Further Comments on Happiness

Drawing in part on some of the points made in Sara Ahmed’s book The Promise of Happiness, which I just reviewed in the last post, as well as current events there are a few more points about the topic of happiness I wish to touch upon.

Self-help books are full of advice about attaining “happiness” but many of them don’t define what they mean by “happiness”.

What does “happiness” even mean in common parlance? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers. Words like blissful, relaxed, stress-free, joyful, carefree, comfortable, ecstatic and peaceful would possibly be used. The problem with these is they don’t really refer to anything. They have no relation to one’s context. They are states of being that seem to be achievable in isolation or that is the way they come across in these books and other media. 

The thing is we don’t live in isolation. We live in an incredibly complex matrix of circumstances, environment, history and relationships. We are wholly dependent upon this matrix for our very survival and are wholly interdependent with it.

The happiness in isolation prescription we are so often offered is at best a placebo. At worst it is a lie.

I can think of at least 10 things I’d want before I would choose that kind of vague “happiness”. Here’s some of them:

  • challenged
  • inspired
  • ethical
  • focused
  • creating
  • aware
  • empathetic
  • insightful
  • doing meaningful work
  • having meaningful friendships and relationships

These are just random off the top of my head. If I were to make up some of those false dichotomous choices, “Would you rather be _____ or happy?” with the blank filled in by one of the above, I’d choose any one of the above and probably about 20 other things first.

In case I haven’t explained myself adequately here’s something further. Happy in relation to what? If you look at the list I provided at the top there’s relation explicitly obvious or implicitly implied in each one of them. This is what I mean:

  • challenged [by something]
  • inspired [by something]
  • ethical [ethics is only an issue when it comes to relationship]
  • focused [on something]
  • creating [something]
  • aware [of something, be that environment or whatever]
  • empathetic [only comes up in relationship]
  • insightful [into something]
  • doing meaningful work [work by its nature involves relations of some sort]

These all underscore the relational nature of our existence. One could, I suppose, turn all this inward, but one might become so self-involved the ability to even function in society would possibly be compromised.

Chati Coronel wrote this on Twitter a while back:

nothing marks your territory. you don’t end with skin

This kind of isolated state of “happiness” that is so often offered as some kind of panacea to the ills of the world is blatantly anti-realist. That is to say it is delusional.

Happiness as an industry may be at its zenith in the United States. Though it is increasingly being sold elsewhere as well. Those who don’t take to this sale may be labeled “happiness averse”. That’s a complicated and loaded term. It presupposes happiness is a principle goal and that it is something to be highly valued, maybe even the highest value or goal. “Happiness aversion” is not the same as depression or somberness although that implication is also conveyed. That is to be expected from the Western psychological framework which presently does seem to be drunk on it’s own positivity kool-aid.

There are purported differences between cultures on what kind of emotional goals and environment are preferable. In the article Why Happiness Scares Us the author writes:

Aversion to happiness exists across cultures, especially those that value harmony and conformity over individualism, recent research suggests. The findings challenge the Western assumption that everyone is aiming for a life full of unremitting joy. …

Comparing happiness between cultures runs into the problem of how different people define the emotion. …

Some cultures think of happiness as a loss of control — fun, but destructive, like being drunk, Weijers said. Others believe extreme highs must be followed by extreme lows, as revealed by proverbs from many nations. In Iran, people say that "laughing loudly wakes up sadness." In China, a cheerful person might be warned, "Extreme happiness begets tragedy." In English-speaking nations, you might hear, "What goes up, must come down."

Islamic cultures value sadness over happiness, Weijers said, because sad people are seen as serious and connected to God. Artists might fear that soothing their emotional torment will destroy their creativity (and, indeed, creativity has been scientifically linked to mental illness). Activists might see happiness as complacency and seek to rouse anger, instead.

I dislike the phrasing "conformist" with regard to culture though. It is the article writer that uses it while the quotes from study authors use "collectivist" instead which I think is more accurate. "Conformist" denotes a certain authoritarianism (either by hierarchy or social pressure-one could easily say the same about hyper-individualist cultures in terms of influence as well) which I don’t think is necessarily correct in these circumstances.

Some of the characterizations of cultures here suffer from the same problems that the “Culture and Personality” theoretical trend in anthropology did. The idea of “national character” or particular traits belonging to people with particular genetic configurations leads not only to stereotyping but the kind of reductionist viewpoint that underlies a lot of racism. It comes down to phrases like “They’re all like that” or “Have you heard this Polish/German/blond/Jewish/Arab/African joke?” relying on some stereotype or whatever without any examination of contexts, material or ideological, or outside influences such as colonialism and so forth that may have had some causal effects on people in a particular region or circumstance. [Sara Ahmed’s book covers a lot of that too.]

What I’m saying is that these kinds of studies, even if they get some statistically significant data, become popularized and will just as often be misinterpreted or re-framed both the issue and the results to accord with dominant ideology, just as the author there has done with substituting “conformism” for “collectivist”. “Conformism” is a highly negative value in a hyper-individuated culture, hence the people who are “happiness averse” are characterized in an even further negative light. The writer’s biases come to the fore.

Another thing that was in that article:

..most nations in the past defined happiness as a factor of good luck and fortunate circumstances. Modern American English, however, stresses happiness as an internal mood, something more innate to a person and his or her character than to the external world. Bolstering the evidence of this change, the researchers [using Google’s n-gram stats]  found that mentions of a "happy nation" have declined over time in English-language books, while the phrase "happy person" has been climbing steadily.

