Reclaiming Liberty and Wellbeing



Other Books with Exisle Publishing

Illuminating Wisdom: Words of wisdom, works of art by Deirdre Hassed and Dr Craig Hassed

The Mindful Home: The secrets to making your home a place of harmony, beauty, wisdom and true happiness by Dr Craig Hassed and Deirdre Hassed

Mindful Learning: Reduce stress and improve brain performance for effective learning by Dr Craig Hassed and Dr Richard Chambers

Mindfulness for Life by Dr Stephen McKenzie and Dr Craig Hassed


Craig Hassed is an Associate Professor at Monash University, where he has taught in the Medical Faculty since 1989. He is also coordinator of the faculty’s mindfulness programs. His teaching, research and clinical interests include mindfulness-based stress management, mind-body medicine, meditation, health promotion, integrative medicine and medical ethics. Craig consults widely with other universities and is regularly invited to speak and run courses in Australia and overseas in health, professional and educational contexts. He was the founding president of the Australian Teachers of Meditation Association and is a regular media commentator. Craig has written regularly for medical journals and has authored and co-authored twelve books and featured in the documentary The Connection, for which he also wrote the companion e-book. With Richard Chambers, he co-authored the online Mindfulness course in collaboration with Monash University and FutureLearn.



1 The freedom trap

2 In praise of freedom

3 So free we seem

4 Contemporary freedom — where are we now?

5 The philosophy of freedom

6 Freedom under the law

7 Liberté, egalité and fraternité — the politics of freedom

8 The science of freedom

9 The psychology of freedom

10 The ethics of freedom

11 Child rearing and education

12 Freedom of speech and privacy




First published 2017

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Copyright © 2017 in text: Craig Hassed

Craig Hassed asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. Except for short extracts for the purpose of review, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, whether electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.

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While this book is intended as a general information resource and all care has been taken in compiling the contents, neither the author nor the publisher and their distributors can be held responsible for any loss, claim or action that may arise from reliance on the information contained in this book. As each person and situation is unique, it is the responsibility of the reader to consult a qualified professional regarding their personal care.


The interest in freedom and the motivation for writing this book arises from personal experience and from working with many people over many years who have been oppressed by stress, life-threatening and debilitating illness, pain, fear, addiction and many other problems — in short, the human condition which we all share in our own unique ways. Such problems are often seen as individual issues but they have much to do with the society we live within. Although suffering has been as perennial as existence itself, today it is as if we live in a world that is breeding discontent and, well intended though our attempts may be, we are struggling to deal effectively with these problems.

How did we get into this situation in the first place? How can we stop multiplying our problems? How do we free ourselves individually and collectively from our burdens? What is freedom and how do we find it? This book aims to explore these and related questions from first principles. It aims to inquire into the nature of freedom itself and then to look at particular issues in light of insights gleaned from that inquiry. Freedom will be explored philosophically, psychologically, politically, socially, legally, ethically, scientifically and neurologically We will reflect on historical and modern perspectives. Contemporary issues and many modern assumptions about freedom will be examined and questioned. The answers we come up with and the philosophical assumptions we make have profound ramifications for us as individuals and for the wider society. They will largely determine whether we reduce our burdens or multiply them. Hopefully, through questioning, we might come to a deeper understanding of freedom and how to promote it; real freedom, that is, and not just a shadow of freedom. To aid us in our search, at the end of each chapter there will be reflective topics and practical exercises that we can explore for ourselves.

If we enter into this inquiry in an objective and impartial way, if we ask hard questions and are not too attached to any particular point of view, hopefully some illumination may arise along the way. We may change our views, or we may not. We may come to understand our own views even more deeply than before. Whichever way we see it, it is a basic premise of this book that these questions need to be asked and that answers need to be held up to scrutiny and not taken for granted just because we live in an age where certain assumptions about freedom are widely accepted without question. If we come to understand freedom more deeply then we should, individually and collectively, also grow in happiness, peace, health and harmony. If we don’t understand what freedom really is then, no matter what we think, we may, individually and collectively, find ourselves in a kind of prison of our own making. For the purposes of this book, this is what will be called ‘the freedom trap’.



