Despite an unparalleled standard of living and the promise of at least fifty seasons of Masterchef (serenity now!), Australians are feeling downtrodden under an unknowable boot. Our older generations view young people as apathetic and selfish, free-spinning in insouciance. Our young people feel undervalued, overworked, and disconnected from the ideals of their parents. It’s relentless and more than a little confusing when set against the plush backdrop of opportunity, convenience and abundance our country enjoys.
Or so the story goes.
Are We Living The Good Life?
In his wonderful new book The Good Life, Hugh Mackay cracks open the bones of Australian society to declare the marrow too sweet: “the Utopia complex” is what he calls it, which could be summed up as the source of our collective unrest. An unconscious that thrashes about like a crocodile in a bathtub, while the conscious self — unsure and atrophied — tries desperately to push the other down the plughole.
Mackay, a social researcher, has spent much of his life investigating Australian attitudes, and argues that we’ve deluded ourselves into spending our short lives out of breath, galloping after Happiness — the inadequate substitute for Wholeness. The Good Life is meticulous in its evaluation of social norms, philosophies, and behaviours, and it’s highly critical of many of the current clichés that underpin the Australian way of life — specifically those that promote a pursuit of hyper-hedonism.
It’s a welcome slap of pessimism addressing the unrealistic expectations of our collective psyche, which has us clacking like Newton’s Cradle from dejection to escapism and back again. And although aimed at a slightly older audience, the book’s relevance to youth culture is fundamental. Having recently been labelled as ‘The Me Me Me Generation’ by Joel Stein forTIME Magazine, we have a lot to gain from a paradigm shift that posits life is not solely about having a good time.
Why Are We So Obsessed With Happiness?
For Generation Y — aka The Millenials, born between 1977-1994 — growing up in Australia was a largely privileged and non-abrasive affair. The only real friction was that between pavement and knee-skin, when attacked by a sudden case of unco while rollerblading down the street. It was a lunch-order life: our bellies were full, and those grubby little hands were sticky with that not-quite-fruit, not-quite-toffee, probably-harmful Roll-Ups residue.
Our schoolwork was peppered with gold stars and smiley stamps, and even when we sucked at something we still received a certificate of participation. (I have many.) Disney’s ‘90s renaissance offered a steady flow of moral tales that had us giddy with the promise of a happy ever after; indeed, most everything in our culture nudged us toward the high idea of happiness — moreover, toward the idea that happiness was paramount.
We’re part of what is now being called ‘The Self-Esteem Movement’ — but with all this good-citizen-sculpting, what wasn’t being detected was the underlying conditioning taking place, reinforcing the dangerous notion that perfectionism and happiness were not only individual entitlements, but ideas to strive for.
So in spite of being wrapped in a downy blanket of reassurance by our parents and teachers — or, perhaps, because of it — many of our elders now argue that we’ve grown into an almost antithetical beast of discontent and selfishness, living it up in an era of prosperity, but still returning home from secure and well-paid jobs to sigh into the sink.
Spoilt Whippersnappers, Or Bitter Old Fogies?
Such groaning may reek of tired ‘back in my day!’ crabbiness, but it’s now a familiar narrative,gathering momentum and evidence that suggests we’re far more likely to be diagnosed withNarcissistic personality disorder than any other generation. A generation of selfie-snapping egotists, falling asleep to fluffy movie dialog and blaring cold comfort from overheating laptops — this might just be our inconvenient truth. (Of course this has prompted counter-attacks from youngsters, as we rush to defend ourselves – what decent Narcissist wouldn’t? – claiming that our selfishness is a result of all manner of forces, nothing to be ashamed of, and essential in discovering our identity.)
The issue appears to be one resentful, broad-brushing online editorial away from descending into full-blown tribalism, which is a shame — because what both the old curmudgeons and young upstarts are displaying is a very perceptive truth of the other, and of the general situation of Feeling Fed Up. For many Australians, both short and long of tooth, a mysterious but burdensome stink of dissatisfaction hangs in the air when it theoretically should be… not exactly new car smell, but something a little more pleasant.
Instead, our personal wellbeing seems to be constantly under threat, and just out of reach — perhaps because we continue to tweeze out these small splinters of happiness as if they hold the essence of a fulfilled life.
So What Can We Do?
When you look at how we get our fill of satisfaction, it tends to occur through self-gratification. Retail therapy, a drunken night out on the town, a holiday in Bali or Europe, a folly of no-strings attached sex – typical, routine ways to alleviate the stress in our daily lives. The undertones all scream give me more! and they all rest on that dangerous and illusory presumption that Mackay warns against: the belief that these things will bring about enduring happiness, and that such a thing is desirable in the first place.
Last Sunday, The Age ran a front-page article warning of the dangers of fanning happiness and positivity as our default, which leaves us unprepared for the inevitable — and sometimes crushing — disappointments of life. As Scientific American argues, we shouldn’t run away from our darker emotions; they’re just as important in adding to the colour of consciousness as the good feelings, and considerably more interesting. Feeling unhappy, if I can put it that cutely, has inspired some of the most profound discoveries about humanity; all those miserable pricks over all those miserable centuries, hacking away at themselves and their societies, and filling our libraries, museums and galleries with immeasurable wisdom and beauty. So that’s something to be cheerful about.
Another thing we shouldn’t do is flatten our spectrum of emotion into a dichotomy of happiness and utter despair, whereby if we have a bad day or week, we self-diagnosedepression via a bottle of cheap red, and a consultation with Google. We all get “depressed”, and usually it’s something that passes through like a flesh wound. Its transience won’t rupture your spleen, but it might give you some time for valuable introspection.
Then, of course, there’s altruism. It’s a simple notion, long-championed by the great Australian philosopher Peter Singer, but it’s one that most of us find difficult to squeeze in, between grumbling for coffee in the morning and yelling at Q and A in the evening. But being willing to look past your own personal crises and help someone else, while remaining unaffected by the prospect of reward, is a powerful and worthy pursuit.
This doesn’t mean we have to give up our shitty-mood inducing jobs and all volunteer at the local soup kitchen. We don’t have to dull down our ambition or abandon lofty dreams, and we shouldn’t shame ourselves for wanting to fulfill personal goals that electrify the static air around us. But we could all gain from burning some of that energy on pursuits that place something else — besides ourselves — in the foreground.
Published on pop-culture site Junkee - 20/06/2013