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Culture, progress and the future: Can the West survive its own myths?

Richard, I am writing to thank you for your thought-inducing article “Culture, progress and the future: Can the West survive its own myths?”, which I encountered in Salon this morning.

I was previously unaware of your work, but am very glad that you’re out there, fighting the good fight— even as a voice in the wilderness. I share your concerns regarding modern Western cultures, and I think your diagnoses are spot-on. It’s less apparent how we can effectively counter our myopia…

I’ve just read your essay on “ Culture….. “ ….. Interesting and provocative, and it caused me to reflect on the undefined feelings I experienced in a previous life, when I worked as a GP, in remote Aboriginal communities – Central Australia, and Western deserts. The mismatch between” them and us “was profound, in many ways, and I always found , when I returned home, a necessary period of readjustment. More of a need to realign my core. Some sort of spiritual retuning. I think your cultural essay has helped me to clarify and reposition those feelings, and to give them some sort of authenticity. Anyhow, I’ll mull over this for a while, and see where it goes…. So thanks for your stimulating thoughts and ideas. It is 0140, and I’m out in my bush humpy, listening to frogs and a solitary mopoke . Must be time for the second sleep….’

…I read this article 3 times over 3 days. Every time that I thought I understood the argument you were trying to convey, I realize I don’t understand more than 1. Life’s complex conditions and human reactions have/are changing 2. people/cultures are different and have different perceptions of their happiness progress 3. Your article does not conclude or offer a reason for what is causing the ‘crisis in America’ as teased in the opening paragraphs. Do you have the time to summarize what I was supposed to take away from this reading?

America’s deepest and most dangerous divide isn’t between Democrats and Republicans

One of the many strengths of [Richard’s] work is that much of it is based on listening to people via in-depth surveys carried out in several countries. Hence the thesis he presents here is not merely personal but one that incorporates the insights, feelings and concerns of many others. What emerges is a thoroughly original and very perceptive analysis of ‘what is going on’ as the tensions and strains in people’s inner lives interact with those in the outer world to produce a surprisingly coherent pattern. This is work of the highest quality..

Richard Slaughter, Futurist
Brisbane, Australia

I was pleasantly surprised to find such a well written article with rich ideas that looks past the tribalism of contemporary political conflicts. In short, I want to thank you for sending a voice that echoes a well-researched and deeply contemplative perspective on the real issues facing much of America…. I wish you the best in your research and will certainly keep my eye out for more of your work in the future.

I sincerely appreciated the balanced and nuanced tone of your article, so much so that I went online to find out more about you and things you had written.

I agree with many things that were in the article, except for the “end of humanity” worries. That’s junk science in my opinion.

I read with interest your article on Salon. Much of it was a bit too abstract for me to follow, and I have to confess I skipped a lot of the middle for now…. I very much agree with your conclusions.

I just wanted to connect with you and tell you how impressed I am with your analysis of the state of things in America.

Your work is so important!

Closing the gap between the science and politics of progress

…a powerful, timely and very insightful paper

Melbourne, Australia

I think it’s a great paper, well done. I really enjoyed it and have passed it on to several people. I love Obama’s quote (and your analysis of it).

Science communicator
ANU, Canberra, Australia

Is the West really the best?

… this is a wonderful (academic) essay by Australian Social Scientist Richard Eckersley, about the limitations of the development indicators used to measure progress. So much in it. So thought provoking.

Simple living discussion group convenor

Thanks again for your paper, which I have now read. It raises many very interesting points, which I will ponder and try to discuss with a few of my colleagues here….Intuitively, I very much agree with you (and am therefore pondering “now what”).

Sustainability researcher
Luneberg, Germany

This article poses and comprehensively addresses questions that I regard as being of utmost importance to the development field.


The paper tackles an important topic. As the author says, the measures we use to track human progress and development matter. By questioning assumptions about common measures used and by emphasizing gaps in these measures related to psychosocial aspects of well-being, the paper has the potential to make a contribution to discourse and policy on global measures of progress.


Recent Feedback

….I am in Sweden now giving a talk on cultural differences of self and values between Gabon and more capitalistic cultures and how this relates to addiction. I find your work on cultural fraud and addiction fascinating.


