American Mania summary
Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, Americans suffer epidemic rates of stress, anxiety, depression, obesity, and time urgency. Drawing upon rich scientific studies, American Mania offers a comprehensive explanation for the addictive mania of consumerism grounded in the biology of the brain’s reward system.
American Mania notes & quotes
Here are my notes and quotes on American Mania by Peter C. Whybrow. My notes are casual and include what I believe are the essential concepts, ideas, and insights from the book, along with direct quotes from the author.
- Americans live in a time-starved addictive mania, an orgy of self-indulgence.
In the Fast New World, the market has become less effective at distributing economic activity for the common good.
Introduction: The Manic Society
- “In our compulsive drive for more, we are making ourselves sick.”
- For most Americans, the dramatic rise in material wealth has not translated into greater well-being.
- The demands for securing and maintaining material wealth in a changing economy have created “an accelerated, competitive lifestyle that steals away sleep and kindles anxiety, threatening the intimate social webs that sustain family and community.”
- Self-destructive behaviors often result from conflicting forces frequently outside conscious awareness.
- The instinct for self-preservation is the primary driver of human behavior.
- Humans are “intensely social creatures.”
- We are loyal to those we love and trust while aggressive and punitive toward those we don’t.
- One of the significant challenges of modern living is that abundance requires us to be internally disciplined and not overindulge.
- Migrants are restless and ingenious, and the U.S. represents the world’s largest population of such individuals.
- Migrants have tremendous resolve in their quest for betterment and individual achievement.
- “The strain of unbridled manic pursuit, whether we enjoy it or not, is damaging to both health and happiness.”
- This book aims to improve your self-awareness so you can make more conscious choices that lessen the strain of our American mania.
Chapter 1: Adam Smith’s American Dream: Of Desire and Debt
- The central message is that every American can write their own story.
- Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe anyone in America can become rich and live the good life.
- Such bounding optimism makes America a unique and seductive place to live.
- But “America’s accelerated lifestyle is increasingly a source of anxiety and frustration.”
- Technology has replaced tranquility.
- Many experience a vague but pervasive sense of unease. Others experience irritability and ready anger when faced with the daily demands of family and the workplace. Most are aware of declining life satisfaction, perpetually off balance with too many requests and too little time to meet them.
- American culture is being exported worldwide.
- For most American families, staggering debt has become a way of life; the American Dream is heavily mortgaged.
- The problem is not need but our craving for more in an abundant culture that promotes consumption as a means to the good life.
- Adam Smith argued that self-interest and instinctual curiosity could fuel personal and social improvement.
- “Mankind is disposed to make parade of our riches and conceal our poverty.” — Adam Smith
- Adam Smith was impressed with Francis Hutcheson’s assertion that “desire and self-interest are balanced by a need to be loved by others and by the need for social acceptance."
- “The accumulation of material wealth is now America’s yardstick of social success. In the race to “get ahead” and to triumph as an individual, competitive struggle and conspicuous consumption dominate our daily experience.”
- Empathy and concern for society are learned mainly by imitation, which is why they are so fragile.
- Thorsten Veblen suggested that material possessions are essential for social class in America, where traditional social hierarchies and family loyalties are weaker
- “Americans, at the bone, are a self-selected group of hard-working opportunists with an insatiable hunger for self-improvement.”
Chapter 2: Curiosity and the Promised Land: Of Origins and Opportunism
- Given a choice, most humans prefer familiar territory and are homebodies.
- Americans are unique because we are born of migration, restless seekers who run at the edge of the herd.
- Social advancement and economic success in the new culture are associated with these traits: “Intuitive understanding of social hierarchy and the intelligence to exploit that understanding, together with independence, a strong work ethic, and the ability to accept criticism with flexibility.”
Chapter 3: The Freedom to Strive: Of Risk and Reward
- Temperament and character are the two components of “personality.”
- “An optimistic view of one’s own ability and of the future is essential to risk behavior.”
