Books: Talking back to happiness

Britain on the Couch by Oliver James Century, pounds 16.99 Staying Sane by Raj Persaud Metro, pounds 17.99; Michael Church diagnoses the media shrinks who make a career from the state of our souls

Books by media-shrinks should always come with a health-warning. Those by Oliver James and Dr Raj Persaud should find readers well on guard. For these men are ubiquitous, on television and radio and in the tabloids. Persaud, a practising psychiatrist, is wheeled on whenever an axe is swung or a hostage taken. James is a clinical psychologist who has fortuitously majored in Diana-studies. Out of the state of our souls, such people make careers.

Britain on the Couch and Staying Sane both proceed from the same starting point: as James's subtitle puts it, "Why we're unhappier than we were in the 1950s, despite being richer." Both blame "advanced capitalism" which, through drugs and other over-the-counter solaces, makes a profit on the ills it creates. Both call for government regulation of the therapy trade. As James points out, the state has hitherto refused, and "the result is an unregulated mishmash in which anybody can set up as a therapist." Persaud's indictment is more intemperate. He would remove therapy from the NHS, and keep it as a game for the rich. Tell that to the Dunblane survivors.

Reading Persaud's book, I kept having to remind myself that this is a man who, by virtue of his post at the Maudsley, wields considerable power in his corner of the NHS. His approach to illness seems more like that of a quack doctor. Feeling a touch depressed, or a shade paranoid? Follow my instructions, and you'll be right as rain.

After joining him in a perfunctory tour of psychological remedies, we are invited to fill in quizzes with titles like "Are you too nervous?" or "Are you a worrier?" Then, after a quick self-diagnosis, we are given a series of commands which include: "be productive at meaningful work", "develop an outgoing, social personality", plus other breezy injunctions. No problem: it's just a matter of applying the mind.

Oliver James, too, has an idea to sell but - though he beats us over the head with it - it's worth taking seriously. Depression, aggression and compulsion-disorder have been scientifically shown to correlate with low levels of a brain chemical called serotonin: there is literally a chemistry of despair. James charts the rise of "low-serotonin problems", and finds the cause in an interlocking series of dysfunctions: in schools, in relationships and at work. Moreover, by raising expectations, television induces chronic disappointment.

These are old ideas: what's new is the spin James puts on them, and the weight of research he considers. If James's political remedies are unrealistic, his medical ones are cogently argued. He advocates the use of pills like Prozac - which restore scrotonin levels without zombiedom - but in tandem with therapy. His survey of the hierarchy of therapies, from short-term counselling to full-blown psychoanalysis, is brilliantly clear. In one page, he offers more practical advice to those in trouble than Persaud does in the whole of his supposedly helpful primer.

We suffer, says James, from "pharmacological puritanism". We refuse to recognise the benign potential of drugs, and the most prescribed ones are not the best. This argument may be contentious - vast fortunes ride on its outcome - but it's one of many new thoughts I was left with on closing this uneven but fascinating book.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers