The fallacy of happiness

We must stop pathologising normal human emotions like stress and anxiety.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

According to a study this week by health insurers Aviva, a quarter of adults in the UK suffer from stress, anxiety or depression and are not seeking help for it. Too embarrassed by their predicament, 12million people in Britain ‘suffer in silence’ from these ‘most common mental-health conditions’.

This trio of stress, anxiety and depression has been flavour of the month. We read elsewhere that more than a third of students now suffer mental distress as a result of money worries, while parents have been withdrawing their children from primary schools because of ‘stress’ and a ‘testing culture’.

How strange it is that such normal, eternal human emotions as stress, anxiety and depression are now placed under the category of mental-health problems. Although worry can be debilitating in extreme cases, it’s natural to fret about money, one’s looks or feel low about life from time to time. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, the clinical depression which leaves people unable to get out of bed for days: these are conditions that properly fall under the category of mental illness.

Why have normal human emotions and utterly rational responses (‘I must find a way of paying next month’s rent’) now become pathologised? Why are negative feelings regarded as an aberration or a problem? It’s because we think happiness is the norm of the human condition, when it isn’t. It never has been.

In the age of social media one-up-manship, in which everyone else on Facebook is smiling, always on holiday and generally having a wonderful life, it’s perhaps harder than ever to keep in mind that happiness isn’t the norm. Everyone has problems, and in truth, most people actually have it worse than you. Judging your everyday life by the semi-fictional standards of social media is like comparing your love-life to a rom-com.

Two things are to blame for the happiness myth. First, there is the medicalisation of the human experience. Ever since Freud and the move to try and turn psychology into a science or branch of medicine, unhappiness has become viewed as something to be cured. It isn’t. Life is struggle. It is failure, misery, disappointment and smashed dreams.

Secondly, capitalism has perpetuated this myth with the notion that happiness is a commodity that can be bought. The pharmaceutical industry, with its assortment of happy-pills, is but the most obvious example here, but you only have to look at advertisements to see how this operates, with products that promise to make us more popular, envied and sexually desirable. In our Age of Entitlement, with its understanding that everything should be free, there is a further heightened expectation that happiness should be on tap.

Those who expect happiness are guaranteed never to attain it. Happiness is not and nor should it be a goal, but a consequence. It is what results after you have toiled, overcome obstacles, achieved your aims through blood, sweat and tears. Happiness comes through embracing, employing and then overcoming stress, anxiety and depression.

Here’s a tip. Every morning, I tell myself ‘today is going to be terrible’. The day can only get better from here. Come evening you will usually feel accomplished, having fortified yourself first thing. The path to happiness begins by accepting that life is mostly awful.

And as that great misery-guts, Arthur Schopenhauer, asked: where would we be without life’s troubles? ‘Certain is that work, worry, labour and trouble, form the lot of almost all men their whole life long. But if all wishes were fulfilled as soon as they arose, how would men occupy their lives? What would they do with their time? If the world were a paradise of luxury and ease, a land flowing with milk and honey’, he wrote in On the Suffering of The World (1850) ‘men would either die of boredom or hang themselves’.

The politics of social media

It can’t be easy running BBC news. From the hard right, you have to deal with perpetual accusations that it is run by Guardian-reading, public-school pansies and traitors. From the Corbynista left comes the now daily cry that the BBC is in thrall to the slimy Blairite right – the ire directed at Laura Kuenssberg this week being but the latest example.

There are elements of truth in both accusations, but I would prefer to keep informed via the BBC than to have my opinions shaped by social media. This is the preferred avenue of both the hard right and hard left, whose activists, in conspiratorial mutterings, pour scorn on ‘the mainstream media’.

I would never rely upon social media as my first port of call. This is not just because Facebook’s newsfeed has an allegedly left-wing bias or that Twitter is a barren echo chamber where one’s prejudices are confirmed, but foremost because of those preposterous political memes and infographics. They always profess to reveal, in a lofty, smug fashion, that what you know is wrong, because you are one of the odious multitude that have been duped by the mainstream media (upon which social media is almost entirely parasitic). Corbyn is actually the most popular Labour leader ever. There are 9 billion Muslim terrorists living in Britain.

This is the worst thing about political conspiracy theorists – those types who wear smarmy Guy Fawkes masks. Not only are they exasperating imbeciles, but they are snobs. They style themselves as part of a revolutionary vanguard, privy to select information that we brainwashed masses are oblivious to.

The irony is here: It’s people who actually read the mainstream media who recognise the false information propagated by these ludicrous Facebook memes in the first place.

When comedy stops laughing

I’m not surprised that the BBC has cancelled Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. I’m astonished it lasted as long as it did, what with it not being funny, not having any jokes, and being more a one-man, self-righteous grumble.

Stewart Lee used to make people laugh when he was the straight-man to the cheery Richard Herring, but it was not the dissolution of that double act that was Lee’s undoing. His downfall was taking up a newspaper column, in the Observer.

This is always the unmaking of decent stand-up comedians, who should never be given any post that confers power. It goes to their heads. Look what happened to Frankie Boyle, who, before being given a berths at the Guardian and the Sun, was good at being savage about the establishment – before he joined it. Acceptance turned him into a ghastly old bore.

A comedian should always be kicking against the pricks, not becoming one.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickxwest

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Topics Politics


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