Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness - 2

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The pursuit of happiness, about which I was writing recently,* would appear to be moving up the political agenda if plans by the UK government are anything to go by. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans last month to measure the UK’s national mood. Put simply, he intends to measure the nation’s happiness.
The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), which produces data on the economy, unemployment and crime, will start measuring the quality of UK life from next April. The rationale for this move is, according to Mr Cameron, that current indicators do not show overall wellbeing.
The ONS will ask people how satisfied they are with things such as their relationships, locality and work, with the aim of producing national and regional wellbeing measures by the summer of 2012. But first it will decide what questions to ask and how much weight should be given to each.
Mr. Cameron said he remained focused on maintaining Britain’s recovery from deep recession, but just as a government can create the climate for business to thrive, it can also create a climate that is more family-friendly and more conducive to ‘the good life’, to use his own words.
It follows a trend set by the previous Labour government whose plan to flood the country with a wave of newly trained psychotherapists continues unabated. In 2007, to combat a rise in depression and so ensure its citizens remained happy, New Labour promised 10,000 new therapists, trained in a particular quick and cheerful version of the usual traditional treatment. Last year funding was upped to provide hundreds more.
The mantra appears to be – as if it wasn’t already stitched into popular western culture – happiness good, sadness bad. And to get you there as quickly as possible, they not only have the personnel but now they will have the tools to measure the attainment of objectives. If it wasn’t so serious, it might make a good comedy.

Now it is fair to say that a country, at government level, can create conditions to increase the happiness of its citizens. Full employment, lower taxes, better healthcare, better childcare, better eldery care and secure pensions would do it for most people. Anything beyond that, any attempts by government to delve into the nitty gritty of people’s happiness might leave it open to straying into George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ territory. Why would you need a ‘happiness index’ when the improvements that people need are obvious?

One, therefore, has to reasonably ask if it's for other purposes. But what could they be? Political gain…? A form of social control whereby anyone who doesn’t conform to the national mood is just not trying hard enough? Remember, a happiness index can have a grand-sounding purpose to begin with – the measure of national wellbeing. But what happens if the index, despite the best efforts of government, shows a low national mood? What government will want to publicise its own failures? Does that then leave it open to manipulation?
Equally, what if the index shows a high national mood – happiness abounding – what will that say to anyone who doesn’t feel they share that sentiment? Are we to see a new stigmatising of those whose 'mood' falls short of the accepted norm?
The dangers inherent in such a well-intentioned state policy are not hard to see. Unfortunately, like a fashion that takes hold, it is now in train and unstoppable. Last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a former White House adviser and World Bank chief economist, to find new ways to measure economic progress in France that will also take into account social wellbeing.
The move by governments to start involving themselves in the business of people’s happiness is a regressive move for many reasons. But, perhaps, one of the most insidious effects of this will be not on happiness but, paradoxically, on sadness. In a culture where happiness is the ultimate goal and where therapies and medications are designed to deliver it in whatever way they can, there is no room for sadness. Sadness is becoming the last taboo word that contemporary individuals can utter.
And yet, within the concept of sadness we find vital clues to all the ingredients that go to make up the modern individual – identity, sexuality, ego ideals, unconscious drives, desire and repression. And in sadness we also find, to a greater or lesser extent, echoes of the major contemporary symptoms that afflict society – depression, anxiety, fear, phobia, obsessiveness, hysteria and weaknesses inherent in the human bond.
The drive to measure happiness and in doing so erect a socio-political banner around which we should all rally might seem well-intentioned. But its effect will be to further banish the concept of sadness to the realm of unacceptability. This is a trend that has long been in progress, probably since the 1950s when mood altering medicines were first produced. In the US alone, the sale of these medicines now accounts for $22 billion annually. Eradicating sadness is big business.
What this amounts to is that the very symptom that contains so much vital information as to who we are and why are we are this way, is being erased from the picture. It is no longer ok to be sad. And if this is the case, then it is a move in the wrong direction. Sadness is as much a part of human life as happiness. We can’t know one without having experienced the other. We can’t uncover any truth about ourselves unless we recognise the opening that sadness creates and follow it wherever it leads.

* See blog of 26/11/10.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Obscure Object of Desire