The pitfall

There are many species of carnivorous plants — plants that eat insects and very small animals. Gruesome as they are, they use a variety of ingenious, effective but simple ways of trapping their prey, which is not so easy when your prey can fly and you can’t move. One group, the pitfall (or pitcher) plants, are particularly interesting. They have a long, vertical, funnel-shaped and cavernous flower with a pit of digestive juices at the bottom and a wide opening at the top that curves forward. On the front lip of the flower is a landing pad of sorts covered with a little sweet nectar that attracts flying insects. The insect lands on the lip of the flower and begins to taste the sweet nectar. So far, so good as the insect seems to be getting a free lunch. But the nectar slowly gets more abundant and sweeter the further inside the plant’s mouth the insect goes. While the insect’s attention is totally consumed by the increasingly sweet taste of the nectar, it neglects to notice a few other relevant things are happening. Firstly, the slope of the wall becomes steeper and steeper the further the insect goes inside the flower. Secondly, the wall is becoming more and more slippery and precarious with downward pointing hairs. Soon the insect gets to a point of no return. It loses its footing and falls into the sticky digestive juices at the bottom from which it can’t escape. There was really no free lunch at all. The insect has become lunch.

It’s interesting to marvel over the efficient, effortless and beautiful design of these plants, but possibly they represent a metaphor for the human condition. Are we, as it were, distracted and sipping the sweet nectar, all the while blithely inching our way closer to a pit we know not of? Are we one moment free and the next moment trapped? If so, what is the nectar? What is the slippery slope? What is the pit? What is it that distracts us? What is the trap and how do we avoid it? Upon what does our continued freedom depend?

The fox condemns the trap, not himself.

William Blake1

Perhaps the trap is hidden from sight by self-deception, false beliefs, a lack of awareness, conflicted internal motivations and a lack of reason. If so, non-attachment, self-honesty, the rule of reason, awareness and integration of the psyche may be the ways to avoid the trap or to find a way out of it. Perhaps for us the trap is made up of things that we find sweet and attractive, things such as desires and attachments to pleasure and possessions, but they have the potential to lead to addictions and unhappiness where we thought we might find satisfaction. Perhaps our hunger for ever-greater freedom draws us ever closer to the tipping point. Perhaps we misunderstand what freedom really is and so, rather than liberation, we find ourselves in what we might call the freedom trap.

So free we seem

It would be easy to think that a book called The Freedom Trap is in some way anti-freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. This book is unequivocally, unapologetically, unhesitatingly, unambiguously, unflinchingly and unashamedly pro-freedom. It would also be easy to think that if a book raises concerns about the direction in which society is progressing then it must be anti-progress. That is also far from the truth. Progress there must be. Time and the world move forward; the decision lies as to which direction actually leads towards lasting freedom and happiness.

The main problem may be that we do not know as much about freedom as we think we do. We may be labouring under the burden of unquestioned assumptions. There are undoubtedly people who proclaim to have the answers as to what freedom is and how to promote it. They may give political speeches about it, write newspaper columns on it, protest in defence of it, fight wars for it, become activists to promote it and, dare I say, write books about it. However, speaking vociferously about something is not necessarily a mark of wisdom if this Tibetan proverb is anything to go by: ‘Goodness speaks in a whisper, evil shouts.’2

There are clues all around us that we are not quite as free as we take ourselves to be. As Robert Browning wrote, ‘So free we seem, so fettered fast we are.’3 The first step in knowing what something is sometimes lies in discovering what it is not. In the tradition of Socrates, ‘the man who knew nothing’, it might be useful not to assume we know what freedom is at all.

If it is hard to be happy, at peace and in harmony with the world, if we are not free, then if we grow in freedom it stands to reason that we also enjoy all that comes with it, like greater happiness, peace and harmony. But there is too much in the modern world to suggest that the opposite is the case. Rising rates of mental illness, addiction, social isolation, conflict, inequity and endemic corruption suggest that we are missing something. Do we have the wrong idea about what freedom is? Are we barking up the wrong tree? Where are the answers going to come from? Hopefully from ourselves, but why not also ask the few wise people who promoted freedom in the wider world and also made a useful contribution to the wellbeing of others. People, for example, who were just in the face of injustice, truthful in the face of deception, compassionate in the face of hatred, and wise in the face of ignorance. What have they got to say about freedom? Perhaps the adversity they faced taught them a thing or two about it. Mind you, the answers wisdom gives are not always the ones we want to hear, which might explain why so many wise people have been criticized, put in prison and even executed.