I am a high school World Cultures teacher in SW Missouri (US). I am currently prepping my students to look at the world as geographers would as we prepare to explore the different cultures of the world.  I will be starting a small unit on world religions very soon.  I plan on having my students read your article, “Culture, spirituality, religion and health: looking at the big picture”. I want the students to understand the importance of religion on the cultural makeup of the region we are studying, but also its impact on society. Your article will lead to a thought provoking exercise for them. I was trying to find a bias in your writing, but I couldn’t pinpoint one (well done).  I want my students’ to try to find one as well….Thanks for your work to better our world, especially your focus on the young ones!

High School Teacher
Missouri, USA

…congratulations for your great work on alternative indicators of progress…When I found SWB, I considered it as a real alternative to GDP for meassuring the “development” of societies. But then, I got to a similar conclussion as you: that it has an individualistic bias and it does not emphasize enough intrinsic values such as trascendence, meaning and flourishing.

Professor, Wellbeing and Sustainability Research
Bogata, Colombia

I am finishing an instructionally oriented book that fuses mindfulness and kindness. The last chapter shifts the perspective from the personal to societal. I’ve conducted an extensive literature review and just found “Is modern Western culture a health hazard?” to be a powerful and clear analysis that is exactly what I need!

Professor emeritus
Oregon, USA

I am…researching into the link between popularised behavioral and belief patterns in modern Western cultures and their link to psychological well-being in young people. I have read a large volume of your work, and have been highly inspired by your research. In particular your book Well and Good, and your article Is Western Culture a Health Hazard? have been very influential in helping me frame my research.

PhD student
Melbourne, Australia

I have worked with young people for almost 20 years and completed and was awarded my PhD this year related to examining anger and aggression with rural adolescent males. I   am constantly challenged by your articles and am grateful as they continue to broaden my thinking. Your work has influenced me greatly.

Youth worker

.….I have attached a letter explaining why your work has suddenly become so important to a bunch of seventeen and eighteen year olds in southern Sydney.…I am teaching a Year 12 Society and Culture class at Gymea TAFE in Sydney’s south. High school has not worked out for my students and they are having another go at completing Year 12 at TAFE. The students must choose a research topic for the NSW HSC. To my surprise many have chosen topics related to happiness and youth. They are concerned that they and so many of their peers have mental illness. Others have chosen topics related to consumerism, wealth and misplaced priorities. Others have chosen to research tribal societies, their values and way of life as they feel strongly something important is missing in our modern life. As you can see discovering your books and internet material has been a big deal.

Sydney, NSW

I’ve just finished reading Well & Good. Congratulations on an outstanding piece of work. You have so many insightful comments that I felt this is a book many others should read. Unfortunately, my guess is that those who would benefit the most are the ones who, preoccupied with everything that seems urgent, would never sit down to read it.

On topics you cover that I’m familiar with, such as happiness research and problems with economic growth, I felt you covered key points with elegance and sensitivity. On topics I know much less about, such as youth matters, I felt in the hands of a master.

Prof Brian Martin
Arts Faculty - University of Wollongong

Your work is a source of great inspiration and insight and I wish to thank you personally for making your wealth of research readily available. You write with such clarity and passion.

I have recently drafted a Youth Strategy for [a Sydney] Council… and initially struggled to understand the research findings. In particular I was baffled that our youth survey of more than 1,000 young people aged 12 to 24 showed that despite generally ‘being happy with their lives on a whole’, fit and in good general health, the vast majority (for young adults 75%) said that they experienced symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression on a regular basis.

Your article “A new narrative of young people’s health and wellbeing” was a turning point for me in making sense of these findings and become a pivot point in the analysis of the data. I soon became engrossed in your work – especially your book “Well & Good: Morality, meaning and happiness” which also struck a personal chord. As an immigrant myself, and having travelled extensively in “developing countries”, I completely relate to the culture shock you describe on coming back to the so-called developed world.

For me, your work has transformed the muddle of issues and complexities that characterise modern western living into something comprehensible and hence more manageable. I have taken the liberty of quoting you extensively in the draft Youth Strategy and hope that you will find that I have been faithful to your work.

