We live longer, have better healthcare (see improving cancer survival rates for example, here: cancer survival rates improve), less crime, are more prosperous, more educated, more well-travelled than ever before.
Somehow it doesn’t feel so good. Anxiety and depression are both increasing substantially and the number of prescriptions for mood-managing medicines is enormous and growing. There is an acknowledged crisis in untreated mental illness.
There are numerous explanations but I’d like to share my own view, developed from 50 years of talking to people about their lives through the things they use and buy – and what these things contributed or did not. How is our consuming linked – or not – to our happiness? What aspect of ourselves are we aiming to grow or complete?
The events that shaped today’s society began to emerge in the psycho-social transition that occurred in the 1950’s > 1960’s. If you look at newsreel from the 1950’s you will be amazed by the homogeneity of the folk on the screen. Not only were they all white, they were all dressed the same, doing the same thing, in similar style. Think ‘holiday camps’.
This came about because of four years of co-ordinated action in the face of great danger. It was essential during the war to act in concert, to support each other, to minimise difference in the service of co-ordination. People had been mobilised – initially to counter the threat of Nazism – but after the war, those patterns lingered throughout the 1950’s. You will find examples of newsreels from these times here:
However, as the children of the post-war baby boom came of age, they found the homogeneity and deference to authority stifling and began a generation of rebellion.
Among the leaders of this rebellion were four young men, whose influence across the world is easy to underestimate from today’s perspective. They were called the Beatles.
Whether you like their music or not, just look at the two images at the top of this post, taken just four years apart in 1964 and 1968, if you want to see the birth of the trend that has left us more independent and wealthy – and – anxious and depressed.
In the left hand 1964 picture they are dressed the same, their haircuts are the same, they even have the same expression. They are homogenous in Brian Epstein’s vision for them, four peas in a pod. Slight variants on the same theme.
Just four years later, look at them now. On the right they are individually styled, different hair, signifying rebellion by sitting round the ‘keep off the grass’ sign. Now fully autonomous. Three years later they went their separate ways as all good individuals do! The promptly divorced each other then started divorcing their wives. The trend caught on; these days 50% of marriages end in divorce. And more than 50% of taxpayers are self-employed in one-man enterprises.
We followed their lives down to the last detail, and we copied them. We all became individuals: ‘doing our own thing’
I think this startling example illustrates the truth of the trend very clearly IN THE SAME FOUR PEOPLE!
What is it that underlies the undoubted change in appearance – and attitude – of these four young men? It is the start of the biggest, most influential and abiding change of the post-war era: the shift from Dependency to Autonomy.
So many words, so many assumptions, so many commentaries on our present era assume ideas derived from this shift: individualism, celebrity, independence, entrepreneur, self-employed, the list goes on. We came to believe that expressing our individuality, being free from deference was our aim for adult life. Even at the level of personality, extroversion became more popular than introversion. Letting it all hang out was more cool than keeping it all in.
At the economic level, this trend expressed itself as the move towards ‘free-market’ economics, rather than state intervention that seemed to have brought about the struggles between employers and workers that dominated the 1970’s. Privatisation, a form of economic individualism was the first policy that erupted here in the UK, made universal with the sale of council houses promoted by the Thatcher government.
It evolved into the economic principles known today as ‘neoliberalism’. Here are some examples from George Monbiot’s analysis of this economic movement: the full paper is here:
“In the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”. With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.
After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: New Labour and the Democrats, for example.”
In the commercial world, advertising became full of people rising through doing their own thing:
- Just Do It! [Nike]
- The Levi’s Launderette Commercial Levi’s Nick Kamen
- The Personal Healthcare Service [BUPA]
It was not enough to be part of a gang, you had to be doing it your way. There were some funny and prophetic moments – the big hair and even bigger shoulders of the 1980’s – and Wall Street’s ‘greed is good’.
Alongside growing individualism came celebrity – literally famous individuals. A growing band of wanna-be’s (us) aspired to our ’15 minutes of fame’. Reality TV seemed to offer a pathway to that. As we’ve seen from the quick journey to obscurity of each year’s winner of Reality Shows, 15 minutes was about right.
Interestingly that idea of everyone having their moment in the spotlight is attributed to Andy Warhol who said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” in the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work in Stockholm.
So, what’s the matter? You’ll get your moment in the sun, you can buy lots of stuff and do lots of things on the way. What are you anxious and depressed about?
Back in my days working for the Blair administration we noticed the growing interest in happiness research. There was an attempt by government to understand what made people happy and was initially driven by Richard Layard in his book ‘Happiness’.
There are now more than twenty years of happiness research and most of the summaries come up with similar conclusions. Here are just a few from a BBC synopsis:
“So what should we do to make ourselves happier?
Studies collated by the database say you tend to be happier if you:
- Are in a long-term relationship
- Are actively engaged in politics
- Are active in work and in your free time
- Go out for dinner
- Have close friendships (though happiness does not increase with the number of friends you have)”
While you seldom hear happiness gurus say this, happiness flows from relationships and even more particularly, from doing things for others. Doing things for others is the essential gift of care that makes others feel valued and the giver feel valuable. Regrettably many of those consumer items – even the iconic ones – did not make us feel more than a moment of glee.
In other words happiness is to be found outside of the self, not by embracing a self-centred view like that at the core of individualism.
The pursuit of autonomy, driven by fantasies of celebrity, wealth and power has also promulgated a desire to move to where the action is, to a more profitable career, higher status, a new town, an urban life. And with that has come loneliness. Britain is now the loneliness capital of Europe – and in Brexit, we’ve just voted for more of it! This, in my view is an example of what Fromm wrote about in ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness’.
That’s why people are scared or aggressive now, post referendum, because beneath our individualistic exterior we know that we need more connection, not less. And by connection, I don’t mean messaging or impression management on social media. These are already being found to make us feel more isolated, not least because they invite social comparisons and these easily leave us as the least adequate among our ‘friends’.
My argument for remaining part of the EU is that we, more than ever, need to be part of benign, well-intentioned groups, where collaboration and shared ideals are the norm. This is not some commercial or economic proposition, though those matter: it is born of a deep need to share, to join, to be part of a meaningful whole that underpins our well-being. That is quite simply part of a better way of life.
It is the phenomenal disgrace of our current politicians that they have consistently presented the EU as a ‘problem’ in order to make their own efforts seem heroic, their own individualism more distinctive. Now that it is becoming clear to key parts of Britain that they might lose their funding, the EU does not seem such a monster. Our farmers are the first to notice their vulnerability and the lack of guarantees from the establishment.
Next will come the citizens of Brexit cities, towns and villages across the land. Having participated in stripping them of their industries, identities, hopes and dreams do you for a moment imagine that Westminster will reach out to them with investment, encouragement and coaching? I am afraid they have voted to increase their isolation based upon false promises of self-promoting demagogues. And will we see figures for common mental health problems rise, especially in these very places? After a short triumphal period of potency and self-satisfaction, we will find ourselves…alone.