March 12, 2005
In New Book, Professor Sees 'Mania' in U.S.
OS ANGELES - Aldous Huxley long ago warned of a future in which love was beside the point and happiness a simple matter of consuming mass-produced goods and plenty of soma, a drug engineered for pleasure. More than 70 years later, Dr. Peter C. Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, has seen the future, and the society he describes isn't all that distant from Huxley's brave new world, although the soma, it seems, is in ourselves.
In his new book, "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough" (W. W. Norton & Company), Dr. Whybrow argues that in the age of globalization, Americans are addictively driven by the brain's pleasure centers to live turbocharged lives in pursuit of status and possessions at the expense of the only things that can truly make us happy: relationships with other people.
"In our compulsive drive for more," writes Dr. Whybrow, 64, a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral science, "we are making ourselves sick."
His book is part of a new critical genre that likens society to a mental patient. The prognosis is grim. In "American Mania," he argues that the country is on the downswing of a manic episode set off by the Internet bubble of the 1990's.
"It's a metaphor that helps guide us," he said, perched on a chair in the study of his rambling high-rise apartment near U.C.L.A. "I think we've shot through happiness as one does in hypomania and come out the other end, and we're not quite sure where we are.
"In fact, I think happiness lies somewhere behind us. This frenzy we've adopted in search of what we hope is happiness and perfection is in fact a distraction, like mania is a distraction."
"American Mania" is his fourth book for the general public about meaty psychiatric matters. An expert in manic depression and the endocrinology of the central nervous system, he has dissected depression and its relatives ("A Mood Apart" and "Mood Disorders") as well as the winter blahs ("The Hibernation Response").
Educating the public has been an abiding concern in a long career that began with training in psychiatry and endocrinology in his native London and in North Carolina. In 1970, Dr. Whybrow became chairman of the psychiatry department at Dartmouth Medical School and at the University of Pennsylvania. He moved to U.C.L.A. in 1997.
While the Gordon Gekkos of the world have long had their critics, Dr. Whybrow sees the Enrons and the Worldcoms - the mess left by unfettered capitalism - not as a moral problem, but as a behavioral one.
"The outbreak of greed we've seen, especially in business, is partly a function of the changing contingencies we've given businessmen," he said. "If I say to you, 'You can make yourself extremely rich by holding up the share price until such time that you cash out your shares, which are coming due in another six months,' it takes an incredibly unusual person who'll say: 'The share price is going down? I'm afraid I lost that one.' There is an offer of affluence there which the person cannot refuse. They don't need that extra money, but they want that extra money."
People are biologically wired to want it, he contends. We seek more than we need because consumption activates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which rewards us with pleasure, traveling along the same brain pathways as do drugs like caffeine and cocaine. Historically, he says, built-in social brakes reined in our acquisitive instincts. In the capitalist utopia envisioned by Adam Smith in the 18th century, self-interest was tempered by the competing demands of the marketplace and community. But with globalization, the idea of doing business with neighbors one must face the next day is a quaint memory, and all bets are off.
Other countries are prey to the same forces, Dr. Whybrow says, but the problem is worse here because we are a nation of immigrants, genetically self-selected to favor individualism and novelty. Americans are competitive, restless and driven to succeed. And we have succeeded.
But the paradox of prosperity is that we are too busy to enjoy it. And the competitiveness that gooses the economy, coupled with the decline of social constraints, has conspired to make the rich much richer, he asserts, leaving most of the country behind while government safety nets get skimpier.
Dr. Whybrow cites United States government statistics that are sobering. Thirty percent of the population is anxious, double the percentage of a decade ago. Depression is rising too, especially among people born after 1966, with 10 percent more reporting depression than did people born before that year.
With the rise of the information age in the 1990's, when the global marketplace began staying open 24 hours a day, American mania reached full flower, Dr. Whybrow said. And now that the nation has retreated from that manic peak, we should stop and survey the damage.
"Neurobiology teaches us that we're reward-driven creatures on the one side, which is great," he said. "It's a fun part of life. But we also love each other and we want to be tied together in a social context. So if you know that, why aren't we thinking about a civil society that looks at both sides of the balance rather than just fostering individualism? Because fostering individualism will be great for us and it will last a little bit longer, but I believe it's a powerful negative influence upon this country and it's not what was originally intended. Should we be thinking about whether this is the society we had in mind when we started this experiment 200 years ago or are we perhaps moving too fast for our own good?"
Dr. Whybrow's analysis of the mania afflicting contemporary society has been praised as acute, but he has been faulted for failing to prescribe any political or economic action as an antidote.
"Whybrow does offer an interesting version of the social and cultural contradictions of capitalism," Michael Roth, president of the California College of the Arts, wrote in a review last month in The San Francisco Chronicle, "but it is one that leaves us without much sense of how we might reconstruct the social and political system to create more meaningful work and a more equitable distribution of wealth and of hope."
But for Dr. Whybrow, with globalization here to stay, the solution lies with the individual: It's up to each of us to ruminate on our lives and slow down enough so that we can limit our appetites and find a better balance between work and family.
He suggested following the example of a man his friend saw running along the beach: "A high tide washed all the little fish onto the beach where they were all gasping for breath. So here's this fellow scooping up each fish and throwing them back into the sea, and my friend goes up to the fellow and says: 'This is a fruitless task. It's not going to make any difference.' And the fellow picks up a fish, throws it into the sea and says, 'To this one it does.' "