To find answers we could also refer to evidence from modern science. Evidence, however, is just information. The problem is that it needs to be interpreted in order for it to be useful and there are a lot of things influencing how we interpret or distort information.

The other main way of exploring freedom is through direct personal experience and honest reflection. At the end of the day, it is for you, the reader, to make up your own mind about what freedom is and how you want to pursue it. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. It doesn’t matter so much what other people say, or what the evidence is, or how it is interpreted. What matters is what we can discover for ourselves.

Where did our freedom go?

Let us consider our state of freedom throughout our life. For a baby, although totally dependent on its parents, its existence is also one of purity, innocence and freedom from ego and preoccupation with future and past. We may not remember much about what it was like to be a baby but we may remember a slow diminution in freedom as we grew out of the uncomplicated, bright and happy existence that was childhood and into the complex, murky and discontented state we tend to call adolescence. It’s not so much that the world changed but more that the state of mind and being changed. Suddenly the fleeting worries or concerns of one’s childhood begin to linger, elaborate on themselves and take up residence — worries about oneself, others, relationships, the world, the future, uncertainty, hopes, desires, regrets and on it goes. Perhaps the most perplexing thoughts and feelings were about discontent and unhappiness even when there was no good reason to be discontented and unhappy. At times we may have felt that we were living in an internal private prison without any real understanding of how we got there or how to escape. If we were lucky we may have come out the other side as a ‘well-adjusted adult’, whatever that may be, but for most of us the adolescent angst simply makes way for a more subverted kind of adult angst as most of us ‘lead lives of quiet desperation’ as the revered American author and transcendentalist philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in his classic book, Walden.4

Life may go on well enough, but there is something inside us that knows there has to be something better than this. If the adolescent gets tyrannized by an inner world of insecurities then the adult is likely to be tyrannized by a range of external burdens as well — burdens like family responsibilities, workload, buying a home, attaining financial security, staying healthy and then contemplating our mortality. Of course, as time goes on, most of us forget to live life consciously and deliberately, so preoccupied are we about getting to some mythical future place and time where we will be happy and content. Perhaps we forget to follow our passions in life. Perhaps we get subtly steered off course and find ourselves on a treadmill without ever making a conscious or discerning decision to get on it in the first place. Instead of truly living a life, we feel trapped by it. Again, to quote Thoreau: ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’5

If we are lucky, and we don’t settle for a life of quiet desperation, we may ask ourselves a number of fundamental questions about happiness and freedom. For example, with regard to freedom, which is more important — what is going on around us or what is going on within us? Are our greatest problems in our circumstances or in our minds? Can a person walk the street without any external hindrance and yet not be free? Can a person be in a prison cell and be free at the same time? If we weren’t attached to things would we be both happy and free? Is it really true that truth is whatever we think it is and that one person’s opinion about freedom and happiness is as valid as anybody else’s? By not knowing ourselves can we be oblivious to what is conducive to our wellbeing?

These are questions humankind has pondered for as long as recorded history but they are just as important today, not just in a theoretical or academic sense but in a practical, immediate and very real way. Within the answers to such questions may lie the solutions to many contemporary problems. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all have assumptions about questions such as the ones above. Maybe we haven’t taken the time or effort to intentionally consider them but our assumptions declare themselves by how we live and what we pursue in life. Maybe we have unconsciously adopted the prevailing attitudes of the society, peer group or family we were raised in. Maybe we are just blown along by the winds of popular opinion and circumstance. Maybe we have consciously reflected on such questions and come up with answers radically different to the prevailing ideas. Maybe our assumptions have been tested and have not stood the test leaving us dispirited and giving up asking questions altogether. Maybe we didn’t give up but asked the questions again with renewed enthusiasm and, after much effort, have made discoveries that have stood the test. Maybe those insights even aligned with what a few wise people had discovered before us.




If there is one word, one motivation, one principle that is more revered, one cause more worth fighting for than any other it would have to be freedom. Countries go to war for it, citizens plot uprisings over it, numerous movies are made about it, and individuals fiercely defend it whenever it is threatened. It is therefore fitting early on in The Freedom Trap that we give homage to some great examples of humanity’s legitimate struggle for freedom.

