Why do wealthy Anglosphere countries have such poor mental health statistics? The Lovepost’s Capitalism and Mental Health series investigates this wealth-health paradox—and imagines doing things differently. Part 1 examines how neoliberal capitalism led to, and continues to have, devastating impacts on mental health, especially in high-income Anglosphere societies. Part 2 turns inward to highlight the internalised baggage of capitalism. How did unhealthy beliefs and values come to feel so normal?
Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.
—Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, 1981
We internalise values and beliefs that are good for the economy but not necessarily for the self.
—James Davies, Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created our Mental Health Crisis in conversation, 2022
People absorb prejudices and detrimental beliefs. Harvard's Implicit Association Tests reveal that racial and gender biases cause us to unconsciously hold ideas that may conflict with our professed beliefs and values. Implicit capitalist beliefs may similarly encourage us to work against our own psychological health and wellbeing, even as we profess explicit beliefs that are good for us. These internalised beliefs may contribute to high rates of mental distress, especially in wealthy anglophone countries.
People internalise as self-evident the beliefs, biases and perspectives that dominate their society. In the Anglosphere, these are unavoidably the norms of neoliberal capitalism. Yet the neoliberal normal is anything but common sense. It’s a profoundly cultural manifestation that embodies misleading and damaging assumptions about self and society.
The apparent naturalness of capitalism makes these biases hard to see. Social critic, education reform activist and professor Henry Giroux points out that, while people publicly criticise and sometimes publicly challenge the socioeconomic damage of neoliberalism, there is rarely a critical discussion about the “values, ideologies, modes of rationality, and common sense assumptions that produce both neoliberal beliefs and the subjects who unquestionably accept such beliefs.”
Here, The Lovepost connects capitalist values with personal beliefs and their health implications—and then asks how healthy communities might look.
Capitalist ideology as human nature
Neoliberal normality has profound—though often obscure—psychological effects on the way we see ourselves, our relations with others and our understanding of human nature. So pronounced is the effect that it may even be changing our perceptions of time.
What does it mean to call neoliberalism an ideology? Ideologies simplify complex, contested and confusing aspects of human life into a single, all-encompassing explanation that feels—to its adherents—like intuitive common sense. Just as ideologies adapt uniquely to different environments, they also resonate and manifest in different ways for the individuals who internalise them.
In his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher observes that capitalist ideologies seem instinctive, reflecting the foundational values and norms of society. Capitalist ideologies govern the way we understand the realities of the world, how we should act within it, and how we evaluate ourselves and others.
Dr Bruce E. Levine is a Cincinnati-based clinical psychologist and social critic who writes and speaks about the intersection of society, culture, politics and psychology. He further develops the ways in which capitalism has become internalised. He notes that, fifty years ago, people commonly discussed the effects of capitalist societal changes on mental health because the effects were still conspicuous. To explain this transformation, he draws on the work of 1970s humanist psychologist Erich Fromm:
“Fromm talked about how, with . . . the advent of capitalism, there was initially greater freedom,” Levine says. “However, [there was] also greater insecurity and isolation which created fear, anxiety, tension, and discomfort.” Levine emphasises that over time the discomfort has been naturalised into self-destructive behaviours as “many individuals . . . flee from this freedom to what Fromm called a ‘new submission’—into a compulsive and irrational activity such as submitting to authoritarianism and conformity, as well as fleeing to all types of consumerism so as to take the edge off of that discomfort.”
The neoliberal self is the most complete expression of this 'new submission'. For some, it's akin to a new species: homo neoliberalus. For homo neoliberalus, capitalistic values not only dictate economic and working-life behaviours, they also entrench themselves into social and private lives by penetrating our core psyche.
Even those rallying against capitalism are not immune. A study found that London bankers and those protesting against them shared similar implicit capitalist beliefs despite making oppositional statements. The researchers found that both groups had naturalised capitalist ideologies, such that the protesters rallying against capitalism struggled to elaborate their support for the alternative systems they preferred. The authors argue that these implicit attitudes may be responsible for the resilience of neoliberalism and the difficulty of imaging and implementing systemic change.
