Sunday, July 3, 2022

Will Success Ruin Your Life?

Freud was a serious thinker. He was such a serious thinker that Ben Cohen, of the Wall Street Journal, has decided that he needed to wrote a column explaining how science has debunked one of Freud’s century-old theories.

In truth, a normal individual, with a normally functioning mind, would have doubted Freud’s zany assertion that success wrecks people's lives. Nowadays, we are obliged to take the notion seriously because its author was a great thinker. And we feel comfortable turning to a massive amount of scientific research to prove the point.

Then again, if you are trying to succeed in this world, would you be deterred by Freud's theorizing that succeeding would make you miserable? 

Here is Ben Cohen, framing the issue:

Does success make us miserable?

Sigmund Freud was one of the first to propose this peculiar form of distress in an essay he published more than a century ago. It was a theory built around a few case studies: a patient who fell into depression after earning a promotion at work, another patient who fell apart when she married her longtime partner—and Lady Macbeth, who was not his patient.

Naturally, we all understand what success is, but still, a minimal degree of integrity will send us scurrying to the Freudian article, called “Some Character Types Met With in Psychoanalytic Work,” dating to 1916.

As it happens,  Freud presents his argument via anecdotes. They may or may not prove anything, so they might just be curiosities. Take one example. A free thinking woman who is shacking up with a man learns that he has persuaded his family to allow him to marry her. She falls completely apart.

In Freud’s words:

I had an opportunity of obtaining an insight into a woman's history, which I propose to describe as typical of these tragic occurrences. She was of good birth and well brought-up, but as quite a young girl she could not restrain her zest for life; she ran away from home and roved about the world in search of adventures, till she made the acquaintance of an artist who could appreciate her feminine charms but could also divine, in spite of what she had fallen to, the finer qualities she possessed. He took her to live with him, and she proved a faithful companion to him, and seemed only to need social rehabilitation to achieve complete happiness. After many years of life together, he succeeded in getting his family reconciled to her, and was then prepared to make her his legal wife. At that moment she began to go to pieces. She neglected the house of which she was now about to become the rightful mistress, imagined herself persecuted by his relatives, who wanted to take her into the family, debarred her lover, through her senseless jealousy, from all social intercourse, hindered him in his artistic work, and soon succumbed to an incurable mental illness. 

Of course, we do not know enough to draw any conclusions whatever. What looked like causation might have been correlation. We do not even know whether the wish to marry was hers or his? And we do not even know whether or not she fell ill for reasons that had more to do with biology than with sociology? While we know that the woman was a competent homemaker, we do not know about her attitude toward childbearing, being as that is normally a part of the marital contract. 

So, an interesting case, that proves nothing.

And then, curiously, Freud takes up the case of Lady Macbeth. Later in the essay he will take up a character in a play by Ibsen, Rosmersholm.

In the meantime, we remark, as even Freud did, that Lady Macbeth was not a human being. She was a fictional concoction. She might have been modeled on a human being, but she was not a human being. Does it matter? To Freud it did not. He wanted to find confirmation of his theorizing. He did not care about where he found it.

At the least, we learn what Freud meant when he spoke of success. He meant, as you might have guessed, wish fulfillment. He believed that success was yours when your wishes came true. In the above mentioned case, we do not know whether the live-in mistress wanted to become a wife. In the case of Lady Macbeth we do know that she wanted to become a queen and that she wanted her husband to be king. To achieve this end, she incited her husband to murder King Duncan. 

And yet, this did not make her happy. Success did not make her contented. It made her miserable. It also made her and her husband, targets. Of course, you do not have to be a Shakespeare scholar to understand that her success was not really a success, in the sense that neither she nor her husband earned it.  The play concerns itself with her guilt, a guilt that was so profound that she could not enjoy the fruits of her success. One might say that what Freud was calling success was not really a success. And that he has merely shown us that success must be earned and that if it is not, then guilt will deprive one of the enjoyment that accompanies it. 

Identifying success with wish fulfillment and ignoring the means by which one fulfills one’s wishes is simply dishonest and even lazy. While the modern psychologists Cohen consults limit themselves to career success, I doubt that any of us would consider the story of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to bespeak career success. 

In the first place, it bespeaks witchcraft, a nice Shakespearean touch, one that makes Lady Macbeth most closely resemble the weird sisters who propel Macbeth on his murderous way. And in the second place, since Macbeth did not earn his success, but indulged in a success that violated the natural order of royal succession, neither he nor his wife could properly claim the success or the succession to be theirs. Did you notice the link between success and succession?

As for the psychological studies that Cohen quotes, they have discovered that success does not make you miserable. Of course, we have not even considered the case of those who acquire success by dishonest means and who, being sufficiently psychopathic, are perfectly capable of enjoying it, without feeling any guilt.

But, that is a different case.

So, Cohen reports the test results:

By scrutinizing the lives and careers of 1,826 people in their first study, using income as the closest proxy for success, the researchers found that Freud had slipped. The exceptionally successful were not unhappy. In fact, if anything, the opposite: 

They were healthier and happier than the unsuccessful.

As though you did not know this already. Besides, Freud was not arguing that success would make you unhappy. He was arguing that success would make you profoundly miserable, that it would ruin your life. So the terms of the research did not fall within the parameters of Freud’s theorizing. 

At the least, being successful, if it is obtained honestly, can cause other people to think better of you. It can cause them to respect you more. It can cause them to listen more closely to your musings. 

Better yet, for someone like Freud, who suffered from constant anxiety about money, financial success diminishes your anxiety about your future. We might not and we will not confuse this with happiness, but it is surely not going to wreck your life. I will make an exception for those lottery winners who are incapable of managing their good fortune, and who spend their way to misery. Again, to be slightly more repetitious, theirs does not count as success because they did not earn it and did not know how to act as though they had.


Lysander said...

I think the age at which someone achieves success is significant. I think an athlete who peaks at 20 is more likely to be unhappy at 40 than a businessman who is on his way to peaking at 50.

IamDevo said...

Wisdom of the Ages, Part 1:
"I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better."
Wisdom of the Ages, Part 2:
"You can never be too thin or too rich."

Anonymous said...

Freud was...odd.