The Chronicle Review

Happiness and Its Discontents

Geoffrey Moss for The Chronicle Review

January 20, 2014

As a critical theorist working at the intersection of Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory, I make observations about human life that are speculative rather than empirical. That may explain why my definition of character pertains to what is least tangible, least intelligible about our being, including the inchoate frequencies of desire that sometimes cause us to behave in ways that work against our rational understanding of how our lives are supposed to turn out.

If identity captures something about the relatively polished social persona we present to the world, then character—in my view—captures something about the wholly idiosyncratic and potentially rebellious energies that, every so often, break the facade of that persona. From this perspective, our character leaps forth whenever we do something "crazy," such as suddenly dissolving a committed relationship or leaving a promising career path. At such moments, what is fierce and unapologetic about us undermines our attempts to lead a "reasonable" life, causing us to follow an inner directive that may be as enigmatic as it is compelling. We may not know why we feel called to a new destiny, but we sense that not heeding that call will stifle what is most alive within us.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that finds such insurrections threatening, not least because they make us less predictable and therefore harder to control. This is one reason we're constantly reminded of the importance of leading a happy, balanced life—the kind of life that "makes sense" from the viewpoint of the dominant social order. Many of us have, in fact, internalized the ideal of a happy, balanced life to such an extent that we find it hard to imagine alternatives. As Freud has already claimed, there is little doubt about what most people want out of life: "They want to become happy and to remain so."

A quick survey of our culture—particularly our self-help culture—confirms Freud's observation. One could even say that, in our era, the idea that we should lead happy, balanced lives carries the force of an obligation: We are supposed to push aside our anxieties in order to enjoy our lives, attain peace of mind, and maximize our productivity. The cult of "positive thinking" even assures us that we can bring good things into our lives just by thinking about them.

In this picture, anxiety is somewhat of an embarrassment: a sign of existential failure. Although the rushed pace of contemporary life makes tranquillity more and more difficult to come by, we are repeatedly warned against the pitfalls of anxiety, including the psychosomatic symptoms it's supposed to spawn. So-called wellness experts deem agitation to be bad for us. Magazine articles offer tips on how to overcome stress. And New Age gurus equate enlightenment with serenity.

All of this can make us feel so anxious about feeling anxious that when we catch ourselves getting a little stirred up, a little excited, even in a good way, we end up suppressing our feelings because we fear that our ardor might deliver us straight into the lair of ... anxiety. In that sense, we are getting a general education in emotional numbness; essentially, we are taught to fear aliveness in all of its manifestations.

The socially coercive aspects of our culture's mantra—anxiety bad, happiness good—are obvious. As Theodor Adorno noted back in the 1950s, the reminders to be happy that saturate our culture "have about them the fury of a father berating his children for not rushing joyously downstairs when he comes home irritable from his office." Any woman who has been told by a strange man on the street to "smile" knows exactly what Adorno is talking about: Public displays of female unhappiness, let alone anxiety, are not allowed. If patriarchy is to survive, women need to reassure men at all times that all is well in the world by appearing cheerful. Your grandmother died this morning? You're giving a major talk in half an hour? Never mind, I want to see you smile!

From a Foucauldian perspective, one could propose that women's ability to keep smiling even when they are feeling miserable is one of the many biopolitical tools of neoliberal capitalism. Simply put, grumpy waitresses are bad for the economy. Ditto for people who opt for ardent but untidy love affairs over the more sanitized sexuality of the marital bed. If you want people to show up at their desks every morning, you hype up the value of marriage to such an extent that people are willing to stay in their marriages no matter how lackluster they may be.

According to this way of thinking, the powers that be need to know what to expect from us, so that they can sell us everything from opinions to beauty products. And as the feminist theorist Sara Ahmed has argued, nothing makes us more docile than the societal "happiness scripts"—such as the idea that marriage is the pinnacle of human life—that guide us to specific life paths while making others (those judged devoid of happiness) seem inconceivable.

Needless to say, our fixation on the ideal of happiness diverts our attention from collective social ills, such as socioeconomic disparities. As Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, when we believe that our happiness is a matter of thinking the right kinds of (positive) thoughts, we become blind to the ways in which some of our unhappiness might be generated by collective forces, such as racism or sexism. Worst of all, we become callous to the lot of others, assuming that if they aren't doing well, if they aren't perfectly happy, it's not because they're poor, oppressed, or unemployed but because they're not trying hard enough.

If all of that isn't enough to make you suspicious of the cultural injunction to be happy, consider this basic psychoanalytic insight: Human beings may not be designed for happy, balanced lives. The irony of happiness is that it's precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last. Insofar as each passing moment of happiness brings us closer to its imminent collapse, happiness is merely a way of anticipating unhappiness; it's a deviously roundabout means of producing anxiety.

Take the notion that happiness entails a healthy lifestyle. Our society is hugely enthusiastic about the idea that we can keep illness at bay through a meticulous management of our bodies. The avoidance of risk factors such as smoking, drinking, and sexual promiscuity, along with a balanced diet and regular exercise, is supposed to guarantee our longevity. To a degree, that is obviously true. But the insistence on healthy habits is also a way to moralize illness, to cast judgment on those who fail to adhere to the right regimen. Ultimately, as the queer theorist Tim Dean has illustrated, we are dealing with a regulation of pleasure—a process of medicalization that tells us which kinds of pleasures are acceptable and which are not.

