Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pursuing Unhappiness

When you think about it, the therapy industry should have always been concerned with happiness.

It hasn’t.

Being a medical specialty or subspeciality therapy has directed most of its attentions at negative emotions. Its goal has been to eliminate pain. Until recently it has neglected positive emotions, the ones that constitute what we call happiness.

Unfortunately, therapy’s focus on negative emotion did not really palliate pain. It did not produce very much positive emotion.

Naturally, it chose to make a virtue of failure. It proclaimed that negative emotion was more real, more profound and more authentic than positive emotion.

The best people, the ones who were in touch with their feelings and who felt more deeply, were actually more miserable.

If the human condition was tragic, being happy meant that you were in denial.

Besides, if you walked around with a smile on your face, you were lording it over those who were less happy than you. Your smile showed that you were insensitive to the pain of others. If you thought you were happy, those who are not will try to wipe that smile off our face. You were being offensive and mean-spirited.

With all the misery around you, how dare you be happy?

Besides, happiness is the province of the ignorant. If you want to show that you understand reality you must walk around flashing a permanent scowl.

Misery didn’t make you feel very good, but it did make you feel like you belonged among a better, more enlightened class of people.

Of course, there is a grain of truth in the idea. When all around you are miserable, showing off a cheery disposition, grinning as though your life depended on it, is rude and inconsiderate.

Your personal happiness will surely be attenuated by the misery of those near and dear to you, but that does not mean that you need to share their unhappiness. You need merely be more discreet about advertising your own.

On the other side, your happiness, even when it is not expressed overtly, might very well serve as a beacon for others.

When everyone is miserable, you should not advertise your happiness. But you shouldn’t suppress it either.

I offer these reflections to explain why negativity has had such a long half-life, why it has so much staying power, and why people keep writing essays disparaging happiness.

This morning Augusten Burroughs joins the ranks of the anti-happiness crusaders.

Cleverly, he entitles his Wall Street Journal essay, “How to Live Unhappily Ever After.”

Burroughs is a writer, not a psychologist or a counselor or even a philosopher. He wrote a famed book called Running with Scissors, and numerous other works. Full disclosure: I have not read his famed book.

His lack of professional training does not disqualify him from reporting about his own miseries, but it should warn us to be skeptical about his views of happiness.

Just because Burroughs writes well does not mean that we need to lend special credence to his call for unhappiness.

Of course, he is being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but not all that tongue in cheek. Actually, he’s more cheeky than ironic.

In his words:

"I just want to be happy."

I can't think of another phrase capable of causing more misery and permanent unhappiness. With the possible exception of, "Honey, I'm in love with your youngest sister."

Yet at first glance, it seems so guileless. Children just want to be happy. So do puppies. Happy seems like a healthy, normal desire. Like wanting to breathe fresh air or shop only at Whole Foods.

But "I just want to be happy" is a hole cut out of the floor and covered with a rug. Because once you say it, the implication is that you're not. The "I just want to be happy" bear trap is that until you define precisely, just exactly what "happy" is, you will never feel it. Whatever being happy means to you, it needs to be specific and also possible. When you have a blueprint for what happiness is, lay it over your life and see what you need to change so the images are more aligned.

Since Burroughs is, by his own admission, unhappy, one wonders why he would be qualified to explain what happiness is. He may want to undermine your happiness, but that is not an entirely admirable goal.

Strictly speaking, his ideas are muddled.

People do not gain happiness because they desire it. If they exclaim an interest in being happy they probably mean that they are tired of suffering the kind of misery that Burroughs is going to extol. Actually, there is no such thing as a desire for happiness.

You might desire to breathe fresh air or to shop at Whole Foods, but these involve relationships to specific objects or experiences. They should not be analogized with a phantom desire for happiness.

Happiness accompanies the successful completion of a task, but you do not try to succeed at a task because you are lusting after happiness.

Burroughs also claims that if you do not know exactly and precisely what happiness is you will never achieve it. The idea is absurd to the point of being pointless.

Life is not a classroom. You are not obliged to define your terms, precisely or imprecisely. You are not being tested on whether you have found a good enough definition of happiness. Your personal happiness has nothing to do with whether you have understood Aristotle’s definition of happiness.

You will feel happy when you gain a promotion. You will feel happy when your team wins a ball game. You will be really happy when your daughter gets married.

To experience these normal human emotions you do not need to have defined exactly what happiness means for you.

Burroughs seems to have missed the point, so I am obliged to underscore that no one who is studying happiness today is counseling constant happiness. No one is advising anyone to smile all the time and to ignore negative emotions. Cognitive psychology has aimed at balance, not one-sidedness.

You cannot be happy if you cannot feel sad at a loss or anxious when you are in danger or angry when you have been offended.

To say otherwise is to caricature your opponents in order to make a few cheap debating points.

Burroughs may not be very happy but he is happy to take a few cheap shots.

He advises people to get in touch with their negative emotions, presumably because then they will feel more like he feels. If everyone feels as miserable as he claims to be, Burroughs will apparently feel better.

In his words:

Anger and negativity have their uses, too. Instead of trying to alleviate some of the uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions you feel by "trying to be positive," try being negative instead. Seriously, try it sometime. This will help you get in touch with how you actually feel: "I feel hopeless and fat and stupid. And like a failure for feeling this way. And trying to be positive and upbeat makes me feel angry and feeling angry makes me feel like I am broken."

