The Modern Sadness

Happiness is not good for the economy.

We live in a post-industrial society that has been designed for one thing in particular: material comfort. Almost the entire machinery of this epic capitalist system we have built over centuries ushers us towards the very narrow consumerist concept of ‘hard work’ and the fuelling of an economy based on human discontent. We are made to be discontent in order to make us consume, and since the beginning of Neo-Liberalism in the 1980s there has never been a society more obsessed with this function in the history of mankind.

My point in this article is to show the incalculable madness of what we are designing our lives around, and to say that despite all we claim to aspire towards, despite all the self-congratulatory evidence that we have never lived in more material comfort, despite everything that the establishment indoctrinates us with, we are creating an unhappiness deeper and more different than anything history has previously sown. My generation hate themselves because of the world they have been born into, and we are leading ourselves into chaos.

There is one particular picture that caught my eye recently and that seemed to confirm a suspicion that I’ve had for a while. It is a graph showing the results of a 55-year-long study of anxiety amongst 52,000 American individuals between 1950 and 1995 by a woman call Jean Twenge, a sociologist who has written extensively on developing trends amongst young people in America. Twenge found her country’s tendency towards anxiety and depression to be rising alarmingly fast, to the point that the average American child in the 1980s was far more anxious than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. For want of a better way of explaining how such a study is conducted, this evidence comes from the administration of standardised anxiety measures that have been in use across the sociological and medical community for at least half a century, and in that respect we are going to have to trust them.

Now, I am not going to jump to conclusions about anything just because I have seen one graph suggesting that American people are becoming more anxious. What I am going to do, however, is paint a limited picture of the way I am increasingly being made to see the world. I’ve done enough reading and learning in the last few years to be led to think that the Western world we live in is not a good one, for the reason that it sacrifices human wellbeing for the panic and emptiness of money and markets and the divisive patterns of living that result from them. People in the last century have become infinitely more insecure, because we have lost the intrinsic humanity of meaningful work, destroyed our networks of love and community, and instead created a world in which the human being is becoming an economic unit – selfish, self-hating, and lonely.

Part of my reasoning goes like this: human beings have lived in every single kind of society under the sun, and yet we have somehow managed to make one in which 25% of the population will suffer from a form of depression in their lifetime. Here are some statistics I’ve taken from the Mental Health Foundation webpage:

  1. ¼ of the population will suffer from a mental health problem every year.
  2. Women are more likely to be treated (my italics) for mental health problems than men.
  3. 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time.
  4. Depression affects 1/5 of older people.
  5. The UK has 6000 suicides a year, 80% of which are men.
  6. 400 in every 100,000 people in the UK self-harm, one of the highest in Europe.
  7. 90% of prisoners have a mental disorder.

In a previous article I explained Neo-Liberalism and what I call the New Social Darwinism (https://benjamintunwell.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/neo-liberalism-and-the-new-social-darwinism/). Part of the ideology of Neo-Liberalism is a belief in Nature over Nurture, and the idea that the genes you inherit are more important than your environment. Well, I’m going to say almost exactly the opposite when it comes to mental health. I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that mental ill health is nowhere near as genetically inherent as people are led to believe it is. When you hear about people with depression, you tend to look for evidence of it throughout their family, and, yes, there often are similar characteristics throughout sometimes even generations of a family, and, yes, there are often chemical imbalances in a depressed person’s body. But there is, as yet, no evidence that this chemical imbalance occurs because of a person’s genes or because of their environment, and no one knows which follows the other.

Paul Verhaeghe argues that “our psychological identity is a product of our environment. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can take a baby and mould it into anything you like: the genetic blueprint is there. But the blueprint still allows a lot of room for manoeuvre.” People are born with the genetic capacity for certain tendencies, but it is the environment that determines which of those capacities is realised. The rate of depression and mental ill health has risen at such an exceptionally fast rate in the last 50 years that I should not have to excuse myself for thinking that it is our environment and not our genes that have changed. Human genes do not change that quickly – so what has?

In a word: capitalism. Since the boom of consumerism began in the 1960s, we have created an endlessly consumption-based culture, which has in turn created the cult of the individual. Today’s narrative tells you that you are a selfish, individual economic unit, capable of achieving anything if you work hard enough for it, and the flipside of which is that, if you fail, it is your fault. You are put through an education system riddled with utterly absurd exams so that you can become an employee and earn money so that you can contribute to the economy, because economic growth is the only important thing that needs to be achieved. The goal is aimed at human happiness in a very roundabout way: create a strong economy and thereby create enough money to invest in the material things that make people secure and happy, such as homes, hospitals, schools etc.

Although of course this does happen – we do have material abundance – human happiness is not sufficiently satisfied. Part of the reason is because humans work in relative terms, not absolutes; or, in other words, it doesn’t matter that the average human being has a better home than 50 years before if her home is still worse off than other homes around her. The cult of the individual tears apart communities, which are seen as old-fashioned and counter-intuitive to our modern culture of aspiration. How can anyone achieve what they aspire to be if they are restrained by backwards communities? Say people who defend individualism. Let me just make clear that repression is not what I am advocating! Without community people do not develop a sense of identity, and by community I mean a tight network of friends and family with whom you closely identify.

