Why Aren't We Happy? What Really Matters?
Mental Health and the Corporate State
Do you ever wonder what really matters in life? As we move further into the new millennium, more and more of us are asking that question. Over the years, I have experienced a steady increase of counseling clients who simply feel lost with regard to how they might create meaningful and fulfilling lives. People appear increasingly overwhelmed. Oftentimes with these clients, I assure them, “You are not going crazy – but you are living in a society that is!” To put it another way, much of the depression, anxiety and despair we see in each other is a normal response to the culture in which we live. In my line of work, there are times when therapists feel professionally obligated to offer treatment intervention at the community level. This is one of those times.
Here’s a reality check: The increasing tension in our society is tearing the fabric of our collective mental health. Family life, for many of us seems to be unraveling, while work lives are increasingly unpredictable and chaotic. Panic attacks are on the increase among those who feel out of control and depression increasingly rolls over those who pause to look for meaning in their hectic lives and instead find despair. The increasing pace of technological, political and social change may be thrilling as we sail uncharted oceans, but more and more of us have begun to notice we have sailed far from sight of the shore with unfamiliar stars to guide us.
Worse, yet, it is beginning to look as though we may have embarked on the wrong ship. Not two decades after the fall of communism, our capitalist-consumer society is sprouting leaks in so many places that few of us have missed the sense of alarm that rings out in the shots of angry youngsters in our schools and the shouts of road-raged drivers. Parents struggle to keep jobs in downsizing corporate settings that care only about profits. Working conditions under long and often opposing shifts work to estrange spouses more quickly than circumstances typical of affairs. The wounds of 9-11 still fester in a war increasingly challenged on all fronts, while the very weather exposes our inadequacies to protect our own.
Meanwhile, our children (our future) are nannied by violent video games, fattened on fast food and parented by their peers. While the generation I grew up in despaired about the possibility of nuclear war, the present generation just despairs. When I ask them, they have difficulty saying why they despair, but the symbol of anarchy among the young seems to be emerging as a replacement for the peace sign of their parents’ generation. Having grown up in patchwork families, facing a future of no reciprocal loyalty in the workplace, and having been brainwashed by hundreds of thousands of commercials that tout unreachable material standards as the criteria for happiness, today’s young people have less of a sense of foundation in life than any former generation.
No System for Happiness
The cold war that ended less than two decades ago was a standoff that came close to ending humanity and life on Earth as we know it. And it was unique in the history of human conflict. It was not about despots struggling for power, religious ideologies, or contested claims over fertile land. The cold war was over economic ideologies. Economic ideologies! In other words, which system of delivering the material goods and resources of life was most appropriate for humankind? We talked about democracy versus totalitarianism. But the conflict was over which system, defined on economic, or materialistic terms should be identified as the one to best meet the needs of humanity. By emphasizing economics over the higher needs of humanity, both systems were flawed. If there is to be fulfillment and meaningful living among the populace, ethics and morality should define economy; not the other way around, as has been the practice in the modern era.
Communism failed because it destroyed human initiative and broke human spirit. Today, capitalism is failing because, as practiced, it is destroying human initiative and breaking human spirit.
The tragic irony is that we feared most the onslaught of communism against democracy, when all along, we should have feared the onslaught of corporatocracy against democracy. Our voting statistics are massive evidence of the rampant cynicism in a society where elected officials are bought and controlled by self-interested big business. Our health care system was destroyed by corporate infestation of the medical community. People die routinely due to medical neglect as managed care dictates treatment models. Big Pharma dominates media marketing by advertising drugs that alleviate symptoms, but do not cure. Our children are undereducated in under funded, understaffed schools with underpaid teachers while the corporate sports industry pays billions to sweaty guys knocking balls around. Self-serving corporate media interests have infested journalism in our country to control every aspect of what they want us to hear. Meanwhile, from textiles to technology, corporations routinely outsource jobs to the offshore resources most likely to improve their bottom line. All this because our society grossly misunderstands the true meaning of prosperity.
