We often hear our times described as an age of anxiety. 

Perhaps it seems a little strange that this should be so. After all it is hard to believe that we really have more reasons to be anxious than did the generations that lived before us.

By the fairly comfortable standards most of us enjoy today, life in the past was harsh and brutal. Most people eked out a bare living, usually from working the soil, and more often than not they failed to make a living at all. They had to harden themselves to the prospect of losing many of their children in infancy. They waited uneasily for invasion from foreign raiders or colonisers, or just from their neighbours. And if they escaped or survived such violence they could expect to die in what we would regard as middle age from injuries and diseases made more deadly by inadequate nutrition and years of exposure to the elements.

There are still plenty of unpleasant things in the world. Cruel civil wars, ethnic conflicts, the corruption of democratic rule, imprisonment without trial, torture, denial of free speech, electronic surveillance, suppressed dissent and enforced conformity – all these things are sadly common enough. 

And of course more could go wrong. We might eliminate ourselves in a nuclear exchange. We might upset the balance of the physical environment. There are also natural events over which we have no control. We could be written off by some newly evolved bacteria, or struck out by a wandering comet. 

The validity of all these concerns must be acknowledged. 

At the same time, when we look at things overall and try to set to one side the bad news with which the media frighten and entertain us every moment of the day, a lot of things are quietly going right for us. 

For example, each year fewer people around the world are in danger of starvation, or death in infancy, or death by contagious disease. Most people enjoy much better levels of nutrition, clothing, housing, education, and working conditions, than did their grandparents only a few years ago. Every year ever more people enjoy what from a historical point of view is the unprecedented freedom to choose their own career path in life, and to leave it again for another if it doesn’t work out. And fewer and fewer people have to work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. 

In addition, we enjoy many more hours and days of leisure than did any generation before us. We have opportunities to travel and to see the world, opportunities that were unimaginable to most people as recently as fifty years ago. And we have available to us all manner of entertainments and diversions that were, until recently, quite unknown. 

In spite of all this achievement and advance however, there can be little doubt most people would agree that we do indeed live in an age of anxiety, worry and stress, and often enough of despair. 

So how are we to explain this? What is at the root of this unease and unhappiness that we feel to be so characteristic of the times we are living through? 

Beyond the problems of technology

The origins of this feeling are to be found in underlying changes in the conditions of the human race that have been taking place for a long time. 

The beginnings of these changes can be traced back a long way, in fact many centuries. But they have been accelerating with the years and we can see them appearing clearly at the latest by the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, that is, from the time of the American and French revolutions. 

What we see at this time in history is the emergence of three new human ideals. 

The first is that of democracy, the idea that people have a basic right to prescribe the laws that govern them and that these should not be imposed on them without their consent. 

The second is that of meritocracy, the idea that our rewards in life should be a reflection of what we deserve, not what luck and fortune happen to hand out to us. 

And the third is that of the fundamental right of human beings to pursue happiness in their own way.

These three ideals have now become dominant in our world. This is particularly true in the Western world, the societies that descend from the cultures of Europe that have their roots in ancient Greece and Israel, but it is true in the Eastern civilisations also. 

Democracy has often come under challenge, as it did in the 1930s, and as it is doing in some quarters again now. But every attempt to undermine the practical implications of democracy invariably claims to act in the interests of the people. However hypocritical such claims may be, they make manifest that no plausible alternative to the authority of the people now exists in the world. Not God or King or Emperor can claim authority above the people, as once they could. 

Yet up until quite recent times these three ideals would have seemed odd and unrealistic. We delight in the works of Shakespeare, now five hundred years old, for the insights they give us into the perennial aspects of human nature. But in the world in which he lived, which in historical terms is recent enough, no one had even heard of these ideals. The fact that they have become so important to us reflects a basic change that has taken place in human circumstances in what is actually a short time. 

For most of recorded history, and back into the much longer stretches of pre-history, the race of men and women needed almost all its efforts and ingenuity just to stay alive. This is the thing that has now changed. 

The day-to-day struggle to ensure that the great majority of people are fed, survive infancy, are kept healthy and can expect a life cycle of reasonable duration is over. These problems are essentially technological in nature and we know now how to solve them. As long as politics don’t get in the way (a big ask, no doubt), they can be solved. 

As a result of this for the first time in its history the human species finds itself with a significant amount of surplus energy that seeks an outlet in something more than basic survival. It is this released energy that has created modern life and culture, including the aspirations of democracy, meritocracy, and the pursuit of personal happiness. You don’t find these ideals in subsistence societies where most human time and effort is taken up just in feeding people and keeping them alive. 

However, at the same time as we have created this new kind of culture, we have also begun to confront a new sort of problem. This problem is essentially different in kind from the struggle for survival, because the further development of technology cannot provide us with any solutions to it. 

