of the matter.

Think of what trauma really is. Human beings have three primal fears. The fear of annihilation, the fear of abandonment, and the fear of engulfment, or being overwhelmed. But those are precisely the three fears that (North) Americans are confronted with every single day - as if it's perfectly normal to live that way.


They're 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.

But that's exactly how capitalism controls people, too.

Hey! You'd better work 18 hours a day! Or else we might abandon you. You might end up with no job.


And what happens then? Then you might get annihilated. You might fall through the cracks, and end up homeless, bankrupt, invisible.


Want that? I didn't think so.


So be overwhelmed instead - with "work", whose only point is to make a mega-rich person richer, while you face ruin every single day.

(That's a remnant of the social Darwinism that has always ruled America. Only the strong survive! Those subhumans - they're weaklings - they were meant to be our slaves.


This way of thinking, of master and slave, of superior and inferior, is itself evidence of an immature, split, broken-apart personality - one that's never learned to value life, itself or anybody else's in any mature or thoughtful way.)

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.

  • Either they must choose to be overwhelmed - so they're not annihilated or abandoned


  • Or they must choose to be abandoned, so that they're not overwhelmed


  • Or they must choose to be annihilated, so their loved aren't abandoned or overwhelmed.

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:

they're choosing to be annihilated, so their families are abandoned or overwhelmed.

The schoolkid who has to pretend to die, in "active shooter drills" - he has to be annihilated and overwhelmed, so he's not abandoned.


The 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.

(North) Americans are left by predatory capitalism in a terrible existential trilemma, in other words.


hey have to choose one of the three great primal fears:

  • abandonment

  • annihilation

  • engulfment, as to minimize the others… but they can never choose none of them.


It's a profoundly painful place to be. Who can blame them for being angry, stressed, distressed… depressed, anxious, suicidal?

What (North) Americans really are is traumatized, and traumatized badly. In the textbook sense. I'd bet that more (North) Americans than not literally have panic attacks thinking about money.

Heart palpitations thinking about their futures.


That their blood runs cold thinking about retirement.


That they feel dizzy, sometimes, lose their bearings, when they think about their lives, and where they ended up.

But these are all textbook signs of trauma. Physiological and psychological both.

Why doesn't anybody notice?


Why doesn't anybody care?

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.

"If it happened to me - I'm going to do it to you! That way, I can prove to myself that it couldn't really have been that bad! I feel like the world is fair again!


And I feel strong and powerful, too!"

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.

"This should never have happened to you.


You were failed, and failed badly, by just those people and systems whose job it was to look after you. To nourish and to nurture you. To protect and value you.


Instead, you were preyed on and abused."

Then come the tears.

Of shame. Of guilt. Of anger. Of injustice, of time forever lost, of relationships sundered, and truths never told...

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 through us.

Yet those terrible fears also give us the greatest gifts of all.


Did you know that?

They are why we can feel empathy. Why we can love. Why we can be touched by a sense of grace.


We can say,

"I feel this grief and pain in you, too."

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.

And that is where many (North) Americans never ended up.


Capitalism made them face this impossible, terrible trilemma,

between abandonment, annihilation, and engulfment.

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.)

Hence, America came to celebrate cruelty, selfishness, greed - in a way the rest of the world finds strange and horrific.


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,

how can you love anyone? Take care of them? Nourish and protect them? Like a neighbor? A friend? A compatriot? Or even just someone standing beside you on the shores of the waters of life and death?

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.

And still nobody seems to notice, and nobody seems to care...