Stress, Entitlement & Empathy

Medical Reviewer

Parish priests don't normally make national headlines unless they say or do something outrageous. This morning, the Sunday sermon by Father Tim Jones in my home town of York, found its way to the news. Father Jones upset a lot of people by suggesting that truly needy people should consider shoplifting from major retailers if their situation is so desperate that they are considering robbery or prostitution. Meanwhile, Prince William spends a night sleeping rough in order to raise awareness of the homeless. In the run up to Christmas both stories are about raising awareness of the plight of others and of being less selfish and less self-absorbed.

Stress and anger are increasingly common and some psychologists equate this with our exaggerated sense of entitlement. The advert says 'you're worth it,' but can we really all be worth it all the time, and do we pay a price for this sense of entitlement? I often listen to people of my own generation pointing to the fact that young people today get it all given to them. As a result, so the argument goes, they have a diminished sense of true value, a high level of entitlement and increased selfishness. This is evidenced by what happens to the individual when their sense of entitlement is not shared by others. They feel wronged, badly treated, insulted and angry. It is, not surprisingly, a common feature of many criminals, "Why should you have this while I go without?"

We're probably much more resentful and unhappy with our lot than ever before. In real terms however, we're probably more affluent than ever before. It is becoming increasingly clear that the things we believe are worth having are not the same as the things worth being. The psychologist Stephen Stosny, talks about the development and effect of emotional pollution. In the course of a typical day at work, he says, low-grade resentment, sarcasm and irritability are common. These emotions come about as a result of a person not feeling they are getting the things to which they are entitled. This spreads like a virus, particularly to those who are vulnerable to its effects. Stosny suggests the reason that defensive/aggressive emotions spread so easily is that they feel very differently to the way they look. Inside, the person feels upset, anxious, and a victim. Outside they appear unapproachable, unfriendly or even hostile.

Happiness is a fragile yet precious thing. Unfortunately happiness has become equated with the latest gadget, the 'must have' fashion or the celebrity look. Studies into materialism reveal that people who place a high value on material goals are unhappier than those who don't. Moreover, lower self-esteem, greater narcissism, less empathy and greater conflict in relationships are all more strongly associated with materialism.

Our increasing reliance and love affair with technology is also having a negative effect on both long term goals and relationships. The balance between work and life used to be clear, but work technology follows people home. It was always the case that a few weekends might be sacrificed for work but today the boundaries are really blurred. Yair Amichai-Hamburger is director of the Research Center for internet Psychology. He believes we are in danger of swapping standard of living for quality of life. He believes that technology has begun to enslave us and that we need to gain mastery over it.

This brings us back to our sense of how we feel about other people. Our desire for technology has perhaps begun to erode our sense of relatedness. Online messaging, tweets and texts create an illusion of community, but shouldn't take over from the real thing. The real thing of course requires an effort and an investment.

There are pivotal differences between people who are happy and unhappy. Unhappiness is associated with stress and depression and the absence of meaningful, rich and satisfying personal relationships. Happiness, of course, includes the aforementioned plus awareness and a sense of empathy for those less fortunate. A truly meaningful gift might be to allow more of this into our own lives.


Amichai-Hamburger, Y (2009) Shiny, Unhappy People. New Scientist 19/26 December. 28-9.

BBC News. Shoplift Advice Sermon Criticised. Stosny, S (2008) Anger in the Age of Entitlement or Breathing Deeply in Emotional Pollution. Psychology Today.