Unhappiness, the epidemic of 21st Century?

Sixty years ago, as Europe struggled to recover from the most destructive war in history, World War II, another conflict was brewing that had the potential to overshadow the millions of victims left in its wake: the Cold War. The United States and the USSR had emerged as the two superpowers. A conflict between them (as they nearly had with the Cuban missile crisis) could throw the world into a nuclear catastrophe.

Given that context, it is understandable that many people were distraught, terrified about the future and what could happen; and that the number of mental illnesses associated with such a context skyrocketed: nervous breakdowns, depression, neuroses, etc. And, unsurprisingly, these disorders were especially prevalent in countries with a totalitarian regime.

What is surprising, however, is that 60 years later the trend does not appear to be moving in the expected direction. The standard of living in countries that were in full reconstruction at that time reached heights never before seen in any society. The United States, Europe and Japan, three of the regions most involved in the Second World War, entered the 21st century with a historically unparalleled level of wealth. The crisis has taken its toll, but living standards remain enviable for most of the world’s population.

As we said before, the trend is confounding: with the Cold War now buried in the past and giving way to an unprecedented period of prosperity, the prevalence of mental illness rose tenfold in developed countries. The same disorders that were more directly threatened by the Cold War. The figures are horrifying: more than 400 million people in the world suffer from psychological disorders, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). For some time now, suicide has been the leading cause of death among young people in developed countries. Right along with that, to give another example, addictions are increasingly common. Where did we go wrong?

Cartoonist Stuart McMillen published a comic strip that keenly compares the world that Orwell envisioned in 1984 to the one created by Aldous Huxley in A Brave New World. Indeed, there is a clear parallel: the former revolves around a totalitarian regime, whereas the latter reflects a post-Cold War scenario; the Western World, supported by liberalism as a soft ideology. One feared that information and culture would be curtailed and censored, while the other imagined an overly connected world, where censorship was no longer needed… because no one was interested in the truth anymore. One imagined methods of oppression by pain, the other conceptualized methods of control… through pleasure. These are just some of the comparisons in this thought-provoking strip.

This brings us back to the question: Where did we go wrong?

Could it be that we are entirely given to seeking pleasure and comfort, a new hedonism that reduces reality down to enjoyable or painful stimuli; some must be sought out, others avoided. Returning to Seligman’s theory, perhaps we place too much emphasis on positive emotions and positive moments as a source of happiness.

Fortunately, money cannot buy everything, certainly not happiness. A person can have all the resources in the world, but if they have a major flaw in their character, for instance, their life will likely be plagued by times of unhappiness. There are certain positive moments that a person can “buy,” but they will never make up for the unhappiness caused by this void in their character. Just look at the figures.

Happiness is a more complex equation than a simple sum of pleasant moments. It is sustained by having an ethos that can balance such disparate aspects as the achievement of objectives, dedication to a task, having a sense of purpose and building relationships with added value.

But the issue is not simply about us seeking happiness from only one source: If we dig deeper, we can see a possible misconception. Positive emotions are a source of happiness, though oftentimes they are more like indicators, effects of a greater cause. Or vice versa: continuous and persistent sadness can be a clear indicator that a person is unhappy, despite having a wealth of “means” to be happy: professional success, financial resources, family, friends, and so on.

In the previous article (“Does happiness come from our environment?”), we saw that although happiness is not entirely individual (nobody can be happy “in isolation”), responsibility ultimately lies with each one of us. We can all think of people who have been free despite being caged, happy even in lean times, serving others while getting nothing in return.

So, what is it that keeps a society as “advanced” as ours from taking a resolute step toward pursuing what truly pleases us? Perhaps it is the confusion of cause and effect. Happiness cannot be reduced to achieving the longest possible streak of positive moments: If that were the case, then alcohol would be an answer. It makes more sense that it would come from a few major causes… which bring such highly desirable effects as an abundance of enduring positive emotions.