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.
After humans, vervets are the most successful primate species. Within each group there are well defined hierarchies, separate for each gender. Michael McGuire, of the University of California, has found that males who are dominant in a group have higher levels of serotonin than subordinate ones. He has replicated his finding in dozens of groups of vervets over the past 20 years. Those with high serotonin levels affiliate more, are more tolerant of other group members, eat and sleep more, and are better able to defend their group. But which comes first, the high status or the high serotonin levels?
In a series of experiments, changes were made to the status of male vervets, so that previously subordinate ones became dominant and previously dominant ones became subordinate. This was done by removing dominant vervets from their group, allowing the remaining, previously subordinate males to fight for dominance. The newly dominant vervets showed higher levels of serotonin than beforehand. Thus, a higher status caused an increase in levels of serotonin. Conversely, when the dominant males were placed in isolation (thus removing their status), their serotonin levels fell.
The conclusion of McGuire’s research is clear: serotonin levels in male vervets are an effect, not a cause of status; high status vervets do not start out with high levels of serotonin; they acquire them after achieving higher status. Studies of rats, mice or crayfish-species where hierarchy is a key organising principle-also show that serotonin is highly sensitive to changes in status.
There are good reasons to believe that what is true of vervets is also true of humans. Douglas Madsen has shown that dominant, successful men have high serotonin levels, while subordinated, low status individuals-often women and people from lower social classes-are more prone to low serotonin problems such as depression, aggression and compulsion. This suggests a link between low status and low serotonin, but it does not explain why depression, aggression and compulsion have increased since 1950, a period in which a greater proportion of the population became middle class and in which women’s opportunities, status and wealth increased.
The explanation, I believe, is twofold: advanced capitalism fails to meet our need for status; and it is destructive of the stable attachments to which we are instinctively drawn-driving a wedge between mother and father, parent and small child, elderly parents and their offspring. Without strong traditional communities or the comfort of religious belief, many of us find a new sense of belonging from the global media and celebrities such as Princess Diana, onto whom we project our deepest needs. But this has the effect of making many people feel they are losers. These phoney relationships with “stars” create a huge increase in maladjusted social comparison and reinforces problems of low status and low serotonin.
Low self-esteem evolved in primates as a way of signalling to dominant animals that you posed no threat. It oiled the primordial social wheels. Such widespread subordination would be pathological in humans today. Yet, even today, we still have to arrive at an assessment of our rank by making comparisons. Upward social comparisons are made in order to improve ourselves, while downward comparisons make us feel more competent than our inferiors.
Depressed people have maladjusted patterns of social comparison. Healthy people are careful when making upward comparisons because these contain a risk: that the potential for learning will be swamped by feelings of inadequacy. To protect against this, they make “discounts.” They say: “Jack Nicklaus is a far better golfer than me but he is a professional who plays all the time.” Likewise, they will not discount when comparing downwards, enjoying their superiority and boosting their self-esteem. Thus, having been beaten on the golf course by my more experienced friend Paul, I console myself by thinking about victories over my far worse friend Hugo, conveniently ignoring the fact that he hardly ever plays.
By contrast, depressed people fail to discount when comparing upwards, simply experiencing their inadequacy when comparing themselves to Jack Nicklaus without making any allowances. But when they compare downwards, they are liable to discount and say: “Hugo never plays, he would probably beat me if he played more.”
There has, in my view, been a sharp increase in the amount of maladjusted social comparison since 1950 -a major cause of our low serotonin society. We have developed an all-consuming preoccupation with our status, power and wealth relative to others. We compare ourselves obsessively, enviously, self-destructively. No sooner do we achieve a goal than we move the goalposts to create a more difficult one, leaving ourselves permanently dissatisfied, always yearning for what we have not got, a nation of wannabees.
A primary cause of this change is the rise of individualism and the increase in our aspirations. Previously “oppressed” groups, such as women and people in lower social classes, have come to believe they can achieve hitherto unimaginable statuses, and even regard them as an entitlement. But when expectations outstrip outcomes, we feel either resentful and aggressive or depressed. If reality falls short of our high hopes, we either blame the system or ourselves; whichever it is, rates of depression and violence rise.
This “relative deprivation” explains why a 1949 study of satisfaction with promotion prospects in the American Military Police found that it was far higher than in the Air Corps, although promotion was far more likely among airmen. The police felt more satisfied because they had lower expectations. Likewise, blacks stationed in the south of the country-where racism was rife-were more contented than those in the north. While northern blacks compared their lot either with better-off whites or the wealthy blacks with whom they came into contact as a result of their postings, southern blacks compared themselves with other blacks like themselves. The absence of relative deprivation also explains the curious fact that, despite their subordination, Japanese women are the most contented in the developed world: because of their strict social structure, it does not occur to them to expect, or feel entitled to, the status or wealth of their men.
In the west, the media have overheated our aspirations. Studies have shown that exposure to beautiful women through the media depresses 99.9 per cent of women who could not possibly aspire to such ideals, and causes their male partners to have impossibly high standards of beauty. At the same time, the overrepresentation of powerful and successful male role models in films humiliates the high proportion of men who can never achieve (but are encouraged to aspire to) these ideals. The epidemic of maladjusted social comparison extends into all sectors of society, not just oppressed groups. It is an intriguing possibility that, despite her privileged status, Princess Diana compared herself with successful female professionals and felt inadequate by comparison. This would never have occurred to the Queen or Queen Mother. Moreover, television images presenting high-achieving professional men may have helped to undermine any respect Diana or Sarah Ferguson had for their husbands. When they compared the “silver spoon” inherited careers of Charles or Andrew with those of the glamourous self-made businessmen or the intelligent, masterful yet caring doctors and detectives who filled the screens, they may have compared upwards and downgraded their husbands. Beside Sting or Jack Nicholson, what was a mere prince?