Local government officer

Thank you for sharing your studies for free. I am a masters student, particularly interested in youth mental health. We need more wisdom and genuine social service in our society, and its been a pleasure for me to find it here on your site.

University student

Thank you very much for your inspirational writing. Currently, I am a student at Florida State College of Jacksonville in Jacksonville, FL. Your article “The West’s Deepening Cultural Crisis” really provides some insight of our current cultural problems. My assignment/essay for English 1102 required me to find sources for my paper through the database and your article appeared with my search and has really helped provide insight for my paper and myself personally, and I would like to thank you very much!

College student
Florida, USA

I came across your work the first time after reading a paper ‘Is Western Culture a Health Hazard?’ that became required reading for all classes I have been teaching since then. You are one of the few authors I have read capable of putting together different and apparently distant subjects such as mental wellbeing, culture, health, economics and aspirations in life and the environment. A truly unique perspective I totally appreciate. In public health, it is so difficult to find big-picture and free intellectuals, given the funding rat race that shapes behaviours and aspirations…so your perspective is fresh and highly respected.

Population health researcher

I wanted to massively thank you for all your time and support you have provides a to aid me with my MA dissertation. To me, it was like God answering back, apologies for the metaphor, but it meant a great deal, thank you, I wish I could repay you your kindness and the contribution you have made to my research.

University Student

I came across your article “Troubled Youth: an island of misery in an ocean of happiness, or the tip of an iceberg of suffering” whilst I was doing a lit review. What a lovely piece of writing. Thanks for your work.


I came across your work on Google Scholar and checked out your site. I love your work: your interdisciplinary approach and synthesis is very compelling.


A new narrative of young people’s health and wellbeing, 2011

Just finished your paper – it’s terrific! A really well reasoned case (of course: the Eckersley hallmark!) and a beautiful distillation of a huge and complex topic.

Social researcher

The science and politics of population health, 2011

This thoughtful and insightful article draws on a diverse range of theoretical and policy literatures to present a compelling case for a broader framing and understanding of the scope of population health concerns and drivers. … A particular strength of the article is the author’s commitment to draw out and explore the implications of these reflections for the challenges and issues facing young people – as well as for the important work underway in many settings to develop and implement new and broader measures of wellbeing and ‘progress’. …This is a wide ranging and valuable contribution to the rapidly growing literature exploring the policy implications of an alternative political paradigm based on social and ecological wellbeing and sustainability. The article raises a host of challenging and complex questions which merit further consideration and debate.

Professor John Wiseman
Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute - University of Melbourne - Webmed Central review

I have only favourable comments to make on this valuable paper, the publication of which I entirely endorse. Eckersley’s arguments about the need for population health approaches to be re-thought are cogently argued. He effectively challenges some of the dominant orthodoxies which actually hinder broader understandings of what creates and damages health and wellbeing, so this article needs to reach the public health community. He convincingly explains the relevance of mental health and illness to population health and the problems with current (socio-economic) conceptualisations of the social determinants of health. His explanation of how and why epidemiology currently fails to grasp the importance of ‘culture’ is particularly timely. Few in public health truly understand the distinction between social structure and culture, so the influence of the latter tends to be profoundly under-estimated.  Importantly for an international readership, he explains the relevance of the contemporary ‘dis-eases’ of affluent Western societies to the developing world. He is to be congratulated, I believe, on this important and well-written paper.

Dr Sandra Carlisle
University of Glasgow - Webmed Central review

Well & Good

Thought-provoking and insightful, this book synthesizes recent research and presents a range of perspectives on key social issues…

The Futurist

A profoundly pessimistic book concerning the lack of meaning in modern Western life.

Courier Mail

Handles the complex material beautifully…always clear, succinct and often personal.

The Age

Affirms strongly the power of the human spirit to divert the cultural currents of history.

The Canberra Times

Lucid and thought-provoking…has done an admirable job of addressing issues of importance to our emotional survival in a culture that often values things over people.

Herald Sun

One of the key strengths of this book is his ability to synthesise knowledge from myriad disciplines and arrive at a coherent story…very readable and accessible to a wide audience….I strongly recommend the book as general reading for anyone interested in the future of our society and as specific reading on a variety of public health courses where the teacher wants to encourage students to think beyond the square….

