The Link Between Self-Reliance and Well-Being

Individualism is about having the freedom to be who you are—not going it alone.

The 2021 academy award for Best Picture—covering the prior year, when many of us were stuck at home—was awarded, ironically, to Nomadland, a film about a woman who has no permanent home. The movie follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a 60-something widow who lives in her van, working itinerantly and resisting invitations to settle down with family or friends. Many critics interpreted Nomadland as an “indictment of America”; an article in this magazine lauded its treatment of “the wreckage of American promise.”

My reaction to the movie, however, was different. In Fern, I saw not merely the victim of a broken culture and economy, but also a version of the fabled “rugged individualist”: the cowboy; the pioneer; the immigrant. She insists on self-reliance, lives by her wits without self-pity, and sees the welfare of others as a kind of prison.

This is an American ideal, or perhaps a cliché. Some see it as not just a character type, but rather a source of deep life satisfaction. Ralph Waldo Emerson best articulated this view in his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance.” “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” he wrote. “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”

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By Arthur C. Brooks

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