Amid cultural chaos, more individualism isn’t the answer

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The year is 1998. My diaper-clad sister waddles through the fuzzy, VCR-striped living room and clumsily picks up the bulky battery pack of the camera my grandpa is filming her on. She turns, looks innocently at my grandpa and puts the cord in her mouth.

My whole family laughs. It’s nearly 25 years later and we’re sitting on the couch. Our home videos have been digitized through a complicated technical process that none of us really care to understand. What matters is that the old VHS tapes that collected dust in our basement have been dug up from the grave of obsolescence and can now be viewed on the 13-inch screen of a MacBook.

Watching these videos — watching my parents watch these videos — something in my head clicks. No, it isn’t the realization that my parents were once young people just like I am, figuring it out just like I am. I’ve had that one before. It’s something else, something newer — the notion that maybe, the world might have felt just as unstable to them then as it does to me now. In 1994, the famous O.J. Simpson car chase took place a few blocks down from where my newlywed parents were living in Los Angeles. In 1997, my mom was schlepping a newborn pair of twins across town on a public bus when, talking about Princess Diana’s death, a woman said loudly, “Oh, the Queen had her knocked off.” In 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached. And in the midst of this, my parents were falling in love, getting married and having babies. Despite the deafening roar of the modern world, despite the unsustainable push of technological progress, two people started a family. And that fundamental human experience, perhaps the most human experience of all, remained untarnished.

In one of my favorite books, “Beautiful World, Where Are You” by Sally Rooney, two long-distance Irish best friends named Alice and Eileen navigate their new adulthood as they approach 30. While half the chapters narrate the humdrum of their lives and the ebb and flow of their relationships, in the chapters in between, the women write each other long, cerebral emails fretting about environmental destruction, the monotony and consumption of late-stage capitalism, and what they perceive as a general death of culture and beauty unique to the 21st century. While Rooney’s previous novels often used politics as an accessory, “Beautiful World” shines a light on a new kind of psyche: the built-in millennial angst of entering adulthood during the climate crisis and what feels like the political apocalypse, all the while watching it unfold rapidly on the internet. 

However, the book offers Alice and Eileen an out. By the end, both women are in happy heterosexual relationships and Eileen is pregnant. As is her contemplative nature, she worries whether it’s right to bring a child into the world at a time like this, and concludes that if children are the future, she wants to be on their side.

I never understood the ending of “Beautiful World.” It felt like the drama of the story was wrapped up too nicely, like a superficial ribbon that Rooney pinned on hastily at the end to assure her angsty millennial readership that yes, there is hope after all. But watching my toddler sister play with the camera battery, it begins to make more sense to me. I wonder now if Eileen’s predicament resembles what my parents felt when my sisters and I were born — knowing that the world is kind of like an ever-accelerating hamster wheel where everyone dies at the end, but deciding to have kids anyway because isn’t that what humans have always done? As Eileen writes in one of her emails to Alice, “Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.”

It’s a nice idea — being in love in a way that makes you feel okay about the world. It’s what Taylor Swift has been trying to put into words ever since she met Joe Alwyn. It’s the escape Maggie Rogers longs for on her 2022 album Surrender. It’s all over The 1975’s Being Funny in a Foreign Language, an album that combines a chaotic onslaught of cultural criticism with a slew of sappy, unironic love songs, and concludes at the end that “The only time I feel I might get better / is when we are together.”

But is it the best we’re going to get? Is the wealth gap so hopelessly large, the environment so irreversibly damaged, the social fabric really so threadbare that the most we can hope for is to fall in love and forget about it? It’s a privilege to be able to forget about the world’s problems — namely a white, middle-class, Global North privilege. That’s not to say that each of us alone should shoulder the burden of every demoralizing headline that crosses our social media feeds, because we couldn’t if we tried, and we shouldn’t have to. But the apathy that this idea allows for makes me uneasy, and it’s underlined by a concealed sense of individualism.

What the “Beautiful World” argument reeks of is positive psychology: a movement that rose to popularity in the early 2000s and has probably trickled down into all our lives one way or another since (raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by positive psychology — if your eighth-grade teacher forced you to write down three things you were grateful for every day, for instance, like mine did, you may be entitled to financial compensation). Positive psychology’s whole schtick is self-help — the pursuit of happiness through unbridled optimism, and the value of personal fulfillment above all. And it’s not a new idea.

In a 2008 study, professors Dana Becker and Jeanne Marecek link positive psychology to that prized, quintessentially American individualism, arguing that, in the view of positive psychologists, “The greater good is no more than what will make that individual most fulfilled.” In other words, positive psychology tells us that the best thing we can do for the world is to make ourselves happy.

I don’t think this is Rooney’s intended argument, nor Taylor Swift’s for that matter. Much like positive psychology, however, their perspectives operate under a distinctly individualist framework that they don’t acknowledge. They’re not alone, either — increasingly, young people seem to be gravitating towards this make-the-best-of-it approach. Take TikTok’s anti-nihilism trend, for example, in which users post slideshows of uplifting quotes and images set to dreamy music, encouraging the viewer to relish in natural beauty and believe in the goodness of the human spirit. The unspoken assumption here is that we’ve all already lost hope.

Those small moments of beauty and isolated acts of kindness that these videos revere are not the solutions to our world’s systemic problems, and they don’t claim to be. Rather, they indicate a sense of resignation, as if they’re saying, “Let’s at least try to enjoy our lives while we can.” I don’t blame them. I feel the same way often enough. But personal fulfillment is only one half of the equation, and we can’t afford to mistake it for the end goal. Meaningful change is collective and communal; it won’t result from millennials getting married and moving into single-family homes. 

Positive psychology preaches that we answer to no higher purpose than our own personal happiness, while Rooney’s takeaway from “Beautiful World” is that we can escape to that personal happiness as an antidote to our anxiety about the state of the world. Both perspectives orient themselves around the self rather than the whole, but as Becker and Marecek write in the same study, “The bounded, masterful self … is a fiction.” We are both products of and contributors to our environments, which is why it’s so difficult for us to dodge that individualistic mindset, even as we acknowledge its negative effects.

I don’t mean that Eileen shouldn’t have the baby. I’m happy for her, I swear. And I do think there’s something beautiful about that ending. Despite it all, the stubborn core of humanity perseveres. Though my parents switched to digital about two years after that video of my sister was taken, it’s the same steady hum of love that floods the frame.

Daily Arts Writer Nina Smith can be reached at

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