Beyond materialism: dark hearts – studies show lack of meaning and morality among adults
A funny thing happened to psychologist Susan Krause Whitbourne. She thought she was researching how personality changes over the course of adulthood. But when she looked at the results of her longitudinal study, she was staring straight at the philosophical malaise of modern Americans.
What she found was that since the mid-1960s, when she started her study, Americans have lost a sense of personal meaning. They’re working more – but far more full of despair.
In all three cohorts of adults she has added, tested, and retested over 22 years, every measure of psychosocial development improved with age. Except one. In her most recent round of testing, she was surprised to see a “precipitous decline” in ego integrity, a personality factor relating to wholeness, honesty, and meaning in life and to having a sense of connection with others.
At first she thought it was restricted to the yuppie generation of her study – people with a notoriously empty lifestyle focused on wealth and possessions,” she reports in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 63, No. 2). But when it turned up in all three groups at the same time, she could only conclude it reflects a more general society-wide crisis of morality and purpose affecting adults of all ages.’
A professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Whitbourne began testing personality variables at the University of Rochester in 1966. Students scored low on industry; they lacked “a focus on work and material success.” Like others of their era, they were disenchanted with the work ethic.
Over time, and with exposure to the real world, their personal industry began to climb. By 1988, when yet another cohort joined the study, the three groups were equally slaving away. But ego integrity had plummeted. All three groups were now questioning life’s worth.
What happened between 1977 and 1988? “People got caught up in chasing the materialistic dream. They got recognition for their achievements, yet don’t feel that what they are doing matters in the larger scheme of things”
The scores on life satisfaction were so low, Whitbourne says, they couldn’t go any lower. She thinks people are now looking for ways to put more meaning in life. There are no data. “My belief,” she confides, “is based on hope.”
COPYRIGHT 1993 Sussex Publishers, Inc.
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