Have you noticed how grumpy people look? How rude the majority of drivers are? We’re increasingly impolite to each other (its even come to be expected), Britain’s binge-drinking problem is ever apparent, our customer service is among the worst in the world, human contact is being replaced by email, facebook, automated answermachines. We’re out of touch with our instincts.
The problem is two-fold – the human mind has evolved to have a number of traps, all of which we need protecting from (but we seldom are). The second is we, as people and as a society, make a number of massive errors of association – for example, “convenience equals happier”. Or “twitter / facebook / texting equals relationship building”.
My point here is not to get all cynical, but to say that happiness and instinctive fulfillment isn’t something that ‘just happens’ along with everything else in our get it now, get it cheap society – you really have to work at it, think for yourself and take action rather than getting carried along in the current of our western way of empty living.
For the most part the mind works perfectly well, learning and associating rapidly, doing its best to protect the fragile ego from harm. Its the most incredibly powerful, yet massively underused technology on earth. But the context in which we live is presenting some massive challenges. Depression is continuing to rise hugely, despite advances in convenience, technology, therapeutics and pharmacology. The evolution of technology is going faster than our minds and bodies can keep up, and that divergence results in a feeling of meaninglessness and instinctive frustration for many.
The Human Mind
What sets us apart from other animals isn’t so much that we’re supposedly intelligent, but that we are able to visualise, and associate those concepts with emotion. Basically, this means that we constantly look to the future and the past, feel emotion, and make decisions based on those emotions.
We get anxious about future imagined events, which makes us avoid those events. This happens as far down as a deep unconscious level – for example the person who is afraid of being rejected, avoiding going to parties or meeting new people, being lonely and then ‘not understanding why no one likes me’. The person who subconsciously associates the imagined idea of being financially successful with making father, who was just a humble family man, uncomfortable. So they unconsciously sabotage themselves again and again. We imagine all sorts of things, both consciously and unconsciously, and get ourselves into a pickle over it. We do the same thing to events from the past – creating unnecessary amounts of guilt or regret for things which now only exist in the imagination. We rarely live in the present.
Because of this, we are also vulnerable to self deception as a way of protecting ourselves from the deeper anxieties. We distort our perceptions and experiences to suit what we want to believe, to protect our ever-delicate egos from the painful truths. We rationalise subconscious decisions, with conscious reasons that we genuinely believe and argue (sometimes to the death). The system of rationalissation leads to massive irrationality – arguing beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (because we’ve distorted, denied and rejected that which we don’t want to accept). If the singular units (people) that make up a larger system (society) are plagued with irrationality, self deception and anxiety, its inevitable that the system will eventually adopt this traits.
Our irony about culture is that many of the things that appear to be convenient, comfortable, somehow useful or better are actually removing us from core needs and instinctive drives.
I’ll throw up some examples:
Britain’s production industry has dissolved, so a majority of jobs are now office/computer based. This has developed into endless circular service provider jobs – if you take fridge magnets of “financial”, “assistant”, “executive”, “sales”, and “manager” you can probably create most of the jobs in the country.
Many jobs are now insecure, so people are unable to have peace of mind – leading to competitiveness, political manipulation, and machiavellian office tactics. Generally though, people don’t often enjoy what they do. I would say that most of the people I know don’t enjoy their work – and some are deeply, deeply unhappy about their situations – and also feel trapped enough to not be able to find a way out. If people don’t feel good, then they are going to become highly sensitised to whatever does create those positive flourishes of dopamine in the brain – drinking a glass of wine in the evening, smoking a cigarette, having sex. It all becomes addictive.
The other effect is that self esteem starts to dwindle. The imagined ceiling of your ‘worth’ implied by a miserable work situation starts to sink into the subconscious, and your true potential becomes blinded by self-limitations. What frustrates me more than anything about modern work environments is that people are rarely given the opportunity to truly thrive and excel. More about this in the quotes below.
Social relationships are generally more difficult to cultivate and maintain (to any degree of meaningful depth) as you grow older because people grow apart, start to self-doubt and question their likeability (e.g. “people won’t find me interesting”) and become more suspicious of and distant to people.
Social networking sites like myspace and facebook are great for feeling that instinctive sense of “being sociable” but once the novelty wears off, you start to realise its no substitute for face to face contact. Technology may be very good at tricking the conscious mind, but it doesn’t trick the subconscious mind and instincts, which soon catch up. People get addicted to replies, and often text, email or ‘twitter’ just for the buzz of getting a reply. So the quality and meaning of how people communicate via these channels is predictably very shallow and meaningless.
Social communities such as neighbourhoods and the church system have been dissolving for years, which is a shame from a social belonging point of view. I am not religious myself, and I have had a few clients in the past say that they wished they believed in something just to give a point to it all. Sometimes I wonder if people are somehow encouraged to be more isolated so they don’t share things, and ensure consumerism is keeping the economy flowing. I also wonder if the recession will encourage more sharing and community spirit to make the most of things – then again it may just make people more hostile and greedy.
