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We've Got Everything We Want - So Why Are We So Bloody Miserable?

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We are living through a time of endless choice and unlimited convenience. Whether we're deciding on cars, mobile phones, holidays or simply which sandwich to have for lunch, the range of available options can be genuinely overwhelming.

Yet with so much effort dedicated to giving us what we want, and enjoying unprecedented levels of income, entertainment, and calories as 21st century Britons, we don't appear any happier for it.

Let me put that more strongly. Categorically, we are not happy. In the UK, levels of dissatisfaction with modern life were soaring even before the credit crunch of 2008. Two thirds of 15 to 40-year-olds, enjoying the highest living standards since records began, felt depressed or unhappy during these so-called 'best years of their lives'.

When asked, fewer than half the British population agreed with the statement 'most people are satisfied with their lives'.

One reason is that while modern life is not rubbish, it is very expensive, requiring us to earn a lot of money to pay for it.

In return for having Everything Now, we have to work harder and longer. According to the TUC, UK employees work some of the longest hours in Europe, so it's no surprise that unhappiness at work is often cited as a major cause of this broader discontent.

There is a widespread feeling that the work-life balance is out of sync. 70% of workers claim that their job takes up 'too much time and emotional energy'. Around 65% feel stressed at work, with parents much more likely to be affected by this than childless couples.

We are earning more than ever before, it's true, but access to consumer credit means that saving up for something has become anathema; instead we buy now and pay later.

We may not be living beyond our means, but we are living ahead of them; our incomes never seeming to keep pace with things we are required to spend them on. In 2010 consumer debt in the UK stood at an eye-watering £56,000 per household; a total of £1.5 trillion.

This is undoubtedly a compelling argument - that our unhappiness is a result of the amount of time we are forced to work to pay for the privilege of having it all. But, importantly, it is not the whole story.

Working long hours is a symptom, not the cause of our unhappiness. Contrary as it sounds, it is the Everything Now culture through the very process of giving us what we want, that is the primary source of our dissatisfaction.

To succeed in a wants-focused, rather than needs-focused economy, companies and brands actually have to ensure that we are permanently in a dissatisfied state, from which the purchase of their goods and services will provide temporary, palliative relief.

The impact of this can most clearly be seen where it matters most: in British family life. In 2011 a report published by Unicef placed the well-being of UK children at the bottom of a league table of developed countries.

The report tried to explain Britain's position itself by suggesting that, as a nation, we have got our priorities wrong, replacing quality time with playrooms crammed with expensive playthings.

It revealed: "All children interviewed said that material goods did not make them happy, but materialism in the UK seems to be just as much of a problem for parents as children... Parents in the UK often feel compelled to purchase consumer goods which are often neither wanted nor treasured."

I started school in 1971. I was only 10 when punk happened, much too young to comprehend the movement's anger, but I definitely related to its ennui.

My abiding childhood memory is being bored. Not unhappy necessarily - I knew no better - but definitely bored. Access to all the things I loved - football, music, films, books, TV - was effectively rationed.

Football rarely featured on TV; the music I longed to hear was never played on the radio and hard to buy in the shops; movies took several years to move from cinema to television screens - TV itself was little more than a couple of channels.

To the 15-year-old me, living through this dull fug, 2012 would have seemed like an amazing place.

And what would have got him most excited of all would be that thing called 'The Internet' delivering immediate and unfettered access to millions of books, newspapers and magazines; thousands of movies and TV shows and almost the entire canon of recorded music.

Everything Now, in fact.

What kids want is attention, what they get instead is materialism.

Everything Now culture gears us towards providing the latter, but in doing so deprives us of the means to giving the former: we might well have the money, but we certainly don't have the time.

Perhaps an even more straightforward conclusion is that our children are unhappy because we are.

Parents who work all hours to increase family income are naturally going to be too exhausted or too busy to give their children the attention they need and deserve, feeling guilty and attempting to compensate materially is an understandable response.

Arguably, it only exacerbates the problem.

Everything Now culture is an expensive, but effective commercial cycle that is geared to satisfying wants: it can do nothing to address the needs of family life or personal wellbeing.

In that context, the amount of time and effort going into convincing us we are unhappy is truly remarkable.

Consumers are hit with around 3,000 messages a day, almost all of which will be trying to persuade them that their lives will be materially improved if they buy this product or upgrade to that service.

Everything Now makes us feel like we are in control of our lives, but the decisions we make are far from independent.

We are permanently dissatisfied, always wanting something we haven't got and constantly nudged, cajoled, persuaded, coaxed and induced towards an ultimately ephemeral solution, whereupon the whole, unfulfilling process can begin again.

Is this really what we want?

Steve McKevitt is author of Everything Now published by Route Publishing, priced £8.99.

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