The message to us is “buy, buy, buy” – which means, of course, we must work, work, work. We live in a society in which our state religion is materialism. Prosperity in our culture is defined by our capacity to consume, not by satisfaction with what we have or the depth of meaning in our lives. Because we do not know the meaning of “enough” in a culture that constantly tells us, “more is better” and “bigger is better,” we are dooming ourselves to the delusional despair of never having or being “enough” while consuming our very planet out of existence. The 6 ounce cokes of my childhood became the 12 ouncers of the 60's and the 20 ouncers of the present day. Hamburgers became whoppers, neighborhoods became suburban sprawl and station wagons became SUVs. Meanwhile, corporations grow into monopolies by gobbling each other up and spitting out their employees like melon seeds. They downsize and outsource, becoming “lean and mean” as the buzz-term goes.
The Media’s Image of Success
Our media, if we buy into it – and too many of us do – constantly present a picture of the successful person in our modern society. This person is also “lean and mean,” with an “attitude” and an “edge” to the way he or she presents to the world. This ideal successful person has no time to be nice – is too important and busy to yield the right-of-way in traffic and it is out-of-the-question to be anywhere where contact with a cell phone or beeper is impossible. Occupation in a high profile, supposedly indispensable corporate role is a must in the media-prescribed successful person. Salary, with benefits, for this ideal person easily allows at least one sports car or luxury sedan in addition the requisite SUV, a condo at the beach (time-shares don’t count), and a country estate for weekends outside the city. There is a large, diversified portfolio, no matter how youthful or inexperienced this icon of a successful person may be. He or she is happily married to a similarly successful person, and they share a happy son and daughter destined for an Ivy League education. There is at least one extremely bright pet of a social species higher than the rodent level. This icon of success is a paragon of time management skills; able to organize a 14 hour workday, plus 5 hours divided between spouse and children, ample time for aerobics or similar conditioning, no more than 2 hours of home office time, adequate time to complete domestic responsibilities (at least twice that for the successful woman), plenty of time for passionate lovemaking and . . . uh . . . adequate sleep.
I don’t know anybody like that. Actually, in my office, I have met a relatively small number of people who have been able to approximate that pace for awhile and a much larger number who came to despair because they were not even close to this commercially generated media icon of the successful person. A great many people, some who seek counseling and huge numbers who do not, feel themselves swept away in the currents of this Western materialist mythology of success. That is to say that they experience themselves as pawns in the system, overworking for corporate folks who themselves aspire to become the person above, and unable to control or balance work time with family and leisure time. More and more frequently, persons fitting into any of these categories disclose that they are unhappy with their lifestyles. Either they recognize that something is wrong and they cannot identify it, or they know something is wrong but they lack the courage to change their life circumstances. The third category is most interesting in terms of what they can teach the rest of us, because they acknowledge that the more they approximate the above post-modern standard of the successful person, the more unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives they become.
Whether we look at our personal lives, our lives collectively as a society, or our impact upon the Earth at large, those of us with the courage to see the truth will see how much Western life is out of balance. Further, so many of us feel at a loss as to what we can do to bring balance and meaning to our lives. It is enough just to maintain and avoid becoming overwhelmed to a level where life becomes even more difficult. If we are to begin to reorganize our lives around what truly matters – to remove the useless packaging – we must learn to distinguish what is real, or authentic, from what is hype.
Next: Finding an Authentic Life – We Will Never Find It Out There
Granville Angell (copyright 03/2006)
Granville Angell, EdS, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor with 30 years experience. His private practice, TRANSITIONS Personal & Family Counseling Services (www.transitions-counseling.com), includes a specialized sub-practice focusing on holistic, intuition-enhanced counseling and clinical hypnotherapy, called SoulMentors. He may be reached at 704-735-1554 or 704-276-1164.
To call TRANSITIONS/SoulMentors: (704) 276-1164