The exaltation of ourselves

By Brian Pierce

The popular libertarian Ayn Rand once wrote in her intolerably long novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” “Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life.”

Fifty years later, a study has been issued that suggests ours is the generation that may finally reward Rand’s moral philosophy with widespread acceptance.

May God have mercy on us all if that is the case.

Five psychologists from across the country presented the study in San Diego last week and concluded that today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors.

They came to this conclusion via an evaluation called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) that was conducted between 1982 and 2006. The NPI has students respond to statements like “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to.” No indication that the statement “Achievement of my happiness is the only moral purpose of my life” appeared, but it might as well have.

NPI scores have risen steadily since its inception in 1982. By 2006, two-thirds of the students had above average scores, 30 percent more than in 1982.

I cannot speak to the merits of the study in terms of its scientific rigor, but it seems to me a largely accurate generalization.

Our generation has been witness to the Internet revolution, making information and entertainment more attentive to the individual and more easily accessible than ever. In such a world, it should come as no surprise that we have a greater sense of entitlement and desire for instant gratification.

Students today are also largely the products of the greatest failures of government in our nation’s history. We are raised by parents who were disillusioned by Vietnam and Watergate and today we find ourselves in an eerily analogous scenario as we confront both Iraq and a series of corruption scandals. And though we can look back at two periods of positive national sentiment, first with Ronald Reagan and again with Bill Clinton, each of these politicians rose to popularity largely by hammering into the electorate a message of what we can’t do: Reagan with his “government is the enemy” speech and Clinton with his “the era of big government is over” declaration.

And so our generation has been sandwiched between parallel trends, one toward increasingly personalized attention in the media and another toward decreasingly optimistic views of what we as a society can do together. While a sense of individual privilege is rising, it is not being paired with any recognition of individual responsibility or collective salvation. Students have been told that they’re on their own and can make it just fine without anybody’s help.

While this is unequivocally untrue, its general acceptance has led to the narcissism this study spotlights.

And rest assured, if this sentiment continues, the consequences will be grave.

Personal attitudes affect political ones, and as each of us shrinks into our own individual worlds, our government will shrink in kind. To many this will be a welcome change. But inner city school children don’t need less education, the uninsured don’t need less health care, the poor don’t need less assistance, and the environment doesn’t need less attention.

The consequences will not just be political. Divorce rates will continue to rise, families will crumble as their members grow more distant, and the world as a whole will become a much colder place.

Our generation must reclaim the belief that the individual is only capable of greatness in cooperation with others, that happiness is derived not from the elevation of the self but rather through a connection to others. The obstacles are plenty: the Internet, the media, politics, economics. But if we don’t overcome them, our lives of selfishness will culminate in lives of loneliness and helplessness. Beware.