Why are so many people unhappy, when we live in a period of unprecedented affluence? An obsessive preoccupation with comparing ourselves to others is to blame. We have unrealistic expectations, which leave us permanently dissatisfied, prone to depression and aggressionby Oliver James / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
There is little doubt that, compared with 1950, Britons are unhappier. This is broadly true of people throughout the developed world, despite a period of unprecedented growth in incomes. Most politicians presume that economic growth will increase the wellbeing of citizens, but rates of depression, violent aggression and compulsion (eating disorders, alcoholism, gambling and drug use) have rocketed since 1950. There is no correlation between the wealth of a country and the likelihood that its citizens say they are happy with their lives. The wealthiest (the US) are by no means the happiest, and some of the poorest (Ireland) are the most contented.
A 25-year-old today is between three and ten times more likely to suffer from depression than in 1950. Violent crime in England and Wales has increased from 6,000 incidents in 1950 to 239,000 in 1996. At least 20 per cent of Americans will suffer from a serious mental illness during their lifetime and a further 20 to 40 per cent will have many of the symptoms thereof. (The figures are likely to be similar in Britain.) The displays of emotion over the death of Princess Diana have been interpreted as evidence of a less “buttoned up” culture. There may be truth in that. But the fact that millions of people apparently suffered grief over a celebrity they never met and whose contribution to the good society was less than many of her peers, suggests a widespread emotional impoverishment.
Any discussion of this impoverishment has to take as its starting point the fact that depression, aggression and compulsion have all been shown to be linked with low levels of serotonin, the brain chemical that is raised by taking antidepressants such as Prozac. It is probable that at least half of the British population at any one time has low serotonin levels. We live in a low serotonin society.
Most people imagine that if a chemical is implicated in human behaviour, its levels are caused by other chemicals or by genes. But in the case of serotonin, this is not the case. Genes probably account for about 10 per cent of serotonin levels; the remainder seems to be caused by environments which create a chemistry of despair. In particular, serotonin levels are highly sensitive to social status, as studies of vervet monkeys have shown.