Don't be embarrassed to embrace new era

December 19, 2003

The THES serves up six pages of reflections on some of the changes that have been making many people in our society feel increasingly anxious and frightened

Britons are dropping the stiff upper lip and loosening their grip on their emotions. But many do not feel as happy as they believe they ought to be.

Hera Cook says we should stop worrying and just celebrate change for a change

Back in the 1940s and '50s, the English used to claim that they felt as much or more than anyone else, they just didn't wear their hearts on their sleeves. Observers such as the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer reported that foreigners found them cold and repressed. Then, some time in the mid-1990s, people realised that emotional change had taken place. There was an attempt by rightwing critics to pin the blame on Princess Diana - not only had she topped all her other melodramatic excesses by dying dramatically, but people actually mourned for her.

In fact, emotional change was like the sexual revolution: no one was quite sure what had changed, or how it had happened, but it was obvious that something big had taken place. Most people seem to have been rather pleased - at least in principle. Expressing your feelings was thought to be the gateway to a happier, freer life. In practice, it is rather more difficult and painful. A person sets out to express his feelings and doubts set in.

Is this really the right way to go? Is it necessary to say all that? Isn't it a bit self-indulgent? And then the moment is gone. Depression is said to be rising. Some psychotherapists say we need more emotional intelligence, others that we live in a low-serotonin culture. All of them agree that we need more therapists.

It is argued that our expectations of life are too high and that this makes us depressed. Relationships are crucial. Individualism and self-indulgence lead us to demand too much of intimacy and thus to divorce. One psychoanalyst claims that the half-century of divorce since the 1950s has had worse effects on happiness than the 470,000 dead in the second world war. Could divorce be worse than the death of a parent or partner? Perhaps, but unlikely. On the one hand, exes often hang around poisoning the children's minds and sneering at the new love. On the other hand, death often came to those who would be missed from the family hearth. The most that can be said for this unconvincing argument is that pain is more painful when it is recent.

Surveys do suggest that rates of depression are rising across the western world. But as the English don't like to intrude, there are few surveys asking English people about their emotions. There did seem to be a jump in depression between a survey taken in 1977 and one in 1985. This is unsurprising; it is difficult to think of a more depressing period since the end of the war (winter of discontent, Margaret Thatcher, rising unemployment), but by the same token it probably isn't good evidence for a long-term trend.

There is also a confounding factor - one so big it seems almost cruel to mention it. Surveys of national depression, fear, anxiety and so on depend on self-reporting. But greater willingness to self-report, otherwise known as talking about your feelings, is the area in which emotional behaviour has changed the most, and not just in England. The English were always the top nation in emotional restraint, but 50 years ago even the Americans were not such full-on cheerleaders in the cause of emotional expression.

In the early to mid-20th century, the English did keep themselves to themselves. The war generations believed in stoicism. Even when they failed to control their emotions, they believed that they should have done so, and they felt even worse because they blamed themselves for their failure.

Those generations weren't just interested in controlling negative emotions - too much intense excitement, joy or passionate love was out as well. And they didn't just control their emotions, they were proud of doing so. They believed that those who expressed more - foreigners - felt less. Such people were superficial, hysterical and manipulative. Today, many English people feel vaguely ashamed of being emotionally restrained; they label it self-disparaging, undemonstrative, deadpan. They are still embarrassed in the presence of intense emotions, but now they get ashamed of their own ineptitude.

Are people more depressed today? Did those who expressed less emotion feel better? Conservative critics suggest that self-fulfilment doesn't make people happy; that hedonism, self-indulgence, disregard for hierarchy, snacking and therapy have destroyed a once-proud culture of self-control, stoicism and sit-down dinners. Like Thatcher and even some of the therapists, they locate this golden past in the 1950s. It is possible that this was a peak moment for happiness. The war was over and another looked unlikely. Wages were rising and, thanks to the new welfare state, people didn't have to pay for education or a visit to the doctor. Though it took a while, more and more people had a home with running water and a private toilet. But the novels of the time don't suggest a diet of national happiness.

And how long could this continue anyway? After only a decade or so, the young began to take the pleasures of domesticity, adequate food and healthcare for granted. They threw caution to the wind and started marrying too young. In the 1960s, they began ingesting life-changing substances such as the birth-control pill and demanding easy divorces. Some began to feel sophisticated and drink very sweet white wine. By the 1970s, the nation was going to pot. This is the first generation able to get depressed because their expectations of life had grown and their aspirations were too high.

Parents in the 1960s resented their children disturbing their new-found peace and quiet. In their youth, memories of the first world war had been recent and intense, and they grew up in the Depression. In the second world war, 15 per cent of the UK's housing stock was wiped out. It was thought that citizens might become hysterical during the bombing raids, but they pulled themselves together and levels of neurosis were low. Life might have been simpler then. Perhaps that generation didn't compare and compete the way succeeding generations have, but does that mean they were not frightened and depressed?

For a while family historians believed that people in centuries past (all of history before us and anyone we knew) didn't feel as much as people did in the mid-20th century. For example, they explained, in past centuries parents didn't get attached to babies and little children because they knew they were likely to die. Research has disproved that theory, but many people believe that pain is more painful when it is recent. In fact, it is probable that people in the past often lived with more pain than we can imagine. Today, people are unhappy and they talk about it. In the 1930s, or the 1950s, people were unhappy and they kept themselves to themselves.

Their lives almost certainly were harder than our experience of seeing our aspirations for the perfect life dashed. They just didn't talk about it much.

Today people can stay up late and fall in love, eat snacks and go through several partners and different phases in their lives. Many, perhaps most, people want to do this. The tides of sexual change since the 1960s are still not at the high-water mark, and those who disapproved are barely visible above the waves. Emotional change is following a similar path.

There are the claims from all sides that we live in a culture of fear, or rather many mini-cultures of fear. At work, in homes, schools, hospitals, on TV, on the streets. Fear, it seems, is everywhere. The barricades around No 10 Downing Street are anxiety made manifest. Yet, in spite of our government's best efforts in the past year, most of us still have little to fear - nothing, in fact, but fear itself. Let's celebrate change for a change. Instead of complaining this Christmas, let us extravagantly, intensely, excitedly enjoy our loved ones and welcome the strangers in our midst!

Hera Cook is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of history at the University of Sydney. Her book, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex and Contraception 1800-1975 , will be published by Oxford University Press in February, £35.00.

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