Stressed in the West: why we need to dematerialise the economy to save our sanity, not just our planet

Why this material world is making us miserable Why this material world is making us miserable

A few days ago a study by the Medical Research Council confirmed what many might have guessed: the global financial downturn has increased levels of public anxiety and depression, with men’s mental health hardest hit.

Significantly, however, the research showed the negative impacts of the recession also extended to people who remained in jobs and who had not experienced any decline in household income since the onset of the crisis in 2008.

The authors of the study explained the deterioration in mental health across the general population as the result of job insecurity rather than joblessness per se. Comparison with previous recessions, in the 1990s, confirms similar patterns.

But while economic downturns doubtless play a key role in the poor state of the nation’s wellbeing, let’s not pretend that mental health was in bloom during the boom years of prosperity.

Indeed, the same report shows that although 2008 marked a steep rise in poor mental health, rates had been steadily rising since 2004 – the height of the ‘good times’.

Could this mean that the real cause for our poor mental wellbeing is not so much to do with the collapse of the system as the values that underpin the system itself?

Writing in early 2008, before the economic crisis had begun, clinical psychologist Oliver James published a powerful critique of what he described “selfish capitalism”. His starting point is a World Health Organisation study that shows English-speaking nations to be twice as prone to mental illness as counterparts on the Continent. What separates us from Europeans living in comparable prosperity is our emphatic embrace of materialism.

The problem with a materialistic culture is that our sense of self-esteem is wrapped up with obtaining things outside of us; seeking extrinsic rewards over which we have little control and are therefore frequently, existentially, disappointed about when they elude our grasp. This might be fame, fortune, or academic achievement.

A body of evidence shows materialists are “more emotionally insecure, have poorer quality relationships, are more inauthentic, lacking in a sense of autonomy, and have lower self esteem”. As a chronic migraine sufferer, it’s also interesting to discover that the statistics show they are also more prone to headaches and sore throats.

When a reality infused with psychological significance doesn’t conform to our expectations, it’s easy to understand why people (including myself) take it extremely personally.

But it seems in a materialistic society personal satisfaction is as hard to sustain when you achieve success as it is to deal with disappointment when you fail.

Reading the UN’s inaugural World Happiness Report I came across the snappily called concept of the “diminishing marginal utility of income”. This is basically the idea that in affluent societies, the more money an individual has, the more they need to increase their happiness.

Says Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and one of the report’s authors:

“The key idea is known as the ‘diminishing marginal utility of income’. Suppose that a poor household at $1,000 income requires an extra $100 to raise its life satisfaction (or happiness) by one notch. A rich household at $1,000,000 income (one thousand times as much as the poor household) would need one thousand times more money, or $100,000, to raise its well-being by the same one notch.”

The impossibility of contentment is not just a likely outcome of the consumerist quest; it is its essential, animating modus operandi.

So where does this leave us? Well, first and fundamentally, with an inarguable need to develop a system oriented around people, not products – enhancing being, not having as in the Gross National Happiness index used in Bhutan.

The benefit would be profound for people and planet. As Oliver James concludes: in a world of finite resources, moving away from materialism would not only make society more “ecologically sustainable”, it would also “halve the prevalence of mental illness within a generation”.

This not to underestimate the magnitude of what is required: what we need is nothing short of a complete re-conceptionalisation of capitalism, as Jonathon Porritt has argued:

“[This] must be as much about new opportunities for responsible wealth creation as about outlawing irresponsible wealth creation; it must draw upon a core of ideas and values that speaks directly to people’s desire for a higher quality of life, emphasizing enlightened self-interest and personal wellbeing of a different kind.”

Yet this is not a model based on rainbows and bubbles. It is model founded on innovations that address, and where possible fulfil, human need. And surely there could be nothing more enriching, in all senses of the word, than that?

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