Across the world, individualism has been on the ascent over the past few decades. Individualism per se is not necessarily bad; it treats each individual as an independent entity and favours individual freedom over collective or state control. It encourages individuals to have a greater sense of self-responsibility and offers rewards more directly linked to their contributions. This empowering approach may well be responsible for some of the extraordinary achievements of individuals in the fields of business, science, technology and sports.
I do believe, though, that we have reached a stage where the balance between what’s good for the individual and what’s good for society may have tilted too much towards the individual. Fuelled by instant and disproportionate rewards for individual success in a competitive world, ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘Mine’ have taken centre-stage in our lives. The mantra, ‘winner takes all,’ makes us self-centred. We instinctively perceive the world from a competitive lens rather than a collaborative one.
Books and media are a telling reflection of this cultural change. Scanning Google’s digitised database of over five million books, research has revealed that between 1960 and 2008, individualistic expressions like self, unique, all about me, ‘I am special,’ and ‘I’m the best’ have grown significantly. During that time, use of words like kindness, helpfulness, gratitude and modesty declined by over 70%.
Individualism becomes excessive, when, instead of acknowledging that every one of us is special, we emphasise on ‘I am special.’ Excessive individualism divides society into winners and losers. As a result, depression is on the rise, particularly among the young. It only gets worse by spending time on social media where narcissism is rising and respect for others, declining. Personal relationships are quick to fracture.
Excessive individualism has infected our organisational culture and geopolitics. Corporate scandals appear with great regularity reminding us of the lure of profits with disregard to the welfare of employees, customers or society. A competitive mind-set, coupled with self-centredness, has given birth to nationalistic policies, even though some of them maybe detrimental for the rest of the world.
This has long-term implications for our society and its future. Consider any deep social issue of our time and you would see intertwined with it, excessive individualism. Climate change, income inequality, and the refugee crisis are all exacerbated by, if not borne out of, the singular pursuit of individual success (as represented by an individual, organisation or the nation).
What is the way forward? It’s time we started a rebalancing process to heal these wounds. A healthy balance between the individual and the whole! Imagine if your brain suggested that it's the most important organ in the body and your stomach fought for the honour, who would win? Brain cannot function without the nutrients supplied by the digestive system and the stomach is dysfunctional without a healthy nervous system.
Neither the whole (be it our family, society or the planet) is more important than the individual parts -- a person, organisation, or the nation-- nor vice-versa. What we need is to appreciate and celebrate their interdependence. This requires us to bring back the vocabulary and attitudes of kindness, helpfulness, gratitude and modesty that we seem to have been losing in the last fifty years. This can help us alleviate not only our personal anxieties, but also our collective strife.