If you’re lucky enough to be living in the developed world at the beginning of the 21st century, by almost any measure you are among the most fortunate 1 per cent of people who have ever walked the Earth. Charlotte Dingle asks why we’re so miserable when we’re also so privileged.
“I would never wear that. I would rather die!” Thus spoke a recent contestant on popular reality TV show Battle of the Brides, aghast at the choice of dress her “opponent” had suggested for their joint wedding. Her reason for contesting? The chance to win a shared £25k lump sum towards said wedding. Meanwhile in Ukraine, a mother and her three-month-old daughter really have died, killed – four hours ago at the time of writing – in an airstrike. One cannot help but imagine that had she been able to decide their fate based on a crap dress, the mother would have worn it.
Here in the UK in 2022, most of us live in something of a bubble. We eat, we sleep, we work, we veg in front of the TV. If anything really bothers us, it’s invariably something like a parking fine or a mucked up takeaway order, in which case we immediately take to social media to complain. And boy, do we complain. Underneath our self-indulgent social-media bios (“anti-fascist neurodivergent demi-hemi-semisexual”, anyone?) we pour out a stream of vitriol aimed at the orchestrators of our miseries, frantically tagged in case they don’t hear us. These dramas fuel us, bringing us further and further down until we’ve forgotten exactly why we began our descent in the first place.
Miserable but privileged
So why are we behaving like this? The philosophical theory known as the “fallacy of relative privation” holds that we’re allowed to be miserable about whatever we want, regardless of its magnitude in the grand scheme of things. If we don’t fancy eating our dinner, the concept of children starving in a distant, famine-stricken country is not particularly relevant. But surely we should, at least to some extent, be revelling in the fact that we’re not dying in airstrikes or succumbing to smallpox? Or are we simply a little bored of a life where there isn’t – for most of us – a day-to-day fight for survival?
As someone with a fairly terrifying chronic illness, I am used to being a bit nervous about my chances. However, I am also acutely aware that I have a free healthcare system on my side, somewhere safe to live and a support network willing to give me some TLC when I have difficult days. Living in the first world is not a guarantee of good health and good luck, but it’s a decent start. There are, of course, people on the margins – spat out by the draconian rules of the benefits system, support kicked from beneath them. No fixed abode? Get a job! No fixed abode? No job! etc etc, ad infinitum. But this article isn’t really about them, as you’ve probably already worked out. It’s about the ennui of the privileged.
“Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our wellbeing, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically”. These words, written by author Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice, address one of the many reasons why we are not happy in the modern first world. Go into any supermarket on a decent wage and you can have anything you want. Gone are the days when you no longer had everything at your disposal, let alone a variety of brands of everything.
There was a time when we had to wait for an album to come out, and we only knew it would be coming out because we read about it in the NME. There was a time when we had to watch whatever was on TV at the time if we wanted to watch something on TV. Hell, there was a time before the internet. Even at thirty-mumble years old, I think I would have had rainbow-coloured kittens if you’d told me as a kid that one day we’d be communicating via machines as a matter of course, and that a whole world of entertainment would be there at our fingertips for us to um and ah over until our eyes were crossed.
I think I might have been a little perturbed, too, to hear that somewhere in my future lay a world where Botox and bum lifts were almost the status quo, and that becoming a Perfect 10 on its own would be far from “enough”. I’d have been shocked to learn of the prevalence of the six-figure salary. Of the need to cook like a chef every day of the week and take photos for the world to see. Of the rampant escalation of the pursuit of perfection against all odds, no matter what others were suffering down at the bottom, with advertisements booming at us all to be a certain way. The French-Algerian philosopher Camus wrote of a man from Greek mythology named Sisyphus, who was forced to roll a rock up and down a hill for eternity. “Imagine,” he wrote, “Sisyphus happy”. It seems something of a shame that we can’t all attempt to be that happy Sisyphus.