Professor Fran Baum
Department of Public Health, Flinders University, SA. - Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Healt

Well and good…is an insightful interpretation of the cultural situation that conditions the thinking and feelings of young people – and not only the young.   We consider this book (and much of Eckersley’s other writings) essential reading for educators.

Professor Graham Rossiter, Australian Catholic University
Journal of Religious Education

Richard Eckersley’s inspiring book, Well & Good – Morality, meaning and happiness, reminds me why I remain, after twenty years (since Casualties of Change appeared in 1988) such an avid admirer of his work and writings. Here again, Richard highlights the ambiguities and dangers inherent in our flawed post-modern Western society, especially in relation to young people. With courage and humility, he examines what we all really want and need as human beings in order to be whole and fully functional individuals… I recommend Well & Good to anybody seeking a better understanding of the critical importance of culture and environment to health and wellbeing.

Professor David Bennett
NSW Centre for the Advancement of Adolescent Health - The Children's Hospital at Westmead

Compellingly written, accessible and with your usual incisive abilities to get at the heart of so much ambiguous, complex, emotionally difficult and urgently important subject matter.

Scientist/ spiritual teacher

I have just finished reading your wise and inspiring book, Well & Good. It not only provides an alternative world outlook to the dominant economic model but also a corrective to the psychologists who are only concerned with personal development and subjective wellbeing.

Writer and activist

I wanted to compliment you on Well and Good… I think it’s an amazing achievement, positively glowing with insight, ideas and comment. I love the way you don’t shy from the ‘big questions’, even as you stay so attuned to the ‘micro’ as well. And it’s all done with an accessibility and lightness of touch which belies the depth of the issues you raise.

Author and psychologist

‘Well & Good’ – what an unremittingly grim, bleak, gloom-and-doom book this is! Well written, but oh, dearie me, what a sad view you paint of human existence, past, present and (especially) future.


…your book is by far the best book I have ever read on the deeper reasons why the world is in such a mess. There is no one else writing what you are writing. There is a huge market for what you write about, because a lot of people sense a deep spiritual malaise in the modern world.


I cannot over-state how influential, inspiring and original I thought ‘Well and Good’ was. You may find this bizarre – but this is what happens with books and ideas – but your influence on us – and us framing the idea of ‘the official future’ along the lines you described – has led to a small national debate in Scotland about the best way forward for the country.

Writer and political commentator

I have been studying your book very closely, and I am really learning heaps from it. I like your calm, balanced style, balancing one argument against another, and then placing your own weight on one side.


I recently finished Well & Good, which I think is one of the best and most profound books I have read.

University chaplain

This is really terrific. I don’t quite know how you’ve done this, but the marriage of non-obvious theory with social issues is exceptionally engaging.


Many thanks for your wonderful book, Well and Good, which I have had for many years and to which I constantly turn. Your understanding of young peoples’ issues are still relevant to their issues today. I believe their needs are even more serious. ‘Scientifically’, they may be thriving but in their ‘spirituality’ many are still floundering. I believe their need is for both ‘fact’ and ‘faith’ to achieve a happy and healthy attitude to life.


Other Writing

Of all the people whose work I read I think I am closer to your position than anyone else’s. As a Centre we’ve increasingly moved in your direction and think that we need to focus on alerting people to issues of materialism and individualism.

Carol Craig
Chief Executive - Centre for Confidence and Well-being, UK

…I would not have got into this area without your work….we got from the Scottish Government came from a short application which was in large measure based on your analysis. I love the way you write and have learned so much from your work.

Phil Hanlon
Professor of Public Health - University of Glasgow, UK

The paper by Eckersley in this issue of IJE is important in several respects. It represents a rare attempt to deal with a complex subject that has traditionally stood outside what Thomas Kuhn would call “normal science” in epidemiology. It surveys a vast body of evidence, concluding, in response to the question posed by the title, that yes, modern Western culture is a health hazard….. Eckersley’s paper is likely to stimulate discussion and controversy. Any discussion of culture is strikingly unorthodox and hampered by weak evidence. It is especially significant that culture has …been largely ignored or denuded of its essential meaning in contemporary discourse surrounding determinants of population health.

