Prozac for the Planet? Or the Plus Side of Unhappiness

A global recession looks like boom times for unhappiness. The spectrum of discontent runs from the jitters and uncertainty at the milder end to despair and deep depression at the far extreme. I think everyone would agree with Freud that anxiety is the mind’s most unwelcome guest. Right now, millions of people are playing host. Nine out of ten Americans are gloomy about the future. Something like half worry about job security. Polls vary, but the general population has lost faith in optimism, a trait in this country that we have always been proud of.

What worries economic observers the most is a dragging recovery, the looming shadow of a double-dip recession, and massive unemployment that lingers for a decade. But these concerns, however real, are a distraction. Economies are rooted in psychology. When people are frightened they don’t spend, invest, or take risks the way they do when a dark mood doesn’t prevail. Irrational exuberance fuels good times, which doesn’t make it less irrational but which lifts the atmosphere so that people will strive for a better future.

In the mass media ninety percent of recovery plans and proposals are materialistic. But without a shift in psychology, such plans will not lead to growth an expansion. The example of Japan’s “lost decade” should have taught us that no central banking stimulus, fiscal policy, or lowered interest rates for borrowing can have the slightest effect when psychology is ruled by fear. The fact that President Obama favors stimulus is certainly preferable to the Republicans’ religion of free-market-forever, more-for-me, forget-everyone-else. Altruism and social consciousness is always better than greed and thinly disguised bigotry and intolerance. But Obama poses as a fix-it president when in truth he needs to be an inspirational president. He proposed eminently reasonable fixes (keeping homes out of foreclosures, lending to small businesses, reducing reckless risk-taking on Wall Street) that went nowhere. When people are afraid, they clamp down and shut themselves up inside.

There is a plus side to unhappiness, however. When you face fear, you can choose to get out of fear. When confronted with a crisis, you can learn to cope better. When you have less in the way of material advantages, you can discover that happiness and comfort aren’t the same thing. The fact is that America has solved its economic bad times by holding its breath and waiting for money to flow back in. That kind of muddling through may not work this time, and every warning sign says it won’t. It’s up to each person, then, to begin to grow on their own, addressing the problem of fear first. No crisis was ever solved by contracting and hiding. The solution always comes from expansion and rising above the level of the problem until the level of the solution is found.

The plus side of unhappiness, then, involves expanding your awareness. How? This country is rich in support groups, self-help, manuals about human potential, therapies of every kind, and so on. If you sit and home and watch more television — the most typical way that people react to personal crisis — you’re wasting your freedom of choice. In the worst conditions of existence — war, poverty, economic depressions — there are always people who discover themselves in adversity and who become more resilient and dynamic, not less. The first shock of the present downturn is past; it’s time for more waking up. The noted spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti said something inspiring when he taught that personal growth is driven by “the flame of discontent.” Discontent is a form of unhappiness, yet out of it an old self can burn to ashes while a new one is born in the light.

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle