The pursuit of happiness


December 22, 2009 - 10:40AM

A few years ago, I was doing some research for a speech and I came across a quote that has stuck with me ever since. It was from the Australian academic and social commentator Richard Eckersley, who in 1992 described young people as "the miners' canaries of our society, acutely vulnerable to the peculiar hazards of our times".

This is a powerful and distressing image; distressing because he notes that it is all too often reflected in social detachment, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies. The young, says Eckersley, have picked up on the failure of modern society to offer meaning for today and hope for the future. He concludes that "the problems of young people today go to the heart of our society and its culture and economy".

While it is true that modern science, market freedoms and accountable governments have produced vast improvements in the quality of life, it can't be denied that Eckersley has captured an aspect of modern life that resonates with the actual experience of people and the "felt" quality of their relationships. After all, the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission has reported that mental disorders represent 13.3 per cent of the total burden of disease in Australia, coming third after cancers and cardio-vascular diseases. These statistics take us below the surface to where our feelings and emotions come into play.

Underneath these concerns expressed about society today is the image of imbalance - individuals and communities focused too heavily on one thing at the expense of others.

It may be an imbalance between life and work - usually, but not always, too much work and not enough life.

It may be an imbalance between liberty and equality, between the freedom to accumulate and the opportunities available to others.

It may be between the type and nature of economic growth and the environment that sustains and enriches us all.

Of course, the sceptic in all of us resists the radical interpretation of such imbalances. Aren't they part and parcel of the human condition? How could we ever find balance when the circumstances in which we live and the technologies we have to use are forever changing? Isn't the tension between aspirations and reality a productive one? Are human beings too restless and too creative to ever find an inner equilibrium? Doesn't civilisation always involve an element of repressed desire?

Life is full of contradictions and the sources of anxiety are many - existential, personal or political. We worry about the meaning of existence, about ourselves, about our relationships and about the future. This is part of what it means to be human. However, we are all different and some of us are predisposed to stressful levels of worry, depression and other more serious mental illnesses. Sometimes the mix of biochemistry and social existence sends people to the edge. Psychotic episodes become part of their daily reality.

The issue is not that life is (or can be) free of contradiction and complexity but that we complicate matters with dysfunctional social relationships and unrealisable aspirations. To explain this, we need to look at the models of politics and economics that dominate our thinking.

Consider the basic model of political theory that has underpinned our thinking about legitimacy and government. It starts with natural or God-given rights to life, liberty and property. The role of government is to provide a framework that protects these rights. At the heart of politics is a social contract between the people and the government.

The Americans provided a broader framework for thinking about politics with their inalienable right to "the pursuit of happiness". However, they had in mind not so much the deeper questions associated with psychology and lifestyle but issues like the freedom to marry, to enjoy privacy and to pursue a business or occupation of one's choice so long as it was not inconsistent with the rights of others.

Coming with this political theory was an economic theory of economic growth and the free market. This gave a dynamic and progressive element to the social contract between government and people. And even if qualified by welfare and social justice considerations in the 20th century, it still proposed gross domestic product as the best measure of community success.

One cannot underestimate the liberating efforts of these doctrines in societies that were always on the edge of poverty and under the thumb of arbitrary rulers. Today, however, there are new challenges that require new thinking.

First, it is clear that the basic economic indicators (gross domestic product, growth, income and employment) need to be complemented with social and environmental indicators if we are to get a better picture of the quality of our life. Issues such as air quality, nature conservation, amenity and waste disposal now line up with community safety and the quality of social relationships at home and at work as equally important determinants of quality of life.

Second, it is recognised that our general levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction play an important part in what matters to us as individuals or as families and communities. Our mental health is a crucial factor in our quality of life but is not properly captured by the economic indicators to which we turn for assessment.

We know community wellbeing and the environment matter but we seem incapable of according them equal status with economic growth and personal consumption.

Herein lies the problem. We know there is a deeper reality to our make-up as individuals but its complexity frightens us. We prefer the illusion of freedom rather than the complexity of self-awareness. As a community we know of the limitations of material wealth as a measure of true value but we seem incapable of breaking its grip on our imagination. We prefer the simplicity of economic growth and personal consumption rather than the complexity of sustainability and community wellbeing. As the Buddhist scholar and teacher Stephen Batchelor has put it:

How much of our life

is spent in avoiding

what we really are?

Yet in a quiet corner

of ourselves, do we

not secretly recognise

the deceptive strategies of such avoidance?

How often do we find ourselves happily

indulging in some trivial pursuit, even

though a deeper awareness is whispering

to us of its futility?

As both individuals and as a community, we avoid mental health as a mainstream concern and a primary objective in our thinking and practice. However, just to prove how powerful it is, modern consumer society has created its own version of the wellbeing or happiness agenda. Happiness has become another consumer item to be purchased in a pre-packaged form like any other. It would seem then that consumer society even has the capacity to absorb and co-opt that which seeks to transform it.

We live in a society where we like skating over the surface of things. We prefer simplicity to complexity in the way we consider our needs and the way we organise our collective lives. Just as we battle to comprehend and deal with mental illness, so, too, do we battle with chronic and complex illnesses generally. Issues such as this need more probing analysis, co-operation across the boundaries of care and individually designed clinical interventions if they are to be tackled properly. It means ensuring the system can adjust to the needs of the individual rather than the other way around, which is all too often the case today. It means treating people as individuals rather than as categories.

We need more discussion and debate around the question: What does it mean to live in a healthy society? It is not as if we don't have mountains of evidence about the factors that can create a better context for living. Indeed, what we call the wellbeing agenda has made significant progress in recent years, sharpening its definitions, placing a stronger focus on the social and economic determinants of health (rather than the subjective and individualised emphasis in some of the earlier work) and developing relevant indicators for researchers and governments.

Living in a democratic and stable society that provides for its material needs is one of those factors. So, too, is having supportive friends and family, having rewarding and engaging work with adequate income, being free of violence and abuse and being part of a community that cares for the physical and mental health of all its citizens. We know, for example, that a good deal of stigma and ignorance still surrounds mental illness and it is not managed well across many organisations. New thinking and practice is going to be needed around the "balance" questions: work/life, liberty/equality, regulation/deregulation and growth/environment. These are legitimate issues for governments as well as individuals to ponder when considering policy options, including urban and environmental planning.

Refocusing our collective efforts in these ways is not going to be easy. Government is all about priorities. I have already noted the powerful forces in modern society and modern thought that devalue a wider commitment to wellbeing, and we can see how the global economic downturn is feeding this reductionist view of human circumstances. This is not the time, many are saying, to focus on anything but the economy. However, if we are entering a period of constrained growth - as I believe we are - the level of sophistication in our thought and politics is going to have to improve. I predict a battle of ideas in which the simplicities of an economically charged populism will fight hard for preservation against the alternative concepts of fairness, sustainability and community wellbeing.

Professor Geoff Gallop is a former premier of Western Australia and will be moderator at a discussion on the pursuit of happiness, Are We Happy Yet?, presented by the Sydney Festival and the University of Sydney on January 24.