Capitalism and 'Friends' make you miserable

Emma Cook on why, as a nation, we still don't feel good
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The Independent Online
Forget the combined feel-good glow of a new government, lower unemployment, Oasis, and England's recent cricket victory. Few achievements, personal or otherwise, are likely to make the average Briton happy. As much as we'd like to believe the nation is edging towards a new- found confidence, one of Britain's leading clinical psychologists, Oliver James, argues the opposite in his latest book Britain On The Couch.

James, presenter of The Chair - a series of analytical interviews for the BBC - suggests that unrealistic expectations, fuelled by advanced capitalism, have led to more dissatisfaction and "emotional malaise". He also believes media and film, predictably, are much to blame for this sense of widespread inadequacy.

James explains: "Society can no longer fulfil people's huge expectations so you end up with the concept of relative deprivation. People feel entitled to the car, the girl, etc. If they're let down they blame themselves." Young women, he says, are especially affected by the gap between what they want and what they achieve - in terms of looks, relationships and career.

Driven by a desire for status and success both sexes, says James, create higher and higher goals. An inevitable sense of failure, in turn, can cause low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a brain chemical important in regulating aggression, compulsion and depression. A vicious circle of aspiration, disappointment and depression is created.

"There is a much higher proportion of people with low serotonin levels", he says. "People are more likely to feel useless - that they're fat, and ugly - because of the increasing amount of social comparison." Even the privileged aren't immune, argues James. "Stephen Fry recently announced he thought he had his breakdown because he pursued success to the exclusion of everything else, imagining that would lead to happiness."

James cites various studies that reflect these self-punishing trends, including one British survey that shows a rise in neurotic symptoms such as phobias and depression - from 22 per cent in 1977 to 31 per cent by 1986. According to the mental health charity, Mind, depressive disorders are now the biggest single reason for psychiatric hospital admissions. Most dramatically, the suicide rate for men aged 15-24 has risen by over 71 per cent in the last decade - it is now the second most common cause of death among the under 25s.

But there is less evidence to suggest that this discord can be attributed to the ills of capitalism and social comparison. As psychotherapist Neil Crawford says: "It's not as if envy didn't exist in the middle-ages. You just have to see Shakespeare to understand that."

Indeed the rise in figures for depression may be misleading. It could be that in a society that places so much emphasis on personal confession, self-examination and introspection, we feel more able to admit to insecurity.

As clinical psychologist Elisabeth Marx says: "Depression is more easily detected than two decades ago. There's more awareness and more willingness to go to a GP." Despite that, she has noticed a sharp increase in clients' stress levels and, like James, sees media pressure as an influence. "There is an image of being superhuman; of having to get everything perfect. If you can't do that you'll feel depressed."

She also suspects that in the wake of Eighties materialism, we are still struggling to create a new identity. "The way people defined themselves in the Eighties was by having the right BMW or living in the right area. Now there's far more uncertainty about personal values - a very stressful situation for an entire society to be in."

So if Britain's psyche really is in a state of crisis, what would the doctor prescribe? James believes that on an individual level, psychotherapy and, failing that, pills, can provide a short-term solution in raising serotonin levels. On a collective level, his measures are more severe. "Some quite draconian measures should be introduced to reduce social comparisons; advertising should be very boring and I'd virtually ban most American imports - yes, including Friends. As a society we're going to have to make some decisions."

With or without the "evil" influence of American culture, it could be argued Britain's psyche is on the mend. James, who began his book before Tony Blair came to power, admits that Britain, as a depressive patient, is displaying tentative signs of recovery. "The mood is more optimistic," he says. "Blair has gone to a lot of trouble not to make absurd promises. He realises we've got to be more realistic - people are more likely to realise the lie that wealth breeds happiness." He adds: "But anybody who wants to say we're out of the woods had better explain it."

All this assumes depression is a negative state. As Crawford says: "Maybe it's more healthy to be depressed, in psychiatric terms. It's a sign you're beginning to look into yourself." Which, contrary to James's fears for our culture, is nothing to get depressed about.