Monday, January 22, 2007

Happy Now?

(I've copied this from The Independent as their articles go paid access pretty quickly and I thought what was written so important)

As a nation, we are more affluent than ever. Yet, strangely, we only seem to be getting gloomier and more pessimistic. William Leith takes a personal journey to the heart of our collective darkness
Published: 21 January 2007
It was the week before Christmas. I should have been happy. The people around me should have been happy. We were safe, we had enough to eat and drink, homes to go to. More than this - we were affluent, we were on holiday. We were in the middle of a cycle of feasting and partying. In two days' time, we would eat a meal that had taken several days to prepare, and toast each other with fancy drinks.
I was walking through a shopping mall. Everybody around me was doing the same thing - buying gifts for their friends, their family. I can't remember when, exactly, but at a certain point, I had a thought I've had about a million times lately.
None of this is making us happy.
People were standing outside shops, laden down with heavy bags, and they were snapping at each other. Or they waited in queues, restless and tormented, barking instructions into their mobile phones.
I heard the word "No!" a lot of times.
And: "For fuck's sake!"
And: "What were you thinking?"
And: "You cannot buy that!"
I was looking for gifts myself. I felt pressed. I had the sense that all of us, all the shoppers, were trawling a huge Aladdin's cave for something it could not provide. We were all looking for (omega) something that was not available. I noticed the way people were searching: there was something familiar about it. Then I realised: we were rushing around with the anxiety of people who have lost something. Where was it? Where was the thing we were looking for? We were hurried, harried, self-blaming, desperate.
And it occurred to me that, in the past few days, several people had asked me the same thing: "How is it going?"
They were asking about shopping.
We would look at each other, and shrug. The talk was of struggle, of hours put in, unexpected lucky breaks and reverses. There was a sharp sense of competition, of winning and losing. Here we were, affluent people involved in leisure activities, taking time out to be kind to each other. But it did not feel good. It didn't even feel like leisure.
What was it like, exactly?
It was like work.
We were buying hard, in the same way that, days earlier, we'd been working hard in order to achieve an acceptable level of buying.
Something was getting out of control.
Walking through the mall, picking up and discarding objects, I began to think about the way we live now. Christmas was an intense expression of it, certainly, but it happened all year round. I thought about the thing we were looking for, the thing we couldn't find.
What, exactly, was it?
I went to Starbucks. For the millionth time, I thought about happiness in the modern world. I also thought about Starbucks - how I love the place, and also how it makes me deeply uneasy. I once interviewed Howard Schultz, the chairman and founder of Starbucks, who told me: "The environment that we create has given people a respite for themselves, or a sense of gathering and community with people at a time in their lives when there's no human connection."
I drank my coffee. I thought, not for the first time, that Starbucks makes us uneasy because it tells us something important about the world we live in; it tells us that we need Starbucks.
Would it be trite to say that what we've lost is our ability to be happy? Perhaps it would. But here's something I've heard a lot lately: as a society, we are getting sadder. According to a recent poll, conducted by YouGov, only 11 per cent of us think Britain will be a better place in five years' time. On the other hand, 53 per cent think it will be worse.
And: less than quarter of us are optimistic about Britain's prospects in 2007; 58 per cent say they are not.
And: just 7 per cent thought last year was a good one, as far as the country is concerned; in contrast 55 per cent thought it was a bad one.
The headline of one newspaper report about the poll was: "Britain in Gloom".
These are the words I keep hearing: bad, worse, pessimistic. And also: crime, divorce, alcoholism. And also: self-harm, drug addiction, Prozac, bingeing. And this doesn't just apply to Britain, but to the rest of the Western world, too. In his book The Noonday Demon, a study of depression, Andrew Solomon tells us that one in every 10 Americans is taking Prozac, or similar drugs, to treat their depression. He says that while 10 per cent of Americans are likely to suffer major depression, about half will experience some symptoms.
"Diagnosis is on the up," he tells us, "but that does not explain the scale of this problem."
Solomon, himself a depressive, says that people are getting depressed earlier in their lives, too. The typical age is now 26. A review of his book called it "a key text for a generation that has depression at its core" .
