• Hazelden Renewal Center

How Culture is Turning Us All Into Unhappy Fools

Those of us in the field of addiction recovery understand all too well the concept of euphoric recall. We chase things outside ourselves to make us happy based on a thrilling memory of how they once did, albeit temporarily. Our pulse rate increases, we get arousing physical sensations and we can’t stop thinking about the magical moments we once had with some ecstatic experience. Indeed it wasn’t the experience itself that made us happy; it was the fantasy around this experience that gave us bliss, a bliss we will never forget. However this happiness is a sham because it is artificial and doesn’t enhance our life. Inevitably we crash. Our basic underlying unhappiness returns with a vengeance and is magnified. We are actually worse off than before we pursued our fantasy, mostly because we are losing control. Indeed the tables have been turned. We’re no longer the pursuers; we’re the pursued.

This basic recovery concept applies to how many of us naively allow culture to invade and inevitably control our lives, even when it doesn’t appear to. Initially we are thrilled by the incredible promise of the bright new shiny object. Based on how all of our friends are swept away by this object and how we are hounded by the media we feel we have no other choice than to do what every body else is doing—we buy the object. The discerning part of our brain gets shut down and we don’t even ask ourselves how our identities and lives will be affected by chasing and living with this shiny object. We fool ourselves into believing that we have to have this object and ignore the many ways that our lives have been made more complicated and less satisfying by it. Our ennui over this let down leads us to seek out even more new bright and shiny objects ad nauseum.

Too many of us are on the treadmill of such cultural addiction. Many of us otherwise sane people fill the offices of mental health practitioners simply because we have allowed culture to rule our lives. We would all be way better off if we maintained balance and discernment in how we allow culture to invade ourselves. We could all use a good dose of cultural sobriety.

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I’ll never forget last Thanksgiving day. All of us were around the table with our grandparents whom we had not seen in ages and none of us were listening to each other. The younger ones were playing video games under the table. My teen sisters were texting all their friends. My brothers were watching NFL games on their iPhones. Cell phones were buzzing every 10 minutes. Finally my granddad stood up at the table and rather sternly said, “We will now say grace. Dear Lord, let us count the blessings we are about to receive after we free ourselves from our distractions. Please forgive us from running away from what is most loving in our lives.” He then went around the table with a basket, asking each of us to deposit our electronic gear until dinner was done. One by one we reluctantly let go of our devices. There was a hush in the room that you could cut with a knife. Finally we each began to talk about our lives, one by one, and there was a lot of listening going on and a lot of joy. After dinner none of us went back to our devices at least for the day and it was the best Thanksgiving dinner we ever had. Truly we received our grandfather’s blessings.

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How culture damages family life

Ortega y Gasset, a famous Hispanic philosopher, once said, “I am me plus my context. If I cannot change my context, I cannot change me.” Indeed, we are all inundated, thanks to our multiple media driven world, with messages that are constantly shaping our daily lives. Culture bombards us, comes inside our living rooms and lives inside our heads like never before, thanks to the market-driven, technological revolution of the last 30 years. Such intrusions result in mass brainwashing and social control, so much so, that many of us have diminished self-confidence and less secure personal identities. We don’t know it is okay to be ourselves unless our Facebook and Twitter friends tell us it is okay. We lack the ability to make informed personal decisions on our own without our attachments to our iPhones. If you have any doubts about this dependency, just try to live with no electronic gear for a week, or say even a day. You’ll have your answer.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota showed two types of video games to preschoolers. The sweet Barney purple dinosaur video games resulted in the kids marching around the room singing and cooperating together after seeing the games. Later, this same group of kids were shown violent Ninja Turtles game. After the games these very same loving kids started kicking and karate chopping each other in a complete melee that left some kids crying. We are all very much the product of our culture and under its spell.

Despite the many clear advantages of the new technology (indeed, this article is being written on my iBook laptop), there are incredibly many disadvantages to the technological revolution. If you’ve read my prior articles on this topic you will know that I am not a big fan of the new technology. I could go on for the next 10 years’ worth of Phoenix articles on this topic. One only has to see the eye rolls and smirks of an older generation to know there is something very wrong about a pair of young adults on a date sitting side by side endlessly texting each other, having no eye contact and exchanging no words with one another. This is to say nothing of the younger mother with toddlers in tow crawling all over her to get a few seconds of her attention as she talks endlessly on her cell phone. What has gone so horribly wrong with our culture is that it is designed to deter us from making heartfelt connections with one another and personal connections with ourselves.

