Therapy is becoming the new graduate school, and I'm glad to see it happening.
I count five friends, all in their late 20s and early 30s, who have entered therapy in the last five months. The reasons they started range from relationship woes to stress-related physical problems to death of a loved one. But the end goal for all seems to me the same: investment in self. The investment in some ways is like the educational investment of a postgraduate study program at a university. In some ways it is like a financial investment. It also resembles the spiritual investment of time and thought more Americans used to put into formal religious institutions.
In an era when many politicians, business leaders and sports heroes have been brought down by emotional problems, mental health has become a desirable status symbol. This is a significant cultural evolution.
The traditional American dream was rooted in financial success, including home ownership, and in political power. It was also grounded in traditional notions of family.
Financial success and home ownership have spread to a majority of American households, and the country seemed confident in this result as far back as the 1940s. But there has not be nearly as much progress on family happiness. Up through to the 1960s, the image of happiness was sufficient. Then this image began to crack with the rebellious counterculture and sexual revolution, was damaged further by rising divorce rates in the 1970s, and awareness of substance abuse issues in the 1980s. By the late 1990s, the country was emerging from its collective denial and into what has been widely derided as "tabloid culture" -- everything from TV talk shows to the obsession with the Lewinsky scandal and other tales of celebrity crises.
Now, I believe the country is at a vital inflection point. A critical mass of Americans, disproportionately made up of people my age but also including many pioneers from earlier generations, have come to acknowledge mental health -- even mental fitness -- as a desirable goal rather than a shameful or sacrilegious topic. An important corollary is a rising focus on long-term physical fitness.
The long-term effects of the prioritization of mental health are enormous. The shift will accelerate a trend, begun only fitfully in the 1960s and 1970s, toward emotionally rewarding work and another trend, which some thought abandoned to the dot-com era, of emotional rewarding workplaces. It will also direct vast sums toward mental health professionals, physical fitness centers and travel.
It am not sure if this bodes well for the latest crop of young home buyers, who are investing in financial success and geographic stability at the precise moment society is putting a premium on personal emotional development, including investment in mental development, in travel and relocation. On the other hand, therapy and home ownership are hardly mutually exclusive, recent rates of return hardly preclude ready relocation and, of course, homeowners get to have pets.
Still, to differentiate themselves from well-educated and cheap foreign workers, American workers increasingly want to show themselves as highly productive and highly creative, making investment in mental and physical health services increasingly attractive even from a purely financial standpoint.
In my own experience, I would estimate year 2002 expenditures of roughly $6,000 for therapy and gym membership alone. I would also note a pay increase of roughly 50 percent which easily made up for these costs, not to mention the loss of about 30 pounds! (Of course, I may stumble yet, knock on wood.)