Solomon sums up our situation starkly, with four words: "Things are getting worse."
As the economist Richard Layard points out in his book Happiness: "In many ways life is better than 50 years ago: we have unprecedented wealth, better health, and nicer jobs. Yet we are not happier."
Layard tells us about the social indicators for happiness. Crime, which fell from its all-time high point in Victorian England to a low around the First World War, remained steady until we started to become more prosperous around 1950. Then it went up hugely. The same goes for alcohol. Consumption fell in the first part of the last century, and remained steady until until we started to become more prosperous around 1950. Then it, too, shot up.
Another thing I keep hearing is that we are gloomy, not in spite of our prosperity, but somehow because of it. As Layard says, "What is worrying is that depression has actually increased as incomes have risen."
Which reminds me of a brilliant book I read by the economist Clive Hamilton, called Growth Fetish, in which he analysed data from a survey prepared for the Merck Family Fund in 1995. Here, Americans were asked about their quality of life in the consumer society. The report said: "They believe materialism, greed and selfishness increasingly dominate American life, crowding out a more meaningful set of values centred on family, responsibility, and community."
Hamilton said: "The richest people in the world are saying that they are miserable, that it's not worth it, and, most disturbingly of all, that the process of getting rich causes the problems."
Worse, there was no escape. They were getting sucked into the system. " They can see that materialism is corroding society and themselves," wrote Hamilton, "but they are too fearful to change their behaviour in any significant way."
We're rich. We're unhappy because we can't deal with being rich. We know this. And yet we can't escape - we feel trapped in the system. How bad is that? Solomon says: "The climbing rates of depression are without question the consequence of modernity."
Or, as Oliver James writes in his 1997 book Britain on the Couch: "Put crudely, advanced capitalism makes money out of misery and dissatisfaction, as if it were encouraging us to fill up the psychic void with material goods. "
Or, to put it even more crudely, as James does in his new book Affluenza: " Cards on the table, I contend that most emotional distress is best understood as a rational response to sick societies."
I tried to think of my own personal spectrum of happiness and misery. I remembered moments, afternoons, longer periods.
The happy memories were defined in moments; the misery in months.
I remember a particularly happy moment: waking up, at (omega) the age of about 15, in my bed in a dormitory, and realising that it was the last day of term, that I wouldn't wake up in a dormitory for months to come. Everything around me seemed pleasant and sunny, even the menial tasks I had to perform. Folding blankets and emptying lockers seemed to be exciting.
And I remember a period, just before this, when I told myself that I would be happy on a particular day, because, on that day, a quarter of the term would be over, and a quarter was a perceptible chunk. And then the day came along, and I was happier than I had been. I told myself to raise my spirits, and I did. But it was nothing like the feeling on that last morning.
I can think of an exceptionally happy moment from my childhood. I went with some friends to fish for mackerel at the end of a pier; it was the middle of the summer holidays. I was, I think, 12. Being part of this group of boys meant a lot to me. Up to this point, I had caught very few fish; the thought of catching a mackerel was beyond exciting. It would, I felt, also bond me to the group.
We arrived at the pier. A few yards away, bubbling on the surface, was a shoal of mackerel. We set up our rods in a ham-fisted frenzy of excitement. By the time I was ready, the shoal had disappeared. I stood at the end of the pier and cast my line out repeatedly, catching nothing. But every time I pulled my line out of the water, the disappointment that I had caught nothing was replaced by an even greater excitement that I might catch something with the next cast.
At one point, one of my friends tapped me on the shoulder and said he thought we ought to pack up and go.
I was shocked.
I said, "What, already?"
I wondered why anybody would want to leave after just 20 minutes' fishing.
"Well, we've been here nearly three hours," he said.
Later, I remember thinking I'd never had such a radical misperception of time. Later still, I understood that those three hours were some of the happiest I'd ever spent. A couple of years after this, I became so efficient at catching mackerel that I sold them to the neighbours. This was fun, and mildly lucrative, but in the end there were too many to sell. Before long, everybody's parents' freezer seemed to be full, and fishing began to lose its edge.
