In Pursuit of (Drug-Induced) Happiness

Do you know what I think every time I get into my car? "Hands up everyone who's on tranquilizers." I'm not saying people need drugs to drive badly. But it must help. Especially since literally millions of people are taking these things. Monday's Citizen said 30.2 million prescriptions for antidepressants were filled at retail drugstores in the 12 months ending last Nov. 30, and 8.5 million for antipsychotics. I realize there are people with severe problems for whom these drugs are a Godsend, and I know the typical prescription runs for considerably less than a year, so 38.7 million of them doesn't mean everyone's got one. Still, when there are more prescriptions for happy pills than there are people in a country I say something is very wrong.

Especially as some researchers say that most of these drugs do nothing for most of the people taking them except make them fat. Like Dr. David Lau of the University of Calgary, president of Obesity Canada, who calls psychiatric-drug-related weight gain "a huge problem," although he says scientists aren't quite sure how it happens.

My first thought was that while other factors contribute, from rising incomes to TV and video games, surely pills that take the edge off our worry contribute to obesity by making us less concerned that we are fat and out of shape. If not, aren't we being ripped off given that the point of these pills is to relieve anxiety?

Apparently so, since recent research suggests that, except for those with really serious problems, these pills do no more good than a placebo. In which case they must be inducing obesity through some indirect route and with no compensating benefits. At least alcohol, which science now suggests can be medically beneficial in moderate doses, really does induce the mental effects for which it has long been famous. Maybe it's time to empty the medicine cabinet into the trash and have a beer. After working out, I mean. And driving home sober to eat dinner with the kids.

I know such blunt talk is considered antisocial in some circles. But euphemisms don't solve problems and in this column, the court of common sense is in session. And it asks: If modern society with its loose morals and lavish state subsidies is the last word in human fulfilment, how is it possible that so many people cannot, or think they cannot, get through their day without a little yellow pill? Especially as it's not as though other more traditional intoxicants have disappeared. If literally millions of people need anti-depressants every year maybe there's something wrong with our society.

Theodore Dalrymple, a British commentator and psychiatrist, wrote in August 2003, "I very rarely see a patient who is in a dreadful personal situation, in which it is inconceivable that he or she should be happy, who has not been prescribed these drugs ... If I had $100 for every female patient of mine who had been prescribed these drugs who was embroiled with an abusive, violent, jealous, possessive, drunken or drug-taking man, I should be able to retire tomorrow." He even suggested that "By actively discouraging other, more constructive approaches to life's problems, without producing any benefit other than the avoidance of painful choices, it is very possible that (popular antidepressants) actually add to, rather than reduce, the sum of human misery."

It's a pretty obvious conclusion if you believe people are moral actors. If, on the other hand, you think they are just animate bags of chemicals it makes sense to redefine happiness as "suitably medicated" and call it a day. As Dr. Dalrymple also wrote, nowadays "we have a right not to the pursuit of happiness, but to the thing itself: and if our way of life leads us to misery, then a pill will, indeed ought and must, put everything right." But of course it can't, and doesn't. These things are a long way from the "soma" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and that novel was, you'll recall, a warning not an advertisement.

Speaking of which, is it not also curious that we do not permit the marketing of alcoholic beverages on the premise that they will make you happy or, failing that, induce a mental state where you care a lot less that you're miserable? Yet they are far more likely to keep such a promise than the mother's little helpers millions of people out there are taking.

I don't even understand why, when we rightly devote so much attention to drunk driving, and wish we had tests for driving under the influence of marijuana, no one wonders whether all these antidepressants aren't rendering people dangerously mellow behind the wheel.

So I ask again: Who's driving on drugs? Maybe you shouldn't be.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]