It’s in our nature

The pursuit of freedom is indelibly etched into our nature if observation of human behaviour is anything to go by. First, there is the raw, primitive cry for freedom given by a toddler at the supermarket checkout grasping with all its might to some shiny bauble or tasty treat. Then there are the discontented rumblings and extended debates that teenagers have with their parents over why they should be allowed to go to a particular party or stay out all night. There is the longing for freedom of subjugated people who deeply desire to throw off the physical, economic, political, social or religious shackles they endure. There is the struggle for freedom of the employee wanting to have flexible work hours or choose for themselves what work they will or won’t do. There is the longing for liberation from work altogether of a work-weary person in anticipation of retirement. Then there is the longing for freedom from disease and suffering of a person in the final stages of life. Depending on the level of subjugation, people will not bear for long conditions under which they are not their own masters. Of course, in order for the longing for freedom to stir within us, we first need to be conscious of the fact that we are not truly free.

Whether or not we respect the freedom of others has a direct impact on ourselves and society. If an employer abuses or neglects workers’ rights by underpaying them, it is a harbinger for further and greater abuses to come. Racial discrimination against someone in ways that are easy to ignore — even just thinking negatively about someone on the basis of their race — creates fertile ground for discrimination to flourish. Whether we cast our votes for politicians appealing to self-interest, or the interests of the country, or the interests of all humanity, sets the scene for the political system and discourse in which we find ourselves. As sweet as self-interest seems to be, it soon becomes a bitter and isolating trap within which we find ourselves sooner or later as illustrated by the following story.

A student of wisdom asked his teacher to show him heaven and hell. His teacher agreed and inquired as to which he would like to see first. The student replied, ‘Hell’. He was duly transported to a beautiful mansion set amid the most magnificent and bountiful countryside. Entering the mansion, the student was taken to a banquet hall of extraordinary opulence where spread out was the most sumptuous feast he had ever laid eyes on. The student quickly perceived, however, that the room was also filled with the most excruciating misery he had ever seen. Despite this opulence the people were crying out piteously, sick and starving. He wondered why this was so and, taking a closer look, he noticed that the people were compelled to eat their food with forks which were too long to get the food into their mouths. The student wondered who could have been so cruel as to play such a macabre joke on these poor souls. He then asked to be taken to heaven. His teacher dutifully took him to an identical mansion set in an identical countryside. On entering he was shown to an identical banquet hall with the same feast laid out that he had seen before. The student noticed that the people were also compelled to eat with the same long forks and yet, to his surprise, everyone was healthy, happy and well fed. Wondering why, he again looked closely. The only difference he could see between heaven and hell was that in hell people starved because they could not feed themselves. In heaven they thrived because they fed each other.

Historical examples of the struggle for liberation

It is not too difficult to see why there is such a strong preoccupation with freedom nowadays. History, ancient and recent, is littered with abuses of freedom, some of which were begrudgingly tolerated for many years, such as miners enduring unsafe working conditions, and others which were more extreme and intolerable such as Cambodians living under the tyranny of Pol Pot. The former are tolerated because they may not have created misery extreme enough to galvanize resistance. The latter only survive by virtue of a massive power imbalance and the most extreme use of force, otherwise nobody would willingly be held in such a state. The following examples are all indicative of the perennial struggle for freedom. It is all human nature playing out.


It almost boggles the mind to think that, around one and a half centuries ago, slavery was entrenched in the economic and social fabric of many of the world’s leading political and economic powers — democracies no less. As unnatural as it was, it was construed as the natural order of things and so needed to be justified religiously, socially and economically if the societies perpetrating it were to have their consciences sufficiently blinded to what they were doing. There was even pseudo-science to make it appear as if slavery was a part of the natural order. No doubt, as William Wilberforce, the English politician and anti-slavery campaigner noted, it only took a moment’s unbiased observation of the brutality and misery of the slave trade to have that view turned 180 degrees.

That people would die trying to escape slavery, and that social reformers would risk their reputations to have it repealed, is entirely understandable and admirable. What could a society possibly be thinking in order to justify that one person could own, buy and sell another human being? What kind of dogma or perverted logic could possibly justify it and make a person blind to the misery and suffering it caused? Possibly unfettered self-interest, delusions of superiority, and a total lack of compassion might have had something to do with it.

