I am reading just the most fascinating book at the moment: Oliver James’s Britain On The Couch. Treating a Low-Serotonin Society, subtitled ‘Why we’re unhappier than we were in the 1950s – despite being richer.’ In a nutshell that’s James’ premise: we are all comparatively more affluent than we ever were, with the lowest rates of poverty and unemployment in decades, and living through a period of peace and prosperity (in most of the Western world, in any case). And yet the general level of dissatisfaction amongst the populace is steadily rising, and the number of reported cases of depression grows too. Whatever can the matter be?
James’s first bombshell is that despite the politician’s using it as the bedrock of just about any election campaign, increased overall wealth does not, statistically, make anyone feel any better. Once a country has made the leap into developed status, able in other words, to meet with some security the basic needs of its citizens, any rise in standard of living after that offers no real discernable ‘feel good’ factor. In fact, once we’re not afraid of malnutrition, poverty or murderous external foes, our sense of what we are entitled to, and our expectations for material possession and social achievement start to rise disproportionately. We are unrealistic in our targets, once we’ve moved beyond survival. And then the current climate has a great deal to do with our increasing angst. One of the biggest influences on our expectations has been the mass-market media, which is a major culprit in selling us the illusion of a kind of life we will never experience. Advertising, the so-called ‘celebrity’ obsession, even television drama, persuades us we should all be more beautiful, intelligent, comfortable, stylish, well-fed and satisfied than we are ever likely to be. If any one factor has made us ridiculously aspirational, it’s probably the media and its dangerous, seductive glossy images.
But not far behind it, doing an equally impressive job in making us feel perpetually insufficient is education, which has become competitive and pressurised to an entirely unreasonable degree. From the earliest ages children are given conditional love – conditional on them performing well in their school exams, so that they can get a good job, and live in a nice house like they do in the adverts, etc, etc. The result is that lots of self-critical, slightly insecure children work their way through education only to enter into a now highly competitive job market, in which firms are more often organised as hierarchical meritocracies, rather than old-fashioned communities. You’ve got to get on, you’ve got to be seen to be doing well, that’s the kind of mantra we all have pounding away as an accompaniment to our heartbeats. Is it any wonder we’re fed up?
All of this leads to what James’ rather wittily entitles, a ‘death by a thousand social comparisons.’ Western society has become unable to meet the basic archetypal needs of its citizens, and it’s done this rather paradoxically, by holding out even greater rewards to us. Those basic needs are: a) the need for status, which refers to our desire for rank, recognition, material goods, land, and law and order, and b) the need for emotional attachments, the giving and receiving of dependable care, the desire for emotional and physical contact, and altruism. What happens, then, when these needs aren’t met? James quotes a 1990 study that suggests: ‘Along one path we find persons whose intense need to be loved, highly esteemed and prized by others leaves them precariously sensitive to real or perceived slights, abandonments or withheld esteem by significant people in their lives… the second path is marked by excessive personal demands for accomplishment and control accompanied by relentless self-criticism, guilt and sensed inferiority when one fails to satisfy personal standards.’ Well, I certainly know people like this, one of whom, on bad days, might be me. I know reading books of psychology extends the same identificatory dangers as reading the medical dictionary, but I also see this kind of responsive behaviour in just about every student I’ve taught for the past 10 years. I would certainly agree that there is a strong collective trend towards this kind of quotidian unhappiness.
How does this come about in everyday life? Well, in order to maintain self-esteem we are continually comparing ourselves to others. In order to remain perky, however, we may have to juggle a bit creatively with the facts. So, on one of the many days when I tear my hair and wail ‘But I’ll never write with the same verve and panache as Bikeprof!’ or ‘But I’ll never write with the same gentle, silky warmth of Bloglily!’ I can use discounts to make myself feel better, remembering that Bikeprof is older and more experienced than me (by about a whole year, I think, and I’ll bet that was a particularly long year, too), or I can move the goalposts about and consider that since I only have one child, whilst Bloglily has three, I don’t require the same majestic levels of tolerance and patience and wisdom that she does. Or I can go the whole hog and look up a few techno-geek sites and feel better about myself by comparison. Effectively, James says that the basic requirement of firm mental health is that we live in a world of comforting illusions. With a tweak here and a nip there, we can keep our self-esteem bowling along on the sunny side of the street. However, some people suffer from maladaptive social comparison, which means they have a disastrous tendency to work these kind of comparisons the other way round, discounting reasons why people might praise or enjoy what they do, and yet recognising all the reasons why others might not be performing so well. This frame of mind can snowball, leading the individual to be excessively upset by negative feedback, inclined to generalise widely from a single unfavourable comparison, and more prone to self-doubt because of all that unhappy, comparative introspection. It doesn’t take all that much to tip a potentially happy illusionist into a ‘depressive realist’ who has suddenly become uncertain about who they are, what group they belong to, and what is expected of them. And our high pressure, high aspiration, highly critical society has plenty of influence to exert on the least crack in our mental façade.
I’m no good at fostering cheery illusions; never have been, never will be, but I do have one general truth that I occasionally remember to fall back on in times of uncertainty. A brief anecdote illustrates my point. When I was just about to return as a graduate student, I knew a young woman with severe bulimia and depression who was also returning to graduate study too. For a brief while we shared a house along with some other people. I remember once moaning that my prose would never reach the level of the book I was reading, and she laughed kindly at me and reminded me that the book was written by Susan Sontag, one of the great American academics and a highly experienced writer in her 50s. At the time I remember thinking, blimey, that’s a sane point. However, four or five years later, when I was married, and my son was a young child, and I was working at the university, a mutual acquaintance told me that this young woman (who was never in good mental health) was telling all and sundry that I had the perfect life, and that by rights it ought to be hers. Now I have to admit to feeling a little edgy, and worrying that, one day, I might arrive home to find her there with her handy, handbag-sized hatchet, waiting for me. But equally I had to laugh (in a gallows humour kind of way) as I was suffering very badly from chronic fatigue at that time, and could not be described as enjoying anything very much.
Now my point is twofold. On the one hand, it’s always easier to see these things as they affect other people, rather than as they affect oneself. And so one route to sanity in social comparisons is to imagine how the situation might look on someone else. I might need to think how I would comfort Bloglily if she were having a ‘Why Am I Not Susan Sontag?’ kind of day (by pointing out that she makes much better jokes than Sontag, for starters). On the other hand, you should never, ever trust the outside image, because it is always far too simplistic, and hides a multitude of elements and issues that remain unguessable. Like I said, no reassuring illusions for me, but instead (on a good day) the recognition that people simply cannot be judged in any but the most quantifiable skills, because one never has complete access to anyone else’s experiences. That much I can manage to do for myself. Now we just need to change the whole organisation of society and we’ll be getting somewhere.