If that's how you feel—however you feel—then you have a base line, you have established a real solid floor of reference. Sometimes just giving yourself permission to feel any emotion without judgment or censorship can lessen the intensity of those negative emotions. Almost like you're letting them out into the backyard to run around and get rid of some of that energy.

It isn’t all a loss. Burroughs moves on to write movingly about his personal grief at the death of a close friend. He comments astutely that some losses are so profound that you never really recover from them.

Yet, grief is in a class of its own. It does diminish and attenuate with time, even if it does not disappear.

It might feel like a paradox but no one can feel happiness if he has not also felt grief and pain.  


anna said...

Happiness is rather a loaded subject. Often moms say they only want their kids to be happy, and then it's a burden, be happy or disappointment moms, it becomes a kind of 'good' you'd like to get beyond.

Certainly those therapists who wrongly think hashing over miseries for ego support is treatment only prolong misery. There was a time that therapists advised unhappy workers to quit their jobs, to stand up to their bosses, with no consideration of the need for a paycheck or that the next job probably wouldn't be a big improvement. Blaming someone for your unhappiness doesn't lead to happiness.

There was a recent study that showed women who bond over shared miseries are unhappier then those who can ignore their past disappointments.

The absence of pain is sometimes taken for happiness, ask any opiate addict. Some people have sunshiney personalities and are often cheerful and upbeat, with no evident cause.

I think you're saying, correct me, that misery is in the realm of jouissance, while happiness, which you may feel when you complete a goal, is closer to satisfaction. Happiness can't be a goal of behavior mod, although it can be a result in the area of experiencing some satisfaction.

Usually I think there are people (most) who benefit from behavior mod, and others, not as many, who need analysis to put a stop to miserable repetition but in this case I think they're tied. Accomplishing something surly leads to satisfaction, but not everyone is able to benefit from behavior mod, if the repetition cycle is way too unconscious, for example. If someone suffers from a fate neurosis, behavior mod won't help, and if someone is barred from experiencing satisfaction, then doing things differently will lead to the same place.

In my experience though, most people benefit from behavior mod, because they actually do something different and then experience something different. Not everyone is deeply neurotic.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's an excellent analysis, Anna.

Surely, it's a loaded question. I hadn't connected misery with jouissance, which, for those who are not familiar with the concept, refers to an intense sexual enjoyment, but I think that anyone who thinks that he will find happiness through jouissance will become miserable. Isn't the search for jouissance one of the reasons people become addicts.

Happiness is satisfaction, but it involves successfully completing a task... it might involve learning something, or fulfilling an obligation as a good friend or parent, or it might involve winning a game or sending a child off to college.

I don't see it in terms of desiring something and then acquiring it, so I think we're on the same page on this.

anna said...

I think people become addicts by accident, because they have or they develop receptors that insist on more. Mostly people first try drinking and drugging when they're kids, with friends, and sometimes it makes for something in common, so that they can make friends, and sometimes, if people are shy, it reduces inhibition and allows for social risk taking. If teenagers have unhappy families, smoking weed, for example, is a way to leave without actually leaving and that can be useful when there is no where to go. Most people give up drinking and drugging on their own, when it either no longer serves, or when they start getting negative consequences. So maybe for them it's more a hypnotic, that serves fantasy.

But for those who have the 'disease' their bodies keep making demands for more and more, and it gets so confused that some die for their addictions. Which is really sad.

In the old days, when addicts were blamed, were given the addictive personality label, treatment could be brutal. But since meds were developed that blocked receptors, the Bulgarian one for nicotine comes to mind, where the desire to smoke goes away .... go figure. There are now ten medical schools that offer addiction as a medical speciality, but most of the smart money is in research, for drugs that block receptors. Even the new obesity drugs are using that model.

There is only one approved treatment for addiction now, behavior mod, because the point is to stay sober long enough to put the receptors to sleep.

Of course psychoanalysis is useless in these cases, first you have to learn how to stay sober.

So, here's an idea, joussiance is a receptor?

Anonymous said...

"Time heals all wounds." The purpose of therapy is to prevent, or at least delay, that healing.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree with Anna that addicts often become addicts by accident. But, I do wonder how much the culture influences behavior here.

Some cultures make a virtue of addiction or become so thoroughly obsessed with treating it that people whose problems are being ignored by friends and family might turn to addiction because then they know that they will get some help.

anna said...

Kids use drugs in the first place because of teen culture. A lot of people tried cocaine after they saw movie stars sniffing on the big screen, but the difference is when it's killing you and destroying relationships and living standards and you can't stop, then it's just a ho hum disease. At that point choice isn't possible, truly, and at last doctors recognize that and we're not shaming the addicts anymore. No more talk of secondary gain, the secondary gain is actually in the treatments, in that they involve community and talking.

The difference is between those who use and stop and those who can't stop. In real life most addicts are blamed by their friends and family, maybe not right away but if they don't stay sober blame will come, and it's not a sure thing anyone will get help.

This disease model thing is fairly new in how it's now general knowledge, on the order of received wisdom, addicts used to be treated like pariahs.

Anonymous said...

I do not agree that happiness is a result of a promotion or some type of success. The very definition of the word happiness, comes from 'hap' which means, by the way, or just happens to be. You just happen to be happy, by the way. It is therefore not a result of an accomplishment. Accomplishments bring satisfaction- and that, only for a time, but they don't bring 'hap'iness. Happiness is an attitude, not a thing that can be gained.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the comment. I wonder what your analysis would say to Aristotle, who developed this notion of happiness, but whose language used an entirely different word.