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Heaven knows we're miserable now

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On Friday, at the Hammersmith Apollo, my friend and I cried. Through "Whiskey River", and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", we'd held it together, as the world's most indomitable country star twanged at our heartstrings. At the opening chords of "Always on my mind", we cracked. Who knew what secret sorrows fed the tears that trickled down our cheeks as five-times-married, ever-touring Willie Nelson apologised for not holding us through those lonely, lonely times? Who knew and who cared? It was cathartic. It was delicious.

"It doesn't hurt," said Willie in a recent interview, "to feel sad from time to time. Sometimes that's good for your mind." I thought of that at the weekend when I read that the number of antidepressants prescribed by the NHS has, in the past decade, nearly doubled. Yes, doubled. And I couldn't help wondering whether that meant that we were twice as miserable as we used to be, or twice as mad. Or just half as willing to feel sad.

Even the experts aren't clear. "The optimistic view," according to Peter Byrne, the director of public education at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, "is that more people are being uncovered and treated." The pessimistic one, presumably, is that more of us are cracking up. Either that, or we're becoming pathologically unable to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and extremely keen on pill-shaped panaceas. Panaceas, it has to be said, which can cause some pretty nasty side effects and which, according to new research unveiled this week, may function only as a placebo.

Sadness, as wonderful Willie could tell us, is an entirely appropriate response to some of life's curve balls, as well as to stress and disappointment. Cheerfulness, as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her searing dissection of the American tyranny of positive thinking, Smile or Die, can be not just sinister but dangerous. Not to mention, weird. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my thirties I was surprised to see a letter from my consultant saying that I was "rather anxious". Were his other patients splitting their sides with laughter? Were they drugged? Were they mad? Were they human?

There is, I think, something slightly alarming about our rush to drug ourselves out of normal human feeling, to flatten the palate of human emotion, and to medicalise, and pathologise, pain. Where we used to feel a bit fed up, or low, or down, we're now quick to say that we're "depressed". And where we used to get a prescription for cold showers or a tonic, now we get one for drugs that kick-start the synapses, drugs which alter the very chemistry of the brain. Pass the Prozac, doc, I need a pick-me-up.

Real depression, proper, clinical, and sometimes hospitalising depression, is a crippling mental illness, one that can destroy lives, and families. This, clearly, needs all the chemical weapons we can throw at it. Mild depression, the kind that varies in intensity from a bit cheesed off to screamingly unhappy, may not. Even psychiatrists, not known for their aversion to pharmacological solutions, think that doctors may be over-prescribing. According to Tim Kendall, the director of the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, "doctors need to think hard about putting people on these drugs because they can be hard to get off."

So what can we do? Assuming that not all the 3.18 million prescriptions for mind-altering pills that were issued last year were for people who were going nuts, an awful lot of us are getting gloomier by the day. It seems a shame to be a nation of misery guts. Not much fun for us, and not much fun for our friends and families. What helps, according to all the research, is "talking therapies". Not years of navel-gazing on a couch, or discussions about your preoccupation with your father's penis, but the kind of counselling that focuses on the thinking patterns behind your OCD, or your late-night love-ins with the chardonnay. The trouble is, it's pricey. Labour invested tens of millions in cognitive therapies, but it didn't even melt the tip of the iceberg of our collective pain.

The bigger issue has to be what societies can do to make their citizens happier. Five years ago, there was a rash of books about "the new science of happiness". Among the most influential was one by Richard Layard, who founded the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. Layard presents the findings of extensive international research on the "new science" and concludes that there are seven factors which have a significant effect on our wellbeing. They are (in order of importance): family relationships, money, work, community and friends, health, "personal values" and "personal freedom". The small print gives more details. Marriage, for example, is good for happiness. So, apparently, is compassion.

If you match this list (and the small print) up with the Lib-Con "programme for government" there's actually a lot to applaud. The Big Society might not be an efficient way to run services, but for those who can extract their backsides from the sofa to join it, it's likely to offer a nice serotonin reward. Greater choice in schools and services may be an illusion for many, but for those who get the choice they want, the taste of freedom will be sweet. Boosting philanthropy may help givers even more than the objects of their benificence. The right to request flexible working hours, while quite likely to piss off your colleagues, will foster feelings of autonomy and warmth. And axing ID cards is a dirt-cheap feel-good boost for all.

The big problem, of course, the monster problem, the problem that could annihilate these little bursts of happiness in one gargantuan sweep, is money. It's not just that there aren't the means to metamorphose the Lib-Con's jaunty prose into something vaguely resembling reality. It's that the attempts to raise revenue are all too likely to increase inequality. Which, all the happiness experts agree, is one of the biggest sources of misery in the world. Beyond being warned that we might as well get our orders for Prozac in now, we don't know what horrors lurk in next week's Budget, which has been billed, a touch gleefully, as the grimmest in human history. We can, however, be pretty sure that (with the possible exception of a rise in capital gains tax) higher taxation for the rich will not feature among them. An increase in VAT might. So might increases in taxes on booze, petrol and cigarettes - all of which hit the poor hardest.

If we know one thing about the Budget, it's that hundreds of thousands will emerge from it facing imminent unemployment. This, according to Layard, is one of the biggest causes of unhappiness in any society, and one which "hurts as much after one or two years... as it does at the beginning." Cuts, as we all now know, are not optional. Only with semantic somersaults will these not include "frontline services", but even non-frontline services means lost jobs. The Government claims that its approach to the economy will not only cut the deficit, but stimulate the growth necessary for new jobs to replace the ones that are lost. Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman (both Nobel prizewinners) disagree. So does the former member of the Bank of England monetary committee, David Blanchflower, and so does Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve.

Having forced myself to plough through quite a lot of economic comment on both sides of the argument, and watched the just-in-time-for-power flip-flops of Messrs Clegg and Cable, I have no idea who's right. It seems to me you might just as well pin a tail on a donkey.

The stakes couldn't be higher. If this project fails, lives will be wrecked. Misery will rise, and madness, too. Best of British, George. Fingers crossed. At least with Robert Green it was a game.

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