This atomization is interesting. With the rise of capitalism and emphasis on hyper-individuality, particularly on the “individual consumer” (now you know why they want all our data), those amorphous things that had previously been seen as collective, that is in people having “a share of the nation’s wealth” be it material or not, has really changed. People used to be psychologically and emotionally invested in creating better communities even if it was of no direct immediate benefit to themselves because they could see that in the long run living in an environment where people cared for one another was a lot less stressful than one where it was “everyone for themselves”.

This is an unfastening of communal bonds, a destruction of the commons, not just material commons but intellectual and emotional. It is often even anti-community where community is seen as a collective project.

Can someone be “happy” while they step over people sleeping on the sidewalk? Can they sleep well knowing kids in the next neighborhood are hungry? If they can, are these the people you really want to be associating with? What happens when your luck runs out? Are they going to be the ones on your doorstep offering to help you?

If you want to join the happiness brigade however but can’t quite fake it well enough yet, you can always go for a makeover. Or at least a few Botox shots.

In a recent New York Times article, Don’t Worry, Get Botox, professor of psychiatriy, Richard A. Friedman, suggests that getting Botox shots to ward off unhappy facial expressions can help cure depression.

This is another facet of the individuation of the field of psychology and psychiatry. Even things like family therapy and milieu therapies are taking a back seat to these individual approaches. Some of this is due to the rise of cognitive therapy and theory particularly in the form of the cognitive-behavioral approach. Interestingly that is the approach through which most “mindfulness” is being inculcated or subsumed into psychology.

In CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) the gist is that your thoughts make you sick. Change or challenge your thoughts and things can get better. It is proven to work to an extent. I’m not going to deny that because I’ve used this approach personally. And it works as far as it goes. It doesn’t change your circumstances however or the kinds of things in the world that continue to trigger anxiety and/or depression. If one is in a lousy marriage for example, say with someone who has a serious addiction or abuse problem, CBT is not going to solve that. It may help re-formulate a response to the situation, or not. Likewise if one is in a crappy job CBT isn’t going to improve that no matter how much one’s mood improves while doing that crappy job.

This folds back into the discussion of ideas like “the happy slave” or “domestic bliss” in Ahmed’s book. Not only is it delusional to think that people in oppressed conditions are happy about it (remember that opinion the Bundy guy had about black people being “better off” under slavery—this is the kind of rationalization that is used for that) but that they *should* be happy about it.

On the [Western, convert] Buddhist happiness industry front we then get smarmy books about how to be a happy worker by adjusting ourselves to our oppressive conditions rather than overthrowing the bosses or making a stand for better working conditions or something else that would disrupt the status quo. The happiness industry is all about preserving that status quo. It’s not about “liberation” or anything else of that sort. It’s about being a better drone.

One can be a good little economic soldier and carry out all the little meaningless duties required of a good consumer-citizen. Take the pills, get the shots, do the exercises, comply with all the treatment regimens, talk the self-talk and so on but THEN WHAT? Well you die and somebody else gets to occupy your slot in the machine.

Professor Mark Fisher wrote an excellent post about the current neoliberal economic situation and his own depression. In Good For Nothing he states:

The dominant school of thought in psychiatry locates the origins of such [depressive] ‘beliefs’ in malfunctioning brain chemistry, which are to be corrected by pharmaceuticals; psychoanalysis and forms of therapy influenced by it famously look for the roots of mental distress in family background, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is less interested in locating the source of negative beliefs than it is in simply replacing them with a set of positive stories. It is not that these models are entirely false, it is that they miss – and must miss – the most likely cause of such feelings of inferiority: social power. The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.

Anyone who’s had a taste of depression is familiar with the feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with it. Even if a person hasn’t gone into a full scale depression vestiges of it that can still float into one’s consciousness. Some of the reactions can reach into that delusional sort of “I control the universe” The Secret kind of thinking.

In a recent interview with Mark Fisher, the interviewer wrote:

Deal or No Deal throws randomly selected amounts of money at randomly selected people. Yet the entire message the show insists on the precise opposite: that individual decisions – a simple yes/no to the Banker – can somehow make a difference.

Mark calls this magical voluntarism – “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”. Magical voluntarism is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, he argues, pushed by reality TV experts and business gurus as much as by politicians.

~The politics of depression: Mark Fisher on mental health and class confidence

In further explication writer “sometimes explode” wrote on the Libcom blog A reply to Mark Fisher on magical voluntarism. He furthers the concept of “magical volunteerism” and places it in a larger context.

This is the image of the consumer as a soul able to emit desire-transmissions into a receptive universe, and implies an entire metaphysics built around Loreal’s insistence that “you’re worth it”. Mark Fisher is quick to point out the core political problem here: if you fail to find work, pay your bills, get that holiday/car/pair of trainers, it’s because you didn’t want it enough. This implies a deficiency in your ability to desire or, in the language of the Secret, to emit frequencies into the universe.

He goes into some depth discussing the origins and history of this kind of attitude within the psychotherapy milieu. The point of contention is what to do about it. Fisher suggests a more mainstream approach while sometimes explode takes a more radical tack. The whole piece, along with Fisher’s is well worth a read. Comments are also good.

So those are the tangents.