It seems we have absorbed the ideas and influence of neoliberal capitalism, whether we like it or not. This is the point Mark Fisher was getting at when he stated, "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
The seven pillars of internalised capitalism
To make internalised capitalism’s ubiquitous beliefs visible, The Lovepost weaves research from several fields into a single framework. That framework rests upon seven pillars: individualism, competition, productivity, materialism, pursuit of material reward, status fixation, and self-responsibility. It is the cultural force of these values that makes internalised capitalism feel like human nature and common sense.
It’s important to note that capitalist values are not simply or completely negative. Rather, the values become distorted when they serve markets rather than human wellbeing. Often they cut off the positive forces by constructing them as opposites—as when individualism is set in opposition to mutual responsibility or the collective good of a community.
1. Individualism: self-aware or self-obsessed?
Neoliberal ideology depicts people as beings who are motivated to seek individual rewards, pursue selfish interests and personal desires. Society is a collection of individuals who engage in economic competition to secure personal advantage. This selfish competition, neoliberalism tells us, spurs economic growth, prosperity and innovation. People gain agency and license to shape their wellbeing and happiness through their individual, competitive actions and decisions.
Social forces which inhibit our innate competitive streak should therefore be minimised. Social responsibility, democratic and welfare protections are cast as the forces which restrict, oppress and stifle our pursuit of our personal ambitions.
It sounds intuitively good to take responsibility for our choices, and research affirms the psychological harm caused by oppressive institutions or groups of people in uncontrolled positions of power. As with other pillars of internalised capitalism, problems arise with the way that individualist values are deployed.
The problem rests with neoliberalism's narrow and distinctive appropriations of freedom and individualism. Healthy personal ambition becomes hyper-individualistic; the self-made American dream on steroids. "You can be anything you want to be," proclaimed Napoleon Hill, the morally dubious self-help pioneer behind Think and Grow Rich.
Neoliberalism promotes radical self-authorship wherein the individual is an atomised agent, responsible for and in control of their life choices and outcomes. Clinical psychologist Dr Bruce Levine thinks that neoliberalism's singular focus on individual agency has led to self-obsession.
“One impact of neoliberal society—not discussed enough—is that it compels self-focus," Levine says. "Without this incessant self-focus, one feels that one will be unable to financially and socially survive.
“It has long been known that self-absorption is an oppressive burden and a fuel for all kinds of emotional malaise. To make matters worse, much of so-called 'treatment' by mental health professionals often exacerbates this self-absorption.”
Incessant self-focus (a rough synonym for narcissism) tracks with emotional distress. A multi-country analysis determined that, as societies become more individualistic in outlook, young people experience more suicidal ideas and behaviours. Similarly, a study of Australian university students found that stronger individualistic values correlate with lower emotional competence and increased psychological risk of depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness.
2. Competition: fighting for the basics
Neoliberalism conceives of the world as a hostile and nasty place in which our security is uncertain, the things that we need are scarce, and our ability to meet our needs is in doubt. We are compelled by both fear and ambition to pursue personal advantage in a world with limited resources and opportunities. Scarcity makes our inherent competitiveness more isolating: we seek to maximise our self-interest at the expense of the people around us.
Neoliberal realism routinely exploits tired Victorian-era distortions of a dog-eat-dog, Darwinian process. However, contemporary evolutionary biology recognises that many species—especially humans—are hardwired to collaborate, engaging in cooperative behaviour for individual and group advantage. Sergey Gavrilets, professor of theoretical evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, has written extensively on our innate drive toward collaboration and egalitarianism:
Humans exhibit . . . cognitive perspectives, ethical principles, social norms, and individual and collective attitudes promoting equality. The universality of egalitarianism in mobile hunter-gatherers suggests that it is an ancient, evolved human pattern..
By contrast, neoliberalism asserts that social inequality is intrinsic to human society. Neoliberal inequality is presented as a meritocracy of earned rewards, resources and status. That model brushes off historical and systemic inequalities, and assumes that people ultimately end up in the socioeconomic position they deserve.
