By Tanya Arathoon
“I know what you’re thinking.” It’s a phrase we know well. We have all probably used it at some time and believe we have the answers. We probably don’t, but Hugh Mackay certainly does.
He has been monitoring Australia’s social, cultural and moral pulse for over five decades. He describes his beginnings as a researcher as “a fascinating time”.
“What better time could there have been to get into it in the late 50s and witness all the changes? The challenge for me has been to feel comfortable in all sorts of households, and be sympathetic to what I’m listening to so that I’m able to analyse and interpret it. But then feeling the challenge – am I like these people? Do I share their prejudices? I come away thinking – wow, that’s what a lot of Australians think and I don’t.”
Prejudice, tragedy and taboo topics don’t faze him. Hugh Mackay has perfected the art of being a fly on the wall. A national pioneer in the field of group-based market research techniques, he built a successful business compiling and analysing observational data taken from discussions between friends and strangers. His insights were detailed in a quarterly The Mackay Report which ran for 25 years.
His insights have resulted in hundreds of articles, research papers and successful books, and earned him the reputation as one of the country’s most respected social commentators.
Now he is about to embark on the first leg of a national tour for his new book The Good Life, which includes an appearance at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. The book explains the factors that make life worth living. It’s an extension of his previous book What Makes Us Tick, which details the core drivers of human existence.
“I have never felt better equipped to step back and take a reflective view of What Makes Us Tick and The Good Life than I do now. I don’t think I could have written these books during that period of maximum effectiveness as a hands-on researcher,” he says.
Hugh splits his time between Sydney and his home in the Southern Highlands. Relishing this change of pace, his creativity has benefited from the move to the country.
“I feel that being slightly removed from a big city is a bit more conducive to reflection. The Good Life needed lots of tranquillity to think it through.”
A clearer perspective on Australia’s social and cultural evolution was another bi-product of his tree-change. He says he is not alone in his quest for tranquillity, believing the combination of excessive technology and choice are exhausting for most people, making them desire a more meaningful existence.
“I think we are beginning to feel the lack of close personal engagement and enough engagement with local communities and I think the tide will turn – in the same way I think the tide will turn on mad materialism. There is a now a strong desire to reconnect with the community and that’s something of a counter point to all the technology that makes it really easy for us to exchange messages without connecting with each other.
“People love the idea of choice but hate making decisions. Marketers thought, oh we’ll give them choice! But instead of making people feel powerful, it makes them feel powerless because they know they are not equipped to make that choice. Think of how hard it is to choose a phone plan.”
The evolving obsession with the mass media is another area he enjoys observing. Reality television has reached a level of popularity rivalling our obsession with sports, but Hugh says they each serve a different purpose.
“I think it’s part of the same old dreamy period of disengagement – I’m disenchanted with politics, I’m not engaged with the social agenda, I just want to indulge myself. Some turn on the TV to be tranquilised. Reality TV is almost saying ‘keep the focus very narrow and don’t worry too much about the wider world’.”
He is not critical of the reality television phenomenon. Instead, he says the real threat to our emotional well-being is the positive psychology movement.
“It is as strange to say I am pursuing happiness as it is to say I am pursuing sadness. These are both rich, authentic human emotions and we actually learn more about ourselves from sadness than happiness. The ideal state is when you are no longer striving to promote a particular positive emotion.”
Hugh Mackays’s ongoing commitment to his role as a social commentator is motivated by his growing concern for the direction in which Australian society is headed.
“Ten years ago I would have said I love the fact that Australia still has the energy of a new world country. Today I’d say it more faintly because I’m a bit troubled by the way we’re heading.
“I think we’re becoming a bit tougher in our social attitudes, we’re becoming a bit less tolerant, less enthusiastic about multiculturalism even though it’s our core reality.
“We have institutionalised this business of social class and I feel really sad about that. I feel as though we’ve let the egalitarian dream slip without really noticing.”
But there is a still a hint of optimism in his voice. “In many ways I’d like to be young now because of the huge opportunities that are available even though I recognise there’s huge pressure on young people.
“I do think Australia in another fifteen 15 years Australia is going to be a wonderful place and I hope I’m going to be around to see it.”