Can gross national dissatisfaction save us?

There is resurgent interest in improving citizens’ wellbeing, but this doesn’t mean we should automatically dismiss negative emotions; they can be important signals for change, says Matt Mellen

If we stand in a fire, pain is useful. It’s a signal telling us to move, without which, the harm could be severe.

Currently there’s a widespread cultural tendency, mediated through capitalism, to minimise pain, unhappiness and darkness. We’re led to believe that these things are bad, per se, and that there are purchasable solutions to bring us back to the supposedly desired,default state of polite and affable contentment.

If our back aches from spending most of the week hunched over a computer, there are anaesthetics to ‘banish pain fast’. But wouldn’t a stroll with friends be healthier, while also banishing the stress associated with too much work?

As our cities overheat from human-induced climate change, new lines of air conditioning systems are brought to market to cool isolationist, living cubicles. But wouldn’t our energy be better spent painting roofs white, planting trees and transforming heat-trapping car parks into community farms and shady gardens, all of which mitigate the effects of, and adapt us to, the changing climate?

If we feel anxious and sad because something fundamental seems wrong with the way we are living, Big-Pharma steps in with ‘happy pills’. But these emotions may be signals to change our lives and re-establish the communities that defined human society before industrialisation.

Capitalism sells us superficial solutions to the severe problems it causes, and by denying the pain, it perpetuates the problems.

Overall, the huge proportion of the global economy given over to fizzy sugar-water, pornography, narcotics and ‘light entertainment’ is testament to the marketability of anodyne antidotes to the general malaise of life in the dimming light of the industrial era.

“Increased social wellbeing will not come about through working harder, but in collectively changing how we live”

Today, increasing numbers of people experience a new kind of pain. It is the overwhelming trauma of realising that our home planet is dying. Numbing this pain won’t make the problem go away. In fact, by inhibiting our response it worsens it.

According to Tibetan Buddhist Shambhala teachings, the Bushidō of Japan and other ancient wisdom traditions, there is a noble and righteous Way of the Warrior. This way involves opening ourselves to the pain and sadness all around us in the world and responding with integrity.

In our time, this may translate as stopping the endless rushing, working and consuming and turning to look the darkness in the face. Increasing acidity of oceans, collapsing fish stocks, shrinking rainforests, species extinctions, needless wars, grotesque waste and brutal inequalities are all grim to behold, but the pain we experience is motivation to change.

Culturally we are conditioned to join the rat race, forge forth on our personal charge for material wealth accumulation and do our bit to grow the economy. But pause for a second and we see that collectively, this behaviour is the root cause of the problem. The more each of us strives for material wealth, the more precarious our collective situation becomes.

Perhaps for the first time in human history, increased social wellbeing will not come about through working harder, but in collectively agreeing to change how we live. This may involve fundamentally reinterpreting how we spend our time and what the purpose of work is.

We have reached the limits of what the industrial economy can provide us in terms of improving wellbeing; speeding the economy up won’t help anymore. What we need is more community, better health and the secure foundation of stable ecosystems. These are not things an expansive, self-maximising economy can sell. These are things we innately have, should we choose them.

Collectively flipping from competition, wealth accumulation and false notions of material security, to co-operation, wellbeing and ecological lives may seem like a massive transition, but it is based on a simple choice in each of our minds. A first step to any of us changing our minds may be choosing to feel the pain.