In modern American history, there have been times when our nation’s cultural ethos has led us to serve others and dedicate ourselves to the greater good. The greatest generation fought to end tyranny during World War II. Civil rights protesters risked their lives for social justice in the 1960s. Hippies and anti-Vietnam War protesters brought about a cultural revolution based on peace, love and understanding.
But at the end of the summer of love, after we had had enough babies, our collective consciousness took a decisive turn inward. Author and cultural critic Tom Wolfe defined the 1970s as “the decade of the self” in a 1976 article in New York magazine, kicking off what became a Half-Century Me. Our ideals began to move away from the idea that we depended on each other for our health and well-being and towards priming individualism, supporting personal achievement as the ultimate success.
The Moi Decade was part of the Greed Decade of the 1980s, with the unofficial mascot of suspender-loving financier Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street coining the “greed is good” mantra. Grabbing and grabbing personal wealth in the 80s blossomed into the rampant law of the 1990s, aka the Self-Esteem Decade, when everyone received a trophy and our own feelings and needs came first.
During these years, books on the toxicity of self-focus and bratitude began to appear. Around the turn of the century, with the widespread use of the internet and social media, we started posting endlessly about our lunch, creating YouTube channels and uploading a million selfies. Me Culture has again evolved to take a holistic approach to mindfulness by “living your better life” and “next your passion.” “Self-Care” was elevated as the panacea for all that ails us. Influencers and the Soul Patrol espoused that by always working on ourselves, we would find happiness.
Each generation has its version of “I make myself”. We’ve been immersed in Me Culture, in its various permutations, for 50 years, doubling and tripling on all-me-ism. And it would be great, if the scientific data showed that it had any beneficial effect on health.
The truth is, it’s not all about you. It never was. And by focusing on ourselves, we can actually harm ourselves. The selfish culture has taught us to take care of ourselves first and fuck everyone. But this attitude left us alone and empty, and sparked an epidemic of anxiety. Research has found that the more people focus solely on themselves, the worse off they can be on nearly every metric that can be measured: physical and mental health, emotional well-being, and job success.
We don’t denigrate self-care and self-mindfulness…In terms of happiness and success, exclusively self-centered self-care just isn’t as effective as other-centered care. Looking outward, making human connections, serving and caring for others – the opposite of looking inward – has proven benefits in relieving stress. Science holds that relationships are the key to resilience.
Despite our obsession with self-care and our devotion to well-being, we don’t fare very well. According to various reports:
In what is probably the longest scientific study ever conducted (80+ years), the Harvard Study of Adult Development (also known as the Harvard Grant Study) began tracking the health of 268 sophomores at Harvard, beginning in 1938 and consulting them regularly over time. The researchers followed the trajectory of their lives, with the aim of identifying the key factors responsible for good health and happiness. Only a handful of people originally enrolled in the study are still alive, but the results over the years paint a clear picture of the importance of human connection to health, vitality and longevity.
A meaningful relationship was not only the key to good health and longevity, but also to the well-being of the Grant study subjects. After decades of rigorous investigations, in what we believe to be one of the finest bloodlines in the history of academia, George Vaillant, MD, study director for 40 years, said, “The 75-year-olds and the $20 million spent on the Harvard Grant Study points to … a simple five-word conclusion: “Happiness is love. And that’s all.””
This excerpt was adapted from wonder drug by Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli. Copyright 2022 by the authors and reprinted with permission from St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Stephen Trzeciak, MD, MPH, is Chief of Medicine at Cooper University Health Care, and Professor and Chair of Medicine at Cooper Medical School, Rowan University. Anthony Mazzarelli, MD, JD, MBE, is Co-Chair/CEO of Cooper University Health Care and Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs at Cooper Medical School at Rowan University.