Is Our Wealth and Privilege Making Us Miserable?
18 June 2018 at 8:30 am
Psychologist Adam Blanch considers why so many Australians are anxious despite being safer, wealthier, more privileged and more educated than ever before.
“Dear Adam, I am interested in your perspective. I look around and think as a society that we have more than we have ever had, but everyone seems more anxious and more depressed than ever before. What do you think is going on?” – Anon
I have had the privilege of living in one of the most exciting periods in history. When I was a child the world was much simpler. We had one television, and three channels to watch. Evenings were filled with TV shows like “A Country Practice” and “The Sullivans” (yeah, I’m old).
Telephones had dials (microwaves too) and were the size of toaster. We had one car, one income and one bathroom. We could look forward to graduating school and getting a job or an apprenticeship – university was still something that rich kids got to do. Whitlam had given the working-class access to tertiary education, but being able to afford to go to university was still out of most people’s reach, and way beyond their sense of entitlement.
Today we have three TV’s in most houses, at least two bathrooms, a car a piece and so much entertainment streaming in that we couldn’t possible watch a fraction of it. We carry a computer in our pocket that is a thousand times as powerful as the one that took the Apollo rocket to the moon (allegedly). The number of Australians with a Bachelor’s degree has gone from 2 per cent (mostly males, probably why it was called a bachelor degree) in 1971 to over 18 per cent today and growing, with 100 female graduates for every 80 males.
The middle class has expanded exponentially and an average Australian person today enjoys a higher level of safety, longevity, health and prosperity than most royal families would have experienced just 200 years ago. Basically, we’ve got it made. We’ve never been safer, wealthier, more privileged or more educated. We’ve built so many economic and technological safeguards into our life that its now quite difficult to have a serious crisis in life.
So why are we so anxious in such a safe world? Why is depression an epidemic in a country filled with pleasures, privilege and opportunities?
Paradoxically, things being harder seems to help people be happy. We see this still today, with subjective levels of happiness and mental wellness being higher in some of the world’s poorest and most dangerous places. Refugee camps in Africa, ghettos in India and some poor rural communities often record lower stress levels, higher happiness and better wellbeing than middle class Australians do. People used to expect life to be hard. They anticipated financial challenges, slow advancement, lower achievement, health setbacks and compromise, and they were apparently happier for it.
The problem might be the wealth and privilege itself, or more specifically, the expectations it has generated. Privilege seems to set some people up for endless unsatisfiable desires. In the words of William Shakespeare, it’s “as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on”. It seems the more we have the more desperate we are to have more, and the more miserable we become when our aspirations are denied to us.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow called this “Grumble Theory”. In his theory of human motivation, he suggested that all behaviour is driven by our fundamental human needs, which follow a hierarchy starting with those needs most necessary for survival and ending with those most necessary for advancement and growth. He believed that once a need is met, it no longer motivates us strongly, and the next most important becomes “urgent” to us. For the privileged in life, these basic needs have been met, but our lust does not necessarily decrease, but shifts focus to the acquisition of even greater privilege.
Of itself this is not a problem, indeed Maslow referred to it as the process of self-actualisation and suggested that the higher needs are what he called “social needs”. Under his theory, the more we have the more likely we are to shift our attention to the welfare of others. This is true for many, but not for all, so the question remains as to why so many, with so much, are so unhappy.
Of course, the answer to such a complex question is not simple, but one aspect of it is starting to be quite well understood – we call it “resilience”. Resilience is often misperceived as coping well with hardship, but that’s just the outcome of resilience, not resilience itself. Resilience starts with mental attitudes and practices that our life of privilege seems to weaken in us.
Let me unpack it in four ways:
- Reality check
The first of these is realistic expectations. By realistic I mean neither too small nor too large. But it is overshooting the mark that seems to cause most problems. To engage with the modern world is to be subjected to a constant stream of sales information promising us a life of unlimited wealth, freedom and privilege earned while working just four hours a week, all for the low price of $1,995 (but hurry because this offer ends tonight). We are constantly told we can have it all, for next to nothing.
Of course, this is nonsense. Any person who has achieved great success will readily tell you they worked insane hours, sacrificed lifestyle, took huge risks, failed more often than they succeeded and only kept going because of their passion for what they were creating. The world does not usually reward people who do not provide something valuable, and that takes sustained hard work to do. We can achieve a comfortable life through comfortable effort, but more than that costs us more.
The idea that the world owes us something that we have not worked to acquire is a setup for failure. The idea that acquiring it should be easy is a setup for constant frustration. We must weigh the reward against the cost and decide if it is worth it. The expectation of hardship, and the willingness to face it, is a key part of being happy.
