Now that psychotherapy has presumably overcome the dark, negative psychology of Freud, it has been offering pathways to happiness.
Where psychoanalysis took pride in helping people think the worst of themselves, cognitive treatments balance the bad with the good. Apparently, a mind in balance is more likely to be contented. It can do so without being overly pessimistic or overly optimistic.
Dare we call it happiness?
In any event, all the happiness-talk has apparently taken a toll. If people believe that happiness is attainable they feel guilty about being unhappy. They feel that they have been derelict.
If they insist on clinging to their misery when the culture offers them a pathway to happiness, they have no right to their feelings.
If it’s not the work in cognitive psychology that is doing them ill, it must be the advent of Prozac and the other SSRIs. If depression is so easily cured, no one has the right to wallow in despair any more.
So says Cambridge lecturer Andy Martin. He calls for a philosophy of failure, as though we did not have our pick of such theories. At the least he demonstrates the resilience of negative psychology. Positive psychology has not taken over yet.
Martin rises to an interesting challenge. He wants to show that all f this happiness talk is making us miserable?
But the spread of depression is partly a side-effect of our addiction to happiness. Conversely, understanding why we are so miserable should liberate us from being too miserable about it. We can feel good about feeling bad. In other words, we need a decent philosophy of failure to save everyone from thinking what failures they are.
At the risk of sounding churlish, I point out that Martin has taken a rather large leap of faith by asserting that we are addicted to happiness. Most of those who take Prozac and do cognitive exercises to overcome depression are not addicted to happiness.
And then, he becomes too cute. Who suggested that if we understand the bases for our misery we will be freed from misery?
That, dare I say, was Freud’s gamble, and we know that it did not work out. Among other reasons: Freudians decided that those who understood the truth fully were bound to be miserable. If you are faced with the task of showing the world that you grasp the truth about human misery you will be forced to sport a dour appearance. Being bright-eyed and cheerful would mean that you have clearly missed out on the Freudian truth.
Finally, a philosophy of failure will not save us from anything whatever. The more you think that failure is the norm, the more you will disbelieve in your success. The more you disbelieve in success the less motivated you will be to pursue it.
Martin calls for a philosophy of failure, but he knows well that such philosophies exist. He knows that Freud’s psychoanalysis was, for all intents and purposes, a clinical failure. What is the Freudian movement but an attempt to deal with failure? The Austrian neurologist’s tragic vision of human destiny leaves offers no path to happiness.
And if you want a philosophy of futility, why not try Sartre’s existentialism? Surely, it will nourish your pessimism, while telling you to keep fighting the good fight.
Of course, it all depends on what you mean by happiness? Surely, when Aristotle philosophized about it around two-and-a-half millennia ago he was not thinking of Dionysian revelry and Aphroditic debauchery.
And yet, when modern authors, appealing to callow youth, define happiness in terms of pagan idolatry and endless orgies they are offering a rather restricted notion.
Freud would himself have been much happier if he had not gotten caught up in a theory that identified happiness with the expression of forbidden libidinal longings and infantile polymorphous perversity.
Had these writers studied Aristotle they would have arrived at a more sober, more sensible, more adult and more attainable view of human happiness, one that embraced and did not abrogate responsibility.