Neoliberalism says that people in positions of power, influence and wealth hold those positions by virtue of their efforts and exceptional qualities. Reality tells a different story. For example, the intergenerational wealth transfers underlying home ownership expose the extent to which inherited advantage sets the starting points for the following generation. Inequality, not merit, determines each generation’s starting line.
For those benefiting from unearned social and economic advantages, neoliberal ideology offers a pretext to minimise social responsibility and accountability. A 2022 study of people from 160 countries found that neoliberal policies increase tolerance for inequality and beliefs that resources should be distributed according to a person's social position in society, rather than their need.
For those marginalised by it, neoliberal ideology delegitimises the frustration of injustice—as well as the actual consequences of entrenched inequality.
Economic insecurity predicts the prevalence of scarcity mentalities. A perception of scarcity feeds the neoliberal understanding that one must exploit others in order to flourish. These beliefs have negative psychological effects. Scarcity mentalities promote higher stress and emotional distress levels because they make us focus on our concerns about money, resources, time and obligations. Worried people tend to make impulsive and self-defeating decisions. They retain less information cognitively and have strained social relationships. Scarcity mentalities also reduce a person’s willingness to help other people.
When interpersonal competition becomes prolonged and unavoidable, wellbeing decreases. Psychology experiments find that competitive environments lead to greater distrust of other people, feelings of insecurity and social disconnection, and the belief that others are threats rather than sources of connection and collaboration for shared benefits. In experiments, competitive and unequal environments are linked to reduced participant wellbeing scores and negative dispositions toward other participants, even among the ‘winners’.
3. Productivity: the working measure of self-worth
Capitalist societies valorise hard work and productivity. Hard work generates wealth, and the markers of personal success in capitalist societies—wealth, status, beauty, recognition and health—require ongoing self-investment and self-promotion. Long before children enter the workforce, they are socialised to regard hard work and achievement as necessary qualities that schools, parents and societies will value and reward. Once in the workforce, our CVs describe us as hard workers, willing to go the extra mile or do whatever it takes.
Political scientist Anders Hayden places the compulsive pursuit of productivity and achievement at the heart of internalised capitalism. Our self-worth has become tied to productivity, rather than being derived from any inherent quality or value that we possess. We are synonymous with our work record and our list of externally verifiable accomplishments. 'Hustle culture' tells us to monetise everything we do and produce.
Internalised capitalism's meshing of productivity with self-worth is good for employers who wish to extract as much as possible from their human resources. Workaholism remains one of the only socially acceptable addictions.
Overwork is inherently unhealthy, and it no longer delivers social mobility. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirms that for the bottom 40 percent of earners, an individual’s self-motivation and productivity have little determining influence on their material opportunities and social mobility.
Homo neoliberalus manifests an ‘entrepreneurial subjectivity’, wherein our actions are directed to increasing our market value. Professor William Davies of Goldsmiths University of London unpacks this idea for The Lovepost, through the lens of human capital theory.
“The concept of human capital, which developed out of the [work of] resolutely neoliberal economist Garry Becker from the 1950s onwards, assumes that a human being is an investable asset,” Davies says. “[A child is] born into the world through its parents, but through the course of its development from childhood onwards into adulthood [it becomes] amenable to different forms of investment of time.
“Even love could be seen as being a kind of investment in this capital asset that is grown and pays some future return in the form of its labour market earnings. So schools, higher education, training and even something like plastic surgery could be seen as an investment in the human capital form, which then pays some dividends in the marketplace.”
Hyper-productivity feeds the entrepreneurial mindset, encouraging us to believe that our marketable skills and attributes are the only means we have to secure our basic needs and ‘live our best lives’.
The entrepreneurial self thus becomes our never-ending development project, like a house that always needs to be redecorated or renovated. Research on undergraduates in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom found that internalised beliefs in self-development and progress can spark unrealisable perfectionism, which is in turn tightly connected to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.
Relaxing is not a simple solution, because hyper-productive people frequently report feeling guilty and stressed when they are not productive. This may be because internalised capitalism plays on a contradiction. It suggests that productivity and hard work grant us control over the outcomes of our lives—while the precarious economic realities of neoliberalism actually diminish our influence over those outcomes. Epidemics of burnout involving emotional exhaustion, cynicism and dissatisfaction predictably follow from working so hard without gaining the sense of control we seek.
