Rich, Free and Miserable

January 17, 2011 | By | 4 Comments

I attended a lecture a couple of days ago given by John Brueggerman, a sociolgy professor at Skidmore College and author of Rich, Free and Miserable: The Failure of Success in America. Brueggerman points out that, as a society, Americans are as prosperous as ever but also a lot less healthy and happy than ever.

Brueggerman says that our pressures to work, compete and consume have undermined our engagement in meaningful relationships. He was preaching to the choir when I was in the audience. My forthcoming book, The Business of Wanting More is all about why when we get what we think we want most we simply want more of it. There is indeed a sociological pattern in most developed countries that has everyone telling themselves and each other that more is better. The more we are hungry to consume, the more businesses want to sell to us and the more we need to work to pay for the stuff I’m not convinced we need.

The result is shown in some of Bruggerman’s stats and research:

  • Americans have increased the number of hours they worked every year in all but 5 years since 1945.
  • Two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese
  • Divorce rate: 50%
  • 40% of married couples report being “very happy” in their marriage (down from 54% in 1974
  • 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety
  • the total cost to society of alcohol abuse in America was $184 billion in 1991

Then there were these two peices of data I found interesting:

  • the number of 25-45 year olds living alone has increased 400% in the last 30 years.
  • the number of people that the average Amercian says they can confide in has dropped from three in 1986 to zero today.

Brueggermann’s premise is that the root of the increase in prospourous but unhappy people is the decline in community caused to a some extent by technology like TV and PDAs but also by the dominance of the role of business, the economy and the market over other institutions like church, government, family and community. He says the solution is in building community.

 I believe the core need that drives most of our behavior is our desire for connection so I am sold on the need for meaningful relationships.  His stats and trends are interesting but what really hit home was this thing about community.

I was reflecting only a few days ago about what would happen in the way of support if a personal crisis hit my family – illness, death, disablity. Who would support us? How would I support my family of orgin who lives 1,500 miles away if a crisis struck one of them.

My virtual community (friends and family spread around and see every so often) exists but I am not part of a real community like a church or community of neighbors that drop everything and care for each other. I’m not sure I, or many people around me, even know how to create community. As I get older I suspect this will be on my mind even more.

Where do you plug into a caring community?

Filed in: Work/Life Balance

About the Author (Author Profile)

Executive coach, top team facilitator, author and speaker. I work with individual leaders and their teams to help navigate personal and professional transitions and to increase leadership capacity and improve communication and relationship skills. I founded my coaching firm in 2001 following 12 years asa CEO. Check out more on me and my coaching process in my book "The Business of Wanting More: Why Some Executives Move from Success to Fulfillment and Others Don't"

Comments (4)

  1. Mike Kraft

    Hi Brian. Great post. It won’t surprise you to hear that I think a lot about community. In the last year, I’ve been making a concerted effort to reach out and live into my belief that connection matters and more of it, while uncomfortable at times, is better. Thanks for working to spread the message. I’m afraid that most people are so disconnected from meaningful, satisfying relationships that they truly don’t know they need human contact.

    My two cents anyway…

    • Mike – Take a look at “Bowling Alone” if you haven’t. A thick book about the decline in community. It’s filled with research including the trends in bowling leagues. In the 50’s and 60’s everyone was in a bowling league – after TV usage took off, among other factors, things changed. I look forward to comparing notes on the places you find to plug in – any community would be blessed to have you a part of it. Brian

  2. Thanks for this important discussion. In addition to close personal relationships, I feel a growing need to take community wherever I go. For most of my life I sought community and found security through the company of like-minded individuals in churches and other faith-sharing groups. After a while, that ‘sameness’ I perceived served less to strengthen me and more to soften me, as if locked in a comfortable sanctuary, making me feel stale and stagnant. These days I am finding community in the ordinary interactions that arise every day, at work, or in line at a theater, or checking out at the grocery store. There’s a richness in diversity. Introducing myself to the janitor in the men’s room at the office building I once worked in, gained me not only a friend who now would smile and acknowledge me in the hallway, but also a lesson in humility for the times when I took pity on myself, thinking I had it so bad for whatever reason I had at my job that day.
    I also pay particular attention to names, and name tags. It is fascinating to me the increase in eye contact and conscious reaction that comes when I call people by name. It may be for only a moment, and for all I know, I may never see them again, but at least in that instance we can share a real human moment, a genuine smile, a remnant of community. I guess it stems from the necessity to fill in my deficit of actual interaction, not crooning my neck to a 3 inch screen, not feigning connection through the wireless facebooking cyberworld, but actual physical human presence. I believe we all need more of it, for with it the world can be a better place.

    • Brian – I love the practical ideas you share about increasing connection and building community – I hear you saying that these things are available to us, we just need to look around. Brian

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