June/July 2011

Editorial: Tom McGuire on Pessimism and Prozac

Written by Tom McGuire

A Dutch acquaintance recently asked me why New Zealand has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. At first I was taken aback by this question. Suicide is a grisly issue that New Zealanders don’t really like to talk about much. It is discomforting to think that beneath our clean, green exterior of fun on the beach and barbeques at the bach lies a dark underbelly of depression and hopeless despair.

After discussing a few half-baked theories, neither of us could come to any satisfactory conclusion about why so many young New Zealanders feel like ending it all is the only option left. I am not sure that many people think they know the answer either, despite the enormous amount of effort spent on finding it. Are Kiwis too rich? Too poor? Lacking a challenge and a struggle to give life meaning? Finding life too tough? Opinions are endless, but the true causes of this tragic fact about our country seem to be mysteriously concealed.

Which brings us to pessimism and happiness, two interlinked and timely topics explored in this issue. It is often assumed that pessimism makes you unhappy and may even cause a suicidal mindset, a new book by Joshua Dienstag argues differently. It would seem obvious to many that the taking of one’s own life is the ultimate expression of pessimism. However, Dienstag is looking at pessimism as a philosophical perspective in which you accept that the world is chaotic and full of destruction, and yet seeks to find happiness nonetheless.

Pessimistic philosophers have a wide reputation as curmudgeons, seeking to deprive others of joy by always seeing the worst in everything.Yet thinkers like Schopenhauer probably saw themselves more like wise sages trying to snap those around them out of a zombie-like trance. Such a person wants others to wake up and see what life is really like, not just what they want it to be like. One could argue that the true philosopher should always choose the real over the unreal, no matter how unpleasant the consequences. Once we accept life as it actually is, our efforts to make it better can be much more effective.

I consider myself a long-term optimist, but I can certainly see the downside of false hope, in which we delude ourselves into believing that things are getting better when they are actually getting worse. Perhaps it is this kind of inappropriate optimism which motivates the construction of nuclear plants above fault lines, perhaps in the blind hope that the next rumbling of tectonic plates will not cause a global catastrophe. An old Arab proverb which might be called pessimistic says that you should not only pray, but also tie down your camel if you don’t want it stolen during thenight.This might also be referred to as common sense.

This issue includes some articles on happiness, and how this elusive state of consciousness can be obtained. These days, happiness seems to be the new wealth. A preponderance of crises, both physical and financial, has brought greater attention to things which matter more than one’s tenuous bank balance. The kingdom of Bhutan has for a long time been developing a Gross National Happiness indicator to rival GDP. The idea seems to be catching on, with prominent individuals in Britain launching an Action for Happiness campaign to make increasing the joy a national priority.Pascal Bruckner seems something fishy about all this, and argues that the modern obsession with ‘finding happiness’ may be counter productive. Happiness resists attempts to be precisely measured or forced onto us, and often occurs when we least expect it.

We also have a piece by Bertrand Russell, who believes that happiness occurs when people get away from self-absorption and dedicate themselves to a larger cause. Happiness, says Russell, springs from “a feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves” and an enthusiastic zest for life. If happiness comes from a certain inner orientation, as Russell suggests, then most well intentioned campaigns and government initiatives might be only superficial and thus ineffective.

Perhaps happiness is to be found when we cease being concerned with what has happened, might happen or should happen, and find the elusive joy which stands poised within each moment, shrouded beneath our bustling fears and anxieties. This would mean that, paradoxically, our looking for happiness might be the very thing standing in its way. This embrace of the here and now, in which we stop looking forwards or backwards, is a most difficult task but mastery of it could be worth more than all the self-help books put together. Imagine that: no more Prozac today, I’ll just have a dose of life.