And I can think of an example of happiness from adult life - after years of overeating, of wanting something that food could not give me, but not understanding this fact, I started eating better and exercising more, and one day I went on the longest walk of my life, 25 miles, with my girlfriend, and when we stopped, feeling tired, creaky, actually in pain, we had a meal and checked into a hotel, where I lay on the bed and passed out without taking my clothes off, even my shoes, and when I woke up the next morning I thought of the exact moment of passing out - possibly, I thought, the happiest moment of my life.
Just a fleeting moment, before I passed out.
A year later, when my son was born, I was elated, and the elation felt turbocharged - I was shot upwards, had almost forgotten who I was.
Then the doctor told me there were complications.
He said, "He's a fighter, though."
He said, "If anybody can pull through, it's him."
Three days after this, my son did pull through. Another doctor said the words: "He will survive."
I started crying.
Later, I left the ward, and walked through the corridors of the hospital. I'd never seen such wonderful corridors. The linoleum floors looked superb. The bloodstain outside the door of the A&E department looked good, too.
It was the happiest I'd been.
As Richard Layard says, happiness is, in a Darwinian sense, our primary motivating force. And this explains everything. That's why it's fleeting. If it wasn't fleeting, our ancestors wouldn't have been motivated to do the things they needed to do, in order to survive. If you're happy, you don't want things to change. If you're less than happy, you do. Imagine a Stone Age tribe after a successful hunt. They are lazing around the fire, full of venison. Soon, one guy will become anxious; he will want to start planning the next hunt. This guy, the one whose happiness is the most fleeting, will become the leader. He will pass on his genes.
A capacity to experience happiness fleetingly, then, must be adaptive, in the same way that a capacity to store fat is adaptive.
These characteristics, of course, become problematic during a period of abundance. What happens to somebody who always wants more, when there is always more to be had? He gets fat or depressed. In a modern capitalist society, he becomes a patsy for advertisers. He keeps on buying things, thinking that material wealth, the owning of possessions, must be the answer to his problems.
And pretty soon, he has more problems. Pretty soon, he knows that whatever he's doing isn't working. So he loses his sense of purpose. Common misery, which might have been a motivating force, turns to depression.
What happens? He goes to the shopping mall, and rummages through the objects on sale, discarding them. He is not satisfied. He becomes angry and bitter, laden down with shopping bags. He barks into his mobile phone. He knows what the problem is, but he feels trapped. He is me and you; he is everybody we know.
As Andrew Solomon says, sometimes, and with increasing frequency, somebody will fall off the edge - existential misery will become major depression. Nobody knows why, in the same way that nobody knows why a combination of weather fronts sometimes produce a tornado, and sometimes don't. Our brain chemistry is fragile. As the psychopharmacologist William Potter says, " It's like a weather system."
And the modern world, it seems, is changing the weather inside our heads.
The important thing about happiness and misery is that we need them both; they define each other. In order to survive, our ancestors would have needed a balance of both states of mind - a capacity for elation, but not too much complacency. The elation serves as a reward; the end of the elation signals a spur to action. This is how the mind should be. The trouble, when it starts, is environmental.
In a world of abundance, when everybody has what they need, something strange happens. They begin to want what (omega) they don't have. The psychological forces which motivated their ancestors to survive are still in place. Envy appears. If somebody else has more than they do, they want it, too, even if they have more than enough. In wealthy societies, people exist on the "hedonic treadmill" - they want something, then, having got it, they get used to it. They want more. They want their neighbours to have less.
A Russian folk-tale, cited by Layard, goes like this: A peasant is poor; his neighbour has a cow. When God asks how he can help, the poorer guy says, " Kill the cow!" Now think how this might affect wealthy people. Well, we know how it affected Ashley Cole: at Arsenal, he was offered £55,000 a week, but he felt it wasn't enough. He wanted £60,000. Upon learning that the Vice-Chairman David Dein would not offer the larger amount, Cole wrote, " I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn't believe what I'd heard." But was this just about money? I imagine that if nobody at Arsenal had earned more than £55,000, Cole might have stayed.
