Why you can never really budget for life’s curveballs
Last Friday, at the Hammersmith Apollo, my friend and I cried. Through Whiskey River and Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, we'd held it together, as the world's most indomitable country star twanged at the heartstrings.
At the opening chords of Always on my Mind, we cracked. Who knew what secret sorrows fed the tears that trickled down our cheeks as five-times-married, ever-touring Willie Nelson apologised for not holding us through those lonely, lonely times? “It doesn't hurt,” said Willie in a recent interview, “to feel sad from time to time. Sometimes that's good for your mind”.
I thought of that at the weekend when I read that the number of antidepressants prescribed by the NHS has, in the past decade, nearly doubled. Yes, doubled.
And I couldn't help wondering whether that meant that we were twice as miserable as we used to be, or twice as mad. Or just half as willing to feel sad.
Sadness, as wonderful Willie could tell us, is an entirely appropriate response to some of life's curveballs, as well as to stress and disappointment.
Cheerfulness, as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her searing dissection of the American tyranny of positive thinking, Smile or Die, can be not just sinister, but dangerous. Not to mention, weird.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my thirties I was surprised to see a letter from my consultant saying that I was “rather anxious”. Were his other patients splitting their sides with laughter? Were they drugged? Were they mad? Were they human?
There is, I think, something slightly alarming about our rush to drug ourselves out of normal human feeling, to flatten the palate of human emotion, and to medicalise, and pathologise, pain.
Where we used to feel a bit fed up, or low, or down, we're now quick to say that we're “depressed”. And where we used to get a prescription for cold showers or a tonic, now we get one for drugs.
So what can we do? Assuming that not all the 3.18 million prescriptions for mind-altering pills that were issued last year were for people who were going nuts, an awful lot of us are getting gloomier by the day. The bigger issue has to be what societies can do to make their citizens happier. The big problem, of course, the monster problem, is money.
It's not just that there aren't the means to metamorphose the Lib-Con's Programme for Government promises into something vaguely resembling reality. It's that the attempts to raise the revenue required are all too likely to increase inequality — which, all the happiness experts agree, is one of the biggest sources of misery in the world. Beyond being warned that we might as well get our orders for Prozac in now, we don't know what horrors lurk in next week's Budget, which has been billed, a touch gleefully, as the grimmest in human history.
If we know one thing about the Budget, it's that hundreds of thousands will emerge from it facing imminent unemployment. This, of course, is one of the biggest causes of unhappiness in any society.
Cuts, as we all now know, are not optional. Only with semantic somersaults will these not include “frontline services”, but even cuts in non-frontline services mean lost jobs. The Government claims that its approach to the economy will not only cut the deficit, but stimulate the growth necessary for new jobs to replace the ones that are lost.
Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman (both Nobel prizewinners) disagree. So does the former member of the Bank of England monetary committee, David Blanchflower, and so does Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
The stakes couldn't be higher. If this project fails, lives will be wrecked. Misery will rise — and madness, too. Best of British, George. Fingers crossed. At least with Robert Green it was a game.