Apartheid and racism

Although slavery, by and large, passed into history the racist attitudes that allowed it to flourish didn’t. They merely found expression in a watered down form. Oppressed races may no longer be in physical shackles but they could still be in economic, social and legal ones. Restrictions on the mixing of races, freedom of movement and association, education and work opportunities all meant that races would be unable to reach their potential or rise to positions of influence no matter what their merit.

Many of the most inspiring and universally admired figures in recent history — such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela — fought peacefully, courageously and unwaveringly to overturn such forms of injustice. King’s famous speech delivered on 28 August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC is one of the most revered proclamations for freedom ever spoken.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination... And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing... And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true... And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’1

Economic injustice

In the natural scheme of things, wealth is generated by people providing physical labour, services and products that other people need. This generally requires access to land, services, labour and the marketplace in order to be productive and profitable. To be deprived of fair opportunity or access is an economic injustice. There are many historical examples of disenfranchisement, land enclosure, abuses of workers’ rights, and deprivation of employment. There are also examples of the idle wealthy living off the hard work of the working classes. The settlement of North America by people looking for economic opportunity, the American and French Revolutions where the poor rose up against their economic and political masters, the struggle against the English class system, and in Australia the rising up of abused miners at the Eureka Stockade, are all examples of people seeking freedom from oppressive economic systems.

In the modern economic scheme of things, much income is earned by profiting from the useful work that others do while not doing anything useful oneself. It is one thing to invest money for a return by financing industry and opportunities for others to work. It is another thing to generate wealth via the convoluted, speculative, obscure and dishonest manipulation of money, markets and tax systems. The global financial crisis (GFC) is an example of the inevitable effects of an unjust economic system making some people fantastically rich on the back of other people’s hard labour but with no accountability. Debt is played off against debt, hard-working people have their life savings lost in speculative schemes, and many people are manipulated into debts they cannot afford to repay. Like a house of cards, such an economic system cannot stand for long and it only takes a fiscal puff of wind to blow it over.

Naturally, people have an understandable desire to be free of parasitic economic systems that allow such abuses to flourish, although currently the economic pain does not seem to have yet been strong enough in most developed countries to mobilize the wider community into a modern revolution. But who knows, unless steps are taken we may see it happen again in the not too distant future and the results will not be pretty.


One only has to consider the hardship being endured by tens of millions of refugees currently fleeing armed political conflicts around the world to see how strong the yearning for freedom is. History is littered with unjust political systems from whose tyrannical tentacles citizens wished to liberate themselves. Nazism was a recent but pertinent example. The wider European community passionately wanted freedom as did the just and good-hearted German citizens who could see fanaticism, intolerance, hatred and censorship becoming ingrained within the German social and political system. The Nazi government was elected by a largely angry, deluded and misled citizenry. Once ensconced the Nazis became almost impossible to remove as their stranglehold on power became total. It took a most gruesome war and many years of suffering to bring about its downfall. The tyranny of Stalinist Russia is another case in point, as is the rise of the brutal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Similar but less graphic cases could be made for many other people living under unjust political systems around the world. Whether democracy is the best form of government will be explored elsewhere, but there is little doubt that democracy is comparative freedom when it liberates people from the oppression of tyranny.

Liberation of women

Historical examples of women being denied access to education, the right to work, the right to vote, promotion based on merit, or the right to equal pay for equal work gave credence to the suffragette movement and its later incarnation, the women’s liberation movement. Furthermore, the expectation that women should be required to continue to live at home under domestic abuse or violence was a case of old-fashioned womanly devotion and dutifulness gone too far, so divorce laws were liberalized. That the political and economic power traditionally rested in the hands of men, and that the power corrupted many men to the point of oppression or abuse of their duty of care to women, led to an understandable struggle to promote women’s rights and address social wrongs.

Religious oppression

Considering the ubiquitous presence of religion in human civilization, it would be reasonable to assume that there is an inherent spiritual or philosophical longing within the human psyche. Spiritual insights and truths, however, soon formulate themselves into religious systems and then dogmas. Although religion is meant to be the vehicle for spiritual and philosophical truths it often gets in the way when it degenerates into mere dogma. Conformity to a religious institution and dogma can no doubt promote social cohesion, but it is not too long before the essential truths that the religion was originally designed to promulgate become secondary to the promotion of power and conformity. Furthermore, rather than the spirituality of different religions and cultures being seen as complementary they soon become competitive and threatening. This is fertile ground for xenophobia, superstition, religious oppression and fanaticism.

