When Freud said he could only ever be expected to return someone to the normal state of unhappiness, no-one, it seems, was paying much attention. I know the average person doesn’t read Freud, but whether preferring to avoid this sort of news or be in outright denial, people these days – often at considerable expense – will do anything to avoid the slightest psychological discomfort.
As the world shifts – albeit slowly – towards a more peaceable state (yes, this seems difficult to swallow, but research from groups such as Vision of Humanity provide information to that very effect) the pendulum for psychological problems seems to be swinging in the opposite direction. The question is, why? Why, when life is easier for so many more of us, certainly in the West, are all sorts of inner discomforts and turmoil on the rise? And where are these difficulties coming from, outside forces or inner ones?
It is possible that climate change will step-up to be the next big external challenge. But it’s also fair to reason that climate change is a product of this very predicament: our appetite for comfort. And the proposition that trends seem to point towards a growing, concerning and somewhat curious tendency for humans to turn normal variations in their emotional state into problems, remains.
While it might seem intuitively correct to think Freud was king when it came to pathologising people, especially women, (although this could be contested if we had time for a larger debate) it’s difficult to ignore the fact we’ve become chronically bogged down by a relationship to psychological illness. Added to that, the west is in the process of spreading their psychiatric minutiae around the world. ‘The Americanization of Mental Illness‘, an article from the New York Times in January of this year, discusses the topic and is well worth a read. In it Ethan Watters’ describes how developing nations are quickly catching on to our brand of psychiatric categories and displaying the symptoms, while offering the horrid yet important reminder that western culture is infiltrating every corner of the globe.
There is, however, something at the heart of this that I find even more disturbing. As we – that big general we of ‘the West’ – feel happier, it just might be possible that our resilience to discomfort is lessening. Is it so ludicrous to suggest that we need something to test resilience against in order for it to flourish? Must we have something to fight and when this diminishes, conjure all sorts of categories and treatments to give it form?
Please forgive me for what I’m about to say – it may even be akin to blasphemy in some quarters, not least the sector in which I’ve spent much of my adult life working in – but I just don’t get how someone like Jeff Kennett (previous dismantler of Victorian infrastructure – a regime that ripped many people’s lives apart, not to mention the bullying tactics with which he got things done) can then head up an organization such as Beyond Blue? Do those dealing out the trauma also get to benefit from the kudos of providing the mop to clean it up? There, I feel much better!
Luckily this post isn’t about Jeff Kennett or his bad behaviour; it’s about our loss of appreciation for the negative. Have we given away the considered state of reflection for treats on the couch, most usually taken – along with some pharmaceuticals from the bathroom cupboard – with a moving screen in front of us, for some more pacifying? Have we finally shaken off ‘struggle’, simply to be faced with the greater prospect of boredom and lack of challenge? Even our literature seems devoid of a certain push on human disarray. The turmoil of Kafka’s writing, the desperation of Dostoevsky’s, the anxieties of Virginia Woolf’s don’t appear quite so quintessential in texts as they once were.
It’s not so much what we add as what we lose that troubles me. The things we’re now prepared to sling out of the normal bounds of traits – quirks, eccentricities, timidity, boisterousness – and throw into the ever-growing circle of diagnoses which then need to be prodded, poked and, in the end, dampened down through managed regimes. If Einstein, for instance, had grown up in today’s world, it’s very likely he’d have been institutionalised for lack of participation and adherence to certain requirements expected of him in a school setting.
The problem appears when one tries to imagine encouraging people to remove some of the pacifiers from their lives, or to teach the theory of delayed gratification and what it does for the brain. Furthermore, why isn’t there an English word that expresses the joy in melancholia? And how do we get people used to not being afraid of their negative emotions, their unhappiness?
After all, while there are things we now don’t accept from Freud’s canon, I, along with many others, think there are truckloads of wisdom and truth in his work, and certainly in the assertion that unhappiness is nothing out of the norm.