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Monday, June 18, 2007

the pursuit of unhappiness

This is a good time to stop for a breather in LI’s long march through the mythology, philosophy and history of the dispute between wisdom and happiness and pose the age old question: who the fuck cares?

LI’s notion, from the beginning, is that happiness is both an ambiguous concept and one that can’t, really, operate either to determine and organize our moods (thus making moods like sorrow or boredom into ‘negative’ moods) or to give a purpose to our life. On a social level, the critique of happiness is aimed at happiness triumphant, a socio-economic system that is embodied in the treadmill of production which is bringing us to the edge of environmental collapse. The connection between these two levels is in the figural structure – the ideal roles and persons that symbolize a human life through time. Finally, I am not interested in nostalgia, or in concealing the dialectical formation of these figures within the oppressive conditions of past societies. On the other hand, the figures that have replaced them are not only also connected to the oppressive conditions of the happiness triumphant society, but are drivers of an unsustainable collective system: forever young, forever greedy.

So, in the interest of this breather, I went to blog search on Google and looked around for posts on “the necessity of unhappiness”. I turned up … well, nothing. But looking around for the philosophy and psychology of happiness turned up quite a bit. The happiness gurus pullulate in the gated community – the Seligmans advance like some mythical core of smily faced reapers. However, they are merely the guard around a more core group, convinced that capitalism is and should be the end of history. The libertarians, the techno-utopians, that lot. Of the blogs I’ve found on this recently, one of my favorites was Will Wilkerson, who writes for the Cato Institute. Wilkerson’s idea about happiness is a perfect consort to neo-classical economics – which is why I found his review of a review of John F. Schumaker’s In Search of Happiness interesting. The review summarizes Schumaker’s argument like this:

“Schumaker argues that those who conceive of happiness as “subjective well-being” — comprised of the satisfaction of individual desires and the presence of high levels of positive affect (and minimal negative affect) — have failed to recognize that genuine happiness likely consists of more than satisfaction and pleasure. At the very minimum, we must recognize that the quality of a person’s happiness necessarily depends upon the kinds of values which inform a person’s understanding of happiness and thus set the parameters for how one pursues the happy life. On Schumaker’s view, the values of individualist, materialist cultures are far too shallow, amoral, and non-sustainable for their realization to lead to a genuinely happy life. Because of this, Schumaker declares that, “in reality I believe that a heart-felt happiness is beyond the reach of most people who regard consumer culture to be their psychological home”.

To which Wilkerson replies:

“This strikes me as just stupid. Why not simply say that if individidualist, materialist cultures lead to happiness in the “subjective well-being” sense, which they do (much more so than poor, collectivist cultures), then some forms of happiness are shallow, amoral, and unsustainable. The book might be more honestly titled Against What Brainwashed People Like You Think Happiness Is. I really can’t see the intellectual virtue of such a tendentiously moralized conception of happiness. From Pianalto’s review, it seems pretty clear Shumaker believes that material and cultural progress is immoral, and wants us to live more like hunter-gatherers.”

I find Wilkerson’s response revealing, especially in the reduction of bad faith or self deception to brain washing. This reduction says a lot about the libertarian notion of the self. For the libertarian, the self is not just ideally transparent to itself, not just ideally totally informed, not just ideally conflict free – it really is all of these things. Thus it is impervious to bad faith. The self knows more about itself than any outside observer, so the self has no intellectual or emotional issues that the outside observer could ever help it with. In essence, the libertarian self is like one of those car drivers who refuses to ask for directions, for doing so would unbearably injure his self regard.

Actually, though, bad faith is not brain washing. Sartre’s example of bad faith is useful to recall. A woman is having an intellectual discussion with a man, when the man puts his hand on her leg. The woman has a choice of calling attention to the copping of the feel, or ignoring it. But to ignore it, she has to disassociate herself, somehow, from the leg. In bad faith, that is just what she does. In this case, as in other cases of self-deception, the conflict between ideas and desires is solved by means of compromises that don’t look like brain washing, but look like wishful thinking, or selective ignorance, or the triumph of hope over experience. In real life, we recognize that the sincerity of a person’s feelings or ideas is not an accurate indicator of what that person will do or is capable of doing - thus, no matter how sincerely a man may promis a bank officer that he can and will pay off a loan, the bank will make its own judgment about his creditworthiness.

Because the libertarian self is self-sufficient to the point of autism, the libertarian has to come up with an explanation of the fact that, in life, people do help each other, that people sometimes require counseling and aid from another people. The libertarian bias is to emphasize the suspiciousness of anybody actually being altruistic enough and knowledgeable enough to help anybody else. The person external to the self who actually lends advice to the self is obviously, then, expressing his own need to control – his own power lust. This makes sense: if our picture of the completely self sufficient person is correct, the only way that person would allow someone else to suggest or aid him or her is under a kind of mind controlling influence. Thus, there are only two positions – one of complete self control, one of brainwashing.

