IT’S not a wonderful time to be alive, but quite the most discouraging recent item of news was that the life expectancy of Scots, having flatlined for a few years, is now actually falling.

A newborn Scottish baby can expect to live to 77 if male or 81 if female. On the latest trend we’ll be lucky if these figures ever get any higher. Yet other countries already beat us easily – Italy, Spain and Portugal by a couple of years, due to their Mediterranean diet, Japan by six years, because of all that raw fish and green tea.

Previously the Scottish figures had been rising for more than a century. Now we join the small but cheerless club of industrial countries where the same turn for the worse is happening, including our Celtic neighbours in the UK –Wales and Northern Ireland (men only here). A good deal more lethal to human existence is the state of society in that odd couple, the US and Russia – though in the second case the death rate, after a drastic deterioration on the collapse of communism, is today reaching better levels again.

People can die because their intake of calories is too low (or too high), because they are infected by deadly diseases, because they live in areas of endemic violence – all things that are easily measured and correlated to death rates. But they also die for psychological reasons, because they get fed up, because they are depressed, because they feel helpless about their circumstances. These are forces in society that have usually eluded measurement, but now things are starting to change.

The whole business seems at any rate odd. In Scotland we know the main culprits all too well: booze, fags, deep-fried Mars bars. Elsewhere in the world poverty may show itself in emaciation, but here obesity is the telltale sign of available income being spent on alcohol and pot noodles to the exclusion of carrot juice and quinoa. The nation is slow to cast away its bad old habits, yet there are a few more favourable trends: jogging, gyms, jammers. Even here we find once again what Hugh MacDiarmid called the Caledonian antisyzygy, the uneasy union of opposites. I actually have a neighbour in my stair who both jogs and smokes. I need to ask him if he ever combines the two, on an evening run with one of his Marlboro Lights in hand or mouth.

Though the bad habits have always been with us, and found their individual victims, until now they had not prevented a steady rise in general health and wellbeing in line with other western countries, if also at a slower rate than most of them. There can be no doubt that life for almost all Scots has got better over the last 50 years. While traditional identities have been shattered in the industrial regions, we have largely got over that, in economic if not quite yet in psychological terms.

The old staples of coal, steel and shipbuilding have been successfully replaced by a new constellation of finance, electronics and software. Unemployment is low and wages are high, second in the UK only to London and the south-east of England.

With ampler incomes, Scots have got healthier. Yet this happy state of affairs does not seem to lead to contentment, not like in those Scandinavian countries we are always being told about. Scotland remains edgy, perhaps for political reasons but perhaps for additional reasons too. In the context of the US that I mentioned above, it is a syndrome attracting the interest of our other Nobel prize winner in economics, Angus Deaton, son of Edinburgh and now professor at Princeton University in the US.

In 2015 Deaton and his wife Anne Case, also an economist, published work which shattered the prevailing complacency about the progress of society and the welfare it is supposed to bring with it. They were the first to explore the importance of the trend, previously dismissed as a blip, towards higher mortality in the US among white men and women (though, for some reason, Hispanics seem immune to it). The causes for the rest were not hard to find: poisoning from drugs and alcohol, suicide, chronic liver disease, which is mainly caused by abuse of alcohol. Angus and Anne labelled these the “deaths of despair”.

The number of victims had grown so huge as to bring the long American era of increasing life expectancy to an end. And the fulfilment of a death wish in the casualties was not the worst of it. Before they met their end in various distressing ways, they would have spent several years in misery, consumed by feelings of hopelessness because they could see no way through their problems. They felt themselves excluded from their society, economically incompetent and politically impotent. The easiest way, however painful, was out.

Reading about all this makes me regret that Deaton had to go away from Scotland to pursue his career and fulfil his formidable gifts (though even at Princeton he takes care to stress his debt to Scottish intellectual tradition). If he had stayed here, he might have started thinking much earlier about those particular health inequalities arising from drugs, alcohol and suicide.

It was after all in the 1980s that Scots got jolted into an awareness they had an enormous new health problem on their hands. With mass unemployment rising in Glasgow and elsewhere, a heroin epidemic broke out, followed by an epidemic of HIV. At its worst it ran its course quite quickly as many users were soon dead. But it has left us with a persistent lower-level problem, because other people who got addicted 30 years ago are still dying prematurely today. They degrade life in the council schemes and tax the resources of the health service. And, at length, this has helped to reduce the nation’s life expectancy.

While the damage has by now been limited, I wonder if the Scottish Government has really got to grips with the underlying pathology of the situation. I give it credit for the best of intentions, but its unshakable belief in its own omnipotence may be an obstacle to the achievement of a society more comfortable with itself. To every problem, its instinct is to impose a solution from on high. Sometimes the problems go beyond its capacities, such as child poverty. Sometimes they are incredibly trivial, such as the details of behaviour, the songs sung by football fans. Altogether we have rule by the politically correct in a manner that seldom captures the enthusiasm of the Scottish people, but merely makes them turn off yawning, no more empowered than before. As Deaton found, disempowered people get depressed. Depressed people die younger.

Perhaps this is also a reason why the Scottish Government is only able to make so inadequately the connection between the problems we see in our society and the need for the full powers of independence to solve them. We have been held back by all the UK policies imposed on us but devised to meet the needs of the home counties. No spirit of enterprise is expected to arise in Scotland, and few entrepreneurs emerge. If they do, they set off somewhere else in search of better prospects – just look in San Francisco or Hong Kong.

We cannot expect this pattern to change much in an independent nation which will remain hostile to them, hoping merely to milch their supposedly ill-gotten gains for spendthrift projects of the new Scottish state. The situation will persist while we are stuck in this mould which merely preserves the dependency culture in a different form. Dependency depresses people too. And depressed people die younger.