We are killing ourselves more than we used to. According to both the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UK Department of Health, suicides rates have doubled since the great recession of 2008. This is not to do with poverty per se, but is crucially connected to our perception of our own lack of success: in particular to the fall in status we perceive when others can see we have failed. We are lowered in the eyes of others, so, out of shame, we erase ourselves.
In the US, the largest increase is among the over 50s, with a 60% increase in the number of women of the baby boomer generation committing suicide (with men not far behind with a 50% increase). This was the generation who were told that they could have it all if they believed in themselves and that they’d never had it so good. “The increase coincides with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period … There may be something about that group, and how they think about life issues and their life choices that may make a difference,” suggests CDC deputy director Ileana Arias, implying that the suicides have more to do with perception of self-worth than with per capita poverty. “The boomers had great expectations for what their lives might look like,” comments Julie Phillips, associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, who has published research on rising suicide rates: “So many expected to be in better health and expected to be better off than they are, surveys suggest they had high expectations. Things haven’t worked out that way in middle age.” Time magazine has reported that, “Surveys of baby boomers have shown a tone of disappointment … dashed expectations, economic woes, depression or chronic medical problems,” and asks, “Are unrealistic life expectations to blame for baby boomer suicides?”
While there is, as yet, no incontrovertible proof of a correlation between high expectations and an increase in suicide—and, even if there were, correlation does not prove causation—nonetheless, similar findings from countries as culturally different as the US, India and South Korea point to high expectations as the common factor in the rise in suicide rates. The two demographics across these three cultures that have seen the greatest increase in suicides are people within high expectation career brackets: students and doctors.
A comprehensive review by John Hopkins University, surveying the risk factors for suicide and depression among Asian-American teenagers and students found that pressure to perform was an important factor. Asian-American youths—especially Asian-American females—have the highest rates of suicide among Americans, by ethnic group. The report lists concerns over school performance, lack of parental support and fear of failure as largely responsible for the pervasiveness of suicide and depression within the community. CNN claims that the findings reveal that the “push to achieve” is “tied to suicide in Asian-American women.”
In an article in the Pacific Standard, in 2015, which discusses the motivations that drive Asian-American students to suicide, Jennifer Chen writes, “We want to make our parents proud, no matter how hard they push us … it’s no wonder that these festering feelings of worthlessness and failure (which can’t be talked about) boil over into a raging, suicidal mess.”
The same problem has emerged in India, alongside its dramatic economic growth. According to a 2012 Lancet report, India has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for youth aged fifteen to twenty-nine. The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) conducted a study on the growing number of suicides among school and college students in India. It revealed that 11% of college students have attempted suicide. According to the Hindustan Times, “Conversations with counselors revealed that young people find it difficult to cope with failure in examinations and careers and neither families nor other social institutions offer adequate support or solace.” This is not about poverty. Sikkim, the state with India’s highest suicide rate, is India’s third richest state per capita income and is undergoing rapid economic expansion. Shaibya Saldanha, co-founder of the NGO Enfold India, believes that, “These deaths result from poor relationships with parents, excessive expectations, the feeling of being unwanted.” Meanwhile, over the same time frame, in developing countries with widespread poverty and economic stagnation, the levels of reported suicides have remained constant — at close to negligible.
The most alarming suicide rise is found in South Korea, a highly industrialized nation with fast economic growth and high per capita income. South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all the OECD nations. Scientists have questioned why such an economically successful state has such a high suicide rate. According to the Berkeley Political Review, South Korea is a “counterexample to the prevailing belief that happiness is related to the economic success of a society. As the economy grew, the stress in South Korean society increased, as did the rates of depression and suicide.” The two groups with the highest suicide rates are the young and the elderly. In the case of the young, the problem is the stress resulting from the expectations being placed upon them academically:
Korean children have a school year of 11 months and often spend over 16 hours a day at school … All this studying is done to get into the top three universities in South Korea, all of which are known for their miniscule acceptance rates. Family prestige and honor are often tied to where children go to university, and many adolescents take their own lives out of that stress.
According to the Berkeley Political Review, “Lonely, poor, and worried about not only their own livelihoods but those of their families, many of South Korea’s older people commit suicide so as to not levy a financial burden on family members.”