This strikes me as a very poor interpretation of human interaction, but it does contain one truth. It is true that all selves bring with them their self interest and biases. It is true that no person who takes an interest in telling you about yourself is doing so on a completely disinterested basis. Anybody who has been around people in the helping professions – psychiatrists, social workers, etc. – will recognize how much the need to be boss is part of the core motive set.

For these reasons, Wilkerson’s criticism on the brainwashing front, then, seems to be a wash. A better criticism is that Schumacher, by making the traditional move of defining happiness in terms of higher and lower happinesses - happiness distinguished by its quality – a move made by Mill in Utilitarianism, and one that has roots in the Stoics – is actually moving the definitional goal posts. What we have, here, is conceptual creep – the use of a term to mean more than the term usually means.

What is behind this conceptual creep? The stubborn notion that social welfare is defined by the increase in happiness. The stubborn notion that, in other words, the goal is to avoid all unhappiness.

My view is that this seriously disconnects from the way lives are lived over time. To put it in a too compressed form: to remain true to the spirit of the enlightenment slogan of the pursuit of happiness, we have to turn it into something else: the ideal of a society in which every individual can afford unhappiness. Can afford to be sick. Can afford to grieve. Can afford to be sorrowful. Can afford to be bored. That affordance is about not bottoming out while doing something about the unhappiness, responding to it, experiencing it. Not efficiently negating it.

Which points us to another sociological fact. As societies become more affluent, the pursuit of unhappiness emerges pretty quickly, and not just in fringe cultures. The sullenness of adolescence, the mid-life crises of middle age, the goth music grad student culture, these aren’t accidents. Affluence allows for what you might call different climates of temperament. Unhappiness is the purest response to the very idea that happiness is the ultimate parameter by which to judge one’s life and one’s society. If the enlightenment notion of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ has any value, it is in the idea of the pursuit itself – an object that is desirable because it promises happiness is valued because its pursuit is correlated with unhappiness. The test or contest is encoded in the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself.

Schumacher puts himself in a conceptual and terminological straightjacket by repeating the happiness language, making it easy for Wilkerson to mock him. Far better to admit that as a social and individual ideal, happiness is fucked up.


Scruggs said...

Roger, doesn't bad faith necessarily include someone or some party with whom one can be faithless? Bad faith with oneself seems like excessive navel gazing and a fairly difficlut contortion. The woman reluctant to acknowledge the groper is far more likely to be scared -- and scared to call attention to something that no one is interested in helping to put to a stop. Playing possum is a venerable tactic for the outmatched, who are accustomed to being betrayed or otherwise treated with bad faith.


I have tags at UFOB for entries to be filed under rugged collectivism and Babbitt individualism, the dominant strains in the state subsidized privatization of power. That's to differentiate the libertarians who preach more than practice from those who retain an affinity for power. As one might point out the difference between, say, Dutch Ruppersberger and Barbara Lee or Henry Waxman.


The kind of social autism (can I call it solipsism?) you describe looks like a precondition for bad faith. One must make an effort to crush most of empathy to do it, retaining just enough to size up the mark, and possibly enough to marketize 'authentic' happiness.

Anonymous said...

"That's to differentiate the libertarians who practice more than preach from those who retain an affinity for power"

roger said...

Mr. Scruggs, actually, I thought Sartre was clever to chose that example. I've known many women who have told me about having sex when they didn't necessarily feel like it, and it is suprising how many describe the feeling in terms of disassociation - "It was like I was looking down at myself from the ceiling."

But there are tons of forms of freezing a part of reality. The guy, for instance, whose "real life" isn't spent at the office, but doing some hobby, or being a writer - hey, I've been that guy. The making of one part of one's life 'realer" than another part is a pretty common thing. Sartre would, in a way, agree that the woman in his example was scared - in fact, fear and flight are his paradigms for explaining a lot of human emotion. Bad faith comes in many forms, but the chief point I'd like to make is - it is much different from brainwashing. I wouldn't have picked up on Wilkerson's term so much if I hadn't heard it before, used to describe any theory which claims that individuals, qua individuals and en masse, can be wrong even about what they claim they want. Now, I understand disdaining an elitist view of 'we know better what you want than you do". However, I don't think that one should infer, from resisting that claim, that "you know exactly what you want." And from there building up a sort of fake homo libertarianus (hey, that'll make Cicero turn in his grave!).

More important to me, though, is expanding the range of emotions through which we judge social arrangements. I want to dance around the walls of Happiness triumphant, blowing on a horn, until those walls fall down!

Scruggs said...

Ah well, I misread you. But I see now and I think you're right. The disdaining of that particular elitist view often leads right to another, complementary, tactically accusatory elitism. I would still differentiate between people who limit options to nothing but consumer choices and call it liberty and people who seek limits to power, to leave options open.

Anyway, Roger, when you're out there at the walls of Seligman's Jericho, I'd be pleased to join in with my tuba.

roger said...

Around Seligman's conclave, I suggest we play this.

Turbulent said...

