A recent article on The Atlantic website described America as “a nation of hand-wringers.”  The author, Maura Kelly, notes that one in five Americans has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and that we are the most anxious nation in the world:  “According to a recent World Health Organization study, 31 percent of Americans are likely to suffer from an anxiety problem at some point during their lifetimes — compared to 25.3 percent of those in Colombia, and 24.6 percent in New Zealand, the countries that rank second and third.”  Our anxiety levels are elevated even in comparison to countries such as Nigeria, where the necessities of life are much harder to come by.   And the future promises more of the same: “Millennials and Generation Xers are more nervous than their elders and less capable of handling the pressure in their lives, much of which comes from worries related to money and work.”

So, why are we so anxious?  Kelly’s argument can be distilled to the following:

  1. We as a nation believe that we are a meritocracy: We think that those who are talented and hardworking will rise to the top.
  2. We are actually near the bottom in social mobility.  Kelly draws here on Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by Chris Hayes and The Meritocracy Myth by Steven McNamee.  The powerful have advantages that allow them to accumulate more power; their children are in a very favored position compared to the offspring of the rest of us.
  3. Since we believe that success is a matter of our ability and effort, we’re likely to hold ourselves responsible in the high likelihood that we won’t do as well as we had hoped.  We take our success or lack thereof as a measure of our worth.
  4. Since we view our accomplishments as an indication of our worth, our self-esteem is on the line in the decisions that we make.  If our decisions turn out to be less than optimal, it means that we are less than optimal.  This makes times of decision fraught with uncertainty and turmoil.  Adding to the decision-related stress, we often are faced with too many options, and many of us don’t have any good choices to pick from.

The argument is an interesting one, though other reasons for our high levels of anxiety can be suggested. Another possibility is that, as the dominant nation in our hemisphere, our territory has never been seriously threatened, and thus we’ve never had to accept the sort of external dangers that most countries live with.  As a result, the terrorist threat of the last decade has been much more disconcerting to us than to the rest of the world.  Despite the availability of alternative explanations, I do think there is something to Kelly’s argument.  Whereas fear typically has to do with physical danger, with anxiety the threat is usually to the self.  We may be more fearful than we were, but we also seem more anxious, suggesting that our selves are vulnerable in some way.  Believing that our worth depends on our accomplishments but facing daunting obstacles to success seems as likely a threat as any to our self-esteem.

Kelly’s solution to our surfeit of anxiety is to rid ourselves of the myth of meritocracy.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any suggestions of how this can be accomplished.  Myths, including this one, exist for a reason.  Our idea that the competent and determined will succeed has its roots in the American frontier, where one depended not on family ties or titles but on grit and know-how.  The frontier may be gone, but its legacy remains and will doubtlessly be difficult to discard regardless of its psychic cost.