Self-Indulgence: Defining Quality of Our Time?

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Are we a society of self-indulgers? In The New York Times, Judith Warner explores the idea that America has moved from "a culture of narcissism" to a culture of "dysregulation," in everything from Wall Street excess and oil rig safety standards to Internet addiction and food overconsumption:

The signs that something is amiss in our inner mechanisms of control and restraint are everywhere. Eating disorders, "in general a disorder of self-regulation," ... grew epidemic in the past few decades ... Obesity is viewed in many cases by mental-health experts as another form of self-dysregulation: a "pathologically intense drive for food consumption" akin to drug addiction ... We read about dopamine fiends sitting enslaved to their screens, their brains hooked on the bursts of pleasure they receive from the ding of each new e-mail message or the arousing flash of a tweet. We see reports of young children so unable to control their behavior that they're being expelled from preschool. And teenagers who, after years spent gorging on instant gratification (too-easy presents from eager-to-please parents, the thrill of the fast-changing screen), are restless, demanding, easily bored and said to be suffering from a plague of insatiability ... [M]any of the problems--in both children and adults--according to Peter C. Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California in Los Angeles, come from living in a culture of excess.

So how does a "culture of excess" work? The idea, according to Warner, is that usually "the emotional, reward-seeking, selfish, 'myopic' part of our brain is checked and balanced in its desirous cravings by our powers of cognition--our awareness of the consequences, say, of eating too much or spending too much." But a period of "affluence and endless messages promoting instant gratification" upset this balance. Is it possible now that we, as individuals and a society, are suffering from a pathological lack of self-discipline?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.