- Watching the watcher
Another key component of resilience is what we pay attention to. Every life is a mixture of “good and bad” – privilege and hardship, opportunity and challenge, effort and reward. Keeping this in perspective is a crucial part of happiness. If we fail to acknowledge and deal with the hardships and challenges, we become a little “Pollyanna” and end up avoiding facing them. Avoiding the parts of life that are hard, boring, scary and uncomfortable paralyses us into lives of meaningless pleasure seeking and guarantees life failure.
It’s also a setup for anxiety, because we cannot truly avoid life’s challenges, but we are refusing to become competent at dealing with them. Anxiety is fear plus the perception of being unable to overcome the threat, leading to a state of physical over-arousal. This in turn leads people to start seeking out ways to reduce or distract themselves from their anxiety (drugs, sex, alcohol, gaming, gambling etc) which further increases our incompetence and anxiety. It’s a nasty downward spiral into despair, addiction and self-pity from which it becomes harder to escape with every passing year.
Conversely, if we fail to pay attention to the good things we experience we quickly find ourselves in a life of hopeless struggle and endless grievance. A relentless focus on the imperfect or challenging aspects of life robs us of the ability to enjoy what we do have. It’s amazing how blind we can be to our privileges and the level of safety that so many of us have. A quick look at Facebook, using our amazing handheld personal computers, reveals a world full of people passionately demanding that the world become a utopian dream. Of course, one person’s utopia is another person’s hell, so there is endless conflict over the most minor of matters. The demand that life be perfect is a demand for control, which is an impossible aspiration that leads to a horrible life of angry complaint and endless dissatisfaction.
Resilient people can meet the world as it really is. They see the problems and the inequities, and often do what they can to address them, but they do not demand perfection, from themselves or others. They see life’s difficulties, but they are not ruled by them. Resilient people pay attention to their resources and their opportunities, so they are not overset by their challenges and their problems.
Building the idea of mastering our attention, resilient people also demonstrate a range of attitudes that support them through life. Chief among these is the attitude called gratitude. Gratitude is sometimes referred to as “counting your blessings”, which is very useful, but it’s more than that. It’s a way of looking at reality that gives us the ability to see the opportunities in our difficulties, and to use those opportunities for growth. An attitude of gratitude, for the good and the bad, the easy and the hard, transforms life into an endless journey of development and opportunity.
But gratitude isn’t just one attitude, it’s a combination of several. It incorporates a sense of faith in life to bring us what we need and acceptance that things will not always be as we think they should be. It includes willingness to tolerate failure and setback, and to learn from it. It requires patience, and the courage to strive against the odds. Gratitude is also partly kindness and compassion for our own limitations and weaknesses. It takes the position that life will be trying, and trouble-some, and unexpected in both good and bad ways. Overall, gratitude is the willingness to give up control over life and to respond to its up and downs as they arrive.
- Emotional resilience
Dr Spock (Star Trek) got this totally wrong. Emotions are amazing. They are “signals of need”, which means that they let us know how we are doing at meeting our needs in life. Our so called “positive” emotions are pleasant emotions that reward us for meeting our needs. Our so called “negative” emotions are painful, and they’re meant to be, to make us pay attention to our unmet needs and do something about them.
Emotional avoidance cripples people, driving them into lives of avoiding risk and crazy acts of defending against their own feelings. Emotional avoidance is the ground zero of addiction, violence and failure. Resilient people do not avoid their feelings but accept them as an ally in life. They understand that it is natural and healthy to experience fear in the face of risk, sadness in the face of loss and shame in the face of failure. They embrace anger as the motivation to set boundaries and pursue goals, accept guilt as the cost of doing the wrong thing and even allow despair to stop them from time to time to reflect on their choices. Even disgust, sometimes experienced as hatred, serves a purpose in helping us to discern between what we do and don’t want in our lives.
Our emotions are an amazing inbuilt “happiness compass” that points us away from the unwanted and towards our growth and fulfilment, but only if we listen, accept and embrace them with gratitude (see what I did there?).
Finally (because this is a long article)
Why is wealth and privilege making us miserable? Because it can remove us from ourselves. It allows us to avoid challenge and stimulate ourselves with so much pleasure that we never face our uncomfortable feelings. It allows us to disappear into the world of ideological abstraction, or digital entertainment, or chemically induced altered states that remove us from real world experience. Wealth and privilege insulate us, and in doing so they can deny us the natural happiness that can only come with being deeply involved in real life.
They don’t have to. Many people use wealth and privilege to engage deeply, give generously and take on greater challenges and greater purposes. Are they happier than the lesser privileged because of what they do with their privilege? The research says not, but they are much, much happier than those who do nothing with it, except seek even more privilege.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a Melbourne-based psychologist, who supports clients around Australia. He provides support for individuals and group trainings for organisations through Good-Psychology, and a specific service for men’s health and wellbeing through Mentor Psychology. He is also a member of The Xfactor Collective community.
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.