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Desire, Dreams, and Happiness

Thursday 09th July
Many think wealth and love bring happiness. But desire can also lead to depression. Should we seek better dreams?
| Professor of mental health and diversity at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London; President of the World Psychiatric Association; awarded a CBE in 2012.

Dinesh Bhugra 33

Human beings are desirous of many things – both material and emotional. We like to live comfortably and we need emotional relationships with others to fulfill our desires for intimacy and emotional support. Human beings have aspirations – not only for ourselves but for others too. It has been demonstrated that a discrepancy between aspiration and ...

Human beings are desirous of many things – both material and emotional. We like to live comfortably and we need emotional relationships with others to fulfill our desires for intimacy and emotional support. Human beings have aspirations – not only for ourselves but for others too. It has been demonstrated that a discrepancy between aspiration and achievement leads to a sense of frustration and affects self-image – resulting in low self-esteem and probable depression too.

The discrepancy between achievement and aspiration may well apply more in cases of migrants who may feel that they are being stopped from achieving their full potential. Studies from various parts of the world have shown that the rates of mental illnesses are greater in migrants when compared with local populations. This also illustrates the possibility that reasons for migration are important and it is very likely that those who migrate for economic or educational betterment have a much higher predisposition to developing psychiatric disorders. Anti-immigration policies and a sense of not being welcome in the new country can contribute further to a sense of alienation. The other interesting observation is that the second generation of migrants show higher rates of psychiatric disorders suggesting that social factors and discrimination may well be at play. This shows how dreams of achievement and desires do affect individual functioning.

We need desires for a number of reasons. Some of these are related to self-affirmation and others to an inbuilt desire. Freud described our innate sense of love and of death, both of which tend to focus on survival. It is therefore important to understand how these desires play out in our day-to-day functioning. Sexual desires affect not only individuals but wider cultures too. Cultures have been described as sex-negative and sex-positive. Sex-negative cultures see the main purpose of sex as for procreation and not for pleasure, although sex-positive cultures see sexual activity as being for pleasure. The rates of paraphilias (fetishes) are postulated to be higher in sex-positive countries though the data are not very clear.

Fiction can allow us to dream and deal with our fantasies too. When it comes to desire, it is critical that the differences between fact and fiction are recognised at the individual level and also in the wider social context. Desires are culture-specific. In cultures which are modern, the expectation of desire is for material gains. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is the proverb: individuals tend to go for better accommodation, bigger cars etc.

In many cultures, however, the aim is to have these desires displaced. In Hindu culture, for example, life span is divided into four quarters. The first one is of celibacy where individuals are expected to abstain from sex and concentrate on education and learning. The second quarter aims to focus on setting up the household and bringing up children. The third quarter aims to focus on greater social involvement and carrying out social work and the last quarter aims for the individual to give up all worldly goods and attachments and focus on the hereafter. Thus in the latter two quarters there is no real focus on desires.

Studies have shown that jealousy related to relationships and possessions were not described in Communist countries. Is this to do with everybody being equal or a lack of access? It is difficult to be certain whether the attitudes to possessions are set from childhood or develop as individuals grow up. It has also been suggested that the younger generations (i.e. those born between 1978 and 1997) are more likely to be more narcissistic and may have a bigger sense of entitlement and higher self-esteem. It can be argued that more possessions do not generally make any one more satisfied. Does money really buy happiness? Money can certainly buy comfort most of the time. Happiness and contentment are also individual values: depending upon cultural upbringing and cultural values, these may allow individuals to accept their lot or make them strive harder to compete or achieve more. Whether it is sexual or materialistic, desire depends upon cultural values. Cultures dictate how children are brought up and also how their worldviews are formed. The individual is at the heart of social interaction and surrounded by kinship, family and then by the society. However, within that context an individual’s dreams and desires affect their functioning. Even though society and culture define deviance and abnormality, desire remains an individual choice.

 

 

 Image credit: Hartwig HKD

 

 

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