Is Society Sick?
I heard it said once that people who are overly competitive are showing signs of insanity. It was a native American tribe who held this view, and it is a view that I immediately sympathised with, even if I would never have used the word ‘insanity’. Many of my strongest political convictions are reflected in this view; that homelessness and extreme poverty should be eradicated, that all people have value to contribute within society, and that extreme capitalist and individualistic thinking has corrupted our pursuit of happiness.
However it was when I set up the Democratic Reform Party that I really started thinking about our mental/spiritual health as a society. The more I learned, the more it seemed to me that our entire socio-economic system is designed to defeat itself. We are taught in homes and schools alike what “success” actually is, not explicitly of course; but we nevertheless emerge at the end with three distinct ideas: the first idea of success is fame and fortune; the second is a highly paid job, a house, a marriage, and kids; and the third is to become a hero, but we are warned away from this latter route by dint of the fact that for every hero there are a thousand failures. In fact a quote of Dorris Lessing springs to mind:
“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do.”
Through this indoctrination we, in our ‘careers’, are encouraged to pursue one thing above all others: money. It is this pursuit that drives so much of us into competition, that eats up our free time, limits the pursuit of leisure, results in more emphasis on career than social relationships, and indeed encourages us to move away from friends and family in the name of money. So it encourages us to spend more resources on ourselves, and also in ways which, statistically speaking, are in fact more likely to limit rather than increase, happiness.
Since this experience I have not learned anything which has shaken these ideas and thoughts from my mind. I’ve known many friends with severe depression, several of whom have attempted suicide. I received a message only two days ago from the mother of a close friend, saying that my friend needed help. I have even experienced the loss of one of my family members in a manner which seems to me certain to be linked to the depression which plagued his mind. It was hard writing that. It’s been quite some time now, and I have talked about it, if fleetingly; yet even a sentence brings tears to my eyes.
So yesterday, when I heard Tim Macartney (social entrepreneur and leadership expert) talking at the London School of Economics about the ‘Children’s Fire’, I thought that this is definitely something I wanted to blog about. The ‘Children’s Fire’ was literally a small fire placed at the heart of decision-making councils in some ancient native American tribes. It served as a reminder to those present that no decision should be passed which might harm a child, irrelevant of whether that child be human or animal.
Tim Macartney told his audience that he had once introduced this idea to a council of leaders, and been told that it was a little naive, and perhaps even childish, to think that we could employ the same idea today. Yet Tim responded by asking the audience to think in the exact opposite manner. He asked them to think of a society where that fire was never used.
“Don’t you think” he said, “that this society without the children’s fire, is sick?”
A few years ago I read a report explaining that clinical depression would, on current trends, become the world’s second most disabling condition behind heart disease by around 2020. I felt saddened, and immediately wanted to raise money for charities working to help people with depression. Yet I, like many others I guess, held hope that the trend would slow. In fact however, it sped up. In late 2013 experts reported in the journal PLOS Medicine that depression had already become the second biggest cause of disability in the world! You can see the BBC report here: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-24818048.
Based on the work of psychiatrists, psychologists and academics such as Fuller Torrey and Judy Miller, this trend in fact seems to be much broader than depression. They published a book in 2007, arguing that the rapid increase of mental illnesses since 1750 was an invisible plague that urgently needs to be tackled. The prevalence of insanity for example, according to their research, was once considerably less than one case per 1,000 in the total population, and yet by today has risen beyond five cases in 1,000. If true, the implications of such findings are quite scary.
Unfortunately the data over the period analysed by Torrey and Miller is sketchy, and so we can’t be sure of the validity of this argument. However we can be a lot surer of records gathered since the 60s and 70s. Based predominantly on census data from the period stretching back to 1971, researchers at the University of Sheffield found that a staggering 97% of communities studied in the UK have become more fragmented and “rootless” over this period, and also levels of “anomie” (social instability caused by erosion of standards and values) have risen significantly. In the US, over a similar period, it was also found that the rate at which Americans invite people into their homes has declined by 45%. Indeed findings such as these are not hard to find. Robert Putnam, in ‘Bowling Alone’, reported significantly increasing levels of dis-cohesion and social fragmentation. Cacioppo & Patrick published similar findings in 2008. Carne Ross had a significant rant about such statistics in his book published in 2011, ‘The Leaderless Revolution’. Professor Mark Stein drew the conclusion in a ‘Psychoanalysis of the Financial Crisis’ in 2012 that Western Society has been behaving neurotically for 20 years (http://www.businessinsider.com/a-psychoanlytic-guide-to-the-financial-crisis-2012-6). And I could cite many more sources!
Statistically speaking, happiness is no higher today than it was in the 1950s. And what’s worse is that our replacement for it i.e. the pursuit of money, isn’t helping us either. Since the 1970s the average income of the most wealthy has skyrocketed. But the median income of the average person has if anything fallen slightly. What does that suggest to you? Is our system broken? Is society itself sick?
Of course we could take any time or place in history, list the problems, and somehow come out with an argument that society is sick. So maybe these problems aren’t nearly so huge as they seem. But to me personally, they certainly seem to be pretty huge. How do they seem to you? Is society sick?