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Inequality Has Created a Shyness Epidemic

Economic growth has made life more comfortable than ever. So why has anxiety spiked?

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In an article in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, her “style coach,” Martha Beck, discusses her experience of what she calls “party anxiety.” Beck says she is “one of the millions of party-impaired people… social-phobes [who] dread party talk,” who are “petrified of saying something stupid, something that will reveal us as the jackasses we are, rather than the social maestros we wish we were.” Beck says she felt that she “needed a whole armory full of impressive weapons to survive a party — things like cleverness, thin thighs, social connections, and wealth… Every act, from choosing clothes to making small talk, is a fear-based defense against criticism.”

We are a social species, and our sensitivity to each other and our ability to avoid behavior that might offend others are necessary skills. But a normal and beneficial sensitivity to people around us is being triggered so frequently and so strongly in everyday life today that, for many, it has become an intensely counterproductive reaction. Feelings of insecurity are often so great that people react defensively to even minor criticism; others are seemingly so nervous of social interaction that they isolate themselves.

Worries about how we are seen and judged by others — what psychologists call “the social evaluative threat” — are one of the most serious burdens on the quality and experience of life in rich developed countries today. The costs are measured not only in terms of additional stress, anxiety, and depression, but also in poorer physical health, in the frequent resort to drinking and drugs to keep our anxieties at bay, and in the loss of friendly community life, which leaves so many people feeling isolated and alone.

Shyness is a very common sign of our feelings of vulnerability to how others see us. The most widely referenced survey of shyness is the Stanford Shyness Survey. It found that over 80 percent of Americans surveyed said they were shy during some period of their lives, whether now, in the past, or always. One-third said they felt shy at least half the time and in more situations than not.

Given that economic growth has brought us unprecedented luxury and comfort, it seems paradoxical that levels of anxiety have tended to increase.

Feeling shy means feeling increased self-consciousness, a sense of awkwardness and anxiety in relation to others, a lack of confidence in your social competence, which produce levels of stress that interfere with and interrupt thought processes. It makes it harder to interact with other people and enjoy their company and harder to think and express yourself clearly — often to the detriment of your career and social life. Those who suffer high levels of shyness may be classified as suffering from social phobia, social anxiety, or social anxiety disorder, but the clinical criteria for these conditions are designed to catch only the most severe end of the spectrum.

Since 1980, social anxiety has been included in the American Psychiatric Association’s classification of mental disorders — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Unlike common levels of shyness, the prevalence of social anxiety has been carefully measured over time. In the United States, the number of those suffering from social anxiety disorder has increased over the past three decades from 2 percent to 12 percent of the population.

The rich developed countries have for some time been suffering from high and rising rates of mental illness. One of the most respected and frequently cited studies, which measured the frequency of mental illness in the United States during the years 2001 to 2003, found that among people ages 18 to 75, 46 percent reported that, sometime in their lives, they had symptoms that met the criteria for a mental disorder.

Although anxiety and depression disorders are the most common afflictions, there have also been rises in the other main categories of mental health problems, including other mood disorders, impulse-control disorders, and substance abuse disorders. That they have all been rising together might lead us to expect some underlying common causes. It would be surprising if anxiety was not one of them.

It is difficult to assess how rates of shyness and social anxiety contribute to mental illness. The system for classifying mental illness, with few exceptions, categorizes by symptom rather than by cause. People can react to the same underlying anxieties in very different ways: If your social anxiety means you panic when you go out, you might be classified as suffering from agoraphobia; if it makes you depressed, then as depression; if over the years your attempts to steady your nerves develop into alcohol dependence, then alcoholism is itself classified as a mental disorder; if your worries about how you are regarded mean you are always trying to impress or are too concerned with what you look like, then, perhaps (with a few other contributing factors), you might be thought to be suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.

Evidence that almost two-thirds of the population with social anxiety disorder suffer from other comorbid disorders, ranging from bipolar disorder to eating disorders to drug dependence, serves as a caution against thinking that shyness, rises in anxiety, and increases in a wide range of mental illnesses are independent of each other. Feeling overly self-conscious, stressed, and ill at ease when with other people, sometimes combined with almost overwhelming doubts about your self-worth, is a mix that strikes at the heart of our social existence. It would be hard to devise anything as psychologically damaging as circumstances that simultaneously undermine how we get on with other people and how we feel about ourselves.

Given that economic growth has brought us unprecedented luxury and comfort, it seems paradoxical that levels of anxiety have tended to increase rather than decrease over time. Being better off than previous generations should surely mean we have less to worry about compared to either our predecessors or people in countries that have not yet enjoyed the same increases in living standards. However, the survey figures compiled by the World Health Organization to provide a basis for international comparisons suggest that richer countries have substantially higher rates of mental illness than poorer countries. Having (for the most part) reached a standard of living unthinkable a couple centuries ago, we now worry much more about maintaining standards in relation to others — where we are in relation to the norms of our society and position within it.

Being cut off from each other by high levels of social anxiety is very damaging. Over the past 30 or 40 years, many studies have shown that having a network of close friends, good relationships, and involvement with others is extraordinarily beneficial to health. As well as its direct effects on health, anxiety also makes a powerful additional contribution to illness and reduced life expectancy, because it reduces friendship, weakens community life, and increases social isolation.

The high levels of social anxiety in modern developed countries mean we are faced with an important conundrum. Resolving this problem would improve the quality of life not merely for those who experience it most acutely, but probably for a substantial majority of the population who are less inhibited by it.

The more hierarchical a society is, the stronger the idea that people are ranked according to inherent differences in worth or value and the greater their insecurities about self-worth.

Fortunately, a vital clue to both the root of the problem and its solution is becoming increasingly clear. A number of studies show that community life is weaker in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor. Societies with smaller income gaps have repeatedly been shown to be more cohesive. People in more equal societies are more likely to be involved in local groups, voluntary organizations, and civic associations. They are more likely to feel they can trust each other and are more willing to help one another, and rates of violence (as measured by homicide rates) are consistently lower. People get along with each other better in more equal societies.

The most likely explanation for why community life is stronger in more equal societies might seem to be that people are more at ease with each other in those societies; greater equality might make mixing easier if it meant there were smaller differences in perceptions of personal worth. Most people do, after all, tend to choose their friends from among their near equals.

Although that is certainly true, the causal processes are not quite so simple: Social anxiety does not affect people only when they’re in the company of those who are better off than them. People worry about failing to create a good impression even among near equals.

The implication (and the explanation best supported by the evidence) is that the more hierarchical a society is, the stronger the idea that people are ranked according to inherent differences in worth or value and the greater their insecurities about self-worth. This is true despite the fact that there is less social mobility in more unequal countries. Irrespective of individual differences in skills and abilities, in such countries people’s social position is taken even more as indicating their worth as superior or inferior.

Rather than being confined to issues of status as conventionally understood, insecurities and social comparisons spread to include every personal characteristic that can be seen as positive or negative. Everything from physical attractiveness and intelligence to leisure activities, skin color, aesthetic taste, and consumer spending take on greater social meaning in terms of rank and worth. If social comparisons have their evolutionary roots in comparisons of relative strength in animal ranking systems, then they have become much more multifaceted and less one-dimensional among humans.

Adapted from The Inner Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett are the authors of the new book The Inner Level.

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