Talking up the pursuit of happiness

Talking up the pursuit of happiness

Talking up the pursuit of happiness

Larry Schwartz – The Age

August 16, 2007

HE’S a psychiatry professor who heads an institution that specialises in mood disorders including depression and bipolar disorder. He reckons most people he knows see him “as more on the severe side”. So what’s Gordon Parker got to smile about?

“When I look back I think I’ve been incredibly lucky at so many levels – professionally and personally,” he says. “And I’ve said to my wife many times, ‘Boy, oh boy, we have been lucky’.”

At 65, Professor Parker, a panellist at a recent conference on happiness and its causes, says he feels a general sense of wellbeing he associates with love, music, travel and feeling at one with nature. Where he once revelled in joyful hedonism, he now talks of the simple pleasure of attending the recent wedding of his daughter, Marena.

He believes the Dalai Lama has a similar message to the “golden rule” of service to others that he recently read in a book on philosophy was applied by leaders as varied as Jesus, Muhammad or Confucius. Professor Parker was thrilled to be part of a panel discussion with the Tibetan leader, moderated by the ABC’s, Geraldine Doogue, at the conference at Sydney’s Darling Harbour.

“I thought it an immense privilege to be invited and I read on happiness every which way for six months,” says Professor Parker, the executive director of the Sydney-based Black Dog Institute. Other panellists were comedian Magda Szubanski; Clive Hamilton, author and head of the Australia Institute; and Linda Burney, the first indigenous woman elected to the NSW Parliament.

“When I met the Dalai Lama I had a smile on my face for the next hour. But after my daughter’s wedding – I have a few kids married now – I had a smile on my face for a week.”

Winston Churchill coined the term “black dog” to describe his own depression. The institute is attached to the Prince of Wales Hospital and affiliated with the University of NSW. It was launched in 2002, continuing the work of a clinical research facility called the Mood Disorders Unit.

Professor Parker has tried his hand at creative writing and had a book of fiction published in the 1960s under a pseudonym ‘so trite, I prefer not to name it”. He has written and broadcast for the satirical Mavis Bramston Show and the ABC Science Show.

“I used to think, as a young doctor, that it would be good if I got some modestly painful or some other expression of illness on about a monthly basis,” he says. “Just so that I could understand a bit more about what people I was dealing with were actually feeling.”

Professor Parker sits furthest from the Dalai Lama in Sunday’s screening of the panel discussion.

“He (the Dalai Lama) gave a one-hour talk prior to the conversation,” Professor Parker recalls. “When he walked into the auditorium, he scanned the audience. He didn’t say anything for about three minutes. Not many crowds wouldn’t start to get restive. He has a natural authority at a very high level. There’s an openness to him as well. His opening words to the audience were, ‘I hope you all slept well last night’.”

In Journeys with the Black Dog, a recent book Professor Parker co-edited with Tessa Wigney and Kerrie Eyers, more than 600 people tell personal stories of “bringing depression to heel”. The final chapter features comment by those who say they would have chosen to go through the ordeal of depression and explain how it had made them more considerate or tolerant or less caught up with trivialities.

During the panel discussion, Hamilton, co-author of a recent book called Affluenza, comments that you “can want to be happy too desperately” and marketing in a consumer culture tempts us to think we can find happiness by buying products. But Professor Parker warns against “chasing after more and more superficial baubles that wear off very quickly”.

He says the French sociologist and philosopher Emile Durkheim used the word “anomie” – an alienation experienced as a result of the absence of social norms or values – to describe the opposite of wellbeing.

“I was reading the other day that the Swiss have the highest happiness levels in Europe,” he says, “and the interpretation that this is likely to reflect the way in which their communal life is organised. Political decisions aren’t centralised but are processed by individual cantons and what you have is the direct participation of the community in decision making.”

Recent research on levels of national happiness have been based on factors such as trust in fellow citizens, low unemployment, levels of education and income.

Professor Parker says surveys have found former Eastern Bloc countries least happy and that Australia has similar levels to New Zealand, Britain, Sweden and, to his surprise, Northern Ireland (he thinks this might reflect a sense of being united against the world), “about a third (of the way) down the list”.

Recent research shows we are increasingly stressed and overweight or obese. How happy are Australians? Professor Parker is wary of an answer based on “pop psychology and speculation”. But he does think we might be less so than many of us seem to believe.

“In the same way that we misinterpreted Donald Horne’s book, The Lucky Country, when it was really telling us the news isn’t that good,” he says, “I think most people would see the average Australian as more upbeat and optimistic and fresh-faced and open-hearted than is necessarily the case. But in comparison with other countries that caricature would hold up.”

Happiness and its Causes screens Sunday in the Compass slot at 10.05pm on the ABC.