The Great Generation or the Deluded Generation

Are we wiser than other generations? Has our secular education equipped us to better deal with life and relationships? Well, as a recent article in the Daily Mail reported, it has helped us to become more self-infatuated:

  • Young people’s unprecedented level of self-infatuation was revealed in a new analysis of the American Freshman Survey, which has been asking students to rate themselves compared to their peers since 1966. Roughly 9 million young people have taken the survey over the last 47 years…New data suggests students today are convinced of their own greatness regardless of whether they’ve accomplished anything.
  • Psychologist Jean Twenge and her colleagues compiled the data and found that over the last four decades there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ in the areas of academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence… Researchers also found a disconnect between the student’s opinions of themselves and actual ability.
  • While students are much more likely to call themselves gifted in writing abilities, objective test scores actually show that their writing abilities are far less than those of their 1960s counterparts.

Well, perhaps “self-infatuation” is what the good life is all about? Not exactly:

  • These young egotists can grow up to be depressed adults. A 2006 study found that students suffer from “ambition inflation” as their increased ambitions accompany increasingly unrealistic expectations.
  • “Since the 1960s and 1970s, when those expectations started to grow, there’s been an increase in anxiety and depression.”

This is completely understandable. While we might derive a “high” from thinking that we are great, this drug will have diminishing “benefits.” Besides, the taller we extend ourselves, the harder we fall, when we find that reality refuses to shake hands with our delusions.

This drug has multiple costs. In order to lift ourselves up, we have to deny and suppress our ugliness. This wrecks havoc with our relationships:

  • Narcissists often reach middle age and find their past full of failed relationships.
  • “In the long-term, what tends to happen is that narcissistic people mess up their relationships, at home and at work,” Twenge said…It’s not until middle-age they may realize their lives have had a number of failed relationships.

Why do an inflated self-esteem and its sidekick – denial – put the kibosh on relationships? I think that there are many reasons for this:

  1. Emotional attachment depends upon sharing a common reality. Try thinking about having a relationship with someone convinced that they are the next Einstein. The dissonance will drive apart.
  2. The narcissist has such high expectations that he will be dissatisfied by his relational returns. Only a queen can be good enough for him, since he thinks he’s a king. In contrast, as I have grown less in my own self-estimation, my appreciation of my relationships has increased.
  3. Denial prevents us from seeing our culpability. It’s always the other person’s fault! Therefore, problems can’t be resolved. One study privately asked husbands and wives, “How much of the housework do you do?” The husbands would characteristically say, “I do my 50%.” However, the wives would answer around 90%! With such distorted assessments of their contributions – an inability to even acknowledge the facts – there is little hope that they can reconcile their differences.

With the various costs associated with narcissism, why is it still popular? Are there other benefits? Well, initially, as with any drug, it feels good to think you’re an Einstein and leads to the conviction that it is good. However, this isn’t the case:

  • Despite legions of self-help books advising belief in yourself, there’s no evidence self-esteem causes success. “What’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident – loving yourself, believing in yourself – is the key to success,” Twenge said. “Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.”

This should lead us to wonder, “What other erroneous beliefs comprise our corporate cultural bias? Are we really the Great Generation?”

What then is the answer? We all need a confidence that will get us out of the bed in the morning. From where can this confidence come from if not from ourselves?

For many, the answer is accomplishments through hard work. However, this too can prove very depressing. It places all of the attention and fear on ourselves and asks, “Can I do it? Do I have what it takes? And what if I slip and am no longer successful?”

This creates dependence on another drug – our relative, uncertain, and fleeting accomplishments. All accomplishments are relative to those of others. We might feel great after getting that promotion or raise. But this is very temporary, especially until we see our peer getting a greater promotion. Self-confidence rests on our negative assessments of others.

This turns into an unending rat-race with diminishing returns. This has led others to seek their confidence and esteem through popularity or relationships. However, if we invest our well-being in relationships, we become dependent and co-dependent and resent our friends when they fail to meet our basic needs and expectations.

Life seems to conspire against finding emotional security. This is because we were designed to find our confidence and security through a relationship with a God who promises to always love, care for us, forgive our sins and to work through us despite our many faults.

If Christ is opium, strangely, He is an “opium” that works, and brings people together under the shade of one tree. And the returns seem to be ever-increasing.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Daniel Mann

Daniel Mann has been an instructor of theology and apologetics at the New York School of the Bible for 20 years. He is also the author of several books, one published: "Embracing the Darkness: How a Jewish, Sixties, Berkeley Radical Learned to Live with Depression, God's Way." He also gives seminars on marriage, depression and "Reasons to Believe in the Christian Faith."