America is the only nation brought forth by a set of beliefs, and those beliefs, captured so eloquently in our founding documents, are some of the most powerful and inspiring ever conceived. We consider this to be the land of the free, where the individual is supreme and nothing prevents us from going as far as our talents can take us. That image of America – that “brand” – is incredibly strong.
However, there’s a very large gap between that long-held image and the reality of America today. What was once a government built for the people is now a government run for the rich and powerful, one that throws the people under the bus whenever their interests differ from those of the corporate and political leaders who run the show.
And living in one world (the corrupt) while stubbornly believing you live in another (the ideal), despite mounds of evidence, causes a distinct kind of stress, often called cognitive dissonance.
Psychologists suggest that when people are in a state of cognitive dissonance, they’ll search for a way to resolve it, either by rejecting one view or the other as either wrong or unimportant. If you’re a smoker looking at the link between smoking and cancer, for example, you’ll either quit smoking or decide that the research is biased, wrong, or doesn’t apply (in other words, that you’re smart enough to quit before the long-term damage is done).
But what happens if you can’t resolve the two?
For most of us Americans, resolving our cognitive dissonance would mean either accepting that we’re impotent and living futile (and feudal) lives, or rejecting our lifestyles and actively fighting the rot in the system. If we’re not willing to do either of those, the dissonance stays – and eats at us.
People carrying this kind of ongoing, underlying stress find ways of coping with it; in America we’re doing it with self-medication, compulsive behaviors and distractions. Consider the following examples of the way we cope with the ever-present stress in our lives:
- Drugs – Our country is awash in drugs, both legal and illegal, that keep us numb. In 2014, there were 245 million prescriptions filled for opioid pain relievers. The number of deaths from drug overdoses has risen from around 30,000 in 2005 to 64,000 in 2016. And communities across the country are being devastated by the opioid epidemic, as explained in this in-depth reporting by Cincinnati.com.
- Drinking – People don’t only use drugs to self-medicate; drinking does the trick as well, and we’re doing a lot more of it than we used to. According to a new study in JAMA Psychiatry, overall drinking in the US increased by 11% between 2002-13, while high-risk and problem drinking rose even higher: high-risk drinking rose by 29.9%, while problem drinking rose by 50%.
- Mental Illness – In 2015, 17.9% of adults held a diagnosis for a mental disorder, while a 2010 study found that 46.3% of children ages 13-18 had a mental disorder at some point in their young lives, and the majority of those adults and children are given prescriptions. This includes a dramatic increase in ADHD diagnoses for children: According to SharpBrains, “Among children aged 5 to 18, between 1991-92 and 2008-09, rates of ADHD diagnosis increased nearly 4-fold among boys – from 39.5 to 144.6 per 1000 – and nearly 6-fold for girls – from 12.3 and 68.5 per 1000 visits.”
- Obesity – If drinking and drugs aren’t your thing – or even if they are – more of us are coping with stress by overeating, and it’s showing up on our waistlines. From 1990 to 2016, the average percentage of obese adults increased from 11.1% to 29.8%; when you add in the number of people who are overweight but not obese, it rises to more than two in three adults.
- Sleeping problems – Sleep has a significant impact on our physical and mental health, and in America we’re not getting enough of it: The CDC states that 50-70 million American adults have a sleep or wakefulness disorder.
- Media Usage – Is there any better distraction from life’s problems than media? We certainly spend a lot of our time being passively entertained: In 2016, Americans consumed an average of 10 hours of media per day, compared with 7.5 hours per day globally. Nielson reports that lower income adults spend much more time with media than do affluent adults, with adults in households with include under $25,000 watching 211 hours/month of television, versus 113 hours/month for adults in households earning $75,000 or more. (The trend is similar across other media as well.)
- The Disease of Debt – According to the New York Fed, household debt reached a new peak in the third quarter of 2017, at $12.8 trillion. Part of our debt problem comes from the compulsive shopping we do as a distraction; the other results from denying the reality that our wages aren’t keeping up with the increase in the cost of living, meaning that we use debt to plug the gap rather than reducing our living standards to align with our reality.
We’re collectively doing so much damage to ourselves, solely to protect our psyches from the reality that the America that used to be is no longer the America we have. And who does that help? As you can see from the points above, it doesn’t help us: Instead, it helps the rich and powerful who are subverting the system. They’re corrupting everything this country once was, and by willfully refusing to acknowledge that reality, we’re inadvertently helping them to do it.
The best thing we can do – for our mental and physical health, as well as for our country – is to open our eyes to what America has become, not what we wish it still was. It’s time to face reality and take action.