Britain On The Couch: Why We're Unhappier Than We Were In The 1950s - Despite Being Richer: Treating for the Low-Serotonin Society Paperback – 3 Sep 1998
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"Well worth reading... the author has recognised important social phenomena which have escaped less astute or honest observers" (Sunday Telegraph)
"A fascinating book" (Simon Jenkins, Sunday Times)
Why we're unhappier than we were in the 1950s - despite being richerSee all Product description
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I did not feel it was overtly nostalgic for a "golden age" which is what some other reviewers seem to infer. However, James did refer back 50 years to an era when there was manifestly less marketing and gave a compelling, if not irrefutable, case for mass-marketing being a core reason why we are less happy now.
I suggest you read this book, but do not expect it to make you happy or fulfilled. If, however, you are unhappy then it may help you contextualise some of your dissatisfaction with consumer society. It is also a healthy book to read if you have young children - know how advertising works, how it influences and what it does. It may make you alter some aspects of your kids' telly viewing, that's for sure.
But are James’ arguments valid? It is possible to disagree with many of James’ points. Firstly, statistics can be used to demonstrate almost anything and many of those cited by James are misleading and exaggerate the increase in mental health difficulties and social problems.
Secondly, it can be said that he emphasizes today’s problems and minimizes those of previous times; is it really true, that the feudal serf was not so discontented; or that Japanese women do not suffer unhappiness because of their low status? And is the author really saying that people in 1950s – or earlier – did not aspire to better status and compared themselves unfavorably with others?
Thirdly, both the awareness and diagnosis of mental health conditions have changed since the 1950s; many normal processes and activities, which are part and parcel of being human, have been pathologised and medicalised by an ever expanding army of mental health professionals with careers and positions to protect.
Fourthly, James cites the increase in the incidence of divorces as a cause of increasing unhappiness; but the situation that existed when divorce was not easily available, when people were trapped in unhappy marriages – caused untold misery. As did all the old taboos and prejudices that constricted and suffocated life in the 1950s; homosexuality, unmarried motherhood are only two examples.
Fifthly, all the problems James associated with western consumerism, are nothing compared with the misery of the masses in the developing world.
There is something disingenuous and false about this book, with its barely concealed nostalgia for the 1950s, when women knew their place and homosexuality was still a disease. I am glad I wasn’t around at the time.
In the later chapters James becomes more opinionated, particularly as he starts to give advice about what sort of therapy the serotonin-deficient among us might go for. Admittedly, evidence for the effectiveness of particular therapies is scant, but this does not deter James from emphasising psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioural approaches at the expense of what he calls, oddly and with no elaboration, 'middle' therapies. In his enthusiasm to distinguish counselling from psychotherapy, he virtually dismisses the former as 'something you do when someone close to you has died'. A lot of effort has gone into describing psychoanalysis, even though it is hardly available outside London and is rarely indicated these days except for the super-rich.
Some of the suggestions James puts forward in his last chapter for treating the low-serotonin society verge on the authoritarian. I happen to agree with him about some of these [e.g. limiting certain types of advertising] but his case has the character of a rant, which detracts somewhat from the erudition and rationality of the preceding chapters.
As a Certified Transactional Analyst who undertook six years of rigorous training in psychotherapy I was disgusted at James' misguided and misleading assertion in his Appendix 3 on types of treatment that "transactional analysis is generally a form of counselling" [p 360]. I do hope that in the years since he wrote this he has managed to meet and learn from some of the increasing number of therapists who are integrating a range of evidence-based approaches in their work.
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