While the west has improved our lives in a number of ways, such as by giving us better cars, world-class education, and more options everywhere we shop, certain values and products of developed and industrialized nations serve to bring us further from ourselves and our true needs, potentially affecting our psychological well-being and quality of life in the long run.
That’s because advances in technology and economic growth do not directly and positively shape how people in developed countries live their lives. If anything, modernization might just depend on people living in a certain way in order to encourage its existence. For example, as beauty standards grow harsher, so does the demand for plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures. Indeed, plastic surgery techniques gradually advance as a result of what we value (i.e. strict standards of beauty), making them safer and more effective, and simultaneously, its advancement and ubiquitousness also begins to shape our wants and our views of what it means to be successful and confident. It is not surprising then to find that more and more women are desiring cosmetic procedures, which may not always be a good product of westernization because studies show that the lower your self-esteem is, the more likely you are to opt for cosmetic procedures, meaning here that some women may see plastic and cosmetic surgery as a solution to their unhappiness . Thus, we could say here that plastic surgery, one of the products of westernization, encourages a lack of emotional wellness, as self-esteem is a component of emotional wellness .
The above is just one example of how society is shaped by all of us and how we in turn are influenced by the society we create. It’s not that we shouldn’t welcome new developments that can enhance our bodies and minds (e.g. the plethora of educational online courses): the problem only starts when we let the values that support these developments take us away from what we truly need and what is good for us, such as self-acceptance, a sense of love and belonging, a sense of achievement, continuous personal growth, the freedom to make choices that help us move towards our full potential. In other words, westernization and development isn’t necessarily good or bad but it may serve us well to look at the ways in which westernization can influence us negatively, especially when it comes to our overall wellness.
According to the National Wellness Institute, wellness is defined as “an active process through which people become aware of and make choices toward a more successful existence…thereby achieving their full potential” . One can split wellness into six dimensions: occupational (the enrichment of life through work, and its interconnectedness to living and playing), social (how a person contributes to their environment and community ,and how to build better living spaces and social networks), physical (the benefits of regular physical activity, healthy eating habits, strength and vitality as well as personal responsibility, self-care and when to seek medical attention), emotional (self-esteem, self-control, and determination as a sense of direction), spiritual (the development of belief systems, values, and creating a world-view), and intellectual (creative and stimulating mental activities, and sharing your gifts with others).
The ultimate question is, as we continue to enjoy the fruits of modernism and westernization such as better houses, schools, entertainment options, and services that ease our day-to-day, how can we ensure that all of the dimensions of wellness remain intact inside us?
The rest of this article will describe the not-so-good effects of westernization on our wellness, and will indirectly suggest ways we can protect our wellness in an increasingly westernized world.
#1 Never ending goalposts (spiritual, occupational wellness)
In industrialized nations like ours, there exists a mindset of chasing never-ending goals, always working towards material abundance. While there isn’t anything immoral about pursuing financial success, it might be wise to remember how the standards and expectations we set for ourselves might affect us in the long run.
For instance, as we strive and compete towards bettering our job performance, we may ignore our need for relaxation, creativity (think of your hobbies and other pleasurable and stimulating activities), and positive, meaningful social interactions.
Indeed, as time goes by, we might start to embrace work as our main identity, neglecting other aspects of our wellness aside from occupational wellness, which will inevitably lead to poor occupational wellness too— or a burnout.
What can we do to counter the never ending goalposts we set for ourselves? For one, being honest with ourselves about our relationship to our work helps us set the right kind of intention at work: what makes us push ourselves so hard? What do we hope to achieve at work every day; how about in 5 years? It is imperative that we remind ourselves of the negative impacts of ignoring rest, exercise, and socializing with others throughout our journey of building wealth and improving our social status, and that we set reasonable and balanced expectations for ourselves at work.
Besides how never ending goalposts can affect our wellness, research shows that prioritizing money over time can chip away at our happiness levels. Although a certain amount of money is necessary to guarantee emotional well-being , there is a cut-off point for salaries above which happiness does not have to do with money, rather our mindset when it comes to how we deal with money . For instance, spending money on other people and on experiences makes us happier. And let’s be realistic: when we’re always occupied and tired with work, how could we ever make time to spend money on others or to engage in purchased experiences with them?
#2 Never enough (emotional, occupational wellness)
One reason we try to keep ourselves productive is because we buy into what western influences want us to believe: that we are not enough as people, that we do not have enough, that we should not be satisfied, and that we have to always be doing something in the hopes of being satisfied. Although believing in the above gives us a sense of accomplishment and productivity, it also strips away from us the ability to accept and enjoy who we are and what we have (thereby making gratitude—which comes with benefits— impossible).
