First of two parts
In the 1970s, the phrase "Me Generation" was coined to describe America's new obsession with self-fulfillment.
Thirty years later, the Me Generation has not only grown up, it has mutated and spread like kudzu into our younger generations. Now we have the "Me, Myself and I Generation," aka "Me-my-eyes."
This is not a blue-ribbon achievement for our country. Evidence is mounting that we are becoming far, far too full of ourselves, a nation of self-indulgent, attention-seeking, egotistical phonies, say authors of two new books on American narcissism.
It's easy to recognize our most famous Me-my-eyes. They are the camera-ready men and women who have the most fabulous lives, the most Twitterable thoughts, the most outrageous never-ending personal dramas.
Who's not hot are the Me-my-eyes in your classroom, your workplace, your neighborhood or your living room.
Watching the antics of a Paris Hilton, Russell Crowe, Amy Winehouse or Charlie Sheen on TV or the Web can be (mildly) entertaining. Actually living with a "diva" sister, belligerent boyfriend or drug- or sex-addicted roommate is like hanging around Harry Potter's dementors — they will suck the happiness and peace out of everyone's life.
"The levels of narcissistic behavior in our culture appear to be at an all-time high," write Dr. Drew Pinsky and S. Mark Young in their new book, "The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America."
This is not some benign trend, they warn. The unhealthy level of narcissism in the culture "is causing damage to our relationships, our families and the fabric of society."
What's wrong with living large? Plenty of things, say Dr. Pinsky, an addiction-medicine specialist and host of VH1's "Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew," and Mr. Young, who teaches entertainment business at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.
In Celebrity Land, people often are caught up in problems in four areas — body image (i.e., obesity, eating disorders, excessive plastic surgery), hypersexuality (i.e., infidelity, serial dating, exhibitionism), substance abuse, and harmful acting out (i.e., pulling stunts seen on defunct reality shows like "Jackass" and "Wildboyz").
Celebrities seem to get away with these "bad boy" or "bad girl" behaviors. It even fuels their popularity, Dr. Pinsky said.
In real life, when people get into such dysfunctional behaviors, they just suffer, he said. Around 4 percent of teenage girls struggle with anorexia and bulimia. One in four teens has a sexually transmitted disease. Millions of people are trapped by alcohol and drug abuse, including prescription drug abuse.
Socially, the culture is awash with grotesque violence, nasty talk, bullying and "diva-like" behaviors. It's as if people aren't content to watch the drama queens and kings any more — they want to be one, too, said Dr. Pinsky and Mr. Young.
But aspiring to act like sick people isn't good for the culture. A hallmark of narcissism is "a deficiency or incapacity for empathy," Dr. Pinsky told me. Moreover, people with narcissistic tendencies are perpetually self-absorbed, uncaring and exploitative of others.
Dr. Pinsky and Mr. Young recommend that Americans draw back from "pseudo" relationships.
Steer away from Web sites and magazines that mindlessly feed on celebrity antics, they said. Spend less time on MySpace and Facebook. Spend more time with real people, doing real things, in real relationships.
Other steps are to seek a renewed spiritual awareness and purpose greater than "myself." Practice honesty and simplicity. Make promises and keep them. Develop empathy for others by serving without expecting a reward.
"Real, long-lasting happiness in life doesn't come from fame," they write. "It comes from achievement, and from our relationships with others."
Next Sunday: A second salvo on America's "narcissism epidemic."
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.