Our love of social media and pursuit of personal happiness may have unexpected implications leading us away from our “biological destiny”, says leading psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay.
“We live in a society which has really emphasised individualism and that has meant we have lost sight of our true nature, which is that we are social beings,” says Mackay, who was awarded Officer of the Order of Australia in 2015.
The irony of the way social media connects us online but can leave us feeling disconnected from one another in real life has been explored extensively lately, with Mackay summarising:
“The information technology revolution seems to connect us but actually makes it easier than ever to stay apart from each other. I think that’s been a huge factor in causing us to be more preoccupied with ourselves.”
While this makes counter-intuitive sense, how could happiness lead to the same feeling of isolation?
“For the last 20 years, the idea is that humans are entitled to happiness and that is the default position and the pursuit of personal happiness is the right strategy for living,” Mackay says, noting that mass marketing pushes a ‘me’ agenda of materialism and consumption for happiness. “I’m not against happiness – everyone likes to be happy – but for 5000 years, philosophers and wise people have been telling us that if you chase happiness, you’ll never find it. Selling the idea of personal happiness is feeding the ‘me’ culture – ‘I’m entitled to be happy even if everyone else is miserable’.”
The effect of this is that we become detached from “our deepest nature”.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia with about two million adults a year affected. While there are many reasons for this, Mackay believes the underlying cause is that we’re more socially fragmented than we used to be.
One quarter of Australians now live alone, we have smaller households and “less cohesive, less stable neighbourhoods” with people moving house, on average, once every six years.
“The absolute essence of human nature, is that we need communities to belong to and we need to engage with those communities,” says Mackay, who adds that humans are “herd animals”.
“As a species we’re born to cooperate – like most other species – we’re born to live together in functioning communities, so you’ve just got to say the reason why so many people are so miserable and the reason so many people in particular are so anxious is that they don’t have this sense of being connected, to their communities and neighbourhoods.”
To connect, we need to let go of “the self-absorption with and preoccupation with the self” so that we can recognise that our role in life is to serve one another.
There are however limits to serving one another. Mackay acknowledges that carers in Australia have the worst wellbeing which he says is the result of a lack of balance.
“One of the things we know is that when people engage in some sort of creative self expression – we write a poem or join a dance group or do photography as a hobby – it’s enormously enriching but if those things are your job then you need relief from them,” he says. “If your full-time job is caring, it’s enormously demanding, tedious, it brings you down and it means you need a community that will support you too.”
The sort of enriching caring Mackay is talking about is not caring as a full-time job but caring as a way of life; connecting with our neighbours, saying hello to people in the street, making time for friends and family and reaching out to those who are bereaved or lonely.
They are small acts, but the combined knock-on effect can be immense.
“It’s nothing to do with how we feel – you don’t have to be feeling loving towards someone or feel a sense of affection towards someone to be responsive to their needs or to remember to say ‘hello’ if you pass them in the street. If we adopt the mental discipline that ‘I’m going to treat everyone kindly and with respect even if they annoy me’, society is going to be a more harmonious place. If we say ‘I’m going to get to know my neighbours and make sure everyone in the street is in touch – I’m not going to let the old lady on the corner feel socially excluded’, the first benefit is that the community will be a more cohesive, safe place and we all benefit from that.
“The other benefit is that all of us want to have a meaningful life and there’s no doubt that the main contributor to the meaning of our lives is the quality of our personal relationships, not just with our friends but with the people we live amongst and work with – there is a societal benefit in building a stronger community but there is also a personal benefit… It’s just a way of living that’s not particularly challenging once we decide that’s our biological destiny.”
It is here – away from screens and, sometimes away from our personal happiness – that we find ourselves, each other and perhaps remember our biological destiny.
“You don’t find yourself by looking in the mirror, you find yourself by looking into the faces who love you or the faces that put up with you or the faces of the people you work with or the people who need you in particular. We are who needs us.”
Hugh Mackay along with authors Sarah Wilson and Brigid Delaney, will be speaking about the act of letting go at the School of Life in Sydney on Tuesday 7 November. Tickets are on sale at www.theschooloflife.com