The inaugural APS Annual Oration presented by Hugh Mackay

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Executive Director Lyn Littlefield presents Hugh Mackay with a gift after the inaugural APS Annual Oration in Sydney.
Executive Director Lyn Littlefield presents Hugh Mackay with a gift after the inaugural APS Annual Oration in Sydney.

The inaugural Australian Psychological Society Annual Oration was presented in Sydney by Hugh Mackay FAPS on Wednesday 12th November during National Psychology Week. Hugh is a psychologist, social researcher and novelist who has made a lifelong study of the attitudes and behaviour of Australians. He is the author of eleven books, including five bestsellers in the field of social analysis and four novels. The second edition of his latest book, Advance Australia ... Where? was published in September 2008, and his fifth novel will be out in May 2009.

Hugh Mackay presented an insightful, entertaining and thought provoking oration to a large and enthusiastic audience at the Sydney Hilton. He discussed the huge changes that have impacted on Australian society over the last 25 to 30 years, the current societal response to these rapid and ongoing changes, and how psychologists can intervene in these trends in a more constructive way.

Hugh began by describing the demographics of change revealed through marital, employment and childbearing statistics over the past few decades (couples marrying later, delaying childbirth, having fewer children, higher divorce rates etc). Nobody could have anticipated just how significant the changes in the socio-cultural landscape of Australia over the last quarter century would be. Hugh argued that the human psyche is not prepared for such change and as a result, Australian society feels out of control to many people. The bigger picture of dramatic political, environmental and economic changes we are now experiencing instils a sense of helplessness in many. The temptation for many people is to retreat, and become more politically and socially disengaged. He calls this period ‘the dreaming' and posits that that up to 75 per cent of Australians are disengaged and have given up their agency.

Seeking control

In times of uncertainty, people focus on what they can control, and Hugh MacKay used renovations and lifestyle obsessions as examples of how Australians seem to be focusing on the domestic arena, and on what they feel they can change. He also observes a retreat to fundamentalism and support for greater regulation of Australian society (e.g., mandatory sentencing, ‘border control') in the past decade, as symptoms of people wanting things to be ordered and remain the same.

When we're in control mode, he noted, there is a trend towards an obsessive pursuit of excellence and happiness. The striving towards this utopian vision sets up unrealistic expectations about how life should be, rather than how life is. There is a drive to be perfectly happy, to find the perfect school and the perfect life - all of which is impossible. Yet all this talk about the ‘perfect this and that' and the pursuit of happiness is a trap for a society that is dealing with a sense of insecurity. The consequence, ironically, is that all of our happiness falls short of perfect happiness, and then we are likely to feel even more frustrated and helpless.

Many psychologists, argues Mackay, have responded to this sense of helplessness with the ‘happiness industry' and the focus on positive psychology. There is a risk that as psychologists we help to set the trap, and encourage an unrealistic perception of what life has to offer. If we put too much emphasis on positive thinking and achieving positive outcomes we risk fuelling the utopian myth.

Hugh Mackay suggested that, instead, psychologists ought to focus on shifting the emphasis on having control of life to that of embracing change. We can help people to accept that life is a messy, unstable and complicated business. The richness of life is all about contrast, which means embracing sadness and pain as well as happiness. We understand happiness better when we've experienced pain. Unfortunately, he argues, we're remarkably untrained to live with and embrace pain.

Life is for living, not controlling, says Mackay. Psychologists can assist people better by helping them develop strategies for dealing with the way life is, and learning what it is to be human, rather than how to control life itself. People need help to find strategies for coping with the way the world is, but they don't need false hopes from psychologists that they will be able to get it under control. Wellbeing is not about achieving mastery of our circumstances. People need help to convert anxiety into positive action, not to control life, but to participate in it, and engage with, accept, and adapt to change. n

The oration is available as an audio file from the APS website at www.psychology.org.au/news/news_updates/archives/#13nov08.