11/13 Open Thread: Happiness is a Chore and a Fraud
When I was very young I had everything figured out and easily formulated. The ideal society would generate the greatest good for the greatest number of people. "Good" wasn't some metaphysical or abstruse thing, condition or phenomena, but was determined by the pleasure principle, that which produced pleasure, all things otherwise being equal, was good. Obviously, thought I, if there were multiple participants, to the extent not covered by substitution of pleasure for good in the phrase "greatest pleasure for greatest number", there needed to be bounds, such as one person's pleasure couldn't cause another person pain, and like that. Readily conflating happiness and pleasure, the ideal was that we should all be as happy as conditions permitted as much of the time as was possible. Simple (and simplistic) enough. Silly too, in substituting one undefined term for another and calling that an answer. but, like I said, I was very, very young.
Even then, the concepts of pleasure and happiness were being skewed and distorted by the great US marketing machine, as, to some extent, was the related concept of fun. The pleasure dome of Xanadu, or its equivalent could be had, for enough bucks. Laying in the sun on a nice beach was great, but think about Aruba, in the resort's beach lounge chair with a wait person bringing cold exotic drinks while beautiful specimens of the opposite sex frolicked or lounged nearby ... . Over the years, unless one maintained a tight grip on such ideas as "the simple pleasures" (whatever they might be) or the calm inner peace and pleasure of various intellectual pursuits or practices like yoga, Taoism or zen, the distortion provided by the great marketing machine came to totally dominate what those things meant. Fun has come more and more to involve water parks, Great America, Disneyville, Radio controlled powered toys, or, depending upon one's age, skiing, water skiing, ATVs, jet skis, off roading sky diving, sport fishing and, generally, playing with toys, preferably expensive ones. Pleasure involves good eats, good drinks, good music, good parties, good movies, good concerts, good TV shows, good sports matches and the like. And what of happiness? Happiness is still some sort of ephemera, a phantom with many elements of pleasure and fun at least in large part as above defined. Spontaneous joy and simple contentment still exist and occur, but are not what is actively sought after. That which is sought after is either work, or entails work to procure it.
I have cycled in and out of that trick box my entire life, even though I had also learned early on that the key to it all is contentment, especially being content with what one is and has. Pleasure is pleasant, basically "not-pain", and also not-angst, not-stress, and the like or those momentary feelings that eclipse ongoing pain and stress and angst. But, right around every corner there is something arguably better, something luxurious, delicious, wonderful and very, very shiny. Simply maintaining happiness has become stressful, requiring constant self-reminders that all that bullshit is simply that, bullshit. Time and again I have to stop and figuratively slap myself and say, "hey, schmuck, you're happy, enjoy it, revel in it, just do whatever and enjoy doing it and that you can." (My longstanding decision to be affirmatively content with myself and my personal situation is admittedly in extreme conflict with my raging dissatisfaction with the economic and socio-political reality of our lives and my duties to myself and future generations to speak out and resist. I can handle the severe cognitive dissonance because I have profound dissociative skills, a lifelong talent/curse that I amplified by doing pranayama on LSD. This is not recommended for the intrinsically sane.) That is why it is a chore, because one must struggle to maintain it against a barrage of bogus "wants" and "needs", and it is a fraud because it is being misrepresented as involving the fulfillment of those bogus "wants' and "needs." And that was more or less my state of being when I stumbled across an article very much on this selfsame topic, but even more so. I need only struggle to realize and enjoy my happiness, to grab it when it spot it lurking in the background. It turns out that the great noise machine has perpetrated far worse upon vast numbers, a false need to not only be constantly happy, but to project that and wear it as a personna.
The happiness ruse by Cody Delistraty was published by aeon on October 31, 2019 and starts with the rhetorical question How did feeling good become a matter of relentless, competitive work; a never-to-be-attained goal which makes us miserable?. It can be found here:https://aeon.co/essays/how-did-being-happy-become-a-matter-of-relentless... and is not really susceptible to fair use extraction, so I highly recommend reading it for yourself. It starts with the arguably ethically questionable study performed on a human infant by a psychologist named John B Watson, who then "progressed" to work in, what else, advertising for the firm of J. Walter Thompson where he instilled fears and insecurities as a means of creating artificial perceived needs for assorted products. From this already inauspicious beginning, the author leads the reader to see how the great noise machine has stopped instilling and targeting specific fears and has instead begun to target and manipulate a perceived need for happiness, as manifested by this, that or the other that you lack and need.
Happiness is in many ways the marketing breakthrough of the past decade, with self-care and anti-stress products now rounding out the bestseller list on Amazon (think of ‘gravity blankets’, ‘de-stressing’ adult colouring books and fidget spinners), where they nestle alongside chart-topping tomes by ‘happiness bloggers’. All of this is made possible by a specific, disturbing and very new version of ‘happiness’ that holds that bad feelings must be avoided at all costs.
This imperative to avoid being – even appearing – unhappy has led to a culture that rewards a performative happiness, in which people curate public-facing lives, via Instagram and its kin, composed of a string of ‘peak experiences’ – and nothing else. Sadness and disappointment are rejected, even neutral or mundane life experiences get airbrushed out of the frame. It’s as though appearing unhappy implies some kind of Protestant moral fault: as if you didn’t work hard enough or believe sufficiently in yourself.
The author contrasts this current culture of happiness as fetish with assorted older and otherwise different views on the matter, and notes in passing that the current including an interesting contrast between Hobbes and Epicurus, and notes that this problematic viewpoint seems to be decidedly Anglo-American and most certainly not French. He also notes that this leaves westerners between 4 and 10 times more likely than easterners to develop clinical depression or anxiety. He is also quick to point out the unsubtle hand of the great marketing machine in bringing this state of affairs into being.
The desire to twist our negative emotions into something upbeat is a way of thinking that leaves us open to the kind of ad-man manipulation in which Watson specialized. But it’s not a desire that entered our culture from a vacuum. There’s a significant economic incentive for businesses when people believe that happiness is something that we must work – and buy – toward. Happy workers tend to be about 12 per cent more productive. Google has a ‘chief happiness officer’. The ‘treat-yourself’ ethic is still a major sales driver, and nearly every beauty brand now bases its advertisements on ‘self-care’. Meanwhile, the APA revised its fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013) so that any bereaved person grieving longer than two months might be considered to have a mental illness requiring medical treatment – for example, antidepressants such as Wellbutrin.
If Wellbutrin sounds a bit like the happiness-inducing drug ‘soma’ in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932), it’s probably because it – and all of this happiness conditioning – is a bit Huxleyan. With the rise of positive psychology in the midcentury, which piggybacks on Hobbes’s 17th-century ideas, Huxley foresaw how the Epicurean ideal of happiness was being – and would be – transformed. ‘The right to the pursuit of happiness,’ he wrote in 1956, ‘is nothing else than the right to disillusionment phrased in another way.’
So, do read it and see what does and doesn't apply to you, your friends, neighbors and acquaintances, and what it implies and forebodes. Take away whatever is there for you to take away. It is better than I expected it to be.
Title Image is A Little Happiness
It's an open thread, so have at it. The floor is yours