Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Curing Universal Unhappiness

From a fertile week for pop psychology comes news that social trust is declining at a time when personal connection is more important than worldly success.

As always, David Brooks draws on arcane research to prove that "countries with high social trust have happier people, better health, more efficient government, more economic growth, and less fear of crime."

But where are those countries? Worldwide acting-out of rage and hatred, from Washington to Moscow, suggests a new Age of Anxiety, starting with the terror of September 2001 and exacerbated by a global economic meltdown seven years later.

Damage to the human psyche goes well beyond politics as clinical anxiety becomes the most common mental illness in America, suffered by 40 million, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and affecting millions more with, as one report describes it, "a kind of fear gone wild, a generalized sense of dread about something out there that seems menacing--but that in truth is not menacing, and may not even be out there."

As medicine struggles to understand and treat such distress in individuals, signs that it is undermining the whole society are everywhere:

*A pathological response to the passage of health care with verbal violence and a spate of acting out against bipartisan Congressional targets from Anthony Weiner to Eric Cantor (anti-Semitism, anyone?).

*Morphing of terrorism from political grievance to personal madness--from Jihad Jane to the current flavor of the week, the addled Michigan militia.

*Growth of the Tea Party movement, based less on issues than enormous free-floating dissatisfaction that, in its inchoate stage, is threatening Democrats electorally but has the potential to disrupt both parties with Sarah Palinish purging.

In this atmosphere, David Brooks cites studies showing that "daily activities most associated with happiness are sex, socializing after work and having dinner with others" and that "being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year."

Those get-a-life moves may not be panaceas for all the disruptions of our time, but for crackpots, online and elsewhere, who are fueling social madness, they suggest a start.

As E. M. Forster put it a century ago, only connect.

Update: New figures show U.S. prescription sales rose by 5.1 percent to $300.3 billion in 2009, compared to a 1.8 percent growth the year before, with antipsychotics leading the way with $14.6 billion and antidepressants at $9.9 million. In between were acid-reflux regulators and cholesterol-lowering drugs--all in all, a high price for trying to maintain a sound mind in a sound body.


DLS said...

Robert, the sources Brooks is relying on are tardy. If you want to learn more, you can consult these instead:

1) Happiness -- Layard is the best known source for this research and its results about income and happiness. (Below income $15000 in purchasing-power parity, people are increasingly unhappy. This amouts to basic poverty research as well as "economic psychology.")

2. Trust and culture -- Harrison is the best source.

[one of multiple books by him]

JSpencer said...

Additional aides to countering anxiety might include reduced TV watching, more pleasure reading (libraries anyone?) and a little exercise daily. Simple I know, but inexpensive and effective.

Unknown said...

Happiness is a state of mind. If you want to be happy, you just have to find the positive side on everything.