This is the problem of figuring out exactly what is the nature of the human animal and how we are meant to organise its nature. What are we as men and women on this earth for? What do we have to do with our lives so that we may be happy, and fruitful, and fulfilled, so that we do not feel we have wasted life, or lived the wrong life, or hate ourselves for having made mistakes, or hate others for having caused us to make mistakes, or for seeming to have done better in life than we have?

In short, what kind of life should a man or a woman try to live? 

The existential question

In 1841 the great American essayist Ralf Waldo Emerson noted in his journals:

Our forefathers walked in the world and went to their graves tormented with the fear of sin and the terror of the Day of Judgment. We are happily rid of those terrors, and our torment is the utter uncertainty and perplexity of what we ought to do; the distrust of the value of what we do …

Emerson here gives us in a nutshell the diagnosis of our present condition. 

For the first time in history most men and women find themselves at some point in their lives asking, “Who am I? What am I to do with my life? What should I make the aim of my life? What is it important for me to do with my time, and what is it not important for me to do?” 

This is something new. Before our modern age of railways and telegraphs and computers, almost no one, except a tiny elite of men whose lives were devoted to thinking about spiritual and philosophical questions, had the leisure, or felt the inclination, to ask this kind of question. 

Now, this question is part of the fabric of the culture we live in. Everyone finds themselves having to ask it, whether they particularly want to or not. 

In fact, this problem forms the principal subject of our public conversation. Setting aside the daily staple of reported and anticipated disasters with which we distract ourselves, in one form or another it provides the bulk of the content in our newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and internet media. 

The question we ask continually is: How can I be a better me, a happier me, a more fulfilled, more successful, more attractive, more energetic, more powerful version of myself? 

The emergence at the centre of our daily experience of this problem of the meaning of life, of how life should be lived, is also, however, at the root of our modern sense of anxiety and uncertainty. 

The freedom to ask this question looks like a luxury, and in many ways of course it is. Yet we would not dream now of giving it up. It has become to us a necessity. 

If we think someone is trying to deny us the freedom to ask this question by imposing his own view on how we should live, we react with indignation. We have a fundamental right to decide this question in our own way, we feel, and no one should be allowed to deprive us of that right.

Yet for all our possessiveness of it, it turns out to be a difficult and uncomfortable question to try to answer. Despite discussing it obsessively, we have failed to reach anything more than tentative solutions to it and we have achieved nothing resembling general agreement and consensus. If there is one thing that characterises our age it is the tireless enthusiasm with which we disagree about what should be the aim of life. 

We even disagree about the fact that we disagree, some people seeing it as a sign of a vital, inquiring culture, and some judging it to be an indication of decay and dissolution. 

With questions about the manner of life and the ends of life being raised everywhere in our world, none of us now can feel we know for sure if we are living the best life for our nature, or if on the contrary the choices we have made have been a mistake. The modern world forces us to doubt what we are doing with life and with our time. Without pause, it floods us with suggestions as to other aims we might make our own, and other ways we might spend our time. 

It is the uncertainty surrounding the solution to this new problem that is the source of the particular kind of anxiety we associate with modern life. 

Modern stress and uncertainty

In the world we now live in men do not take for granted, as their ancestors did, that they will spend their lives in the social class or station into which they and their fathers were born, whether aristocrat, farmer, soldier, artisan, tradesman, or peasant landholder. Women do not assume their first priority is to marry as soon as they can and to shape their lives in accordance with the ancient roles of wife, mother and homemaker. 

We have lost the rules and conventions that helped the generations before us to decide how they should conduct themselves, especially in the face of life’s crises and its defining moments. 

And we no longer have the priests and ministers of the church to cement this cultural structure by telling us it all reflects the will of God, and making clear that deviations from it, like sexual promiscuity, adultery and divorce, will result in our becoming outcast from it.

We are losing also a sense of how we should appear to others, not just in the physical sense of vanishing dress codes – compare a street scene today with one from a hundred years ago – but in the sense of what aspects of our lives we feel it is appropriate to discuss with others. The distinction between what we feel should be private and what we feel it is okay to make public has become unclear.

All these rules and structures are now gone or going. We are more free, more aware of the possibilities of human life, more open to learning about the diversity of things and the ways one can live. 

But we have paid a price for this liberation. The price of more opportunities and possibilities in our external life, and of being conscious of these, is greater instability and insecurity in our internal life. 

Every new possibility about how one might live represents also a potential question mark against the way one actually does live. Constantly we bear the stress of wondering, Am I doing the right thing with my life, and with each day of my life? 