4. Materialism: measuring self-worth by the worth of others
Neoliberal capitalism sells self-actualisation while it strips away the possibility of obtaining it. The task is never completed. We can always be wealthier, more popular, healthier, more competent and better looking. We can always add new hobbies and interests, buy better and newer things and seek out novel experiences.
Seeking personal growth is not the problem. The problem is that extrinsic rankings of our value have trumped our sense of intrinsic self-worth: capitalism counts on it. As former UK prime minister Boris Johnson stated, “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”
Internalised capitalism encourages us to compare ourselves to others who are relentlessly pursuing their own aspirations to outdo us. In a neoliberal society, identity construction, self-worth and self-expression are extrinsic, comparative and competitive.
Countries with higher income inequality have higher levels of status anxiety. Status anxiety describes feelings of insecurity, envy and stress that arise from a heightened concern about how others evaluate us. It encourages the persistent worry that we are not living up to society's expectations and values. As our Instagram and TikTok reels underline, more and more people are seeking status through social prestige or by maintaining the appearance of perfect lives; forever chasing the fleeting validation of whimsical social approval.
Often, friends and acquaintances become less of a support network in that pursuit, and more of a marker for comparison. Social interactions are reduced to networking opportunities and hunting expeditions for people who might improve our social and financial standing. A rapid increase in social anxiety disorders likely stems from the increased prevalence of competition in modern interpersonal relationships. Morrissey succinctly captured the status anxiety of internalised capitalism when they sang, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.”
Research shows that inequality-induced status anxiety also encourages overt self-objectification. The two-dimensional, cut-throat performative theatre of reality TV series such as The Bachelor or Love Island embodies and celebrates the ubiquity of evaluative status competition and comparison. Status anxiety is also linked to increased cheating in higher-education settings, heightened job dissatisfaction and greater financial insecurity through acts of conspicuous consumption.
British social critic and philosopher Alain De Botton's 2004 book Status Anxiety brought the phenomenon to public consciousness. He thinks that one of the most damaging by-products of status insecurity and evaluative comparison is the vilification of the psychological protection that an ordinary life offers. Capitalist subjectivity considers the average life mediocre. For De Botton such assumptions are unhealthy, and only foster dissatisfaction and anxiety—feelings which in turn cut people off from social sources of genuine happiness and wellness.
5. Material rewards: buying quality of life
Unequal, late capitalist societies locate our self-worth externally, in possessions and commodified experiences. Internalised materialism actively downgrades the value of our intrinsic, immutable worth and our social assurance. The two ideas work on us together.
When neoliberalism imposed a marketplace logic on society, it undermined the shared narratives by which societies had defined human meaning or purpose. Neoliberalism does not need that communal cohesiveness. Materialist beliefs fill the existential void which opens up in the absence of grand narratives. Rather than constructing an inner life and finding a community of shared values, capitalism tells us to choose a brand of smartphone and let that brand’s advertising define who we are. The brand is all we need to choose. And the debt? That’s just an investment in our future.
Capitalism needs consumption. Advertising encourages us to see the world as a wonderland of new, exciting things and experiences to be consumed and posted about. Objects and commodified experiences become expressions of taste, accomplishment and values; tangible representations of who we are and how we want others to see us.
We internalise the idea that quality of life and personal meaning can be purchased. But consumerism requires our desire to be insatiable and our satisfaction to be brief. It depends on our constant desire, not our lasting satisfaction.
Tim Kasser, emeritus professor of psychology at Knox College, conducted experiments to understand the psychological effects of societies that organise themselves around materialist values. Kasser's studies propose that the spread of materialist beliefs is driven by two factors. First, materialism requires our acceptance that happiness, meaning and success are related to the amount of money or the number of things we have. The second factor stems from increasing insecurity within late capitalist societies: financial insecurity, family instability and anxieties about dying are all linked to enhanced materialist beliefs. Related research has found that materialistic values were heightened among research subjects when experimenters intentionally induced feelings of uncertainty or psychological stress.
