Heavy Hearts

30 April 2014 Helen Razer

Heavy Hearts

Photograph by James Braund

Helen Razer, Ed#452, February 2014

If you believe those hazy studies one sees and hardly reads in news reports, ‘happiness’ is something we are likely to experience less often as we grow older. Well, to be a little more specific about surveys I initially read only hazily, it seems that contentment is high in early life, declines, takes its most dramatic dip in one’s mid-forties and then climbs again slightly to a manageable despair.

In short, if one has not succumbed to crushing disappointment and perished early in life as a result, one is likely to become tolerably content just in time to die at a respectable age.

In an unfairly wealthy liberal democracy like ours, such misery is seen as indulgent. Or, as an illness. Or sometimes both at once. Particularly miserable people are sometimes advised by their friends and therapists to count their blessings even as they are diagnosed with a ‘depressive disorder’.

These are the two popular and sometimes simultaneous views of sadness. First, you are sick. Second, you just need to understand there are billions worse off and you can get everything you need to be happy if only you would try. These are the antidotes to despair. Frankly, they don’t seem to be working.

The World Health Organization, Beyond Blue, sundry government health officials and chattering idiots on TV all agree: there’s a sadness epidemic. Together, they propose a fusion of it’s not your fault/it is your fault as a cure. Being, oddly, a reasonably content person with time on her hands, I have given the matter some thought. And I have decided all these prescriptions are colossally foolish.

Before I go on, let it be said: I know that this sadness is real. I have felt it myself for periods that extended to years. I know what it is like to be imprisoned by the bedspread and I can remember, quite keenly, how it feels to lack the energy even to wash one’s hair.

I remember inaction from a sadness so heavy it pins you to the ground. It makes its way into your hairdo and, in no time at all, your head is as heavy and laden with filth as your heart. But, even as you repel yourself with your inattention to hygiene, you just can’t seem to manage lifting your hands any higher than your knees. You can’t move them up to your head and you end up crying at the hairdresser and apologising for the hideous knot of ruin you are paying them to disentangle.

Or similar. I know that this feeling is real. And I know that calling it a ‘disease’ – even though, medically speaking, it is just a collection of symptoms with no form of diagnosis more advanced than a description by the patient of these symptoms – works for some. And I know drugs can help. And I know ‘taking responsibility’ and positive thinking works for some. But I also know – or at least, I think I know – that there is another possibility to consider in the It’s Not Your Fault It’s a Sickness/It Is Your Fault, You’re Ungrateful solution to despair.

I am gonna be an old-fashioned whiner and suggest, perhaps, society is to blame?

Look. Between us, I am not the only person to have had this idea. A few little-known people also had it and they have names like Freud and Marx. And, well, a lot of people whose job it has been to think about the world, really. For at least 100 years, we held the view – even popularly – that the very fact of living in the world impacted our contentment. Now, it seems, the world has nothing to do with it.

You can take medicine because you are ‘sick’. You can read The Secret because You Can Get What You Want If You Try. And, you know,  I wish they would tell that to the billion starving people in the world who haven’t ‘self-actualised’ and visualised the burger that they need to live another day.

But you can never consider that life is difficult. Because, it’s all your fault. The sickness is in you. The world is doing perfectly well.

» Helen Razer is a Big Issue columnist.

This article first appeared in Ed#452 of The Big Issue magazine.