This is not to say that we shouldn’t try hard at life, rather that it’s crucial that we get in touch with our true purpose so that we don’t let ourselves be consumed by the false notion that we have nothing if we do not engage in some kind of performance or role. Certainly, for example, what’s helpful to the economy of capitalist societies is not necessarily so to human beings, who as a result of individualistic systems have become isolated and disconnected, not to mention stressed and dissatisfied with themselves and their lives . Indeed, it is ironic that working extra hard can lead to even more dissatisfaction and does not improve self-esteem in the long run . That’s because avoiding feelings of inadequacy does not resolve the true wound: the toxic shame we learned to feel when we learned to be perfectionists. And no amount of doing and achievement will satisfy this perfectionism wound: we simply have to affirm that we are enough as we are, that we are not defective .
Of course another reason we may continuously push ourselves is that capitalist societies themselves are competitive, always pushing us to overwork ourselves for the sake of those in charge of the economy. In essence, it’s as if we’re asking for a lot not for ourselves but for the unrealistic expectations we have for ourselves, which is shaped by what society expects of us too.
#3 Quick fixes (intellectual, emotional wellness)
Yet another western idea is that of quick fixes. We’re taught to instinctively turn to fast solutions as if they were the best ones. Our immediate turn to drugs instead of psychotherapy  is an example of this, and so is our affinity for fast food and how many of us view relationships these days (‘just break up when things get difficult’).
Is it because we’d like to make our lives more convenient? Are we running out of time? Didn’t we use to sit down and figure out more holistic answers to the problems we face? To embrace the full extent of the nature of problems is surely not a comfortable thing to do, but by avoiding the roots of problems, we’re not really improving the problem, only running further away.
We might tell ourselves that we’re okay, but in the end, when life tests us with challenges (existential anxiety itself can be a challenge), we’re forced to look into ourselves to discover what we really struggled with and needed to make peace with, understand, hear, and receive. Otherwise, our denial, avoidance, and suppression results in us not only being detached from our feelings, but from others . That is, detaching ourselves from uncomfortable feelings may give us temporary relief, but in the long run, it makes us more helpless, empty, anxious and lonely . Instead of emotional numbing (a quick fix), practice coping strategies such as practicing cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness techniques, which aid in emotional regulation.
#4 Individualism (physical, social wellness)
In modern societies like ours, individualism tends to take center stage. Without needing anyone to explicitly say it, the truth is that more and more of us are thinking for ourselves and are prioritizing our own dreams and careers over any kind of relationship, many citing that they feel more rewarded and safer in the relationship they have with their job, for instance . Perhaps more of us today appreciate our personal space and desires, which isn’t unhealthy in itself.
However, some of us might benefit from asking ourselves if we’re chasing personal goals extra hard in order to run away from the kind of hard work building meaningful relationships demands . No matter how much we try to downplay the importance of forming deep connections with others, the truth is that embracing community is good for our mental health: a longitudinal Harvard study showed that people who were most satisfied with their relationships at age 50 — precisely because they tend to their relationships!— were the healthiest ones (both physically and mentally) at age 80, concluding that close ties with others is what helps us live happier and longer lives . In addition, their study showed that relationship satisfaction is a better predictor of healthy aging compared to even cholesterol levels.
So no matter how passionate we become about our work, it would be wise to balance it with our need for empathy and secure attachment that come with healthy relationships.
#5 Isolation (social)
Work overwhelms us, our perfectionistic tendencies want us to keep busy, quick fixes abound, and individualism pulls us away from other people and ourselves— but there’s something else that makes us invest our time and mental space in it: social media. We’re drawn to being constantly engaged with our phones and the apps in them more than ever, as they ease our lives with services like food delivery, car rides, e-mail, social media, navigation (could we live without Waze?), online shopping, dating apps, the news, and more. Naturally, this means we spend more time on our phones than we do in the real world, too distracted to be able to enjoy and respond to the presence of others when we should be doing so — which can affect important relationships such as the ones we have with our family . On a slightly different note, a study found that those given access to their phones fared poorer at cognitive tasks, which is worrying as phone usage seems to weaken our ability to think critically and comprehend texts, especially when we’re doing the latter on the phone.
That’s not to say that we should throw away all the goodness that comes from the age of information. After all, it’s a blessing and a miracle that so much can be accomplished with our phones. The only imperative is that we use our phones more mindfully, so that every second we’re engaging with what’s in our screens is one that’s purposeful, not one that’s sidetracking and taking advantage of us (what social media advertisements and paid-ads are up to). If we let our phones get the best of us, we might open ourselves up to loneliness, anxiety, and depression, considering other risk factors too . To get started on a digital detox, read this article for useful insights.
The effects of westernization on our sense of wellness is worth looking at as society goes on to progress. That’s because not taking the time to maintain our dimensions of our wellness is disastrous in the long-term, both to individuals and larger systems. Perhaps that’s the reason more and more schools and businesses are choosing to invest in their employees’ well-being by enlisting the help of counselors and psychologists . When push comes to shove, mentally healthy people make for more engaged, competent, and productive students and workers.
 Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child, John Bradshaw
Written by :
Lifelong Learner and Mental Health Counselor
Alumni of Boston University, USA, and University of Malaya, Malaysia