Mental illness is more common in countries where there are low levels of support, trust, and cooperation, and excessive levels of competition for position. Such competition may make us richer. But, if what people want is a better position on the status ladder, the competition is self-defeating for society as a whole. If one person improves his place, that is necessarily at the expense of someone else, who relatively moves down. However hard people try, there can be no overall improvement. But there is a massive cost in terms of stress and loneliness. This may be one of the many reasons why the levels of happiness and misery have not improved over the last sixty years in the United States.
The conclusion is not of course that people should not strive. Striving is good for people, providing the goal is realistic. But much depression comes from striving for unrealistic goals. Moreover, viewed from the point of view of society, we are all affected by the goals which other people pursue. Levels of trust matter, and in Britain and the USA the proportion of people who trust other people has nearly halved over the last forty years.
So what kinds of goals should our culture encourage?
That depends on what social outcomes we most want to see. In our view the best outcome for any society is where there is the most happiness and above all the least misery. That was the ideal proposed by the great thinkers of the 18th century Anglo-Saxon enlightenment, and it remains the most convincing description of the good society. So how can we get nearer to that state?
Quite obviously, it requires every individual to contribute to that outcome. In other words, we should each adopt as our aim in life to create as much happiness as we can in the world around us and (especially) as little misery. It is a pretty demanding goal. Although our own happiness does matter, it matters no more than the happiness of all those others whom we touch. Moreover, we ourselves are also happier if we feel committed to something bigger than our own little selves. As the Buddhist sage Shantideva said,
“The person who seeks his own happiness becomes unhappy, while the happy person pursues the happiness of others.”
There is a selfish side in every one of us but there is also an altruistic side. Some of us are more altruistic than others, but it should be a major task of culture to inspire and develop our altruistic side. So how can we promote a more humane society? Every organisation has a role to play: families, schools, business, media, governments, and spiritual movements.
The well-being movement, is now a worldwide phenomenon. It proposes a new goal for a society (greater happiness and less misery) plus the means to achieve it (more altruism and more attention to the inner life). It offers both a philosophy and scientific evidence on how we can do better. The strongest science derives from cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and Positive Psychology which applies the ideas of CBT to the lives of everybody. This is strongly complemented by the practice of mindfulness takes many people further than they can reach through Positive Psychology alone.
This wellbeing revolution has been building up for many years, but it has few institutional forms to carry it forward. That was the reason for founding Action for Happiness. This is a movement founded in 2011. Its members pledge to try to create more happiness in the world and less misery. Their website gives the members access to the treasures of Positive Psychology and to other suggested ways of raising happiness for yourself and for others. But to live well is not easy, and there is strength in numbers. So increasingly the movement’s 120,000 members from 180 countries are forming groups to support each other in living well. The movement now provides a course of eight sessions called ‘Exploring What Matters’, where groups of people gather together to discuss their goals in life. When the course is over, the groups continue to meet and support each other’s beliefs, in the same way that faith organisations worldwide have done for centuries.
Thrive: How Better Mental Health Care Transforms Lives and Saves Money, by Richard Layard and David. M. Clark, published by Princeton University Press.