- “Novelty seeking people migrate to where there’s action and novelty.”
- “Restlessness, a willingness to take risk, a curiosity about what is over the next hill, and the persistence to keep moving in search of a better future are all positive attributes for the pioneer and the explorer.”
- “Choose any American at random,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “and he should be a man of burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and love all an innovator.”
Chapter 4: America Bubbles Over: Of Globalization and Greed
- “We have passed beyond need and called into addictive striving for more: for more money, more speed, more house, more car, more food, more choice, and more power.”
- In our pursuit of more, we’ve created a competitive, unstable workplace, diminished time for family and community life, fragmented sleep, obesity, anxiety, and chronic stress.”
- Manic behavior is associated with an overload of dopamine in the brain.
- “In the manic society, as in mania, when the human will is made subservient to instinctual desire, more is never enough.”
Chapter 5: A Growing Burden: Of Appetite and Abundance
- “The more mobile we are, the less active we become. It’s another paradox of America’s Fast New World.”
- Biologically we are designed to store excess food as fat for lean times. Some people are genetically better suited for famine than others. In our modern world of excess,
- “American who are genetically equipped to survive most proficiently during depriving times are the ones who now suffer the most.”
- Mexican-Americans and Native Americans are most vulnerable to the contemporary American diet.
- “In America, eating has been transformed from a basic necessity of life to a commercially driven, reward-centered recreational activity—as exemplified in McDonald’s jingle, ‘you deserve a break today.’”
- “Amid the frenzy of a demand-driven, twenty-four-hour society, food has become divorced from hunger and the nutritional need, with the result that the natural relationship between our bodies and what we had has fallen out of balance.”
- Basic categories of taste we can innately distinguish: are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, Bitter, and fresh meaty-mushroom taste the Japanese call umami.
- “Processed food accounts for some 90% of the food purchased in America today.”
Diet has been found to affect social behavior. Specifically, low-fat diets are linked to aggression and competitive behaviors.
- “The human brain consumes approximately 20 to 25% of all the calories that the body uses when at rest, and requires stable supplies of energy for optimal function.”
- The most significant source of fuel for the brain is fat.
- The human body has been adapted for survival under frugal circumstances, but because abundance is a relatively new phenomenon, the body is not yet adapted for excess.
Chapter 6: The Time Trade: Of Clocks and Competition
- “In the ultimate paradox of America's Fast New World, we are running short of time.”
- The paradox of America's prosperity is that despite a massive increase in disposable income, especially in the professions and business, many families are too busy to enjoy their affluence.
- “The Time investment devoted to securing wealth has crowded out family time and threatens the intimacy on which humans thrive.”
- Further, families earning the most money are often the least inclined to slow down.
- Anxiety is the emotion most closely linked to primordial fear.
- "Happiness in most cultures is tied to intimacy, which is sustained through a circle of friends and family bound together by trust and mutual support.”
- “After a certain level of income, all the evidence suggests that happiness comes from the interaction with other people.” — Alexander Bystritsky
- Sleep deprivation and anxiety tend to reinforce each other in a progressive cycle.
- Even though we are more connected than ever, people feel more alone than ever before.
- “In America, the responsibility of living life to the fullest is both a privilege and a burden.”
- Upward social mobility is integral to the American model. It explicitly promises increasing material well-being for each new generation, but such prosperity entails significant competition and chronic stress, which some are unwilling to endure.
- “In the promised land, enough is never enough.”
- The competitive yearning for prosperity drives America’s insatiable appetite for time.
- Despite the toll on our bodies and minds, we deceive ourselves that it’s not as bad as it is, or at least success is worth the effort.
- Ultimately, the affections of kinship and family give meaning to existence.
Chapter 7: Dreams For Sale: Of Culture and Commerce
- We are capable of building environments so addictive to our instinct for self-reward that we can make ourselves sick—pushing the body and the mind to their limits and beyond. This is the American paradox of prosperity.
