Being born in rich countries like Canada and the US with increasing GDP growth and prosperity doesn’t bring happiness if it comes with more risk and uncertainty. The etiology of stress is increasing income inequality and wage stagnation for the working class as well as the long-term deterioration in employment opportunities that have led to intergenerational decline in economic security. Economic decline is also measured in in terms of debt ratio. The average American household has taken on more debt to finance its lifestyle than in the past – debt typically used to buy a car or house. This fear of losing what they already have is a source of stress. Globalization and technology change is the source of much uncertainty in modern lives. There is social stratification in psychological health in America – since 2008 the rich are getting happier, while those who have been left behind are getting sadder.1
During the 1800s, angry workers organized responses to the unfair practices of the industrialists. In Britain, Luddites confined their attacks in the 1830s to textile manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. They wanted workers to go through a proper apprenticeship and be paid a decent wage. Fearing a national movement the government passed legislation and moved in troops around the mills to crush the movement. The Progressives in America of the 1880s believed the government had to be involved in solving social problems. It began as an outshot of farmers hurt by declining crop prices, devaluation of currency, protective tariffs on manufacturing and the natural monopoly of the railroads. They brought forward radical ideas such as the graduated tax – percentage of tax you pay as your income rises.
The 2016 Brexit referendum and the Trump election highlight social crises as unhappy voters rejected the establishment, demanding change. Donald Trump tapped into a wide and growing optimism gap that opened between the white middle class and the poor. His support came from blue-collar whites who are insecure and facing much more competition for their jobs than their parents did. On the other hand, poor and middle class blacks compare themselves to their parents who were worse off than they are. Trump’s answers include policies about turning back the clock – tariffs and curtailing immigration. President Trump’s fake populism directs his followers downward against marginal, and outwards against foreigners, rather than upward against the powerful. A Polish study found that people who felt less in control of their lives were more likely to show signs of collective narcissism. Trump’s people tapped into collective narcissism – which they continue to draw on at post-election rallies.
Freud observed, “A good part of the struggles of mankind centre around the task of finding an expedient accommodation – one, that is, that will bring happiness between the claims of the individual and the cultural claim of the group.” For Freud, society attempts to oppress the individual into its requirements, consequently the individual can never have full happiness. In neoliberalism, governing occurs by providing individuals with choices and holding them accountable for the choices they make. This system has a diminishing appreciation that individual predicaments are a product of more than simply their individual choice, and includes access to opportunities, how opportunities are made available, or the capacity to take advantage of opportunities offered. Postmodern political science observes people resist realistic concepts of power which is repressive – Foucault claims individuals engage in daily practices and routines of self-discipline that subjugate themselves – in order to maintain a claim on their own identity and happiness.
Excessive psychosocial stress is associated with the adoption of health threatening coping behaviours. Increased insecurity for low skilled workers is associated with rising mortality rates. There is a drug problem – people find opiates so pleasurable they eventually become addicted and dependent on them. Opioids attach to receptors in the brain that create something called the opioid effect. They block pain, and depress the central nervous system, as well as creating a sense of calm, and of course, happiness or what can even be described as bliss. The opioid epidemic is starting to overtake gains in previous years from heart disease and cancer. Opioid deaths are fueled by fentanyl overdoses. Unintentional injuries (which includes overdoses) became the third leading cause of death in 2016, moving up from the 4th leading cause in 2015 in the US. The opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.2
The neoliberal model insists on comparison, evaluation and quantification, and now people are technically free but powerless. At the individual-level, neoliberalism insists that rationality, individuality and self-interest guide all actions. Neoliberalism sees the new normal as empowering individuals, and the shifting economy as a valid reason for underemployment with its increased insecurity. Far from responding to the needs of consumers, capitalism thrives on the constant creation of unsatisfied needs; far from generalizing prosperity, capitalism generalizes want; far from relieving the burden of labour, capitalism constantly intensifies labour, to the extent that a growing proportion of the population are unable to meet the demands of the neoliberal system while being continually besieged with false promises. The economic elite demand a dressed-up sophisticated economic theory be applied to society regardless of the outcome which has nothing to do with economics but everything to do with power.
Austerity is traditionally defined as economic policies surrounding deficit cutting. Pablo Iglesias argues that austerity is when people are forced out of their homes, when social services do not work, when public schools lack resources, when countries do not have sovereignty and become colonies of financial powers. Neoliberal austerity policies are the biggest bait and switch in history. The 2008 financial crisis, caused by a financial sector lending too much, led to bank bailouts that increased the public-sector debt. This led to an outcry about public debt, rather than financial sector mismanagement. Because of all this spending, they claimed it is now necessary to introduce more austerity. Neoliberal economic policy can only function with a state that encourages its growth by actively shaping society in its own image, and austerity is the tool to push for that transformation. As these ‘essential’ austerity programs become legitimate, it is austerity as managed unhappiness.
People can or are more willing to overlook income inequality as long as their quality of life remains unchanged. As long as the greediness within the plutocracy does not affect their day-to-day life – your retirement is funded, you can afford to take vacations – you are willing to look away while the economic elite do their thing. However, this ultimately becomes the problem – enough is not really enough for certain rich individuals. Unless there are checks and balances, the economic elite keep working the system until it breaks down. More and more find themselves in an era of insecurity as the safe routines of their lives have become undone, they now realize that the market system failed them, and this security was an illusion. Social mobility has greatly reduced so that their parents’ income, job and education now determines for many their own future social position and health to a greater degree than at any point since the Second World War.
Unhappiness is not depression; it is a structural problem. The imperative for striving for higher and higher levels of self-improvement brings new narratives of suffering. Individuals are worried about never being able to catch up, giving them a sense of meaninglessness, emptiness and depression when they feel overburdened with responsibilities attached to the project. This is the root cause of the epidemic of mental illness – anxiety, stress and depression – seen today. A study by Gerdtham et al. (1997) found good health to have a significant positive effect on happiness. As health is a strong determinant of happiness then there is every reason for enhancement of health to be a policy priority of the state. Today the causal interaction between happiness and health is well documented. People who are happy enjoy a better health while unhappiness depletes the state of health reducing the immune resistance and originating psychosomatic disease that may lead to depression and suicide.
Uncertainty about the future makes us less capable of coping with negative events when they happen. It also disables us from taking effective and efficient steps to avoid them. This in turn, leads to anxiety and stress. We need a community response to the violence of neoliberalism and the happiness gap. It needs to be in the form of social assistance and language that encourages hope rather than stigmatizes recipients. With less reliance on long-term employment, the system still needs to offer the same level of security. This may require retirement and health benefits independent of employment, with more vocational training and tax credits for apprenticeships. The community needs these programs because companies do not have the incentive to invest in workers they used to. Quality of life factors, the most important determinants of human happiness and well-being, will create opportunities to organize our societies from a sustainable scale perspective.
1 Olga Khazan (19 June 2018) Poor Americans Really Are in Despair https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/06/poor-americans-really-are-in-despair/563105/
2 Olga Khazan (21 Dec 2017) A Shocking Decline in American Life Expectancy https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/12/life-expectancy/548981/