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Why are we miserable?

By John Ness - posted Monday, 28 November 2011

Napoleon thought that the main purpose of religion was to stop the poor from slaughtering the rich. At the start of the 20th century around 95% of Australians identified themselves as religious. This has been declining at around 3% per decade ever since, so that 110 years later about 1/3 are god believers, about 1/3 are not and the last 1/3 seem not interested.

People in Australia might not be full of joy, but so far there have been no campaigns to slaughter the rich or even to tax them more, apart from the mining industry. So presumably relief from religion has not resurrected pogroms against the rich.

Is it this decline in religion that is correlated with a feeling of malaise, despair and in some sectors, anger? Is it a result of the "keep them dumb, make them angry" campaign waged by a large section of the media to sell papers and TV shows by pandering to the pessimists and depressed?


Australia is doing economically very well compared to nearly all other countries. We have an abundance of cheap manufactured goods from simple tools to the most sophisticated cars, IT gadgets delivered at low cost and good quality courtesy of the work ethic in China and Asia, and an abundance of aluminium, iron, copper and coal under our feet. We are not yet grossly overpopulated with space to move and escape and are relatively free from ethnic, religious and resource restrictions that plague so many other countries. Even the issue guaranteed to excite most emotion like the "boat people," is very minor compared to that experienced by countries all around the world.

All things are relative and this is especially true of human emotions. We are happy, angry or content basically by comparison to, and comparing ourselves with, others. Envy, the neutrino emotion, as it likes to stay undetected but can travel faster than light, is the major driver of the happy/misery index and envy is most powerful when local. That is, what is happening to people in Europe, Asia or the Americas is of much less importance, no matter how extreme their comparative position, than minor perceived differences in status, wealth and income of people in your suburb. Australians are still relatively homogeneous in their suburbs, but less so, and maybe envy is a factor but probably only a minor one.

So, what is driving the discontent in Australia? Is it the hollowing out of the middle class, which is proceeding apace in the USA and no doubt is a major factor in the rise of the Tea Party and now the Occupy Wall Street movement?

Certainly a secure, relatively large middle class with good prospects is the dominant determinant of a country's stability and general feeling of wellbeing. The poor need to feel they can progress into the middle class and the middle class, which is the one that is used to compromising due to constraints, will be positive and well behaved if general advancement and security in old age are not seen to be under threat. In Australia, this is still a reasonable belief, even if the top level are demanding and getting absurdly high salaries.

Perhaps another factor is demographic. As humans age they generally become less optimistic, enthusiastic and hopeful about life and the average age in Australia is slowly increasing. This may be a consideration but, apart from the tendency to obesity which seems to have flattened out so to speak, the elderly are more wealthy and in better health than ever.

Human angst, of an ill defined but persistent variety, surfaces when challenges to belief systems arise. Examples of this are abundant in the history of the cultural/religious variety, as illustrated by the Copernican and Darwinian initiated revolutions. The angst will be maximised when the challenge is not only to a belief system but also has direct consequences for how we live. After all, realising that the earth went around the sun rather than the reverse only required a very tiny minority or people, such as astronomers and navigators, to make adjustments to their work. It was a challenge to the existing paradigm but not one that required people to behave differently.


We are currently in the midst of a paradigm shift that affects not only our belief system but also how we live. There is no doubt that the truth will set you free, but the process of arriving at that truth and then taking responsibility for accepting the truth can be a very stressful journey and Australians are just starting this journey.

It is clear that the size and extent of global energy use, which has provided the sub structure for the huge world population and for the high material living standards of maybe 20%, cannot continue as it cannot deliver comparable living standards to the other 80%, or advance or even retain the standards of the privileged 20%.

The depletion of resources, the destruction of the complex biological environment and its inhabitants and the altering of the dynamics of the atmosphere and oceans are now well established. But this knowledge directly conflicts with existing economic, and in some cases religious, beliefs. It is clear that the long accepted, indeed almost canonical ideas, about limitless growth, infinite resources and unlimited human ingenuity, have some rather unpleasant oscillations which has underpinned the wealth of societies and individuals, and are no longer tenable.

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