I’m not going to argue that no one has close friends and family in this country, but I am going to argue that a lot of people don’t, and almost no one has people in their life to whom they regularly explain their fears and emotions, which is absolutely vital to happiness. Broken families and divided communities are some of the biggest problems at both the bottom and the top of the British class system. We are a grossly unequal society, and inequality necessarily means division and the loss of trust. There is a wealth of evidence suggesting that inequality is quite literally bad for people’s health. A very broad and very in-depth study by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett over some years found that every society reaches a point when economic growth ceases to contribute to human happiness, and instead fosters unhappiness, and for Britain this happened about thirty years ago. Their book finds that inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources. Inequality is very, very bad for people, and the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the world, often considered second only to the USA.

Another part of a consumption-based society that I’ve become particularly aware of is advertising. By it’s very nature, advertising attacks human insecurities. It suggests to you that ‘you could have this’ or ‘you need this’ and leads to subconscious questions like ‘is it better than what I’ve got?’, ‘will it make him happy/her envious?’, ‘will it make me look better?’, ‘could I snag another heart if I had that?’. It leaves a person with the subconscious belief that everything is achievable. That is what a market economy based on advertising does to people – it makes you feel that you could have everything. Advertising compromises emotion, and it makes people feel insecure, particularly when it plays on things like sexual lust, leaving one with the feeling that everyone else is having their sexual needs gratified and therefore inflaming yours even more.

And consider also what a consumer society does to people in terms of their identity. In a world in which everything is mass-produced, people work to earn money to spend on similar products. People end up buying different brands of the same thing: one person might wear Ralph Lauren shirts, drive a BMW and use an iPhone, whereas her friend might wear Topshop shirts, drive a Toyota and use a Samsung. People boil down to different arrangements of the same thing, and the special connection associated with one-of-a-kind items – particularly those that you or someone close to you have made – is gone.

An advertisement-based consumer society also creates the belief that human beauty is a mathematical formula. Boys suffer just as much from this illusion as girls, but it is girls who are culturally permitted to speak aloud about their self-consciousness and the beauty of themselves and other people. I can think of a thousand occasions on which I’ve heard a girl say ‘my ankles are too large’, or ‘my hair is too straight/curly’ or whatever it may be. More often this self-consciousness is conveyed in patterns of complimenting – or rather, counter-complimenting. This kind of conversation is a staple: ‘I love your new haircut! I wish I had hair like that, mine’s so boring and mousy’. ‘Oh no, my hair’s terrible! It gets too frizzy. I wish I had the cheekbones for your hair, you have wonderful cheekbones’ etc. This kind of conversation can jump from looks to fitness to social skills to careers to talents and success, which of course all mark a self-awareness of these things, but it is beauty I want to focus on here. When a girl says ‘x body part is too x’, what are they suggesting it is too something to be? Too something to be beautiful, of course.

What advertising and images in the media – newspapers, film, TV etc. – gives us is the sexualised image of beauty. People are led to believe that models are beautiful because of a strict formula for how they look, and therefore they are never happy with the way they themselves look. And do not for one minute think that I am being misogynistic here, because I actually believe that girls are much better at dealing with this kind of pressure than boys for the reason that they actually talk about it. Male culture in Britain still very much adheres to the ‘stiff upper lip’ adage, which of course means they never express their anxieties, and therefore they suffer more from them. Note that women are more likely to be treated for mental ill health because they tell others about it, whereas 80% of suicides are men. This contrast is not a coincidence.

Then there is the concept of the Perfect Individual, which is in some ways the most pervasive and insidious. In my article on Neo-Liberalism I covered this to some extent. There are three things a Neo-Liberal society tells you to be: wealthy, intelligent and beautiful. Intelligence must be marked by a university degree, or preferably two, and beauty is achievable only with this mathematical formula. I don’t need to go into too much detail to explain just what an immensely negative impact this can have on a person’s self-esteem. Evidently the role social media sites like facebook play in this is intrinsic. They let you become an advertisement for yourself, you only ever post things that make you look good, you never show your negative side, and you think you are interacting with people on a basic social level when of course you are not. You only ever see other people looking happy and being social. The contribution facebook makes to insecurity is obvious.

Now I’m going to add another factor into the mixture of modern misery, which is the lack of work that people actually want to do. I’m rather a subscriber to the belief that a happy person is a person who wakes up and does exactly what she wants to do that day; unfortunately for the vast, vast majority of our population, that does not happen. I’ve spoken before about how since 1945 the population of the world has made the gargantuan move from being a population of farmers to being one of pencil pushers (https://benjamintunwell.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/a-question-of-hands/). The farmers of the world disappeared, and the number of people entering universities and office jobs rocketed beyond all precedence. This is without a doubt the single greatest lifestyle shift in human history, and yet it is bizarrely one that is not commented on much. Eric Hobsbawm also referred to this change as an abominable tragedy. People were no longer doing work that mattered to them, he argued; instead, people were being led up the blind alley of exams and paperwork, or, in other words, the kind of work that only satisfies the tiniest fraction of people.