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with some delusion and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”
When you read these lines, it is as if they were written about our most recent property boom and its subsequent collapse. Yet they were written a very long time ago, in the mid 19th century. Despite that, they are still incredibly relevant. What they tell us is that the fever that gripped this country for the ten year period up to 2008 was, in the context of history, nothing new.
The lines are taken from a book called ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’. It was written by a Scotsman called Charles Mackay when he was living in London and working as editor of the London Illustrated News. The book was published in 1841 and it is a compilation of some great historical delusions that have beset countries, nations and communities.
Now you might argue that surely there has never been an example of a bank or a small group of financiers bringing a country to its knees. Yet the very first example is from France in the 1720s when the country was almost brought to bankruptcy because of a dodgy share scheme, devised and promoted by the leader of the government with the help of Scotsman John Law. It promised riches for all from trade with Mississippi and Louisiana and thereby created a frenzy of buying and selling in the stock.
At the same time, there was a similar scheme going on in England called the South Sea Bubble*, whereby a group of high ranking politicians and businessmen promised great riches from trade with the east coast of South America, despite having nothing to back it up except hype. They sold shares in their South Sea Company that reached such heights – fuelled by greed at all levels of society - that an act of Parliament had to be brought in to put a stop to it. Needless to say the whole thing came crashing down and this too almost brought the UK to the brink of bankruptcy.
The scary part is that the pattern gets repeated over and over again in the present day. An introduction by Professor Norman Stone of Oxford University says that the UK and French delusions were the forerunner of the Great Crash in 1929. And that many other forms of mass delusion have their counterparts in the modern world. But if you want a really interesting and familiar description of what an economy looks like when things collapse you’ll find it in the book where the author describes the aftermath of the Dutch tulip boom**. Yes, there was a time in history when tulip bulbs in Holland were selling for more than diamonds.
There are many other examples in the book ranging from a craze for fortune telling, to witch mania, to The Crusades, to haunted houses, to duelling among men. They all have the same thing in common. At one point or another they gripped the public imagination and for a time became the most important issues of the day, to the exclusion of practically everything else. They were delusions that operated on a massive scale.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how this country’s obsession with property falls into this category too. For a time, the market in property rose to heights that were unsustainable but nobody cared. It was a market built on very little that could sustain it, other than hype, expectation and greed. It took over the entire thinking process of an entire nation, to the exclusion of all else. And, like the collapses in Charles Mackay’s book, when the dust settled a handful were blamed for the excesses of the many. Not everybody partied in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years, as has been suggested. For many the Celtic Tiger passed by without ever stopping at their door. But enough partied to suggest that we may have been caught up in a delusion of sorts.
It is a testament to the grip that economics has on current thinking that no-one has ever mentioned the word ‘delusion’ in the context of the Irish property experience. ‘Delusion’ may not be in the vocabulary of economists. Maybe they have other words to describe a form of madness that overtakes a nation. And yet, is there any other word for it?
The French psychoanalyst and thinker Jacques Lacan has, central to his vast and often complicated theories, a concept known simply as ‘object a’. ‘Object a’ is something we never see or touch or smell or feel or hear but it is a central part of all our lives. Its singular power is to make us want it but it does so by taking the shape of real things in the world. And not just make us want it but to desire it more than anything else. Even though it is something we can’t put a name on, it lands, much like a rare invisible butterfly, on other objects in the real world and so we believe that the thing it lands on is the thing we really want.
Property became our ‘object a’ in this country for a decade or so. Something tangible that promised riches, security, comfort, success, social status, it became the thing we most admired. The invisible butterfly of ‘object a’ landed on it turning property into the obscure object of desire.
There are two things to remember about ‘object a’, however. The first is that it emanates from deep within all of us and is a memory, an idea even, of a loss we suffer from the moment we are born. It is the lingering taste of a time when all our needs were met, when all desires were filled and all lack abolished. That is what ‘object a’ becomes for each and every one of us, a nagging memory of something lost that we seek to re-find all our lives. That’s why the real object, when we eventually fix on it, becomes so intensely important and desirable.
The second thing is that if we get too close to ‘object a’, if we get too close to the thing that will potentially quench all desire and satisfy all needs, common sense tells us but it took Dr Jacques Lacan to spell it out in his teaching, we are in danger of turning off the very fire that burns within us and drives us forward. No lack, no desire. Getting too close to our ‘object a’ therefore is a dangerous thing; it is so good it is bad for us. We see that most clearly when greed drives the citizens of a nation to clamber over one another to seek the comfort of riches. The lessons of distant and recent history are that the process ends in tears.
But ‘object a’ need not be property. Sometimes it is the opposite or same sex, sometimes it is stock market shares, or fame, or eternal youth, or the nirvana of a pain free existence through drugs. And it moves around, all the time, jumping from one thing to the next. As soon as we have captured it in one form it moves to the next thing. Faraway hills are often greener, isn’t that the old phrase?
That’s why, after the dust has settled on the property boom and its aftermath, there will be something else to take its place, hopefully after a suitable amount of time has elapsed and hopefully something that will not be as catastrophic for the economic well-being of the country. But there will be something and it will delude us into thinking that this new thing is ‘it’. Before the property boom we had the dot-com boom and after it we can reasonably expect something new that will make us forget some of the lessons of the past. Let’s hope we don’t forget all the lessons of the past. It's not that we have a problem remembering the lessons of bad experiences. But the lure of ‘object a’ simply never goes away, pushing us ever onward to re-find it in its newest form.
* The word Bubble was used in the mid-19th century to describe any scheme that grew from nowhere, had little to sustain it and could burst at any moment. The current phrase ‘property bubble’ used in connection with our economic collapse comes from this.
** Mackay, C., (1841 [1995]), ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, Wordsworth Editions, p.95.