Objectively, we are living in the greatest and most prosperous age mankind has ever experienced. Quite literally, we have never had it better. Developments in transportation have made it possible to have a drink in Paris one evening and have a drink in Shanghai the next. Globalized supply chains have made cheap and affordable goods attainable to the masses. The invention of the internet has placed a lifetime’s worth of knowledge at our fingertips. Social media connects us in ways we could not have imagined just a few decades ago.
Nonetheless, despite the fact we now live objectively more comfortable lives, the last two decades have seen an enormous rise in stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, particularly amongst the young. Many thousands of people, young and old, report feelings of loneliness, including 73% of over-50s, according to one poll. There has already been quite a lot written on why this is the case. Many blame the situation wholly on social media. Undoubtedly, social media can have an extremely detrimental impact on mental health. It encourages unhealthy behavior, and it is a convenient platform for cyber-bullying, extortion, and exploitation.
However, this view ignores the more positive aspects of social media, specifically the opportunities it presents to connect (indeed, apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Zoom have probably saved lives during the Covid-19 crisis). Social media does not define our culture, it merely reflects it.
I believe that one reason so many people are suffering from mental health problems is that many of us have lost the ability to effectively empathize with others. Even when we think we are being kind, we are being selfish.
Take the common phrase “happiness comes from within”. The sentiment expressed here, often worded in various different ways, has become taken for absolute fact. Even clinical psychologists endorse it. Modern society has fully embraced the concept; you will have seen this phrase, or variants of it, pasted around social media. Perhaps you’ve even been given this advice by a mental health professional, like I was.
Perhaps you thought they were right.
They were wrong, and here’s why.
I don’t just think “happiness comes from within” is wrong. I think it’s very wrong, symbolic of how selfish we have become as a society. In fact, I think that giving this “advice” does more harm than good. It invalidates a person’s suffering, which is the absolute opposite of empathy.
Consider the actual implications of the words, from the perspective of the person receiving them. The statement “happiness comes from within” subtly shifts responsibility for an individual’s suffering to the individual themselves; i.e. it’s their fault they’re sad, in simple terms. At the same time, it absolves others of responsibility, since after all, if you believe happiness truly does come from within, there’s absolutely no need for you to do anything to relieve the sadness of that person. It’s their fault, remember!
The concept also makes little logical sense. For a start, if it were true, nobody would ever feel lonely. To someone who is lonely, the phrase “happiness comes from within” may as well be a slap in the face, because you are invalidating their desire for human contact by suggesting that they could be equally happy by themselves.
More insidiously, the concept of happiness coming from within could also be used by unscrupulous politicians to justifying cuts to mental health support services. Blaming a person’s circumstance on their own actions is already a well-established political tactic when it comes to poverty and homelessness, and it does not take a huge stretch of the imagination to apply it to mental health as well.
The truth is, humans are social animals, and we need to feel understood and valued by others, like we belong to something. This need drives all human behavior; from sports teams to political parties, we all want to feel like we are understood, and that we’re part of something bigger. We are responsible for the emotions of others, and our actions are capable of easing suffering as well as exacerbating it. By being kind, compassionate, and above all, empathetic, we can help people overcome depression, loneliness, stress and anxiety. But that compassion and empathy has to be genuine, and supportive rather than accusatory. So, it’s time to ditch the idea that “happiness comes from within”.
“But if happiness doesn’t come from within, then, where does it come from?”
If only I knew. I do have a few ideas, and I’ll cover those in a future post on the subject.