“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
The 2021 Academy Award for Best Picture—covering the prior year, when many of us were stuck at home—was awarded, ironically, to Nomadland, a film about a woman who has no permanent home. The movie follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a 60-something widow who lives in her van, working itinerantly and resisting invitations to settle down with family or friends. Many critics interpreted Nomadland as an “indictment of America”; an article in this magazine lauded its treatment of “the wreckage of American promise.”
My reaction to the movie, however, was different. In Fern, I saw not merely the victim of a broken culture and economy, but also a version of the fabled “rugged individualist”: the cowboy; the pioneer; the immigrant. She insists on self-reliance, lives by her wits without self-pity, and sees the welfare of others as a kind of prison.
This is an American ideal, or perhaps a cliché. Some see it as not just a character type, but rather a source of deep life satisfaction. Ralph Waldo Emerson best articulated this view in his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance.” “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” he wrote. “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”
An excess of individualism can obviously lead one to become an isolated loner or act with great selfishness. But we reject Emerson’s panegyric to our detriment. Done right, individualism has tremendous benefits for our senses of competence, effectiveness, and life direction.
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Scholars have described individualism in three dimensions: a belief in one’s responsibility for one's actions; a belief in one’s uniqueness; and a tendency to set and strive for one’s personal goals. Just as some people are more individualistic than others (you can test your own tendencies here using a simpler paradigm), countries vary in the level of individualism in their cultures. In one multination study using a measure commonly cited in academic research, the United States and the United Kingdom were found to have the most individualistic cultures, followed by Australia, the Netherlands, and Canada. The least individualistic countries assessed were Venezuela, Colombia, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
As a general rule, researchers find that individualism in a country strongly predicts the average level of well-being, even when correcting for life expectancy, access to food and water, and other variables. Scholars offer two main explanations. The first is that in individualistic cultures, people spend time and effort pursuing personal happiness over honor and social obligations. This view assumes that working for happiness ultimately leads to greater well-being, which the research supports. Some researchers have even argued that positive psychology, which is based on the belief that your happiness is important, worthy of study, and at least partly under your control, is at the core of an individualistic worldview.
The second explanation is that individualism is associated with “open societies,” which have a high degree of freedom of expression and self-actualization. This, in turn, fosters tolerance, trust, and civic engagement while minimizing outside pressure on how one must live. In an open society, people make most of their own decisions about their profession, education, marital status, geography, religion, etc.—ideally in a way that is consistent with their well-being.
Crucially, these happiness benefits require that individualists live in individualistic societies; in more collectivist cultures, a different pattern tends to emerge. Research has shown, for example, that in the relatively collectivistic Japan and Portugal, students and workers who have individualistic values tend to suffer lower well-being than the national average. Individualists are misfits in a collectivist setting and, as the research shows, struggle to find camaraderie, which is central to happiness.
They might even be tempted to leave, which could help explain the predominant individualism in the United States, a nation built by immigrants. Research has shown that immigrants to the U.S. have a greater sense of self-reliance and personal agency than nonimmigrants from their countries of origin. One way to stop being a misfit, it seems, is to join a country of misfits. I am deeply grateful to my misfit ancestors for having done so.
No matter what your personal and cultural orientations are, you can improve your well-being with some good individualistic practices. “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance.” Substitute happy person for man, and we are in business. Just make sure you keep two principles in mind.
First, don’t go it alone. Self-reliance does not mean isolation. Remember that individualists suffer in collectivist settings not because they think for themselves, but because they tend to become isolated and friendless. I have never seen any evidence that individualists are less social than collectivists, or suffer less from loneliness. Almost no one thrives in isolation.
But that doesn’t mean you have to suppress your individuality to make friends with people who simply don’t get you. For example, does your workplace demand a suffocating degree of conformism in its culture? Are you uncomfortable in the way you are expected to dress, talk, and act? It might be a good idea to look at the job market. Similarly, if you are a student, does your school value and protect a diversity of viewpoints, or is only one way of thinking acceptable? If the latter, you might want to study elsewhere, at a place that values independent thought, if that’s possible for you.
Second, do think for yourself. In a world that is moved by ideas, there is arguably no greater force for progress than intellectual nonconformism. We have no other way to solve previously unsolvable problems, and the adventure of doing so is boundless.
This requires allowing others to think for themselves as well. America’s polarized culture has an alarming tendency to proclaim, when it comes to opinions, “Individualism for me, but collectivism for thee.” Part of being a true individualist is fighting for the right of others to not conform to conventional ideas. Each of us can do this by defying those who would curb free speech in politics, in business, and on campuses. It is especially effective when we stand up to bullies on our own side of the debate.
“A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you,” Emerson wrote at the end of his essay. “Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
This goes too far in my view, insofar as we co-create our happiness through faith, family, and friendship. But his main point is indispensable: If you’re not in charge of your life through thick and thin, little progress is possible.
You may have detected an Emersonian sleight of hand in my argument that you can become happier by cultivating your individualism. By even considering whether to take my advice, you have effectively already done so, acknowledging that your attitude is yours to mold, at least in part. Develop this way of thinking, and you will benefit.