When clinical psychologist and author Frank Tallis sat down to write a new book about surviving discontent in an age of anxiety, nobody could have predicted that its publication would coincide with the darkest point so far in a year-long (and counting) global pandemic.
Even before coronavirus entered the lexicon, Tallis believes mental health had become "a crisis of enormous proportions", citing (pre-pandemic) WHO statistics of a million suicides globally each year – more than wars, murders, state executions and terrorist attacks combined.
In the past year, such issues have only become more pressing: rates of depression are estimated to have doubled in the UK and tripled in the US in the first six months of the pandemic. "Covid has shown us how ill equipped we are as a society to deal with challenges, because of the way we think, with ideas of entitlement and instant gratification," says Tallis, whose new book, The Act Of Living, explores lessons for modern life from eminent psychotherapists and psychologists.
The problem, he says, is that we're increasingly looking for help in all the wrong places – on T-shirts and tea towels, in songs and inspirational memes. "I've nothing against inspiration, but I don't think it's a substitute for deep reflective thought about the human condition," he observes. Psychotherapy, by contrast, "as a sustained inquiry into the nature of human unhappiness, transcends the clichés of pop psychology and psychobabble".
It's tough love, but it works, he says. "We don't like bad news. And psychotherapy says 'There's a lot of bad news and you do have to look at it.' It's not about finding 'happiness'. It's far more about just dealing with the discontent and finding out what's important to you."
And there are no quick fixes, no instant gratification. "Psychotherapy, unlike popular psychology, tends not to offer answers, but asks you to ask yourself questions," says Tallis.
As the new year arrived, Tallis noticed that social media was filled with messages of "Good riddance, 2020 – what a terrible year that was. We shall never speak of it again". "Psychologically, that's the very worst thing you can do, because everything we know about trauma tells us that you have to make sense of it," he says. "You have to process it and then integrate it. You have to see it as part of your personal narrative."
Psychotherapy is also, he recognises, renowned for "impenetrable language, and off-putting terms like 'penis envy'." Happily, he translates eclectic and complex ideas from legendary psychotherapists such as Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and RD Laing, as well as lesser-known ones such as Erich Fromm and Fritz Perls, into an eminently readable narrative.
Tallis and I are speaking, of course, over Zoom – me from my apartment in New York, he from his book-lined study in London – which raises the topic of face-to-face communication, explored in his book and which he says "is becoming increasingly rare", thanks to our reliance on email, text messages and social media. I still find Zoom no substitute for sitting across a table from someone.
"There's volumes of difference between speaking in person and speaking on Zoom," nods Tallis. "Your voice is less nuanced, I can't see the detail of your face, and the timing of the way we speak is different – it all alters the feel of the conversation," he says. "We are losing so much and we are aware of it, and that can be the cause of enormous frustration."
Tallis is in no doubt that instead of making us feel connected, our soaring screen time is making us more miserable. "The human animal is evolved to deal with a group of about 150 members of a tribe," he explains. "In that early ancestral tribe, you could have been the best at running or dancing or singing. Now that we live in a massive interconnected global community, you can't be the best at anything. You can only make one unfavourable comparison after another. Even if you're just an exhibitionist and want to pose in the bathroom in your underwear, you will find someone who does it better."
The solution? Stop trying to be the best. "Aim high, by all means," he says. "But occasionally, aim low."
That means we should stop berating ourselves for not having written a Hollywood screenplay in lockdown, or pivoted to start a knitwear company; simply finding pleasure in knitting will be far better for our mental health.
Digital and social media are frequently blamed for all manner of modern social malaise, but, says Tallis, when it comes to mental health problems, data does suggest a close connection. "In annual surveys of millions of young Americans, you do see a very significant drop in wellbeing [including self esteem, life satisfaction and happiness] after 2012, which coincides with the widespread availability of smartphones and tablets."
Moreover, he argues, "There are a core set of effects, like rising levels of narcissism, that seem to be very closely related to social media and the internet." The emblem of narcissism is, of course, the selfie. "We used to take pictures of other people and put them in an album, to remember them by," says Tallis. "Now people record more pictures of themselves than other people." Three-quarters of the photos posted on social media by young people are of themselves, and are taken and posted for an entirely different purpose: "Self-promotion, and the provocation of envy." This is closely related to psychological problems such as eating disorders and suicide rates, says Tallis.
Furthermore, by documenting every event, "We're not in the experience as much – we're more interested in catching the image. We objectify the experience, turn it into a commodity and then post it to say, 'Aren't I great because I'm here?'" He quotes studies that show that those who take incessant photographs of events actually remember less about them than those who simply experience them. "The storage of memories on a smartphone, instead of in the brain, is a compelling example of the objectification of experience and self-alienation."
We can't put the social media genie back in the bottle but there are some solutions to society's increasing narcissism. Trite as it might sound, getting a hobby can help. "When we are completely absorbed by an enjoyable task or activity, we lose ourselves," says Tallis. This is often referred to as "flow", or "being in the zone". Few activities in life have ever got me in the zone besides skiing, scuba diving and sex; Tallis tells me these are common "peak experiences".
"When you have a 'peak experience' you're definitely present – the self is fully immersed in the experience," he says. "But the superficial, narcissistic, egocentric part of you isn't present. You don't wonder how you look." If you felt happier after being deeply immersed in making that advent wreath last month, or losing yourself in your new watercolour hobby, there's a good reason. "Attenuated self-awareness" – or a loss of sense of self – is, Tallis says, associated with increased confidence and greater optimism.
Of course, given the dramatic and far-reaching changes the global pandemic has wrought, there's much that cannot be fixed by losing oneself in an experience: loss of a job, income or home, loss of a loved one, ongoing separation from friends and family.
"This crisis is going to be experienced as traumatic by a lot of people and there will be long-term consequences," says Tallis. Fortunately, psychotherapists specialise in trauma. "There's 101 ways you might try to deal with a trauma [including electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), narcosis (deep sleep therapy), and microdosing with psychedelic drugs] but the essential truth is that to adjust to a trauma you need to assimilate it with your past experiences. To use a pop psychology term, you've got to own it."
Whether the events of 2020 have led you to end a relationship, have forced you out of a job (or brought drastically reduced circumstances), or have led to the death of someone you love, we need to see it not as a tear or a break in our personal story, but rather as part of a continuum.
"Rather than saying: 'My life is shattered and broken', it's a question of seeing those continuities – you were there before, you were there when it happened, you were there afterwards." He has found it a useful perspective personally, he says. "I've found that by emphasising the continuities rather than the breakages, I've felt more able to develop and hopefully succeed. It sounds incredibly clichéd, but trauma can be a kind of opportunity."
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