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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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The limits of individualism and the pursuit of happiness

Comparing newsagents and bookshops can be a strange experience.

Look at the news, and there’ll be a raft of articles explaining that Britain is an unhappy country, and that our children and young people, in particular, are without hope. A recent report from The Resolution Foundation showed that, for the first time, young people are the most likely section of the population to be out of work due to mental health challenges. Socioeconomics and other environmental factors appeared to be key contributors.

But walk into a bookshop, and you’ll see shelves of self-help books on how to be happy: happiness is supposedly within your individual reach. Think positive. Count your blessings. Have counselling. News stories also reflect this, too: for cultural and structural issues, better mental health services appear to be the answer.

Of course, this is important. Counselling and therapy are hugely helpful. But they treat individuals, and can’t address the social and structural root causes of why a wealthy, comfortable nation like the UK should be such an unhappy place. It’s easier to place the burden on individuals than to examine our common life. If we did, we’d be forced to ask uncomfortable questions about money, inequality, online life, unrealistic expectations, and the selfishness of pursuing one’s happiness at the expense of others’.

These themes are not new. The Psalms and the prophets are full of the anguished cries of those who struggle – ‘how long, O God?’ – and serve as a prophetic witness to the transformation of society through doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). This witness includes caring for the vulnerable and working for the flourishing of every person. Where a people look first for what makes individuals happy, for riches at the expense of justice, things fall apart. This is the lesson of prophets like Amos and Micah.

The question for us today is, do we have the courage to ask the difficult questions? Do we choose to behave on social media in ways that promote kindness, gentleness, and connection? Or are our comments judgemental echo chambers? When someone at work, at church, or a friend is struggling, do we choose to both see them as an individual person, and ask what needs to change or be challenged in the circumstances and systems that grind them down?

Are we ready to give pastoral care with one hand, and engage in the hard work of pursuing a fairer, kinder society on the other?

 

Revd Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley 
Secretary for Theology and Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops

Comments

  1. The post-war consensus accepted the 1945 Labour Government’s welfare state that, in effect, said society’s job is to provide at least a basic safety net for all its members, both in terms of financial support and of services like free universal healthcare. Neo-liberalism and its glorification of the individual over the communal (even if Mrs T didn’t actually say ‘there is no such thing as society’, its impact on policy has been clear. We now have benefit levels that can’t sustain a decent standard of living for around a qaurter of the population, while communal services like the NHS are not being funded properly- all while we are supposedly the 12th biggest economy in the world or whatever. The taxtake may be at high leverls already, but it is not falling heaviest on those best able to pay it, and a ‘kinder, fairer society’ simply must address that to become a reality.

    By Phil Drake  -  22 Mar 2024
  2. Abigail Shrier’s new book ‘Bad Therapy: why the Kids Aren’t Growing up’ tackles just this; modern children firsly have never learnt resilience, having been pampered from birth and never been told ‘no’, and secondly are taught they are victims and it is all someone else’s fault. Anyone with young people in their office will have experienced their selfish sense of entitlement and their claiming power though offence-taking. I would love to hear of some creative ways to share the gospel in this context and how to help people escape their victimhood identity.

    By James gerry  -  22 Mar 2024
  3. Thanks Isabelle for your insightful article and I think your fourth paragraph, including “It’s easier to place the burden on individuals than to examine our common life” is very telling. You’re right that either blaming individuals for their poor mental health or putting all the responsibility on them to ‘get better’ (implying failure if they don’t), without owning that perhaps their feelings, responses and behaviour might actually be considered a NORMAL response to the poor environment, can be the added burden you describe. I know that’s a sweeping statement and there’s infinite variation in mental health issues, as well as the old arguments about the line between taking responsibility for one’s own behaviour and not being able to because of crushing background/environment. Even so, it’s good to hear your reminder to be both aware of and work towards whatever we can to make a better society.

    You might be familiar with Johann Hari’s book ‘Lost Connections’, which makes these very observations and points, a really interesting read and valuable perspective, though not from a Christian worldview. I think it’s a fabulous book and would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone interested: fascinating and easy to read as it’s full of ‘people stories’, so interesting and some very moving, inspiring us with examples of how we might do better.

    Thanks so much for reminding me of all this and for your perceptive comments.

    By Kate Ashton  -  22 Mar 2024
  4. A powerful reflection on a pressing issue & question, thank you

    By Bruce Michael Gulland  -  25 Mar 2024

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