- “America’s culture is unabashedly materialistic, competitive, and commercially driven. It seduces through the power of marketing and the promise of pleasure, creating a mass culture of uniform style based on desire and ambition.”
- Companies like Disney, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola cater to our innate drive of curiosity, self-interest, fantasy fulfillment, and craving for stimulants.
- “McDonald’s has industrialized eating. Fast food, originally intended to mean fast service, has come to mean fast eating. McDonald’s symbolizes speed. Fast food is designed to accommodate the Fast New World, where work is central. The average time spent in a fast-food restaurant in America is eleven minutes.”
- “Together these icons of American pop culture are selling reassurance and comfort in a stressful world—moments of fantasy in a friendly, tidy place where everything works as it should, where there are tasty things to eat and drink, and where happiness prevails.”
Chapter 8: The Roots of Happiness: Of Compassion and Community
- For humans, living in groups of about eight to twenty individuals is the natural order of things and the most efficient.
- Intelligence is driven forward by competitive collaboration or working together and learning from each other.
- Beyond money, markets are the underpinning of community life, the bedrock on which social relationships are built, and a forum where information is exchanged.
- Human empathy is mostly a learned behavior similar to language.
- Empathy is what transcends self-interest; it is the capacity to understand the joy and suffering of others.
- Surveys suggest that in line with our growing affluence, rates of happiness have declined, as well as satisfaction with marriage, work and finance, and the homes we live in.
- Intimacy, not materialism, buffers the stress of everyday living. Meaning is found in the social bond.
- Happiness is tied to the intimacy of companions and friendships.
Chapter 9: Finding Balance in the Age of The Merchant: Of Self and Society
- The demand-driven frenzy of the material world crowds out awareness of the present moment, making it difficult to achieve the happiness of inner harmony and balance.
- Happiness is linked to “how one chooses to live in time with oneself and others.”
- The emotional insight gained from living honestly in the moment is fundamental to personal happiness.
- “The delicate ribbons of inner experience that mark the ebb and flow of time in human biology are tied to ancient planetary experience, while clocks serve the necessary coordination of our commercial world.”
- “Finding personal happiness is an individual responsibility.”
- “In America, we have confused happiness with the pursuit of pleasure…Happiness cannot be pursued. Happiness is something that wells up from inside.” - Tom, an interviewee
- “Physical exercise can provide the unifying thread of an otherwise fragmented schedule.”
- The novelty of the world we’ve created is continually pulling us somewhere else is what prevents living in the moment with others.
- “The secret to immorality lies not in the individual but in the society we leave behind.”
- We seem to be “forever in pursuit of some illusory state of greater material perfection…but in a nation built on the freedom to question and a foundation of self-examination, commercial success is only one dimension of civil society.”
Here is a list of resources, including authors, books, websites, podcasts, and concepts mentioned in American Mania, which might be helpful for further learning.
- Adam Smith
- Juliet Schor
- Thomas Hobbs
- Francis Hutcheson
- Thorsten Veblen
- Lynn Fairbanks
- Clifford Jolly
- Rick Potts
- Luca Cavalli-Sforza
- Thomas Sowell
- Robert Cloninger
- Ernest Noble
- Dr. Chauseng Chen
- Alexander Bell
- Samuel Morse
- Guglielmo Marconi
- George Stiblitz
- Kelly Brownell
- Leena Peltonen
- Tom Wadden
- Jay Kaplan
- Alexander Bystritsky
- Samuel Huntington
- Karl Marx
- Joseph Schumpeter
- Daniel Bell
Books and Publications
- The Overworked American by Juliet Schor
- The Overspent American by Juliet Schor
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith
- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
- The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorsten Veblen
- Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud
- Humanity’s Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability by Rick Potts
- Migrations and Cultures by Thomas Sowell
- Democracy and America by Alexis de Tocqueville
- Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam
- Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr
- The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
- The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies by Robert E. Lane
- The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell
- Fable of the Bees by Bernard de Mandeville