In The High Price of Materialism, Kasser demonstrates that across socioeconomic groups, cultures, ages and genders; the stronger a person's materialist beliefs, the greater the negative impact those beliefs will have on their wellbeing. Not only is materialism a damaging and ineffective coping strategy, it is linked to poorer physical health outcomes and personally damaging behaviours such as impulsivity and incurring debt. Materialists are at greater risk for depression, anxiety, addictions, loneliness and intimacy issues in relationships. When materialism was primed, Kasser also found that pro-social values and beliefs deteriorated.
Studies have identified the psychological damage of manipulative and unrealistic advertising on teenagers and young children. A recent study found that economically deprived children have more exposure to advertising and are more materialistic than children from more affluent homes. Early exposure to advertising encourages young people to adopt materialistic understandings, and their self-esteem can become tied to brand myths of an idealised future.
6. Status fixation: materialism's lonely feedback loop
Media outlets decry an epidemic of loneliness. The data is stark. Before the pandemic, 40 to 60 percent of Australian, American and British people reported feeling lonely, and the rates were highest for younger people in all three countries. The problem is so acute that the United Kingdom now has a cabinet minister for loneliness.
British writer George Monbiot believes that neoliberal policies have exacerbated and entrenched feelings of loneliness. Social psychology studies agree. A series of studies found that the more people perceived their society to be driven by the neoliberal values of competition and vested self-interest; the more likely they were to feel lonely, socially disconnected and competitive toward others, and to have lower overall wellbeing scores.
Similarly, research proposes ”a vicious feedback loop” of materialistic beliefs and loneliness which increases over time to such an extent that these beliefs could be symptomatic of a mental disorder.
Capitalist lifestyles conflict with the important role that meaningful social engagement plays in a psychologically healthy life. As people work longer hours in more precarious work environments, their interpersonal lives become more fragmented. Across the Anglosphere, membership in community groups and activities has fallen. 'Time poverty' is stealing meaningful connections with friends, extended family and communities.
The devices and screens which seem to offer unlimited connection actually replace social connection with spurious and contrived relations. In social media relations, compassion gives way to competition. Social media interactions are linked to implicit expressions of neoliberal values and beliefs, and studies show that social media usage increases loneliness. An apparent solution is compounding the problem.
The health consequences of isolation and loneliness are extensive. People with few meaningful social connections are more at risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders and Alzheimer's disease. Loneliness is also physically toxic. Loneliness and social isolation increase the production of stress hormones and negatively affect the immune and cardiovascular systems. Low social connection creates the same mortality risk as more than a decade of smoking.
Internalised values of self-reliance and independence also make people less willing to turn to others for social support. Research found that women in an economically struggling area of Northern England had internalised an “unhappy and painful discourse”. The women believed it was shameful to ask for help, even though not doing so increased their mental stress, exacerbated their isolation and intensified their workloads.
As we isolate ourselves from the support of other people, the neoliberal emphasis on personal responsibility can also lead us to blame and shame those from whom we feel more distant. Social psychology studies found that the stronger American and British people's ideological beliefs in personal responsibility became, the more consistently they underestimated the social and structural risk factors involved in other people’s health issues including obesity, alcohol abuse, smoking and lack of exercise. Other people's bad health outcomes were felt to reflect their bad personal choices. A related study found that the stronger a person’s neoliberal beliefs, the greater the probability they will negatively evaluate marginalised social groups, and be unwilling to engage in actions to reduce social inequality.
7. Independent and self-critical
Just as we have become more likely to blame others implicitly, we have also become quite nasty to ourselves. Neoliberal self-creation easily slides into rumination, fault-finding and self-criticism for the events that occur in our lives. Self-critical people are at increased risk for mental illness.
Studies by Dr Christina Scharff at King’s College London found that young women in precarious job situations readily engaged in self-critique and self-doubt. Their evaluations rarely considered the socioeconomic influences affecting their employment instability. Dr Scharff described her research subjects as “entrepreneurial subjects par excellence” as they normalised and internalised self-critical behaviours.
