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Myth of Prosperity : Oliver James


Chasing that ephemeral and elusive state of 'happiness'.

from Resurgence issue 217



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WORKING IN A mental hospital was not the experience that first alerted me to our extraordinary levels of unhappiness: it was talking to 'normal' people, to people like us.

Beyond the gates of the mental hospital I listened to commonplace tales of broken relationships, aborted careers and unfulfilled consumer ambitions - bigger house, bigger car, bigger bank balance - that seemed to plague all of our lives. I began to feel surrounded by disenchanted dreamers who had just been prematurely woken before a particularly happy ending to their dreams. At times, I even felt like that myself. Materially and in terms of freedoms, truly, we had never had it so good, so why can't we just be happy with what we have got?

Several years of research later a starting point for an explanation was emerging. The dreary truth is that most of the time most people are at best not unhappy. We have been horribly deceived in thinking that the pursuit of happiness is a realistic or meaningful activity.

Consider the mundane example of éclairs for tea with a dull relative on a Sunday afternoon. You do not look forward to the visit and you do not enjoy the conversation when you get there. But you are not unhappy, buoyed up by the thought that at least your auntie always serves éclairs. Eventually there comes the rich taste of the chocolate and the luscious cream, a pleasure heightened by contrast with the dreary company.

For those transient moments perhaps you are happy, but odds on, within a few minutes you are actively unhappy, sickened by the excess of cream and sugar with nothing left to look forward to until you can leave.

HAPPINESS IS BUT a fleeting, abnormal state that results from satiation of our animal, instinctual selves whether by eating, sex, companionship or self-preservation. You could say that our lives are simply a series of hundreds of thousands of experiences of dissatisfaction - hunger, needing the loo, needing sex - whose temporary satisfaction makes us temporarily happy.

You could also say that modern society has become infinitely more precise and faster at meeting these needs than any previous one and therefore that we should be considerably happier. Yet, against all logic, exactly the opposite is the case.

Despite our astonishing technological advances and far higher average standard of living, when I looked at the statistics, they revealed that we are dramatically more likely to be depressive, compulsive and violent compared with in 1950. All mainstream political parties make economic growth the central tenet of their electoral manifesto. "It's the economy, stoopid," we are told - except that, as far as psychopathology is concerned, it's not.

One analysis, by the leading American psychiatrist Gerald Klerman, examined the minds of people from eight nations. It concluded that today's twenty-five-year-olds are three times more likely to suffer serious depression than their predecessors in 1950; in America the rate is ten times higher. In Britain, mild depression had risen from 22% to 31% in nine years from 1977 to 1986.

That is just depression, but if all mental illnesses are included, it is normal to be angst-ridden. Rates of compulsive behaviour, from obsession to alcoholism to drug abuse, have rocketed. A definitive 1992 survey from the general population by psychiatrist Lee Robins showed that 20% suffered from a full-scale mental illness in any one year and for every one of them there are two to three more who have a minor mental ailment.

Violence rates completed the picture. In 1950, a total of 6,000 crimes of violence against the person were recorded. By 1997 there were 42 times more (253,000). Given that three quarters of convicted violent men are suffering from depression, this is further evidence for a rise in depression - the great majority of violent men are suffering from some kind of mental illness.

It seemed to me that just as we arrived at the point in history when we had become most sophisticated and efficient in the satisfaction of our instincts that is so central to the short-term buzz we call happiness, we had become substantially more psychologically disturbed. Direct surveys of the happiness of different nations and classes bore this out.

Large polls of citizens from developed nations find that they say they are happier than those in developing ones. But when comparison is made between the different developed nations, the citizens of the richest (such as the USA) are no more likely to say they are happy than those from the poorest (such as Eire). In short, when a society reaches the stage of being able to meet all its citizens' basic needs (health, housing, nutrition), increasing their overall wealth does not make them happier.

It is true that, in general, richer people tend to say they are happier than poorer people. But this trend is surprisingly weak and there are large swathes of the rich who say they are unhappy, and of the poor, who say they are happy.

A study of forty-nine super-rich Americans from the 'top 400 wealthiest people' with a net worth of $125,000,000 or more found that 37% were less happy than the nationwide average. By contrast, 45% of a non-wealthy comparison group were considerably happier than average.