Susan Neiman says one of our biggest problems is due to a lack of fulfilling work. “Without better models of adult work that are meaningful, our reluctance to grow up is hardly surprising… Most of us no longer have the luxury of asking whether a job is genuinely productive, but only whether it pays well and has tolerable conditions. These conditions make no sense, yet we have come to believe that they are naturally a part of the way the world is. Or the way the world was: in an era of weakened unions, declining wages and permanent electronic availability, most of us would be glad if only eight hours of our days were devoted to something senseless.” (Why Grow Up?, p.169.)

The fact is that we live in an economy that undermines the basic human desire to create something of value. We after all have companies that use ‘planned obsolescence’ – in other words, that make products that expire well before they need to so that we’ll invest our money in another product sooner. Making something of value contributes to our sense of dignity, and this is why the rise in people working with pens or computers is a tragedy, because they are no longer making things with their hands, and they are no longer being valued by a community. A human being has the narcissistic need to leave their mark on the world. These are fundamental human necessities, but our stupid politics makes us believe that producing money is more important than fulfilling ourselves.

And, what’s more, anyone who speaks out against the system is regarded as childish. Apparently it is childish to say that capitalism is stupid and barbaric; it is childish to say that people are happiest living in communities and creating things of worth; it is childish to suggest that we have created a silly society. Apparently it is ‘grown up’ to be stoic and ‘realistic’ and say that this unfortunate capitalist world is depressing, but ‘it’s just the way things are’.

This rather goes in line with the phrase ‘if you’re not a socialist at 20 you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative at 40 you have no head’. This is a total lie, and I would argue the reality is the other way around. It is your reason that guides you to believe that this is not how people are supposed to live, and it is your irrational heart that eventually leads you back to selfishness and acceptance, which is what a capitalist system encourages. The idea that capitalism is ‘sensible’ is utterly bizarre to me when you have seen the human devastation it incurs.

I’ll use myself as an example. I come from a very well off background, a father who benefited directly from Thatcher’s growth of the City and a family that could therefore afford to send six children to public schools. We had all the material needs in the world catered for. I am no personal failure, and my schooling allowed me to develop my intelligence, my critical skills, my sporting ability and so on. I easily had the springboard from which to go and get myself a well-paid job and live in harmony without the need for the slightest social conscience. I never encountered poor people growing up, and was only ever surrounded by people with unvarying, largely Conservative values. I have absolutely every last reason in the world to be a Conservative and believe that this is simply the way things should be – but I’m not, because I have eyes! I have seen the world around me and read books and watched films, and I have reasoned with myself that there is something fundamentally wrong about a class-ridden, capitalistic, market-based economy that is run by private interests. I had to fight my silly little heart to make it comply with what I saw as objective truth.

I’m not saying any of this as some kind of ego-trip or arrogance about my upbringing. Anyone who knows me well enough will know that is very, very far from how I feel about things. People who accuse this kind of ‘champagne socialism’ as being hypocritical are missing the fact that not speaking out against this kind of thing is accepting the absurdity of social class and the depressing capitalist lifestyle. I’m merely pointing out that we have all been born into this system, and it is an incredibly unhealthy one. If we see suffering, we must not stay quiet about it!

The psychologist Michael Brunswick hit the nail on the head when he said that shame is the human emotion. We live in a system that undermines human dignity in an economic way, and also in a social way in the form of prejudice against gender and sexual and ethnic minorities (whatever people say about prejudice, it can be the most stubbornly deep-seated thing in the world). Every human being is entitled to respect because it is what people need for happiness, and that is why I’m writing this. Women lack respect due to a sexist society; ethnic and sexual minorities lack respect due to an otherwise prejudiced society; and human beings – all human beings – lack respect due to the economic conditions we have placed ourselves in. If you create a world in which people feel small then you create an unhappy world, and that is the evil we have to fight.

In summary, this modern sadness that I’m trying to articulate is tied into our economic and political lives. Our Neo-Liberal society tells us to be the Perfect Individual, but this is, of course, impossible, and it is deeply, deeply damaging. People of all ages, but especially the young, are suffering from the insecurities instilled in us by a market economy, and in particular the belief that we could always have something else and be better than we are. We are led to search for improvement in the material world, not within us, but it seems so screamingly obvious to me that the key to human happiness is about self-understanding. And how do we understand ourselves? With compassion and strong human relationships – exactly the things that a capitalist society does not value, because it sees community as antithetical capital.

And of course the lack of self-respect has only got worse in the last 35 years under Neo-Liberalism, because powers have been taken away from workers and given to employers, making an increasing number of people feel powerless. ‘Growthism’ – the belief that eternal economic growth is the most important thing for human success – is a profoundly sinister misunderstanding. Apparently the economy is the most important thing because it contributes to our ‘success’, but f this is what it does to people, then it should be changed.

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