Self-criticism becomes even more cutting in societies where inequality is chronic, social mobility has flat-lined and materialist ideologies dominate. University of Maryland chief psychiatry resident Dr Anna Zeira—whose work is featured in part 1 of this series—explains the health results of this toxic cocktail of ideology and self-blame.
“When you have a culture that tells you that you can get fulfilment from material affluence—that those who do not achieve material affluence aren't working hard enough—and an economy where you can’t afford rent or health care while working a full-time job, people are going to run into a lot of problems with their self-esteem,” Zeira says.
“The materialistic values of our culture and [the] economic realities for most people are just not compatible,” she adds.
American studies affirm this. Study documents a sharp growth in the number of teenagers who express hyper-materialistic values and pursue extrinsic status goals of wealth and fame above all else, while firmly believing in their ability to achieve these goals. The same population manifests higher rates of disabling self-criticism, aggression, depression and anxiety.
This corrosive combination—fear of failure and perceived failure—is also linked to agitation, procrastination, depression, apathy and anxiety.
Internalised capitalism sits atop these seven pillars: hyper-individualism, competitive self-interest, productivity as self-worth, scarcity mentalities, materialist values, status anxiety and self-blame. These beliefs have detrimental implications for mental wellbeing. Logically, their pervasiveness means that neoliberal societies are distressed societies. It follows that the Anglosphere’s purer form of gloves-off capitalism results in some of the highest rates of mental ill health.
These internalised beliefs also produce people who have learnt to depoliticise and privatise distress. Rather than seeking its cause, we abandon the very idea that the improvement of the social environment is possible or necessary. Instead, we look inward and interpret our life challenges and emotional distress as evidence of personal shortcomings that need fixing. Without a systemic critical narrative, all that remains is the atomised hope that we can change ourselves.
Imagining healthier communities
A world of thriving human beings would be based on a set of beliefs remarkably different from the capitalist beliefs described above.
Internalised capitalism succeeds partly by seizing on beliefs and qualities which are psychologically healthy and beneficial as one element of a whole, life-affirming community. Regular hard work and productive endeavours support self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment within a balanced life. Similarly, competition and cooperation are not opposites. In a setting without harmful power imbalances, competition can be exciting, enhancing social relationships, and promoting excellence and satisfaction. When they are redirected and radicalised in the interest of economic transactions, the same beliefs become toxic. Change requires reprioritising—not necessarily discarding—those values.
Human beings have known psychological needs including an intrinsic need for purpose, meaningful social connection, the respect of their peers and a sense of control. Extensive research already highlights what people require in order to flourish feel purposeful and live a quality life. Strong, meaningful and supportive social relationships improve physical health and psychosocial wellbeing; lowering the risk of depression, loneliness, anxiety and stress. Purposeful social connections protect a person from existential meaninglessness. People who hold established social roles and belong to supportive social groups gain crucial social and psychological resources to protect and heal their mental health. Strong and secure social relationships in which a person feels trusted, listened to, respected, affirmed and validated provide the foundation for wellbeing.
Understanding and reducing suffering is a moral, humanistic and ethical pursuit that economics alone cannot capture or fulfil. A healthy and sustainable society is one that places human psychological health at its centre. The World Health Organisation's Social Determinants of Mental Health envisages such a society. It presents a series of actionable and enduring policy-level recommendations for governments, health institutions and local communities to undertake, in order to provide environments more conducive to wellbeing.
More broadly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights documents our agreed minimum rights—the rights that each human being possesses by virtue of being born. Some, including the American Psychological Association, advocate extending this code of standards to include mental health support and wellbeing as basic human rights. Doing so would require societies to invest resources in protecting and fostering good mental health, while they unwind some of the unhealthy forces described above.
Neoliberalism placed the market at its centre. Health requires us to recover an understanding of our intrinsic needs and let our policy decisions and day-to-day interactions be guided by that understanding. We need to restore psychological prosperity to the centre of policy and action.
Change begins by acknowledging and unlearning harmful beliefs. When we notice the damaging effects of capitalism within ourselves, we will be more able to seek alternative, more humane, culturally sensitive, hopeful, collaborative and meaningful lives than those which late-stage capitalism currently offers.