I suspect that beneath our society's desperate attempts to minimize risk, and to prescribe happiness as an all-purpose antidote to our woes, there resides a wretched impotence in the face of the intrinsically insecure nature of human existence. As a society, we have arguably lost the capacity to cope with this insecurity; we don't know how to welcome it into the current of our lives. We keep trying to brush it under the rug because we have lost track of the various ways in which our lives are not meant to be completely healthy and well adjusted.

Why, exactly, is a healthy and well-adjusted life superior to one that is filled with ardor and personal vision but that is also, at times, a little unhealthy and maladjusted? Might some of us not prefer lives that are heaving with an intensity of feeling and action but that do not last quite as long as lives that are organized more sensibly? Why should the good life equal a harmonious life? Might not the good life be one that includes just the right amount of anxiety? Indeed, isn't a degree of tension a precondition of our ability to recognize tranquillity when we are lucky enough to encounter it? And why should our lives be cautious rather than a little dangerous? Might not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged?

I recently attended a presentation given by the daughter of a prominent man who, during his life, wrote several books that have had a tremendous impact on how we understand human psychology. During her talk, the daughter faulted her father for not having been a stable "family man," for having let his passion for his work overshadow the rest of his life, and for having never been completely at ease with everyday social interactions. She made it sound as if her father had been a failure as a person because he had not been able to appreciate the rewards of a well-adjusted life.

As I listened to her, I kept thinking that she was judging her father by a very conventional standard. As far as I'm concerned, there are situations in which the ability to show up at the dinner table is less important than the capacity to produce works of great genius that enrich the rest of society.

Many of the people who have made the biggest contributions to our collective history—intellectuals, researchers, composers, writers, artists, and so on—have lived lives that, from the outside, seem fairly pathological. They have often been deeply solitary, have had trouble forming enduring relationships, have been consumed by their projects to the point of obsession, have plunged into the depths of despair, have doubted and disparaged themselves, and have had to endure the coldness and sharpness of the world's judgment. Yet who is to say that these lives are somehow less poignant than those that seem more wholesome?

When it comes to living a robust life, it's possible that these tormented, "pathological" personalities have come closer than many healthier ones. By stating the issue so strongly, I want to call attention to the ideological nature of our faith in the value of poise and equanimity. If we had grown up in a different society, we might celebrate other traits—say, absolute dedication to a cause—instead.

I don't wish to fetishize psychological or emotional instability; I'm aware of the enormous toll it can exact. And I know that there are many people who live under unbearable burdens of uncertainty. But we are mistaken when we interpret anxiety and other forms of existential disorientation as being at odds with a well-lived life. It may well be that they are an essential part of such a life.

It's also possible that the more we pursue happy, balanced lives, the more bland and boring, the more devoid of character, we become. It may not be a coincidence that many people these days complain about a sluggishness of spirit—what the philosopher Julia Kristeva describes as one of "the new maladies of the soul." These people go through the motions of life and may even accomplish a great deal in terms of professional ambitions or successful relationships. Yet something is missing. There is an underlying futility to their existence that makes them feel fake, unreal, or not fully present in their skins. Much of the time, they sense that the edition of themselves they display to the world is an empty shell, a mask that may sometimes dazzle but does not ultimately bring fulfillment.

This is why our society's creed of happiness, with its witch hunt of anxiety, tends to be antithetical to the needs of our character. Granted, it's nice to feel calm and collected; there is nothing wrong with composure. But those reassuring feelings have little to do with the unruly singularity that lends weightiness to our character. After all, our character includes not only what is pleasing and gracious but also what appears volatile, disorderly, unwieldy, and even a bit tumultuous or derailing. Our character routinely mortifies the more refined parts of us. If we want to be faithful to our character, we need to learn to tolerate whatever undermines or refuses to be disciplined into the seamless persona that sustains our social viability. Heeding the call of our character, in short, means risking our composure.

In one of his more poetic moments, Adorno proposes that awkward, embarrassing gestures preserve "a trace of vanished life." I understand this to mean that our accidental gestures—our lapses of composure, as it were—carry an imprint of our character, of the part of us that we are asked to banish but that never quite vanishes.

Hannah Arendt in turn talks about an ethereal "aura" that is implicit in our demeanor but cannot be reduced to any of our qualities (our talents, limitations, and so on). This inimitable aura tells others something about the deepest layers of our being, about the "who" of us rather than the "what" of us. Like the Greek daimon, which was thought to represent the unique spirit of each individual, and was believed to accompany him or her throughout life, this aura is visible to others yet impossible to translate into a clear description.

I like to think of Arendt's daimon and Adorno's awkward, embarrassing gestures together because I believe that the intersection of these is where we find our character. Like the daimon, this character is intangible yet palpable. And like awkward, embarrassing gestures, it communicates something about the often quite excessive compilation of energies that infuses our lives with vitality. Anxiety represents one facet of that compilation, which is why it's not always the enemy our society makes it out to be. Sometimes it might even be our last link to our character: what reminds us of the kinds of desires that our society deems immoderate or imprudent but that our character deems indispensable.

This is why there is something quite hollow about the ideal of a happy, balanced life—a life unruffled by anxiety. It's why I think that underneath our quest for vibrant health lurks a tragic kind of discreet death: the demise of everything that is eccentric and messy about human life. Our society sells us the quick fix: If you get a cold, take some decongestants; if you get depressed, take some antidepressants; and if you get anxious, take those tranquilizers. But what are we supposed to take when we lose our character?

Mari Ruti is a professor of critical theory at the University of Toronto. Her latest book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living (Columbia University Press, 2013).