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High Anxiety, Low Abundance
America’s mental health crisis is an abundance crisis, too
America is becoming a nation of anxious people. Psychologists point to the rapid rise in anxiety, especially among teenagers and young adults, as evidence that our country is facing a mental health crisis. Just in the last two decades, the number of Americans receiving mental health treatment has increased from around 27 million to nearly 42 million people. In addition, more and more Americans are turning to wellness products such as cannabidiol (CBD) and meditation apps because of psychological distress.
However, the crisis extends far beyond mental health. Anxiety is undermining the very psychological foundation of a free and flourishing society—a belief in economic freedom. Therefore, America’s mental health challenge is also an abundance challenge: When we’re skeptical about the benefits that economic liberty can bring us, we’re erecting a needless barrier to human prosperity.
It’s Not Just COVID
It would be easy to attribute many pressing mental health problems to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, a 2021 meta-analysis featuring 29 studies of more than 80,000 youth from around the world found that the prevalence of anxiety and depression doubled during the pandemic. But even though anxiety levels increased during that time, this trend existed long before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. A study of Americans between 2008 and 2018 found a dramatic increase in anxiety, especially among adults aged 18 to 25. Furthermore, anxiety increased across racial, ethnic, gender and income groups. Adults over the age of 50 comprised the only group in which a significant increase in anxiety was not observed.
And high rates of anxiety are continuing even after the pandemic has ended and American life has largely returned to normal. A national survey conducted in August 2022 found half of American adults under the age of 30 (around one-third of adults overall) report feeling anxious all or most of the time. This survey also found that personal finances are the most common major source of stress among Americans. And young American adults are the most economically anxious; 55% of adults under the age of 30 report that personal finances are a major source of stress compared to 48% of adults ages 30 to 49, 34% of adults ages 50 to 64 and 17% of adults 65 and older. It’s not all that surprising, then, that their stance on economic liberty is increasingly one of risk aversion.
On the Defense
At the same time that young American adults are becoming more anxious, they also appear to be growing more skeptical of the economic freedom that has been a major driver of human progress. For instance, Gallup reports that, from 2010 to 2018, positive attitudes toward capitalism decreased from 68% to 45% among American adults under the age of 30.
I believe these trends are connected—that the rise in anxiety (and related psychological and social health problems) is undermining support for freedom in all its forms, from free speech to free markets. Our mental states play a critical role in our general orientation toward or away from freedom, as well as the aspirations and actions that turn freedom into flourishing.
Human motivation can be thought of in terms of defense and growth. Defensive motivation reflects our desire to protect ourselves from threats. It is about avoiding loss—loss of money, for example. Growth motivation reflects our desire to improve our lives. It is about achieving gains—say, a better standard of living. Both defense and growth are important. To thrive, we need to be able to preserve what we have already built (defense) while also continuing to explore, experiment, create and innovate (growth).
Anxiety is a psychological state that can help us self-regulate these two motivational tendencies. When we experience fear or anxiety, we become more defense-oriented, vigilant and risk-averse. This helps us protect ourselves from potential harm—either physical harm or other types, such as social or financial harm. But it also orients us away from freedom: When we are afraid or anxious, we are more willing to surrender liberty to gain security. For example, research finds that, the more fearful people are, the more they support restrictions on civil liberties.
Fear and anxiety also undermine the growth-oriented goals and behaviors that help people turn freedom into flourishing. For example, studies suggest that the more people experience anxiety, the less likely they are to engage in entrepreneurial activities. Whether we are building businesses, families, friendships or the broader institutions that advance civilizational progress, we need growth motivation to utilize freedom in ways that improve our lives and the world around us.
The challenge we now face is that the rise in anxiety among Americans is often less the result of actual threats that warrant a defensive mindset and more the result of a culture that encourages hypersensitivity and irrational fear. From overprotective parenting practices to scaremongering in the media, we are promoting the belief that the world is a dangerous place full of people who can’t be trusted. This leads Americans, especially young Americans, to disproportionately favor defense motivation over growth motivation.
This bias toward defense and away from growth—a bias driven by irrational fears—may ironically lead to an increase in more rational worries, which pushes people even more strongly toward a defense mindset. For instance, Americans are increasingly afraid to share their opinions on or even discuss certain topics based on the very real possibility that doing so will lead to reputational harm or cost them their livelihood. This self-censorship trend is especially prominent in the academic institutions that in the past excelled at offering growth-oriented activities such as open discussion of controversial topics and unorthodox viewpoints. Many students and faculty are now rationally anxious that they could lose scholarships, awards, promotions, jobs and even friends by saying something that others unreasonably perceive as a threat to their safety or well-being. After all, cancel culture is not just a hypothetical thing on college campuses. The more irrationally fearful a society becomes, the more it will develop norms, traditions, institutions and policies that give people real reasons to be anxious.
Overcoming Our Anxiety
If anxiety becomes a dominant trait in the American people, we are likely to see trends in social distrust, polarization, passivity and pessimism continue to get worse. And, as Americans become less growth-motivated, they will be less inclined to be the curious, tolerant, outgoing, optimistic, confident, creative, entrepreneurial and industrious people that make a pluralistic, dynamic, prosperous and free society like ours possible.
How do we counter this growing anxiety? Parents and early childhood educators have an important role to play. Studies find that children are more likely to develop anxiety if they have over-controlling parents—those who excessively regulate their children’s activities and decision-making, and who do not provide opportunities for their children to solve problems independently. Other research finds that children are more likely to be mentally healthy if they engage in adventurous play—child-led play that involves age-appropriate risk-taking and experiences of thrill and fear such as exploring woodlands without adults present or trying to perform stunts on a bike or skateboard. As children get older, parents should provide them with more and more opportunities to independently explore the world, solve problems and take personal responsibility.
Our educational institutions should also do a better job of teaching children and young adults about the history of human triumph over adversity and progress more broadly. For instance, a survey my colleagues and I conducted found that fewer than half of U.S. college students realize that humans have made progress over the last 50 years on many challenges such as extreme poverty, hunger and illiteracy. We also found that only about one quarter of students are optimistic about the future of the world. The more young people are able to appreciate that humans are resilient and have accomplished great things, often under very difficult circumstances, the less susceptible they may be to cultural messages that encourage anxiety and hopelessness.
In addition to finding ways to prevent or reduce anxiety, particularly anxiety that is rooted in overly pessimistic narratives about humanity, it is important to teach people that negative emotions are an important—indeed, necessary—part of living a goal-directed and meaningful life. That is, we shouldn’t seek to eliminate anxiety entirely. As previously noted, anxiety has real value in helping individuals self-regulate motivational tendencies.
Anxiety is also unavoidable. Even the most fortunate people must grapple with the anxieties inherent to being a self-conscious organism. Thus, it is vital for individuals to develop the internal psychological resources that they can utilize to manage anxiety in productive ways that put them back on the path toward personal growth. For example, recent research has found that encouraging people to seek out discomfort as a signal of personal growth increases their motivation when they are pursuing personal growth goals. More broadly, we need to promote a holistic view of well-being that recognizes the value of engaging in physically and psychologically unpleasant activities to improve one’s own life and make meaningful contributions to the world. Raising children, starting a new business, working extra hours to achieve a financial goal, pursuing a difficult academic degree and going to the gym every day to get in good physical shape are just a few examples of the kinds of ambitions that can be very stressful at times but that ultimately allow individuals to reach their full potential and truly flourish.
When we talk about freedom, we focus on its legal, economic, political and philosophical foundations. But we also need to start spending more time focusing on the psychological foundation of freedom. Without it, the other foundations will crumble.