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The US Declaration of Independence famously cites that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights.

But is the pursuit of happiness even possible? Or does this goal actually make life increasingly miserable and liberty more elusive?

Sociologist and author Dr. Ashley Frawley and trainee psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Mark Horowitz met up with Renegade Inc. host, Ross Ashcroft to discuss whether our incessant striving for happiness has been to the detriment of meaning.

The rise in anti-depressants

If unhappiness within a society can be determined by the extent to which populations are dependent on anti-depressants, then England can be seen as an unhappy country. Headline statistics indicate that the number of prescriptions of anti-depressants issued in the country have almost doubled in the past decade to an estimated 70 million annually.

The trend is growing. Currently one in six adults in England are on the drug with women and those from deprived backgrounds likely to be the most affected. The number of adolescents who are on antidepressants is also growing and these increases are largely being driven by the prolonged length of time each person stays on their medication.

Dr. Mark Horowitz says that the reasons people give for wanting to continue with their medications is due to fear resulting from either withdrawal symptoms or getting unwell again. Another factor relates to the misinformation they are given by medical professionals who assert that certain individuals are genetically predisposed to depression as a result of serotonin deficiencies or chemical imbalances in the brain that require medications in order to combat them.

Lack of evidence

But as Horowitz points out, there is no evidence to suggest that people with depression have different levels of serotonin to those without depression. Nevertheless, patients’ are prone to internalize these myths which then reinforce a culture of life-long medicinal dependency and psychological interventions.

Some doctors have been willing to break the mold by taking into account the wider societal context in their approach to treating people (the biopsychosocial model) but in practice have been restricted to doing so as a result of shorter consulting times. In the view of Dr. Frawley, the biopsychosocial model is indicative of a cultural narrative in which individuated forms of internalized psychological analysis have been promoted.

“Increasingly we’re encouraged to think about a huge range of social issues as essentially individual health problems. There’s a tendency to think that there’s this problem in society and then the effect is how you feel. Thus, you will be labelled through the prism of these feelings “and you’re more likely to conceive of yourself through the symptoms that that label offers”, says Frawley.

Disempowering

So rather than being depressed because of, or in reaction to, a whole host of psychological and social circumstances, people are categorized as not only having an illness but they effectively become their illness. It’s a disempowering narrative because rather than encouraging people to look outwards in an attempt to address the problems in society, collectively, it focuses on addressing individual deficiencies through the prism of excessive internal introspection. 

This highly individualistic narrative approach reinforces the tenets of neoliberal ideology and is a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair. As Dr. Horowitz puts it, “If the purpose of your life is your own internal feelings, it’s impossible to feel happy all the time. You’re always going to find it wanting. If the purpose of everything is to create a certain feeling inside yourself, that’s a very limited sense of what it is to be human.”

Searching for meaning

The psychoanalyst Victor Frankl, in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, said that people shouldn’t pursue happiness or success, but rather dedicate themselves to a greater cause. It is from this standpoint that happiness and success ensues. Dr. Frawley argues that “instead of searching for satisfaction or mental health, we should search for meaning” – a notion that she says has almost disappeared from public discourse.

The sociologist and author adds:

“I think it’s not just that you pursue a project beyond yourself because it will make you happy, but that you pursue a project beyond yourself because it makes suffering worthwhile. It’s not that you do these things because the end result is some feeling in your body, you pursue it as an end in itself.”

In this schema, people are motivated less by feelings and the search for happiness internal to the individual, and more by something that exists outside of human psychology.

Chemical cure?

The outer/inner dichotomy fits into the discussion about the way drugs are presented to people. In her book, The Myth Of The Chemical Cure, professor of psychiatry, Joanna Moncrieff, outlines two different theories about drugs – the disease centred model by which drugs are targeted to cure illnesses (eg, insulin for diabetes), and a drug centred model focused on psychoactive substances that people use for pleasure.
Joanna Moncrieff on The Myth of the Chemical CureOn the future of mental health

The prevailing orthodoxy centres on the former. It is predicated on the notion that targeted drugs fix a specific deficiency. However, Mark Horowitz notes that the evidence anti-depressants, for example, act in a disease specific way is weak. “There is no evidence for serotonin. So it’s not clear that anti-depressants are the solution to that problem”, says Horowitz.

The truth is there is unlikely to be such a thing as a chemical imbalance and yet patients routinely give up their autonomy as consenting adults to tunnel-visioned pill-prescribing ‘experts’ who, invariably, are not guided by the science and appear to be too focused on thinking about things inindividual terms. 

Dr. Frawley argues that, first and foremost, the focus needs to shift towards wider society: “We need to look outside human beings. We need to look at the structures of our societies and the way things are held together and locate the problems their. Start their before you move into human psychology”, says Frawley.

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