FACED WITH THIS barrage of statistics, of only one thing could I be sure: they have nothing to do with our genes. It takes millennia, not decades, for genes to change, and it is impossible that a forty-two-fold increase in violence or ten-fold increase in depression was the result of changes in our DNA. Realising this should make you considerably more sceptical the next time you read that a 'new gene' has been discovered 'for' these behaviours.

The real answer is that we have been duped into making happiness the primary goal in our lives. This does not work because the pleasure is so temporary and its pursuit a recipe for discontent. As soon as we achieve one animal goal, we rapidly set a new one. Yes: we are instinctively programmed to seek new needs; but the critical change compared with 1950 is that this instinct has been ruthlessly exploited in modern society to create a 'grass is greener' mentality.

Studies of lottery winners show that they soon readjust their sights and begin to long for what they have not got. They may now have a Mercedes and a Porsche, a large home and no need to work, but if only they could afford the yacht, the even bigger home, the helicopter …

Likewise, enormously wealthy people simply raise the standards of what they expect so that even if they stay in the very best hotels, drive in the most opulent cars and so on, they will always feel there is a better one somewhere else. The super-rich are constantly infuriated by the smallest sign that what they have got is less than perfect.

The trouble is that our economic system since 1950 requires that our needs keep multiplying. Economic growth has accelerated on an almost unbelievable scale, but this can only be sustained if we are kept in a permanent state of wanting things we have not got.

The almost fetishistic detail of our consumer needs is ever diversifying. We want this rather than that trainer shoe, yogurt or lager even though there may be no significant practical or aesthetic difference from its immediate competitor. The distress and frustration you feel when you cannot find your favourite brand of cereal on the shelves is ludicrously out of proportion to its real importance in the greater scheme of things.

BUT IT IS NOT just materially that needs have increased: our very selves and relationships have become commodities. There was a time when identity was ascribed to you at birth on the basis of gender and your family's social position. Bakers' sons became bakers; bakers' daughters married into a similar caste and lived nearby.

Today, identity is achieved, not ascribed on the basis of your background. Through education and occupation you break away and customise your self, which sounds fine in theory. In practice there have been huge problems.

Freed from the shackles of background, some individuals may have discovered their true selves, but for the majority there has grown up a culture of wannabeism, of Keeping Up With The (Bridget) Joneses. In the absence of ascribed identity and the presence of a voraciously consumerist society which encourages you to confuse what you own with who you are, most people develop ludicrously unrealistic expectations.

The vast majority of us are nothing special, yet the story is that everyone can be a star, that we are all owed our fifteen minutes of fame. Girl Power tells young women that they can achieve whatever they want, omitting to mention that ability and motivation are essential (and in the case of the Spice Girls, looks, youth and marketing by a clever person).

The packaging of careers has failed to take account of the simple fact that most people are not particularly hard-working or talented and that most jobs are dull and low paid - even the supposedly glamorous ones in the mass media.

Likewise, dreams of finding the perfect sexual partner are still widespread, fuelled by that mass media. No wonder the divorce rate keeps spiralling if we are all convinced that better sex with a more compatible person is just around the corner. Since sex and relationships are inherently imperfect for most of us for most of the time, anyone who expects otherwise is bound to suffer serial disappointment.

Hence, not only do we constantly want to have more material things to give us the temporary thrill of happiness, we also constantly seek to be someone that we are not as well. We compare ourselves obsessively and enviously to others, frantically seeking to outperform them in all aspects of our existence. If we are lucky enough to achieve one of our goals, we soon move the goalposts, creating the next source of dissatisfaction.

Of course, many wonderful benefits have resulted from the changes since 1950. Sex is no longer a cause for guilt and fear. Where only 12% of all women once worked, today more women do so than men. Higher education is now enjoyed by one third of the population.

It would be a mistake to look back at the repressed and sparse post-war era with rose-tinted spectacles: many of the changes since then are more than welcome. But we shall not be able to enjoy them unless further improvements are made soon.

We have become a society in which all the citizens reach greedily and selfishly for the sky, only to become disappointed and enraged when they crash to earth. We need to become one in which the pursuit of power, status and wealth no longer poison our relationships and well-being. We need to be more like Denmark and less like the United States of America. o

Oliver James is a clinical psychologist and author of They F*** You Up (Bloomsbury, 2002) and Britain on the Couch (Arrow, 1998).

from Resurgence issue 217Subscribe to Resurgence