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Shelley A. Lewis

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Reclaiming Our Sense of Self in a Globalized World

Posted: 06/12/11 12:10 PM ET

The word "globalization" rings in most people's ears as a signal of our advancement, the recognition of our limitless ability to create and have -- beyond measure -- anything we want.

A Delta advert on the subway reads, "A larger network makes a smaller world." So our world appears smaller, and not only does it fill us with a feeling of extended opportunity, but we assume that it is in our best interests.

But is it really in our best interests? What are the true impacts of globalization, from an ecological, economic and, more importantly, psychological perspective? In short, what is the psychological impact of globalization on our sense of self?

Helena Norberg Hodge explores this beautifully in her recently released film, "The Economics of Happiness," in which she calls for a return to localization.

"We have created a system that could not be more wasteful," Zac Goldsmith states in the introduction to the film. "You have tuna fish caught on the east coast of America, flown to Japan to be processed, shipped back to America to be sold to consumers. You have English apples picked in England, flown to South America to be waxed, flown back again to be sold to consumers."

I have read that sentence 50 times since I typed it, and I still can't get my head around it. The prominent policymakers' belief that economic growth can solve everything has created a system so wasteful and inefficient that now it seems that the only hope we have is in those grassroots organizations that a decade ago we were laughing at but that today, in a very different world, we are starting to eulogize. Goldsmith's comment, displayed for more to see, would at least give us a clearer picture of the systemic problem we are facing.

As the ecological impact is acknowledged but poorly understood, the economic impact is far clearer.

The world is bombarded with Western-style consumerism: the latest handbag, the newest car, the next-generation iPhone are now plastered on billboards from Belarus to Bangladesh. Like robots, we are programmed to purchase and follow with bated breath the next cool thing. And with that, we've created a type of globalized, homogenized beauty. Images we have learned to associate with perfection are everywhere, and although there is transitory pleasure in the promise of self-improvement that they hold, the bigger truth is that the effects from a psychological and holistic perspective are breeding intense competition and breaking down cultures.

Learning to think is what a good school is supposed to do for you -- not the rote absorption of facts but the systematic development of constructive, sound thought.

However, as Norberg Hodge rightfully states, "A set of corporations rule children, and yet the constant hankering after the latest gadget is leading them far astray from what they really seek, a feeling of deep love and true connection."

Why is it that having more seems to lead to less?

One interesting theory comes from a new study by psychologists at the University of Liege, published in Psychological Science. The scientists explore the "experience-stretching hypothesis," an idea first proposed by Daniel Gilbert, who expresses his theory in anecdotal form: A man who is given a drink of water after being lost in the Mojave Desert may at the moment rate his happiness level as 10 out of 10. Yet a year later, the same drink might induce him to feel no better than a 2.

As that relates to the aqusition of objects, the ability to enjoy over and over again the best things in life actually reduces our ability to savor those pleasures, and it is in the savoring of experience where we find our greatest satisfaction.

In our over-stimulated, have-it-all culture, we have become acquirers, not makers; we have lost touch with the very byproducts of our output, the direct result of our work, that we need to experience to keep grounded in a sense of our own identity.

Is what's required a return to localization in the truest sense of the word? Do we need a return to localization to reclaim our sense of self?

Centuries ago, in tribal cultures, enclaves of which still exist today, it was one tribe against the other tribe, especially during times of scarcity. During the capitalist era it was the individual against the corporation. In the culture of today, where the digital age beckons us into the virtual world of tomorrow and an overstimulated frenzy to keep up, it has become me against me.

Where along the way did we get so lost? And how do we reinvent a return to innocence to reclaim those essential elements of the self that are necessary to flourish in our contemporary climate, where, ironically, staying connected in our interconnected world is, in equal measure, both harder and more important than ever?

How do we stay connected to that sacred space within that allows us to stay present so that we don't miss our appointment with life?

Observing cultures who appear to have less, but in which the primary emphasis is on sense of community and not materialism, is one helpful way to get back in touch with the kind of support system that is necessary for the self to grow and be nurtured in a healthy way.

Several years ago, while working for a private foundation, I took a trip to Bangladesh, and much like the experience Norberg Hodge had in Ladakh, Tibet, I was amazed at the power, joy and resilient nature of the people. The influence of that trip on my life deserves an entire post dedicated to it, and it will have one, but the lessons I learned from the people I encountered emphasized the qualities of enrichment we all seek: deep love and true connection.

When children in particular are fast-tracked, as is common in advanced societies, it almost inevitably leads to feelings of isolation and not being good enough -- not to mention the fact that we are depriving them of the very inner resources they need to get ahead: a sense of equanimity and accomplishment.

Localizing our efforts on the relationships closest to us that give us deeper meaning beyond the homogenized, fake images of perfection that are being fed to us is extremely important in creating a blueprint for living that is fresh and relevant.

In the U.K., the Transition Towns Movement, a dynamic, community-led group that is strengthening the local economy, reducing the cost of living and preparing for a future with less oil and a changing climate, has become one of the fastest-growing schemes the U.K. has ever seen. The return to a localized sense of community is proving extremely effective in combating the deleterious effects of globalization and the digital era in which live.

New York City is in its own way encouraging local green markets that bring in fresh produce from the nearby farming areas and establishing seated areas by replacing traffic lanes with tables and chairs for people to commune, but it doesn't yet provide the atmosphere of a town square.

What if public schools opened their doors until 10 p.m. for the community and had local individuals or restaurants take turns providing low-cost, nourishing food? This would allow a gathering place for students do their homework and help each other, and for parents to come together and share ideas about what is needed in the community and how to best provide for those needs to be met.

What if bookstores were reinvented on a global scale as a place of community in the city, developing programs that encouraged creativity in children and reinvigorated a sense of the intellectual life again, as a means to deepen our connection to self and others?

In life, the power that systems have over us are only as important as the power that we yield them. Rerooting our sense of self by embracing the community in a fresh way will help lead to social healing on a global scale that feeds us from the inside out, not the outside in. And that, as we know, is the only way to go. Then, globalization carries its inherent importance without the loss of what matters most: peace of mind.