Too much stress, too little sleep, rushed meals, technology that seems to change faster than we can begin to keep up with. If those complaints sound familiar, chances are they’d have resonated with your great-great grandparents too.
More than a century ago, Americans had much the same concerns, and some leading thinkers and medical practitioners even took it a step further. They suggested that the country’s legendary work ethic and go-getter spirit might be a form of mental illness that they called “Americanitis.”
The origins of the now-forgotten term are fuzzy, but it was most likely coined by a foreign observer. An 1882 medical journal article attributed it to a visiting English scientist; the 1891 book Power Through Repose, by Annie Payson Paul, credited a German physician. William James, the famous American psychologist, became identified with the term, sometimes even credited as its inventor, after reviewing Paul’s book.
The idea that the pace of American life might have adverse health effects was hardly new. But the invention of “Americanitis” gave it a veneer of medical legitimacy, suggesting such familiar, and very real, ailments as arthritis, bronchitis, and gastritis.