Misery, for me, was various things. School - years of worry, loneliness, and trouble, with some great moments, such as when a guy ran at me, downhill, trying to kick me up the arse, and I stepped and turned, very balletic, and somehow caught hold of his outstretched foot, and conveyed him past me, an unbelievably lucky thing. Other things that made me miserable: bad relationships. Poverty. Carrying around a general sense of failure. Hypochondria - the belief that I was dying from a terrible disease. And trying to compensate for these things by bingeing on food, drink, and drugs.
My most miserable moments happened when I was also wealthiest. Suddenly, I could have what I wanted. The trouble was, of course, that I didn't know what that was.
I was suffering what the sociologist Barry Schwartz calls "the paradox of choice" - when you have a huge range of options, you become consumed by a fear of disappointment. Wealthy, unhappy, and in a difficult relationship, I found myself snorting cocaine - once a month, then once a week, and, before I knew it, every day.
I had fallen into addiction. And addiction, I believe, is a near-perfect model for modern capitalism and the unhappiness it spreads. As Andrew Solomon puts it: "Feeling the wish to repeat something because it is pleasurable is not quite the same as feeling the need to repeat something because being without it is intolerable."
This, of course, is exactly what happens in an affluent society. In order to maintain economic growth, people who have what they need must be made to feel that, in actual fact, they don't. They must be made to feel anxious, empty, unfulfilled. They must be made to buy new things, not because having them is pleasurable, but because not having them is intolerable. For economic growth to be healthy, mental health must be rocky - the ideal consumer is the person who looks at what he's got and sees nothing worth having.
And this, in turn, means that the products that succeed in the Darwinian marketplace are things with built-in obsolescence, things you want more of, that don't satisfy you - high-carb snacks that make you hungry, fashion items that go out of fashion as soon as you buy them, pornography, cosmetic surgery, sugar and cocaine.
When you snort coke, you become the perfect consumer. Having more makes you want more; wanting more makes you want more. As a product, coke never works, because consuming it feels like an index of loss. As a product, coke works brilliantly, because consuming it feels like an index of loss. As you continue to snort, the coke you've had becomes your enemy, reminding you that the coke that's to come will never be enough.
I realised, at one point, as my white powder was beginning to run out, as I thought of the intolerable, sleepless hours ahead, that this was, more or less, a perfect example of unhappiness - I had made myself want more than I could ever have. Misery was thus guaranteed. The answer, it occurred to me, was simple.
The answer was: don't want so much.
Want less.
But I knew that already.
Things do not look good for the future of happiness. In Affluenza, Oliver James looks at what he calls Selfish Capitalism - our system - and sees it as a virus. We have a free market, we promote the idea that economic growth is good, that wealth makes you happy, that possessions free you. And this system is infectious - it makes people depressed, and competitive, and bitter, and depressed. People aren't quite so depressed in countries such as China, because they're at the start of the cycle - the honeymoon period.
It's just like the honeymoon period of an addiction.
You do something because it feels good; you don't realise that, pretty soon, you'll be doing it because it feels intolerable not to do it.
No, things do not look good.
The system is out of control. Richard Layard makes an interesting point. According to survey data, people would rather be richer than their neighbours than earn more money and be poorer than their neighbours. Happiness, they feel, is not linked to actual wealth, but to the feeling of being superior. When it comes to leisure, though, people are not rivalrous. " There is thus a tendency," writes Layard, "to sacrifice too much leisure in order to increase income."
Which is partly why the system is out of control. We're working like maniacs to compete with each other, and it's not working. We want too much; the economy depends on it. We should want less. Another folktale tells us about an unhappy man who doesn't have enough to eat or drink. Also, his tiny house is too crowded. He goes for advice to the village elder, who tells him to take a goat into his house for a week, and come back in 10 days. The man, of course, is overjoyed by this time: the goat has gone.
The answer: want less.
But that's not likely, is it, on a global scale? As far as happiness goes, things will have to get a lot worse before they get better.
These were the things I was thinking in the shopping mall. It was the week before Christmas. I should have been happy. The people around me should have been happy. We were safe, we had enough to eat and drink, homes to go to. More than this. We were affluent. And we were on holiday. s
William Leith is the author of 'The Hungry Years' (Bloomsbury, £7.99) a memoir of overconsumption

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