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The economy, job cuts, terrorism and war—surveys have shown worrying about those things have caused many a sleepless night. But new research points to a more subtle source for our collective anxiety. A societal shift toward materialism and status seeking may actually be at the root of what some experts contend is an increasingly stressed-out America.
Five times as many current high school and college students score above the cutoff for anxiety as those of the late 1930s, according to a study in the March 2010 issue of Clinical Psychology Review that examined rates of psychiatric symptoms among teens and young adults over seven decades. While the results can’t be extrapolated to older people, a 2003 study in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology found panic attacks to be more than twice as common among adults in 1995 as they were in 1980. And in 2000, a study in American Psychologist noted that 26 percent of adults in 1996 said they were verging on a nervous breakdown, compared to 19 percent in 1957.
“All of these studies indicate people are more stressed out than they used to be,” says Jean Twenge, Ph.D., a San Diego State University psychology professor who co-authored the study on students. She added that the higher rates of anxiety in her study were still seen after taking into account the increasing openness about mental health problems that might make students more apt to admit to symptoms. Those rates climbed gradually over the seven decades, independently of fluctuations in unemployment that might also be assumed to cause collective spikes in stress levels.
“What did correlate was materialism,” says Twenge, author of the 2006 book Generation Me, which argues that people born after 1970 are more narcissistic, entitled—and unhappy—than previous generations. Researchers have found that Generation Me is more likely to believe that having a lot of money is important and to have professional expectations that exceed their educational achievements. “The shift in Western culture toward valuing status and money versus placing more value on development as a person and close relationships is a pattern that tends to lead to mental health problems,” Twenge says.