Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus asked the question what constitutes a happy life? Since his time our technological achievements have been vast, and yet our society as a whole is none the wiser about what makes for a happy life, in fact arguably if anything it is probably less so.
If happiness is on one end of the spectrum then depression is on the other. Depression is the number one mental problem in western industrialised nations, and it is no respecter of status or income. How many actors or singers who seem to have it all have we he seen splashed across newspapers checking into clinics citing depression?. Rates of depression are continually rising and increasingly striking younger people. The highest rates of depression are in America, also the wealthiest country in the world. Surely the wealthiest nation should be the happiest?
One of the reasons why our society doesn't know how to be happy is because the blind are leading the blind. The people we look to for answers are often even more misguided than we are.
Our next generation - our children - crave guidance and leadership. They are incredibly impressionable and malleable. If a father places Manchester United football team on the pedestal for worship, it would be unthinkable for his children to worship any other team. Whoever we place on the pedestal for children to admire and emulate, they will do so unquestioningly. So we have to be careful about whom we teach them to look up to and take after.
Who do we present our children with as the epitome of aspiration for fulfilment and happiness?
Do we offer them the thinkers who have actually studied happy people and deduced the elements we could all cultivate more to be happy? Hardly, we have them look up to actors, singers, footballers and their girlfriends, Big Brother, X Factor contestants and other 'celebrities'.
We have chosen many social icons who are variously irresponsible, immature, vain, self-obsessed or just plain clueless. There is an emphasis on the 'me' with a decreasing lack of commitment to other people and to social responsibilities. We are increasingly conditioning ourselves to put our own happiness first, and how this affects other people is not our concern. These attitudes undermine family and social stability and undermine relationship skills. There are a generation of young girls who consider marrying a footballer or appearing on a reality TV show as a viable career 'aspiration'. Lacking any discernible talent is no obstacle to this career path. One need only act in outrageous, attention-seeking ways to be fawned on by the media, and able to justify huge fees for appearances. Scrolling through the options of my cable TV a while ago I saw no less than three different programmes devoted to the celebrity former topless model Jordan.
Is it any wonder then that our young people aspire to be like Jordan when messages are hitting them from every media angle, effectively saying, 'this is what we pay attention to. This is what we value'.
Investing in the latest makeup worn by TOWIE stars becomes more important than any investing in the mind. Working on oneself comes to mean staying slim and cosmetic surgery. Not being good enough equates to not being slim or youthful looking. These are the hang ups that preoccupy so many people, especially the young, and from increasingly younger ages.
The fault doesn't lie with our children but with the examples we are setting them. When I was a child, unsocial behaviour was looked down on by opinion-makers as setting a bad example. Airtime was given over to more inspiring things. Nowadays even governments, the ostensible leaders of our society sycophantically drool over celebrities and rush to rub shoulders with them.
Now by way of contrast consider for a moment the tiny South Pacific insland of Tanna. In the Channel 4 programme Meet the Natives a few years back, five middle-aged Tannan men were invited to the UK to stay with English families. One of the most obvious things about these men (apart from they all looked fit and healthy) was that they all seemed so happy. Indeed, they often remarked to the camera that "people of Tanna are happiest people in the world". They didn't look enviously at our iPhones and widescreen TVs. Indeed they pitied our lack of community, our need to work so hard to impress others, the fact that even though we had children, we never had any time to spend with them, so they didn't feel close to us and we didn't feel close to them.
We may look down on such uncivilised societies but I can assure you of one thing the Tannans have over us. In Tanna the people look up to the venerable village elders to gain from their collective stored wisdom and guidance. They do not place some precocious 19-year old flavour-of-the-month singer at the head and ask her for advice on politics or relationships or social issues the way we do. What they must think of us one can only wonder.
At the heart of our social icons lies the unquestioned assumption that happiness merely equates to fame and fortune, that it is about having money to spend and party. We too want to have money to spend so we can shop and party. It hasn't crossed our mind to question that if fame and fortune are all the keys to happiness, then why are so many of these people who 'make it' still so unhappy? We have been fed the same illusion but convinced it would be different in our case, (as I am sure the celebrities were too when they subscribed to the same illusion). We need to listen to people who have evidence-based answers, not the ones who have car-crash lives.
Follow Felix Economakis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/FelixEconomakis