There are numerous examples of religious intolerance and discrimination. In Christian countries there is historical discrimination against Jews and within Christianity itself there is infighting and discrimination between Catholics and Protestants. In India there have been long periods of cohesion between Hindus and Muslims but also episodes of conflict. More extreme forms of oppression include the brutal so-called Inquisition in Europe during the Middle Ages and the suppression of scientific inquiry that was a part of Catholicism during the Renaissance, which later led to the Protestant Reformation. Today, there is the fanaticism of a vocal minority of self-labelled followers of Islam generating extremism, terrorism, intolerance of other faiths, and all-out war in some places.

With a love of freedom of thought and worship, it is entirely understandable and desirable for people from various faiths and cultures to fight to free themselves of such oppression in the name of religious tolerance.

In praise of freedom

History is full of noble examples of human beings promoting freedom. The central players in those events deserve to be revered and their stories taught in schools so that following generations can learn from them, be inspired by them, and follow their example. And, because history has a habit of repeating itself, there is also the need to learn to read the signs and recognize the conditions that led to the suppression of freedom in the first place.

The point is to affirm that people of many and varied cultures around the world will, sooner or later, fight for freedom whenever natural justice is oppressed. This chapter merely makes the point that there is a kind of true and substantial freedom that can and should be defended, so long as defending one’s own freedom is not at the expense of justice, freedom and rights for others.

But here we are praising freedom when we haven’t yet defined it or explored what it means to be free, truly free. We are on shaky ground indeed because we might make the common mistake of promoting and arguing for anything that flies under the banner of freedom but which may not be true freedom at all. So let us turn to that question now — what is freedom?




Having considered some admirable examples of the advancement of human freedom in the previous chapter, one might expect that in the modern day we are enjoying the fruits of this progress — fruits like happiness, wellbeing, social equity and cohesion, and tolerance. Unfortunately, there is much to suggest that the opposite is happening, which should give us pause to reflect. Is the escalation of a variety of modern problems a wake-up call? Is all so-called ‘progress’ positive or are we also inadvertently taking a few wrong turns along the way? Let’s consider these and related questions now.

What is going well?

If we use measures such as affluence, the abundance of food, labour-saving devices, medical advances, increase in life expectancy, comfort, convenience and increased choice as our yardsticks, it would be true to say that people living in developed countries now have a better life than they would have had at any other time in history. Just consider the hardships, illnesses and discomforts that people bore a century ago, let alone two millennia ago. Technological advances have made modern life unrecognizable to someone from the past. But are we freer, happier and more at peace with ourselves as a result? Today, do we have more cause for optimism than pessimism? As James Branch Cabell, the satirical American author, wrote in The Silver Stallion in 1926: ‘The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.’1

Let’s consider a few contemporary social and global problems into which we are pouring huge amounts of resources — problems such as poor mental health, substance abuse and chronic illness. In such domains, we are really struggling to ‘turn the Titanic’ at the moment. We hear the sound of icebergs scraping along the side of the good ship ‘Civil Society’ as we take on water but we are unable to take a different course. It almost seems like half of society is trying to turn the wheel one way and the other half the other way. The result? A lot of effort is being expended for little benefit.

The enemy without and the enemy within

Before we consider some problems that modern, developed countries are grappling with, let’s consider a few propositions. First, if we are not free, even if unconscious of it, then although we might appear happy on the surface we cannot be truly happy. Second, we would not consciously and intentionally do something to harm ourselves. Yes, we might harm ourselves inadvertently, we might do it through compulsion, or we might trade a small or superficial harm for a greater good, but surely we would not harm ourselves consciously and intentionally.

Sometimes we need protection. For example, governments and lawmakers, through external agencies like armies and law enforcement officers, have a clear duty to protect the community from malignant forces from within and without. Benevolent and reasonable third parties are also required to play protecting roles in the case of people who are very young, incompetent or incapacitated. Hence, we have laws such as those granting power of attorney, where another party takes control if a person is not in a fit state to make their own rational decisions.

