Australia Reimagined: Towards A More Compassionate, Less Anxious Society

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Although we think of anxiety as an intensely private affliction, when two million Australians are affected each year, the issue is clearly societal as well as personal...something about the nature of life has caused the incidence of anxiety to reach epidemic proportions

Hugh Mackay’s investigation in his latest book Australia Reimagined: Towards a More Compassionate, Less Anxious Society, asks the big questions: not only whom and how many people are suffering from anxiety, but why the hell they are suffering in the first place.

Whilst Mackay acknowledges that there are always very specific and diverse factors that can lead to a diagnosis of anxiety for individuals, he argues that the sheer rate of cases reported points to the presence of ‘an underlying climate of anxiety’ within Australia. 

Looking at the ways in which the structure and nature of families, workplaces, neighbourhoods and communities have changed within the last fifty years, Mackay argues that we as a society are becoming more individualistic, more competitive and in a word more fragmented than we have ever been. 

Drawing a link between what he calls a lack of “social cohesion” and our skyrocketing rates of mental health issues, he claims that the ways in which society have changed (and continue to change) challenge our very nature as social beings who need to feel and be a part of a community, who need to feel and be connected with those around them.

But hold on… 

We live in an age where the world, is literally, at our fingertips. Where we can call, text, Skype and Snapchat anyone at a moment’s notice and expect a response in mere seconds… so how could we possibly feel more alone? 

For Mackay, our relationship with technology is ensuring that we stay apart, and he devotes much of his book to this second contributing factor of our anxiety…

With digital data exchange replacing real face-to-face communication, and online message boards and Facebook groups replacing real world interaction, Mackay warns us that we are living in a period that ‘represents a contradiction of our essential human nature as cooperative, interdependent, social beings’ and that we are suffering physically, emotionally, and above all psychologically as a result.  

Real connections, real communities, real relationships, exist and can only ever exist offline, and thanks to our overhasty acceptance of the IT revolution, and our now reliance (or dependence) on technology, we have reached the point where we see there being no difference between online and offline communication.  As a result, we are ‘routinely placing ourselves in situations where it’s easy to keep our emotional distance’; we actively choose texting over face-to-face talking to avoid confrontation and conflict, and spend more time staring at our phones than into the eyes of our friends, our family and our loved ones.

With our smartphones virtually becoming an extension of our own bodies, it might be easy to sometimes lose track of our biology and think that we are made of copper and wires like so much around us.

It might be easy to simply see us as broken-down machines that need a bit of a tune-up or repair from time to time, even if this means the occasional trip to the psychologist or a regular prescription of medication. But Mackay’s book suggests a different perspective

We need to take a step back and see this epidemic of anxiety for what it truly is: a sign that our essential needs as human beings are not being met, and that we need to get back in touch with not only our humanity, but with our fellow human beings.