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Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

Mental health issues are a bit off-topic for us here at EarthQuaker. But we are interested in ideas that, to quote the Preamble to the US Constitution, ‘promote the general welfare.’

So here’s an interview with Charles Barber, author of the new book Comfortably Numb, which argues that too many American doctors now view mental states that are part of (and essential to) normal life as illnesses to be treated with psychotropic drugs.

When it comes to treating mild depression, Barber recommends following a European model:

The clinical guidelines to the National Health Service for mild depression recommend watchful waiting, diet and exercise, self-help and counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and then if all those things don’t work, to try antidepressants. Our de facto practice in the United States is pretty much the opposite.

But feelings of unhappiness or mild depression brought on by identifiable life circumstances (divorce, losing a job or moving house) are not, Barber argues, mental conditions at all.

Says Barber,

our American sensibility is to be uncomfortable with unhappy feelings and root them out as quickly as possible. I want to be very clear not to romanticize suffering, but there can be a utility to some difficult emotions.

The right to pursue their own happiness is something that Americans rightly hold dear. And yet that happiness has also proven elusive, despite the nation’s enormous success in building its citizens’ wealth.

We’ve noted elsewhere that shopping doesn’t seem to do much to make people happy. And plenty of researchers have found that happiness fails to keep increasing after we reach a certain level of material comfort.

So is taking drugs the solution? It seems fairly obvious that however much those drugs might keep us ‘comfortably numb,’ they won’t do much to change whatever circumstances limited our happiness in the first place.

More broadly, it might also help to rethink our expectations of what can make us happy. In that context, Barber says, it’s ironic that

if you set happiness to be your primary goal, it tends not to work out very well. The late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies said that happiness is a byproduct, and that you become happy when you’re engaged in productive activity or when you’re in a relationship with someone you love. So this idea that we have to be happy is a highly American thing and highly problematic concept.

If our relationships are poor, and if we find that the activities that motivate our lives are more destructive than constructive, we can choose to stay unhappy and self-medicate for it. Or we can seek to be constructive, and to redefine the relationships we enjoy with our fellow planet-dwellers, and our planet.

Imagining what such a redefined-life might look like — and asking what we can do to achieve it — is very much our topic here.

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