Technological time primarily engages the left thinking parts of our brains; it is devoid of right brain thinking, the imagistic, intuitive and compassionate parts of ourselves that allow us to feel attached and confident. The repetition of such training retrains our brains, making us less attached and less confident. We become smart about things but dumb about people. When the poet said, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” he really knew what he was talking about. We all require regular real life, flesh-and-blood, face-to-face contact with each other to fully know and accept ourselves and to be less alone in life. Though amazing, Skype is no replacement for real life hugs.

Social origins of cultural control

In our wired, media-driven world we are all much less happier and way more anxious as a society than we were 40 years ago, according to many social indicators. In fact we were the most happy and less anxious during the heyday of social connection: the late 1960s and early 1970s. The years of highest social capital—a marker of community involvement and social interaction—was in fact 40 years ago. Neighbors did more stuff with each other when they didn’t have computers. Ironically it seems that the more electronically connected we are to each other, the less we are emotionally and civically engaged to one another.

This research only makes sense. Why go out and help out at our church potluck when we can just as easily stay home and chat with our Facebook “friends?” Even how we help our neighbor has changed. We would rather text $10 on our cell phones to fund a local school, a noble thing to do, than actually volunteer our time to help struggling students laboriously learn how to read. This easy electronic access to people has caused many of us to not know what it is like to be in other’s shoes or share the nitty-gritty struggles of people who are different from us. In our new age we actually know each other less in an emotional sense and our compassion for others gets watered down. This detachment from others may be the reason why so many of us are distrustful of others and unwilling to pay our fair share of taxes. Moreover, we also become unaware of ourselves and why we do what we do. We become more dependent on culture to tell us who we are. Thus we learn very little.

Sadly, when people get more emotionally removed from each other, they become depressed and low for ways to fill the void for what is missing in their lives. That’s where the new technology comes in along with the plethora of marketing forces, to be our quick fix. Designer drugs, smart phones and electronic apps are all there for us, at a price. Sorrowfully, what many shoppers who line up days ahead of time in frigid weather to get the best sales on Black Friday have in common is a bad case of insecurity and depression orchestrated by the media. After all, what kind of parents would we be if we weren’t giving our kids that latest i-devices? There are no bargains in being a slave to culture, only heartaches.

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You know it just never occurred to me how awful it is to get scientific information. My husband and I thought we were being progressive parents when we had DNA testing done on our first-born. The results show that our child has significant risk for Alzheimer’s when she ages. We were horrified. So when do we share these results with her? Are we supposed to just worry about her for the next 60 years? It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

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Using discernment and practicing cultural sobriety

It’s best to recognize when you’ve lost control of your life due to buying into cultural norms. If your relationships with others or your personal identity has been impaired due to your preoccupation with the latest gadgets of culture, then you have a problem. Examples include avoiding quality relationships with loved ones due to your use of electronica, over-debting due to buying the latest hot gadgets, or living in an isolated fantasy world that excludes real friendships. Perhaps the best way to tell if you are a slave to culture is to take an extended period of time away from electronica and see how well you handle unplugged time. If you become anxious, irritable and simply cannot live without your gadgets you likely have a problem with cultural sobriety. Generally it’s best to slowly wean yourself off of cultural slavery to attain a more balanced  use of media and technology. Two good books to read on this topic are: Shiny Objects (Harper One, 2011) by James Roberts to identify problem cultural patterns, and Calming Your Anxious Mind (New Harbinger, 2007) to learn how to manage the anxiety underlying your addiction using body sensitive mindfulness.

Realize that getting swept away by culture is not about pursuing powerful magic outside of yourself but about running away from the ordinary magic that already exists inside yourself that is too scary for you to embrace. Let us not replace people by thing nor run away from the better parts of ourselves.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul. He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article was first published in the January/February 2013 issue.

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