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On happiness

‘The humour of blaming the present, and admiring the past, is strongly rooted in human nature’ wrote John Hume in 1777. In the intervening years the tried and tested measurements of human progress have unerringly pointed in the right direction. If we accept these facts, why then doesn’t the subjective experience reflect this mood in the clinical encounter? In short, if we’ve comparatively never had it so good, why do we feel so bad?

While the ephemeral measurements of national happiness, diagnosis inflation etc. are a problem for another day, more people than ever before are presenting themselves to practitioners for some kind of treatment. This is true across the western world where comparative economic, educational and medical advantage is most substantive.

 Why then do these objectively improved circumstances produce misery? In turn, what is it about the human condition that suffers in reaction to the posited Western ideal?

Psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker makes the case for optimism, and against deifying the past, in The Better Angels of our Nature. He examines the decline of violence to demonstrate the progress of society. His thesis is sufficiently persuasive to underline the unasked question as to why happiness hasn’t risen in lockstep with this progression? This unhappiness manifests itself in the clinic via an explosion of experiences of alienation and unease. Words like depression and anxiety are used as catch-all terms to address these exquisitely modern problems of living.

While the different therapies may quarrel over how the conditions are transmitted, there is agreement that environmental and parental responses intimately shape our identities. Thus, shifting societal norms (parenting, sexuality, economic) create an ideology each individual must respond to, to navigate all relationships. Unfortunately, each individual is not free to fashion their own response or find their own position. The only options seemingly open are right or wrong, positive or negative- get on the bus or hit the road!

Clients speak of being ‘stuck’, in their work and relationships, anxious about their options and depressed at their current situations. It generally takes much exploration for people to get beyond these accepted codes of bad and good, to try to respond in an individual way to the toll of existence. This meaning seeking is the only resolution to these difficult feelings. It may not be happiness but it’s a start..

Mark Twomey