But what about people who we would otherwise say are competent? What about the many self-destructive behaviours that are common now, for example, smokers, gamblers, or the obese? Environment and socio-economic issues can have a major negative effect but when attempts are made to control or regulate such behaviours cries of ‘nanny state’ are generally heard far and wide. Fiercer resistance can arise in response to gun-control measures despite the massive harm that firearms cause in many countries. Does the community have a duty to protect us from ourselves? Are there malignant forces within us whereby we abuse ourselves? Can we and should we be protected from those internal tyrannies and, if so, how can government and lawmakers appropriately protect us from ourselves? Let’s hold these considerations in mind as we consider the following issues.

Mental health

Since decent data has been collected, surprising trends have emerged in relation to mental health. Rather than growing in happiness the opposite seems to have been occurring. Since scales were developed there has been a notable 45 per cent increase in daily stress from the 1960s to the 1990s.2 Data from the World Health Organization in 1996 predicted depression to be a leading burden of disease.3 By the year 2000, depression caused the largest non-fatal disease burden, accounting for almost 12 per cent of all total years lived with disability worldwide.4 Predictions estimate that by 2030 depression will be way out in front as the number one disease burden in developed countries.5 Over 20 per cent of adults are expected to have at least one major depressive episode throughout their lives.6,7 Predictions estimate that the problem is escalating8 independent of the secondary effects that poor mental health has on physical health like increasing the risk of heart disease, cancer and poor immunity, and predisposing people to unhealthy lifestyles and substance abuse. Surprisingly, since the early 1960s — a period of relative economic affluence and global stability — suicide rates among the young have tripled in many affluent countries, 9,10 particularly among males. In the United States, for example, data shows that nearly 43,000 people die from suicide annually, that males complete suicide at 3.5 times the rate of females and that whites are the ethnic group most at risk.11,12 The annual age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States is 12.9 per 100,000 individuals; in the United Kingdom it is 10.8; in Germany it is 10.3; in France it is 14.6; in Australia it is 12.6 and in Hungary it is an astounding 21.0.13-15 Around the world these rates have been rising.

By and large, the biomedical approach to depression, anxiety and stress is to throw antidepressants and sedatives at the problem, which for most patients is little better than providing an expensive placebo if major reviews of the research are anything to go by.16-18 Depression is now being diagnosed and pharmacologically treated in younger age groups, but serious concerns about the ineffectiveness and danger associated with this strategy19-20 and the skewing of drug trial evidence by industry21-22 have been raised. The underlying causes of depression, like social isolation, overwork, poor sleep, lack of meaning in life and unhealthy lifestyle, are not being dealt with and yet we think that throwing a few psychoactive drugs at the problem is the solution. It may be a convenient solution from the pharmaceutical industry’s point of view, but it is very inconvenient for the rest of society.


A materialist view of the universe is far more common in the community now, especially since the decline of the influence of religion in many people’s lives. Materialism as a scientific theory is that nothing exists except physical matter. As a philosophy of life materialism comprises a set of values and goals focused on wealth, possessions, image, and status. As such it stands in conflict with aims concerning the wellbeing of others and one’s own personal and spiritual growth. According to an extensive review of the research, 23 people who place a high priority on materialistic values and goals:

Even if you experimentally activate materialistic aims in otherwise nonmaterialistic people it produces similar outcomes. Such data suggests the need for policies that diminish contemporary culture’s focus on materialism, consumption, profit, and economic growth.


Addiction has been a part of human life ever since people started experimenting with naturally occurring psychoactive substances, but trends suggest we are becoming a more addictive society than in times past for a variety of reasons. For example, more people self-medicate to manage stress and poor mental health. There is greater exposure and access to drugs of addiction. Many hold an unquestioned assumption that various substances can provide happiness and lasting relief of pain.

Alcohol has been around for millennia and then cigarettes came along. Some parts of the world used opium for centuries before it came to the West. Now there is a profusion of addictive substances available, many of which, like crack cocaine and ecstasy, are more quickly and strongly addictive than what has been available in the past.24 Furthermore, the mode of administering illicit drugs by injecting them has produced many other problems, not least of which is the proliferation of infectious diseases like hepatitis B and C and HIV/AIDS.