This places an internal pressure on us, a continuous pressure, and one which generations before us, however difficult their circumstances in other respects unquestionably were, did not have to handle. 

Furthermore, the feeling that we have or should have the freedom to make life as we wish brings with it an amplified sense of anger and self-reproach if life does not turn out as well as we feel it ought to have done. 

And how can any of us know if our life has turned out as well as it ought to have done? What yardstick can we possibly use to measure this? 

By its nature human life is riddled with imperfections and flaws and failures and mistakes. In the past, men and women could take consolation from the thought that these were a part of the fabric of life. Every reflective person knew that in this vale of tears we all must traverse, much of the time, most of the time, things just don’t work out as we would like. 

Now however, if for instance we find ourselves in a job that we do not much like, or living with a partner whose company we do not much enjoy, we feel it is up to us to do something about it. For our grandparents, circumstances like these for the most part had to be endured, there was nothing much that could be done about them, they were part of the luck of the draw of life. Such sources of distress were unpleasant but at least a man or woman did not have to feel that they were a reflection of their merits as a human being. Everyone knew bad things happen to good people all the time. 

We are less reconciled to the imperfections in life than those who lived before us; these imperfections are problems we feel we should try to solve. And therefore if we do not solve them, we are more likely to experience this as a personal failure, as a reflection on ourselves, on our merit and worth and value. 

But given the complexity of human life and its circumstances, the chances that we will be able to solve them, completely or quickly, are almost nil. 

So, in comparison with our grandparents, everyday problems leave us with more emotional work to do, beyond whatever practical challenges they present. We have to judge first of all whether we do in fact have a chance to resolve them. If we think we do, we then have to be able to handle, usually for an extended period of time, the internal stresses involved in undertaking such a resolution. Internal stresses here means the potential threat to our sense of self worth of failing in our task. Finally, we have to reconcile our sense of self evaluation with the inevitably imperfect outcome of any solution we do achieve.

Another effect of this is that the flaws that occur everywhere in life more readily become a source of shame to us than they were for the generations before us. 

For instance, in past times, poverty in itself was not generally regarded as any particular reason to feel ashamed. Down through history the chances of a poor man becoming wealthy were slim and whether you possessed material means was seen mostly as a question of luck. 

In our time it is still difficult for a poor man to acquire wealth. But he is more likely now to feel he might somehow or other be able to acquire money. He is told this by a society that prides itself on being a meritocracy, that claims to reward those with merit, and that is not so comfortable as in the past with accepting the role that chance and luck play in human affairs. 

Nominally, human merit is taken to mean skill, industry and general smartness. But in modern society there is also a growing reluctance to admit, overtly at least, that anyone might be without merit, and therefore that anyone might be undeserving of reward. One consequence of this is that if you do not claim everything you are entitled to, or might possibly be entitled to, the implication is that you are letting yourself down. 

Poverty therefore, including relative poverty among those who are comparatively well off, is more likely for us than it was for those who went before us to be experienced as something shameful, as something probably suffered due to a personal lack or failure, or because we have been weak enough to allow someone else to cheat us or outdo us. 

Poverty for us is something to conceal, in a way it was not for earlier generations. And this applies equally to many other of the daily misfortunes we suffer, or think we suffer, in the course of life. 

Because we feel that our fate in life should be a reflection of our intrinsic worth as human beings, for us modern men and women the danger of losing control of our anger, both towards others and towards ourselves, is always present. The more we sense that what happens to us in life will determine how we are judged and valued by others, the more pressure we feel to get things right, to feel happy and be satisfied with ourselves. At the same time, however, the more we lack established guidelines for the conduct of life, the greater becomes the uncertainty we feel about how we are to judge whether we have in fact got things right, whether we are as happy as we should be, and whether we have achieved all that we should have achieved. 

And this means too that the more deeply we experience the impact of disappointment when it occurs, the greater the difficulty we have in controlling resentment inside ourselves if it does occur, and the more volatile and unstable we become emotionally, out of anxiety that it may occur or has occurred. 

It is not that life was any easier for the generations before us. Manifestly that was not the case. We are more privileged and lucky than they were in many ways. We are better protected than they were against the external misfortunes of life. 

But they were better protected than we are against internal punishments for making mistakes with life, or what we feel are mistakes with life. We have to deal with a particular kind of internal stress that did not exist in the same degree for those before us. For earlier generations the question of what a man or woman was going to try to be in life was answered for them. For us it is not. We have to try to answer this ourselves. And for most people this is not an easy task. 

Psychotherapy and Counselling

This is why the professions of psychotherapy and counselling have come to occupy such a prominent place in the modern world. 

There are certain characteristic psychological problems associated with our age of anxiety, some of which I have already indicated, and the task of psychotherapy is to help alleviate these. 