Thomas Glass
Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, USA - International Journal of Epidemiology

I find much in Eckersley’s provocative paper to agree with. I also appreciate his efforts to incorporate cultural explanations into social epidemiology. In so doing he has given the field a needed theoretical push to move beyond a narrow focus on social and economic relationships to consideration of systems of meaning in the causation of disease. Yet, like many anthropologists these days, I experience considerable intellectual anxiety over the general and uncritical use of culture as an explanatory variable.

Craig Janes
Faculty of Health Sciences - Simon Fraser University, Canada - International Journal of Epidemiology

Richard Eckersley deserves credit for discussing ‘culture’ seriously as a determinant of health. As he points out, culture is so encompassing, and hence taken for granted, that unless we observe something foreign to our own socialization, it is easy to forget that culture is even there… Unfortunately, however, Eckersley’s theoretical orientation is problematic in several ways, thus undermining his aim.

William Dressler
Department of Anthropology - The University of Alabama, USA - International Journal of Epidemiology

I read your recent essay in Global Change and Human Health, and wanted to tell you how much I gained from it.  I really appreciate your good insights, and the fine and human way that you have presented them.

Environmental scientist, USA
(President, American Association for the Advancement of Science)

…we think that you, better than anyone, have understood/captured the bigger picture of the world which today’s young people inhabit.

Civil servant

I continue to learn from your work, and it is a pleasure to share it with our pre- and post-doctoral adolescent health fellows…Your fusion of public health, social determinants, economic and cultural insights provides a rich and challenging frame – – to explore, to galvanize, to act.

Adolescent health researcher

Very, very interesting.… These are very important ideas.

Research psychologist

I’ve enjoyed reading both your papers and e-mails; they have often helped me gain a new perspective on modern mental health (or lack thereof!)

Research psychologist

I’m continually impressed and inspired by your work.


Thanks for the article . . . I think it’s a brilliant piece of work–perhaps because it so well articulates ideas I’ve been mulling over of late. I’ve passed it along to a number of my academic & professional contacts here in Canada (hope you don’t mind).

Civil servant

What a terrific piece this is. I really appreciate the way you codify and analyze the different responses. This is immensely useful to me …your piece really struck a nerve — It’s right on point in articulating notions that have been flitting around more vaguely in the back of my head….Just a terrific piece of insight.

Climate change author

It was very good to have you pushing us conceptually. It is an immensely valuable perspective that you bring.

Adolescent health researcher

The depth of your interest and concern over the years about the plight of young people shines through, and gives perspectives that others couldn’t provide. I think it is beautifully written and thought-provoking, challenging us all to consider the society we have created and the impact of it on our young people.

Magazine editor

Your work consistently asks the most important questions and finds very helpful and indicative answers. I have always held firmly onto your work on happiness and gained confidence from it to urge parents to change their priorities.

Psychologist and author

I happened to read your article “Don’t panic-it’s only the apocalypse” published in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month. I cut the article out and have re-read it several times since. I wanted to write to you and thank you for articulating many things I feel about the state of our unsteady world, and most importantly the ways we can approach it and change it for the better….Thank you again for what I found to be a deeply motivating article.

University student

I have been reading quite a few of your journal and newspaper articles and would like to say that I am with you all the way. You have added much to the quality of essays I am currently doing and I will be referring to your work in my dissertation.

University student

…your writing is so interesting and cutting-edge. I hope you continue the good work.

PhD student

I’m currently reading one of your papers ‘Cultural Fraud’: The Role of Culture In Drug Abuse. I must say I find your perspective extremely insightful and refreshing, particularly as a young person who has some first-hand knowledge of the types of issues you talk about in this piece. So far in fact, I’m finding that yours is about the most up-to-date and accurate work dealing with the issue of modern Western culture and its relationship to health.

PhD student
Australia thesis …finds strong support to your arguments that Western culture’s emphasis on individualism and materialism has a detrimental effect on individuals’ well-being, contributing to drug (ab)use and other psychosocial problems among adolescents and young adults. In my thesis there are extensive references related to your work as you are one of the very few researchers who have emphasised the detrimental effects of individualism on drug (ab)use.

Post-doctoral researcher
UK/ Greece