Friday, December 23, 2016

Suffering from Weltschmerz? A tip to cheer you up!

Hell in a wheelbarrow, courtesy Thomas Staub pixabay
Do you feel that the world is a mean place, filled with wicked people, lazy youths and altogether heading for hell in a hand basket?  If so, read on for some discussion of what might be going on, and tips for managing the issue.

Weltschmerz meaning world-pain in German was coined by Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, a German author who wrote fun, upbeat romances in the late 18th century.  Known by his pen name, Jean Paul, he suggested that our wishes about a perfect world can never actually come true, hence our pain when reality falls short of our expectations.

Jean Paul by Heinrich Pfenninger

Weltschmerz is also used in the context of the kind of anxious depression we feel when we contemplate the ills of the world. At present, this type of reaction is the subject of some research and so far the leading impression is that connectivity is at least partly to blame.

So how does that work?

Many opinion makers point out that depression has risen at the same time as the internet has become generally available. They say we are swamped with information, a lot of it is pretty negative, and that this is one of the things that makes us more prone to depression. 

However, is this really new?

Many people point at the media as highlighting bad stuff that's happening. However, in the 1700s, newspapers were popular, especially the yellow press that relied on scandal mongering.Nasty news back then was just as hot as it is now.

I think this points to our human nature. Positive news attracts very few readers; horrific news is extremely popular. As news agencies are companies that rely on sales, they focus on death, war, torture, rape, cruelty and so on. (Although some add in the odd cute kitten to mitigate all the negative stuff.)

While the type of news we see has stayed constant over time, it's true that we have the capability to see more bad news today than ever before. I watch "on the hour" headlines from several live news feeds and read the top stories of twenty or so newspapers and magazines every day. That's a lot of bad news.

However, many people don't watch the news, don't read newspapers and get their information from social networks instead. They are not in touch with world events at all, and sometimes not even local ones.

It may be that the other things about being connected, the pressure to keep up with the Jones's, bullying, and so on, are factors, however, these pressures aren't new either and I'm not convinced they're very much different now than they were pre-internet.

I think there are two more important phenomena at work. 

Gumibears, courtesy Ronile, Pixabay
First, we are increasingly lonely.  Our homes are smaller, so we live alone or in small family units rather than with three or even four generations. Few of us can afford to live near our work, so we tend to live further away from our friends and relatives than ever before. We also work more hours than we used to, have fewer days off, and commuting means even less time with loved ones.   This type of isolation leads to increased stress and depression.

Second, we underestimate our own changing sophistication. When we're young, we tend to be naive and more optimistic because bad situations are new to us. Of course, the more experience we have, the more we become aware that happy endings aren't always the rule.  This means that when we are mature, we understand that victims won't always leave their abusive partners, that rape victims are blamed because others choose to attack them, ... and on and on it goes.

However, we confuse our own increased wisdom with moral decline in the world.  We think, "This didn't happen twenty years ago," instead of, "Twenty years ago I would have thought differently about this."

Put it all together and you have a pretty powerful negative punch, with or without connectivity.

If you suffer from Weltschmertz, simply understanding what you're feeling, what your personal triggers are, and how you can uplift your spirits with simple exercises like uncovering your own inner needs as well as pleasure scheduling will help. 

However, there is another very simple realisation that helps me when I'm having dark thoughts:


In the Book of Isaiah, written around 700BC, the author wrote, "How the faithful city has become a whore! Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them."

Horace reads before Maecenas, by Fyodor Bronnikov
Horace, a Roman poet working around 20BC, wrote in Book III of Odes, "Viler than grandsires, sires beget Ourselves, yet baser, soon to curse The world with offspring baser yet."


Look throughout history and you'll find similar examples of older people moaning that the world used to be terrific and is now horrible.

I take that as a very good sign. If people have been moaning about how wicked everyone is for thousands of years, we're probably looking at thousands more years of the same thing.

So when I'm inclined to think, "The world is becoming awful" I say to myself "It's my increased wisdom saying that, and I'm just having a Horace moment."  It works for me.  Hope it works for you!







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