|Unhappiness is inevitable
Poverty and work are what make most of us miserable - and therapy is
not the solution
Monday August 28, 2006
The Guardian [U.K.]
RECENT MONTHS HAVE SEEN THE science and politics of "happiness"
endorsed by commentators of all persuasions. Richard Layard - a
consultant to the [U.K.] government - called for a huge increase in
the number of publicly funded psychological therapists. These
therapists, he suggests, would help to combat the personal and social
malaise that seems to be afflicting us at record levels, and their
cost will be more than recovered by savings in benefit payments to
depressed individuals who will be encouraged to return to work.
Such proposals may seem reasonable, even humane: we live in a world
where there can never be enough comfort to go around and in which we
are taught to rely upon expert advice. The "happiness on prescription"
argument rests upon three key assumptions: that the causes of
psychological distress lie in the way that we see the world, not in
the way that it is; that psychotherapy and counselling are reliable
and proven methods for solving our problems; and that unhappiness is
necessarily a bad thing. However, the likelihood is that these
assumptions are simply wrong.
There is an enormous body of evidence to suggest that happiness will
always be profoundly linked to our wider social and material world. In
the industrialised nations, the widening gap between rich and poor
that has marked the past three decades has been associated with an
erosion of communal ties and with a rising wave of psychological
distress. Moreover, the fewer financial and social resources people
have, the more likely they are to experience significant physical and
mental health problems. Layard's proposals downplay this evidence by
giving equal status to questionnaire-based surveys that suggest
happiness is more closely related to political beliefs and world
These issues are nowhere more sharply revealed than in the world of
work. During the past 20 years, coercive control - in the form of
stringent targets, performance appraisal, increased monitoring and
surveillance in the workplace - has been matched by a culture of long
hours and contractual and financial insecurity, even for middle-class
professionals. For many, the prospects of falling into chronic debt or
poverty are more threatening than ever, especially for the 20% of
British citizens who live on or below the poverty line.
Layard claims that in "cognitive behavioural therapy" we have a form
of individual psychological treatment that can be precisely tailored
to certain kinds of disorder. But 50 years of research offers little
support for this view. These treatments are based upon an assumption
that rational insight will lead, magically, to beneficial change. Yet
there is growing evidence from neuroscience that our actions are
rooted not so much in our thoughts as in our feelings. These feelings
are likely to be deeply embedded, and not erasable through
conversations with a well-intentioned therapist.
The preoccupation with "happiness" may be convenient for a government
keen to appear caring while seeking to avoid social expenditure. In
this context, the commandment to "be happy" amounts to a form of
insidious social control, in which we are encouraged to look inwards
(and to blame ourselves) for the causes of our troubles.
Far from being an undesirable trait, the ability to feel and give
voice to psychic pain may turn out to be an essential asset: one of
the few clear signals that all is not well with our world. We need to
develop a greater ability to help people articulate their distress and
make this the first step to making their world a more tolerable place.
This is a political task: the superficial nostrums of the kind
favoured by Layard and New Labour can only be a distraction.
· Paul Moloney is a counselling psychologist