We Fail to Flourish
Research in the new science of positive psychology shows that more than 75% of us are “failing to flourish”. Instead of living in flourishing’s state of consistent positive feelings and joyful eagerness about our lives, work, relationships, and the world in general, it seems that most of us are languishing through our lives. Even if we are too busy to know it or too tired to care, we are in effect regularly committing the eighth deadly sin, called acedia.
Acedia was removed from the list of deadly sins in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great, but this sin of living with fatigued apathy, cynicism, ennui, and general spiritual weariness is still committed by millions every day. In fact, languishing now far exceeds depression as the number one emotional problem in the Western world. Unlike those whose life crisis led them to discover the capacity to thrive, flourish, and savor, three of four of us are missing out on the full gift of being alive. If we are willing to learn from the thrivers, we don’t have to wait to be shocked awake by a major life trauma.
Languishing is the opposite of thriving. It is a state in which an individual is emotionally and spiritually fatigued from trying to keep up with the accelerating hyperculture, and generally devoid of highly positive and optimistic feelings towards living. The steady hurrying hum of the electronic world, and the busy lives for which this dull drone has become the pulse, have hypnotized us into a state of spiritual stupor. We have failed to realize that we will never get there from “not here”, but those who have thrived through trauma have awakened to learn to be very much here, and there “there” means.
Languishers committing the sin of acedia tend to live in a quiet and often unrecognized despair resting just beneath an ever thinning veneer of chronic, distracted, evergy-draining business. Unless life deals them a dreadful blow, they seem unaware of the hollowness and emptiness of their spirit. Amid the tangible plenty reflected by a ballooning gross national product that measures everything except that which thrivers have learned makes life worthwhile, they fail to thrive.
The Beethoven Factor – Paul Pearsall.
A Game Worth Playing
It has been stated by Thomas Szasz that what people really need and demand from life is not wealth, comfort or esteem but games worth playing. He who cannot find a game worth playing is apt to fall prey to accidie, defined by the Fathers of the Church as one of the Deadly Sins, but now regarded as a symptom of sickness. Accidie is a paralysis of the will, a failure of the apetite, a condition of generalized boredom, total disenchantment – “God, oh God, how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” Such a state of mind, Szasz tells us, is a prelude to what is loosely called “mental illness”, which, though Szasz defines this illness as a myth, nevertheless fills half the beds in hospitals and makes multitudes of people a burden to themselves and to society.
Seek, above all, for a game worth playing. Such is the advice of the oracle to modern man. Having found the game, play it with intensity – play as if your life and sanity depended on it. (They DO depend on it). Though nothing means anything and all roads are marked “NO EXIT”, yet move as if your movements had some purpose. If life does not seem to offer a game worth playing, then invent one. For it must be clear, even to the most clouded intelligence, that any game is better than no game.
What is a game? An interaction between people involving ulterior motives? Berne uses the word in this sense in Games People Play. But a game involves more than this. It is essentially a trial of strength or a trial of wits played within a matrix which is defined by rules. Rules are essential. If the rules are not observed, the game ceases to be a game at all.
Life games reflect life aims. And the games men choose to play indicate not only their type, but also their level of inner development. Following Thomas Szasz (more or less) we can divide life games into object games and meta-games. Object games can be thought of as games played for the attainment of material things, primarily money and the objects which money can buy. Meta-games are played for intangibles such as knowledge or the “salvation of the soul.” In our culture object games predominate. In earlier cultures meta-games predominated. To the players of the meta-games, object games have always seemed shallow and futile, an attitude summarized in the Gospel saying: “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose is own soul?” To the players of object games, meta-games seem fuzzy and ill-defined, involving nebulous concepts like beauty, truth or salvation.”
The Master Game – Robert S De Ropp.
The chief problem of people… is emptiness. By that I mean not only that many people do not know what they want; they often do not have any clear idea of what they feel. When they talk about lack of autonomy, or lament their inability to make decisions – difficulties which are present in all decades – it soon becomes evident that their underlying problem is that they have no definite experience of their own desires or wants. Thus they feel swayed this way and that, with painful feelings of powerlessness, because they feel vacuous, empty.
They generally talk fluently about what they should want – to complete their college degrees successfully, to get a job, to fall in love and marry and raise a family – but it is soon evident, even to them, that they are describing what others, parents, professors, employers, expect of them rather than what they themselves want. As one person put it, “I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me”.
Another characteristic of modern people is lonleliness. They describe this feeling as one of being “on the outside”, isolated, or, if they are sophisticated, they say they feel alienated. They emphasize how crucial it is for them to be invited to this party or that dinner, not because they especially want to go (though they generally do go) nor because they will get enjoyment, companionship, sharing of experience and human warmth in the gathering (very often they do not, but are simply bored). Rather, being invited is crucial because it is a proof that they are not alone. Loneliness is such an omnipotent and painful threat to many persons that they have little conception of the positive values of solitude, and even at times are very frightened at the prospect of being alone. Many people suffer from “the fear of finding oneself alone”, remarks Andre Gide, “and so they don’t find themselves at all”.
Man’s Search for Himself – Rollo May.
We Are The Hollow Men
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;…
Collected Poems, T.S. Eliot, 1925.