A comparable problem in the US has been dubbed the scourge of physician suicide. High earning, well-educated doctors have a suicide rate 1.87 times higher than that of the average American—among female doctors the rate is 2.87. A 2016 study showed that 11% of medical students have suicidal thoughts. Pamela Wible MD, cited in MD magazine, explains that “many doctors don’t reach out for help because of privacy issues and high expectations for performance.” As John Demartini, a leading authority on human behavior, explains, “Any time we feel guilty or shameful and are not living up to some idealistic expectations (such as sustained fame, fortune, saintliness, influence, or power), suicidal thoughts can enter our minds.”
It’s all about expectations, even for us average people. But yet, when we are feeling low, doubting ourselves or feeling like failures, we have a tendency to keep on pumping ourselves up with even higher hopes, while at the same time numbing ourselves to our disappointing outcomes. One of the ways we stop feeling bad about failing to live up to our own expectations is to remove the negative emotions we have about ourselves—by blocking them. In excess of 70 million prescriptions for antidepressants were handed out in the UK in 2018 (compared to 53 million in 2013), while antidepressant usage has increased by almost 400% in the US over the past two decades.
The use of SSRIs is soaring in the developed world—further evidence that we are making ourselves miserable by trying to live up to unrealistic standards. We were overly optimistic about what we could achieve and, now that we have failed, we simply destroy our capacity for negative thought and self-doubt. Antidepressants are another example of the harm we unintentionally inflict upon ourselves under the regime of enforced positivity. SSRIs have many adverse side effects: studies show that they are linked to obesity. Ironically, both coming on and off SSRIs can lead to an increase in the symptoms the drugs are designed to deal with, most notably suicidal ideation. SSRIs also remove inhibitions, slow down reaction times—and result in erectile dysfunction for men and a lack of libido for both sexes, which places a strain on relationships. They can lead to reduced sympathy and empathy: many users report a sense of emotional disconnection and distance from others. This may be connected to an increase in risky and violent behavior, according to a 2010 study from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, which found “five antidepressants to be among the 10 prescription drugs most disproportionately linked with reports of violent behaviour.”
I can anecdotally confirm these findings. I took Sertraline (Zoloft), an antidepressant, for approximately two years, and, during that time, although it stopped me from worrying about my failure as a father with a family to support, the side effects caused me to fail at other things. These side effects included an increase in reckless behavior, lack of affect and empathy, memory loss, lack of motivation, poor concentration and—worst of all—the drugs completely removed my will to be creative. I stopped coming up with good ideas because antidepressants take away the edge and urgency required to create something original, to be moved by emotion and to reflect deeply. As a freelancer creative, that’s not good news economically. Even the drugs that we take to blot out our fear of failure cause us to fail in other ways.
No wonder we’re doping ourselves up. Our advertisements, governments, schools, businesses and friends all tell us that we each have the opportunity and the right to be all we can be, that we’re already awesome, that all we have to do to be a success is be ourselves and believe in ourselves. So, when we fail to reach our goals, it can only be — the argument goes — we ourselves who are to blame. We can now fail on many fronts that never existed before: with all our new consumer choices, freedoms and rights come new opportunities for a total lack of success. So we can all now fail at DIY and home décor and home cooking and getting the perfect body or the ideal partner. Gay people can now fail at marriage and women can fail at being CEOs, forty-year-olds can fail at having children, fifty-year-olds can fail at being found attractive or at finding work after a life of service to one company that has started downsizing. Men can fail in measurable new ways from having a low sperm count to failing to keeping up with the latest innovations in the digital revolution and becoming unemployable as a result. We have never before had such apparent choice and so much competition in daily life, with such fast career change turnarounds. The gig economy offers so many apparent opportunities—but it has also multiplied the number of avenues to perceived failure. No one—apart from the creators of gig-economy jobs—is ever going to get promoted to a higher level within a gig-economy job. You work at it till you burn out, then someone else—poorer, younger, more energetic and hungry—will take your place.
Philosopher Byung-Chul Han claims that the twenty-first century culture of productivity and excessive positivity is causing unprecedented psychological burnout. In our achievement culture, we push ourselves, believe in ourselves and sell ourselves 24/7—we even have apps that count the number of steps we take in a day. And we are seeing an increase in neuropsychiatric diseases, such as ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression and BPD. Han claims that buying into the yes, we can culture of perpetual positivity ties us to a life of self-exploitation until we collapse from “exhaustion, fatigue and suffocation.” We can’t all be winners, and no amount of believing in ourselves and yelling yes, we can will change that.