When the modern drug problem gathered momentum in the 1960s and 70s, it was associated with freedom, the flames of which were fanned by increasingly liberal social attitudes in the so-called ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ era.25 Drugs were seen as a form of protest and a refusal to conform. For many vulnerable people, using drugs seemed to be a convenient solution for personal and social problems. Now, drug use is increasingly normalized and seen as a modern rite of passage for young people. Nightclubs, rave parties, and music festivals are just some of the environments in which young people are introduced to drugs. In more recent years, the freedom of the Internet has made the exposure to and purchase of addictive substances just a few clicks away. Suppliers are having a bonanza and struggle to keep up with the voracious demand.

Although stress and mental illness lead many people to self-medicate with substances, the reality is that using substances in this way tends to perpetuate the problem. For example, stimulants like ecstasy lead to a large release of the brain neurotransmitter, serotonin, and a resulting rapid but short-lived elevation in mood. Although this appears to produce happiness and freedom, the unfortunate reality is that such drugs then leave brain cells depleted of serotonin, producing a trough in mood, sometimes lasting for days afterwards.26 Over time, the brain cells that produce serotonin become damaged so this trough deepens and prolongs itself, resulting in the person ending up with a perpetual depression. Such drugs also lead to other forms of brain damage. The person may be attempting to increase happiness or free themselves from their emotional suffering but the reality is that they become trapped in a downward cycle that initially seemed sweet and pleasurable.

Other than illicit drugs, there are many other types of addiction that have become increasingly common. These include addictions to gambling, food, pornography and social media to name a few. They all have a common neurological basis, which, like the pitfall plant, involve pleasure-seeking. These will be explored in more depth later.

At the tobacco industry’s zenith, approximately half of men and a third of women smoked, 27 but because of the massive cost of smoking-related illnesses we have since come to accept strict anti-smoking laws. Thankfully, rates of smoking have declined significantly in recent decades. The harm wreaked by smoking is not just to the smoker themselves but also to those around them through passive smoking. Smoking is a widely promoted addiction that was shrouded in a smokescreen of misinformation and legal wrangles by the tobacco industry for far too long. The war has largely turned, with smoking rates dropping significantly over the last few decades. This has caused the rates of smoking-related problems to diminish. How autonomous is a smoker with an addiction to cigarettes? Not very. Paradoxically, in order to help free people of the scourge of smoking there is a need to impose strict laws limiting the use of cigarettes. This has done an enormous amount to liberate smokers and prevent new generations from being trapped by a habit that companies profited from for decades.

The rate of daily alcohol use among the young has declined in most developed countries, 28 although binge drinking remains a significant problem and predicts substance abuse as an adult.29 The drop in tobacco and alcohol use has been as a result of extensive education programs, legislation, limiting advertising, heavy taxation and other restrictive laws. Although such interventions could be construed as limiting people’s freedom, they have paradoxically promoted it by helping many people to be free of addiction. There is no current solution to the escalating use of heavier drugs, in fact, there is a drive to decriminalize them and liberalize their use. Although well intentioned, at least on the surface, only time will tell whether this is a valid solution or just another step down a very slippery slope into a drug-fuelled abyss.

Gambling addiction also causes a huge amount of harm. Key data about gambling includes:30

The negative impact of gambling rivals that of smoking but, interestingly, attempts to rein in gambling and easy access to things like poker machines, sports betting, online gambling and gambling advertising have thus far met with enormous resistance. ‘Freedom’ is the convenient and attractive refrain from industries that profit from ‘legal addictions’. This rhetoric is sold to the punters and makes someone attempting to introduce responsible gambling laws look like someone who has a perverse desire to control others. But does promoting gambling have anything to do with promoting freedom? Which part of the self rules a problem gambler and which part of the self rules a society that leaves people vulnerable to gambling addiction? Governments and clubs are themselves now also addicted to revenue from gambling and political parties are seduced by funds from gambling industry lobbyists, making it well-nigh impossible to galvanize the community and political will necessary to act decisively on this matter. Surely the aim of limiting addictive practices like gambling and related advertising is not to oppress people but to help them to be free of the addiction that fires off the little pleasure/reward centre in the brain every time a coin is put in a machine or a ticket is bought at a gambling outlet.