May 12, 2007

The myth of the modern malaise

So, having all the choices and freedoms of Western liberal life just makes you anxious and miserable?

Well, try having none.
"For all these thinkers, the apparent evidence of a deep crisis in our emotional health supports their various theses about the failures of modern liberal society. They extrapolate a notion that modernity has made us unhappy. More specifically, choice, wealth, enfranchisement — all the fruits of liberal democracy — are forbidden apples casting us from a mis-imagined Eden.

What surprises me about the "Are we happier?" debate is the capacity of apparently critical thinkers to accept the notion that we are in a crisis of happiness and wellbeing without examining what forces have been at work to re-label various aspects of human life as pathology. The same people who bemoan the dominance of marketing and commercial coercion in our lives have nonetheless themselves swallowed the propaganda of pill-peddlers and mania-merchants.

There are a few things to explore here that attack the notion that we are unhappy as a result of modernity or modern values. Firstly, it matters to understand that anxiety pre-dates the plough, the internal combustion engine and feminism. Secondly, most serious mental illnesses are rooted in our rearing and genetics. They are set before we gain an income, juggle the work-life conundrum or even face peer pressure at school. Thirdly, humans have been staring into the existential void for literally millenniums. A degree of anxiety is organic to our human nature. And finally, we need to understand who is telling us we are unhappy and why they are doing so.

I'm not out to convince you we all want to hold hands and sing Kumbayah. Just that a reasonable amount of stress, ennui and fear is an historically constant, normal human response to life.

Anxiety has been described as a worrying symptom of modernity for as long as we have been modern — which is starting to be a very long time. Discussing pessimism recently, Danish thinker Bjorn Lomborg cited the discovery of an Assyrian stone tablet inscribed, "Our Earth is degenerate in these later days, bribery and corruption are common, children no longer obey their parents, every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching."

Take five minutes, this is well worth reading ... an extract from Cassandra Wilkinson, author of Don't Panic! Nearly everything is better than you think.


  1. Anonymous10:07 PM

    I'm not panicking, mate I'm a Christian after all.

    I reckon it's just gotta get better.

    I'm a glass half full kinda person anyway.

    However I am kinda worried about the game on Sunday Caz.

    Cats are in with a good chance.

    Even hubby has picked 'em to win!( He's sleeping in the spare room tonight as a result!)Hrmmph!

  2. It's worse than a myth, it's a cliche, and it's been been around way too long.

  3. Jeez, I just noticed her name is Cassandra. That's kind of funny.

  4. Yes, you're right, it's more cliche than myth.

    I'll bet this sort of thing went on in the cave era too, when people started wearing ... animal skins ... and vanity and keeping up with the folks in the next cave set in.

    As she notes, amongst her other excellent points, modernity has been around for quite a while.

    You'd think we'd eventually get used to this modern fandangled world of ours, particularly when soon there will be none left on the planet who know any other era.