Thursday, 25 Mar 2021

Whilst the last Federal budget provided more resources for mental wellbeing it often appears that the growing crisis of mental health will necessitate an ever-growing expenditure in this critical area.

With 2 million Australians affected by anxiety this is one of our country’s growing mental health concerns.  High Mackay’s latest book – Australia Reimagined – Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society provides a penetrating insight into some of the conditions and precursors that are creating these levels of anxiety. Having a sense that we are not in control or have no ability to control some of the factors that give rise to anxiety is anxiety-inducing itself.

We know that anxiety can be familial but there is often not a lot of thought that goes into thinking about the existential factors that see us gripped by anxiety. (Most researchers conclude that anxiety is genetic but can also be influenced by environmental factors.)

For example, as our economies move towards a way of working that is based on people having temporary / casual jobs or holding a number of jobs, each paid separately, rather than working for an employer with workers eking out a living in the gig economy - doing odd jobs whenever they can is incredibly destabilising for those involved and for parents who worry whether their child will find meaningful employment in a world of rapid technological and international change.

We also have no control over the obvious threats that climate change presents and even less control over perceived political inertia in response to this. These existential issues are certainly anxiety-inducing. Mackay says that two ways in which we distract ourselves from anxieties, insecurities and uncertainties are to indulge consumerism and nostalgia. 

In 1991, the Library of Congress listed Man's Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. Now, over twenty years later, the book's ethos - its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self - seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness through consumerism than in the search for meaning. "To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"

Research has shown that having vision, purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. "It is the very pursuit of happiness," Frankl said, "that thwarts happiness."

Man's Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersing oneself in imagining that outcome.

Consumerism is an opposing concept to Frankl’s. It informs us that happiness is found through quick-fix retail therapy – the next iPhone, new car etc – but this becomes an endless quest that drives us into every increasing states of unhappiness and anxiety in that quest. Forever borrowing so we can spend more and being on the endless treadmill that falsely lures us into believing we’ll reach a consumer nirvana is deeply unsettling. The dark secret of consumerism is that its success rests entirely on making us feel discontent. “Whilst appearing to satisfy our wants and needs, it must also ensure that those wants and needs are never satisfied” (Mackay, 2018)

Many people handle consumerism well but in reality it is designed to reinforce the anxieties it is pretending to allay. This is really acutely felt with digital consumerism with our inability to grapple with and interpret the monstrous amount of data which truly raises anxiety levels. Not being able to resist the temptation of emails and texts and fearing that you need to view the screen because you may miss something important raises anxiety enormously.

There are a number of other issues that raise our anxiety levels I will write about next term but it is worth reflecting on the ones that are existential and not so directly correlative in our day to day lives. 

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