As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has been warning us for over three decades, in our increasingly liquid modernity, the building blocks with which we’re attempting to build our lives are all short term, ungrounded: we never get past building the first floor before the foundations are swept away and we have to start again. The plan for life—like the job for life, and the partner for life—is becoming a thing of the past, and we have so many more thresholds of change at which to fail.
The anxieties over how we are seen by others have also been amplified over the past decade by social media — a technology which operates almost entirely on interpersonal displays of status. In over fifty well documented cases in the UK, teenagers whose self-image has been destroyed by cyber bullying have gone on to take their own lives. We even have a name for this: bullycide. In a culture with high expectations of social status—in which people literally like and share images and information about their performative selves—to be singled out as a reject, means, for, some young people, that life has lost all meaning. One tweet by a cyberbully of the fifteen-year old Canadian suicide Amanda Todd reads Die, Loser!—an expression that implies that being a loser has only one possible outcome: death.
If you believe you’re going to be successful by the standards of modern high-tech society, you are doomed to failure. Statistically, you don’t stand a chance. You’re going to be a failure. Dozens of times, and maybe permanently. And if that means that you feel so hopeless that you might as well kill yourself, that is a problem.
Most of us experience a sense of being disappointed in ourselves periodically, but holding unrealistic expectations over an extended period of time, and failing to re-adjust our expectations towards likely outcomes, leads to shame and guilt that can in turn prompt despair and suicidal ideation. As the Stoics demonstrated, and as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (both of which are grounded in Stoic philosophy) show, lowering one’s expectations for outcomes for oneself is a powerful tool for dispelling feelings of self-hatred and thoughts of suicide. In fact, CBT uses the technique of contextual grounding or belief work in the treatment of people at risk of suicide. The cure is to stop worrying about whether you’re perceived as a failure. Though that’s a hard thing to do.
According to a paper by CBT specialist and practitioner John D. Mathews:
depressed suicidal patients view themselves as defective, inadequate, diseased or deprived and thus worthless and undesirable; they view others as rejecting and unsupportive by making too many demands; and they view the future as hopeless as they do not believe they have the internal or external resources to solve their problems.
The cognitive aspect—how one perceives one’s situation—is key. The techniques used by CBT therapists are further evidence of the connection between high expectations and suicidal ideation. The method of cure they offer involves drastically reducing one’s expectations for oneself and one’s future and accepting pain.
Mathews explains that, “The focus of CBT in the depressed suicidal patient is to identify the unsolvable problem; reduce cognitive distortions and errors in logic with regards to his or her view of self, others and future.” For example, in the case of a patient with the core belief I’m a failure, the therapist would first have the patient re-frame the maladaptive belief in less severe terms, such as having a weakness does not mean that I’m a total failure. The therapist then works to help the patient “improve problem solving skills; increase motivation to problem solve; reduce perceived emotional pain; and encourage acceptance of emotional pain as part of everyday life.”
There it is—we must accept pain and accept being a minor failure. But we are addicted to the endless judging of ourselves and others as losers. We put others down in order to buoy ourselves up: the majority of our reality TV entertainment is based on such rituals of status humiliation. We rally against the unfairness of our fate: we protest that we live in a winner-takes-all economy, in which the 1% have all the wealth and fame and the 99% suffer in obscurity, relative poverty and silence. We cling to our data on success and failure and numerically test our satisfaction levels constantly. Of the millennial generation, according to Time magazine, “40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance.” Tests like those conducted at Harvard in 2013 show that, although 40% of people under twenty-six believe that they will be famous, 89% believe, by the age of forty-eight, that they have underachieved or are disappointed with their lives. This is in spite of our material wealth in the west — data that we don’t like to admit. Even the poorest people living in modern high-tech societies enjoy a degree of material prosperity and health that was unthinkable a hundred years ago. A television, internet, mobile phones, running water, a home with one bedroom per person and central heating are now rights to be provided for by welfare. Other rights include free schooling, state broadcasting, free libraries and emergency health care. The expectations that we subject ourselves to are now so high and unrealistic that to be quietly average and survive without discomfort is seen as a failure. From the perspective of a poor urban family in the nineteenth century, forced to work in a poorhouse, with child labor, dysentery and five children to a bed, everyone in the modern world, even those living on benefits, is a huge success.
But we don’t see it that way.
How can we stop killing ourselves, metaphorically and literally, for feeling like losers? By fighting for a world in which everyone is a winner? By destroying the successful, so that no one gets to humiliate us with the scale of their success?
No. By reducing our expectations of success. Drastically. And accepting failure and pain.
Anyone up for that?