IT HAS BEEN NEARLY two years since the president of the United States retired to the mountains of Camp David to think deep thoughts, taking along his trusty pollster to aid the process. Cooperatively, Jimmy Carter and Patrick Caddell added the phrase "national malaise" to the political lexicon. Carter promised to give the American people a government as good as they deserved. With Caddell's help he placed blame for his failed stewardship on the people themselves, who he said, were "suffering a crisis of confidence which threatens the very fabric of society."

All this drew sniggers from the political cognoscenti who have come to expect little in the way of enduring social theory from pollsters. In general, polls are instrumental devices designed to address short-term problems. Pollsters constantly caution their clients not to read too much into the results, that things could change. Pollsters themselves, on the other hand, often succumb to grand theorizing.

For example, the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company would like to sell its policies to millions of Americans, so it recently hired a survey firm to help fine tune its sales pitch. The firm produced a study of American values, among them religion, which arguably is related to the sale of life insurance. Connecticut Mutual was so stunned by the results that it got the word around to the media. "Our findings suggest [emphasis added] that the increasing impact of religion on our social and political institutions may be only the beginning of a trend that could change the face of America." Then, again, like the national malaise, it may not change things at all, nor even be a trend.

Now comes Daniel Yankelovich, president of one of the country's largest, most respected and durable survey research firms. Yankelovich sees trends even more fundamental: Americans are going squidgy in the values, he says. Loyalty, hard work, steadfastness, doing what's expected of you while supressing the impulse to put yourself first and doing what you'd really enjoy -- all the values that underlie the great American ethic of self-denial are in decline. The American version of the social contract is eroding. Nothing less.

Folks, for the last decade there has been a battle of moral norms raging across the terrain of the American psychoculture. Self-denial has given way to self-fulfillment. Sometime in the l970s Americans discovered that in the domains of marriage, sex, family, work, travel, education, friends, possessions, where to live and how to live, they had many more choices than their parents, so they began to exercise those choices. Thus, the national quest for self-fulfillment.

From 10 years of banked survey data plus several hundred in-depth, life-history interviews, Yankelovich culls out a category of Americans eager to "live their lives to the brim, to consume every dish on the smorgasbord of human experience." These, he labels the "strong formers," younger, better educated, less religious, different from the mainstream in their reactions to statements like, "I spend a great deal of time thinking about myself," and "Satisfaction comes from shaping oneself rather than from home and family life."

In the illustrative, life-history profiles of this group, we meet folks like Sara Lou Wellford, who exchanged a conventional, 12-year marriage for a life better suited to her "inner needs." In the new, unfettered cultrue, "she was not disgraced by being divorced, not ostracized for putting her own requirements ahead of her children's, not condemned to shame and guilt because she slept around in the period following her divorce."

Wellford really hit her stride in the self-fulfillment psychoculture, but other front-rank self-fulfillers aren't doing so well.

Lyndon Hendries is a successful public relations professional with a six-figure income, but he's trapped in a marriage that inhibits his self-realization: "Originally I thought fidelity was absurd, then I thought it made sense, now I'm back once again to thinking it abursd."

Professor Robert Agnoli found his academic career to be a way out of the family grocery business, but now, in his forties, he finds it no longer taps his potentials to the fullest. Weary of his griping, Agnoli's wife has abandoned him to live at the shore with a soman she met on summer vacation .

Maybe it's only when they talk to pollsters, but these stong-formers seem incessantly to be totting up their self-fulfillment balance sheets. Money, good restaurants, sexual freedom, travel, more leisure--all pluses. Fidelity, family obligations, aging, uncreative labor -- all minuses.

The strong-formers make up only 17 percent (exactly) of the population, but they're more important than that because they are the distilled essence of the new social ethic. Besides, another 63 percent share the self-fulfillment search in a weaker form. This group constitutes a hundred million or so Americans who are abandoning the old rules without yet adopting the new ones. The remaining 20 percent (poorer, older, more conservative, more rural) are clinging to the old values.

Now comes the rub. Unfortunately for this psychocultural revolution, it came about during a period of prolonged prosperity. The quest for new freedoms is an offshoot of the psychology of affluence that accompanied 25 years of postwar economic growth.

So, just as it's really getting rolling, the self-fulfillment ethic is running smack into a widescale economic pinch caused by rising Mideast oil prices, escalating costs of government entitlement programs fueled byinflation, and the decline in competitiveness of U.S. industry. Americans were just getting used to their wider variety of choices, says Yankelovich, and they're currently unprepared to cope with the gapbetween expectations and realtiy.

There are some important public policy consequences attached to all this. Since the New Deal, the American political ethic has been to help the poor without hurting the rich. As long as things were going well, "the rising tide that lifts all ships" was the dominant economic metaphor. But when people feel vulnerable themselves, Yankelovich believes, they begin to resent helping others. The new emphasis on self combined with the economic pinch means Americans are becoming less sensitive to the plight of the most vulneralbe citizens in our economy, becoming "bored with the problems of race and unemployment that we'd begun to address in earlier decades."

In an effort to end on an optimistic note, Yankelovich theorizes that it is still possible for Americans to do some psychological and emotional belt-tightening. Perhaps out of this denial-fulfillment dialectic will evolve a social ethic combining the new range of positive life choices with the old values of self-restraint and caring for others. But the author's evidence and arguments strain to support that optimism.

The main burden of the book is summed up in three sentences: "Our current mood is one of all-encompassing disorientation; a muddled confusion has now become the hallmark of the search for self-fulfillment. If we can overcome it, a good journey to the end of the century and beyond is still possible. But if the confusion persists, a bad trip is inevitable."

All of which brings us around full circle to Jimmy Carter, Patrick Caddell and the national malaise they either found or created up in the mountains of Camp David.