We find devices for sweetening the bitter pill of defeat when expectations are dashed. But these can also be destructive. The now familiar media exposure of the personal shortcomings of public heroes may be a collective defence against the pain of increased upward social comparison. We want to demystify, unseat and subordinate our heroes, after worshipping them. We may be pleased to see Michael Jackson exposed as a paedophile, or OJ Simpson, the “family man,” accused of murder, because unconsciously we see them as rivals. How many people who admired Diana were not also pleased to read about her unhappiness in the newspapers or see her on television confessing to misery? Fergie went from being an object of upward to downward comparison-an unpleasant fate that might eventually have befallen Diana had she lived. Soon after her marriage, Fergie became a figure to be despised and pitied-a fat, spendthrift, avaricious, publicity-seeking, sexually disloyal little rich girl.
Another cause of the increased and maladjusted social comparison since 1950 has been the huge rise in the hours that children spend at school, and in the intensity of competition and assessment they experience. Adult-like patterns of social comparison begin between the ages of seven and nine. So heavy is the workload and so relentless is the competition-especially in elite schools-that even the most able often end up feeling like losers, despite the fact that, in terms of the wider society, they are winners. For most children from low-income families, the emphasis on examinations means that they leave school feeling like failures and the subordination does not end there. With the introduction of extensive testing by employers, yet more defeat is forced upon them.
Whose interests are being served by these changes since 1950? Put crudely, advanced capitalism makes money out of the depression and rage that are engendered by unrealistic aspirations. I am not suggesting that there is a conspiracy of top hat-clad, black-coated bankers and retailers to make us miserable. To write of “advanced capitalism” as if it has volition is to anthropomorphise an entity which has no will of its own, just as describing genes as “selfish” is nonsense. But the way advanced capitalism happens to have evolved benefits business at both ends-creating and curing misery-while our inner lives pay the price.
“Advanced capitalism” is currently out of fashion as an explanatory tool, compared with the “selfish gene.” Yet in combination, they explain a great deal of what has gone wrong since 1950. For advanced capitalism does not meet our primordial needs evolved over millions of years. For example, most of us spend our adult lives fighting a battle against being overweight. This is a new problem in the history of humanity, caused by the phenomenal success of modern technology in creating diverse and abundant foods. Unfortunately, like all animals, humans were designed to assume that food was scarce. Advanced capitalism exploits our instinctive tendency to eat too much fat and sugar by dressing food products up as “healthy” or “nourishing” when what most of us need is plenty of roughage and far fewer calories. Having overeaten, we come to resent our ponderous bodies and so we buy diet products. Alternatively, we may starve ourselves. Either way, the result is a sense of failure, of losing the battle against excessive weight. Thus overcoming one of the most enduring challenges to human life-starvation-has actually become a threat to our mental health. Alcohol, tobacco use, the feeling of never having enough time, are other examples of the way in which the combination of advanced capitalism and our basic instincts can leave us feeling like losers, even if our status seems to make us winners.
neither pills nor therapy can cure the low serotonin society. For that to occur, politicians will have to address the misfit between advanced capitalism and our instincts: the conflict between the need to promote dissatisfaction in the name of economic growth on the one hand, and our need for status and secure attachments on the other. One strand of political thinking that claims to address this problem is communitarianism. Amitai Etzioni, its leading exponent, writes that “what America needs now is a major social movement dedicated to enhanced social responsibility, public and private morality and the public interest.” But by placing our supposed amorality at the heart of his theory, Etzioni runs counter to almost all the findings of the social sciences, which show that morality is an effect rather than a cause of social and economic structures. Etzioni may (or may not) be right to think that if more of us subscribed to his morality we would be happier, but his account does not properly explain why so many of us have ceased to do so since 1950.
Etzioni starts from the fact that our expectations have spiralled out of control, instead of analysing why this has happened. His solution is for us to acknowledge that we are morally wrong to have allowed this to happen. But he ignores what is stimulating this spirit of entitlement: the requirement of advanced capitalism to generate dissatisfaction in us, to multiply our individual needs and wants, to encourage us to believe that consuming can fill the void.
I find many of Etzioni’s proposals sensible but it is a mistake to pretend, as he does, that we can recover our psychological health without having some freedoms curbed. Etzioni says he is not a killjoy, he will not interfere with our enjoyment of the hedonistic party that began in 1960; but when we read the smallprint, it looks as if it will be a lacklustre, teetotal event, with no loud music, ending well before the pubs close.
In low technology, rural societies, morality binds individuals together. But in high technology, urban societies, individuals are encouraged to develop their own values, and the judicial system-rather than notions of right and wrong-protects individuals from one another. A moral code may exist, but it is based on reason rather than cosmological belief. The trouble is that our genes evolved primarily within collectivist societies. In terms of status, collectivist societies have rigid roles and demand strict adherence to authority. Thus we evolved to create rankings and to obey them; so the modern individualist who competes fiercely to rise up the rankings ahead of his or her “natural” position is flouting instinct. Likewise, it is “unnatural” for us to have so many attachments and loyalties beyond our ascribed tribal ones and to keep breaking them.
Described in this way the problem of modernity seems insoluble: happiness and freedom are incompatible. We need to be more oppressed by traditional identities in order to be better aligned to our genes, yet our liberal values and selfishness recoil from such a statement. But the true conflict is not between individualism and collectivism; rather, it is between a market economy that works for us, and one that works against us. Advertising, especially media images of women, is incredibly destructive to our mental health and so is much American imported television and film. Somehow we must find a way to limit them that is compatible with a free society. Until we modify the processes that have created widespread maladjusted social comparison and broken attachments, we shall continue to be a low serotonin society.