Health: Britain on the Couch - Glad to be mad

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IN ALL of our lives, hardly a week goes by without hearing about a fresh crop of emotional problems from intimates and colleagues - the daughter with eating disorders, the depressed friend, the couple who get along dreadfully. Yet we sustain the illusion that it is abnormal to be neurotic and unhappy.

Comparisons between the depressed and undepressed show that the latter protect themselves with a bubble of positive illusions. They believe bad things are less likely to happen to them and they exaggerate how much others like them. But depressives dwell on the grim realities.

Self-deception is the foundation of mental health, a normal madness concealing the very different reality: statistically speaking, the majority of us have severe psychological problems.

In an American survey done in the early Eighties, 19,000 people were randomly selected and interviewed by psychiatrists. Twenty per cent suffered from a full-blown mental illness but the incidence of more loosely defined problems (such as the 50 per cent of adults who suffer anxious attachment - an irrational fear of rejection or abandonment) was much higher. Surveys in this country have similar results - not so odd when you think about the people you know. How many have not suffered from depression, explosive anger, compulsions, irrational anxieties, eating disorders, sexual problems and so on? How many could you honestly say were well-balanced and fulfilled?

Almost everyone is riddled with insecurities. Maybe their dad or mum basically hated them, maybe they were the stupid one in the family, maybe they have a Grand Canyon-sized chip on their shoulder - everyone has their tale of woe. But we do not have to lie to ourselves about it. Truth and reality are better-quality experiences, even if they are horrid, than lies and fantasy. Of course, it will always be a matter of degree how much reality we can bear. But if we could face the fact that our life is liable to be flawed we might feel less let down when we are forced to confess that it has gone pear-shaped. If we started from the assumption that psychological problems are the norm, we might be less disillusioned when reality pops our bubble.

Oliver James's book `Britain on the Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950 Despite Being Richer' is out in paperback (Arrow, pounds 7.99)