The most prominent among these problems are:

  1. Anxiety itself – the generalised sense of worry generated by the feeling that things in life are at a deep level uncertain, that we do not know what is the right thing to do, either in a moral sense or purely in a practical sense, and that we may make mistakes that can have repercussions for the rest of our lives. Modern anxiety reflects an underlying inarticulate worry that we might be rejected by the community we feel we belong to, because it is no longer clear what the community requires of us. This is the result of the loss of the guidelines telling us how we are expected to live and behave.
  2. A sense of resentment – the feeling that others have done better out of life than we have and that this is due not to chance circumstances but to the fact that they have somehow cheated us out of what according to our merit we deserve. The heightening of the sense of resentment in modern life is a reflection of the fact that we no longer have easy ways of assessing just how well we have done in life. Because of this we live always in the shadow of the feeling that others may have done better than us, and thus that we have been cheated of something we are entitled to.
  3. Feelings of shame – the sense, often not articulated clearly, that the imperfections and flaws in our own life are the result of our own failings and that therefore they should be kept hidden because they reveal our lack of worth and merit. Shame usually arises alongside feelings of anger, either towards the self, which is guilt, or towards the other, which is resentment.
  4. Habits of self-punishment – this is the result of a channeling of our sense of shame and anger at the circumstances of our life, at our own perceived failings, and at the opportunities we feel we have been denied, and the misfortunes we feel we have suffered, into self-defeating styles of life. Modern life is replete with all kinds of self-defeating patterns of behaviour that are really covert expressions of anger.

These are the basic human responses and problems that psychotherapy addresses. Certainly, no intervention that is not ready to acknowledge the reality of all these contemporary psychological problems and to address them should call itself psychotherapy. 

In the past the larger traditional institutions of society and the expectations they made, above all the churches of religious faith, guided the generations before us towards what their aims in life ought to be, and how they should behave. These institutional structures and expectations are now gone. 

Psychotherapy is not here to replace any of these older social and cultural arrangements. Contrary to what its less thoughtful critics have often alleged it is not a new kind of religion. 

Nor is it, as many of its less thoughtful advocates continue to suggest, essentially a new branch of medicine, here to cure us of some hitherto unknown disease. 

Psychotherapy does not deal with illness at all, in the traditional sense of that word. Remember what I said a moment ago: the problems that are unique to our modern society and culture are precisely not those of physical survival; they are a different kind of problem: the problem of what man is. 

Psychotherapy is a new development in cultural life, it is not exactly like anything that has existed before because it is addressing a set of circumstances that are not exactly like anything that has arisen before. 

We are living through an age of uncertainty, a very conscious uncertainty about what kind of being man should try to be. There is little reason to doubt this uncertainty will continue to set the keynote for cultural life for many generations into the future. 

Therapy has no power to change any of this. It does not have the power to replace the lost certainties of the past with new certainties of its own. Nor is it the task of psychotherapy to find prescriptions for society as a whole.

For our generation the world has stopped telling us how to live. For each individual there will therefore be a unique solution to the puzzle of life.

The purpose of the therapy professions is to help us as individuals to find what that unique solution is. 

Psychotherapy is an investigation, through dialogue, of how we derived the aims and habits we have come to adopt in life, and whether these aims and habits are those that can help us to live the most fruitful and rewarding life that is possible for us, given all the complex circumstances we must take into account. 

As psychotherapy helps us to become more clear about what it is we think and feel, we get a clearer picture of what is truly of value to us, which is not necessarily what others may think should be of value to us. We get a clearer sense also of what we can realistically hope to do with life. 

What we can legitimately expect of psychotherapy is that it help us to achieve a clarification of our emotions, a disentangling of the complex and often conflicting feelings we have about life, about the people in our life, about how we got to be where we are, and about how we hope to go from where we are.

The task of psychotherapy is to tease out the strands of our individual life, to disentangle – as far as this is possible in something as a complicated as a human life – the interwoven and knotted cords of circumstance and inclination and aspiration and hope and fear, that have led us to the point in life at which we now find ourselves. Like every point in a human life this will be one in which we find ourselves besieged with anxieties and concerns, with regrets and recriminations, and with hopes and desires. 

Out of all these intermingled things, stretching back into the past and reaching out into the future, the task of psychotherapy is to help us find what pathway into the future is the best, most possible, most realistic, most protective of that which is most precious to us to preserve in ourselves and in those who matter most to us. 

This process of clarification, of getting better to see where we have come from, how we have go to where we are in life, where we are now, what complex of aims, values and objects are important to us now, and, where we can realistically hope to go now, is the essential benefit we have a right to expect from psychotherapy. 

This is all that psychotherapy, at its best, can do for us. But nothing else can do more. 

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