The striking thing about Seligman's pseudodistinction between "pleasure" and and a more complex "happiness" is that the sublimation isn't a bid for some Freudian-Aristotelian embrace of deferred gratification and the reality principle, as it might seem at first glance (& what with Selgiman's brandishing of terms like 'eudaemonia').

True, Seligman wants to have a way of sniffing at the vulgarity of mere sensate pleasure in favor of some more enlightened, gratification-deferring bliss that can endure for the long term. But Seligman is a rhetorically sneaky defender of consumer consciousness and he has no intention of making a case against "pleasure." He wants to get from vulgar "pleasure" to mature, enduring "happiness" without having any kind of asceticism intervene. He wants to avoid any sort of dialectic in which the vulgar pleasures must be opposed or even despised in order to construct the deferred-gratification paradise of socialized "happiness." You'd never know from his account that any person or any culture found it confusingly necessary to oppose proximal pleasure on behalf of cultural complexity or longterm "happiness"; you'd never guess there had been warrior cultures (much less 'civilized' cultures) which prided themselves on despising "pleasure" as the route to higher happinesses; you'd never guess that human history suggested the distinction between "pleasure" and "happiness" was sufficiently double-bound and tortuous that one might, even with the best of intentions, find it difficult to exit that hall of mirrors once entered.

In other words: the "positive psychology" account of happiness doesn't even have the dignity or complexity of the aporia which your dismissal lends it. I haven't read Schumacher, but in Seligman's work the ostensible opposition between "pleasure" and "happiness" is really just an obvious innoculating campaign on behalf of "pleasure," with a little appended paternalistic lecture on thinking for the long term.

Seligman's byline is, very precisely, "the stubborn notion that....the goal is to avoid all unhappiness."

Another thought: Sartre's notion of bad faith, in isolation, seems useful because its underscoring of a dim strategic moment does point to something phenomenologically real. But Sartre's larger theory of the emotions won't be of much help to your campaign, will it? He's like the apotheosis of the libertarian mindset you criticize here--the king of insane, self-transparent cognivitism. You CHOOSE to panic so you can dither and evade Responsibility! You CHOOSE to get angry so you can indulge a tantrum and evade Responsibility! You CHOOSE to be depressed so you have an excuse to withdraw from the Really Really Responsible Act! There is no such thing as a filthy unconscious! But nonetheless the Atheist Superego God is always watching and judging, Roger, don't you see that? Stop CHOOSING to have those pussy emotions! Evader!

"More important to me, though, is expanding the range of emotions through which we judge social arrangements."

Yeah. Seems simple and obvious, doesn't it? When did this this become such a fringe notion?

roger said...

Mr. TV, I must admit that my knowledge of Seligman comes from you guys at UFOB and a NYT Magazine article. I ... I ... I can't read the guy. I know, as an intrepid intellectual reporter, I should don my asbestos suit and plunge in, but there are limits.

However, this conversation reminds me of a book I reviewed long ago, a book entitled the working life by a woman I met this January at Bob Solomon's memorial service, Joanne Ciulla. Seligman is part of a whole parcel of folks consulting with businesses on how to make their workforce happier and more motivated. I loved this quote:

She quotes a study which polled managers about the most efficient incentives for building employee commitment: "The researchers found that most senior managers believed that celebrations and ceremonies and non-cash recognition were the best incentives for non-managers... But for senior managers, they responded that the best incentive was cash rewards tied to quality performance."

One should always remember that the emotional managers exist in a larger managerial universe.

As for Sartre, what can I say, TV, except that you are right? Sartre knew that there was a problem with the idea, on the one hand, of absolute freedom, and on the other hand, with human reality. The first answer is that actually, the self is a project working towards a goal that is never achieved. So there is no self. The second answer in the Critique of Dialectical Reason is, I think, that there are different realities on different levels - individual and group.

Unlike the libertarian position, however, Sartre does recognize social interdependence, aid, sympathy, self deception - he has a larger and more sensible view of human reality that isn't deduced from some ideal economic model. Surely that's a start...

Scruggs said...

Roger, if all one has seen of libertarians comes from Cato and Mises, then that's a defensible criticism. But that's not all there is to libertarianism, especially the more left wing tropes. One could fault them for being overly optimistic about altruism and ducking the question of what response is possible for coping with the violence that comes opportunistic, escalating bad faith. But not for the pinched and mean reduction of people to consumers and bottomless pit of enforcement through torts.

Turbulent said...

We read Martin so you don't have to, Rog.

If we believed in pursuing authentic happiness, you can be very sure we'd find other uses for our time.

Alan said...


At last I can figure out where the hell you're going with this happiness vs. wisdom thread.

Being the scholastic type I am, I'm a bit surprised at the lack of any mention of Aristotle in this thread (although I notice Turbulent does throw in a reference.) You know the schtick: Happiness is the highest good obtainable human action. People disagree about what happiness is; some people say it's pleasure, others honor, others wisdom, blah blah blah.

From this perspective, I puzzled by the way at various points you've equated happiness with pleasure, and opposed both to wisdom or sagacity, rather than thinking of pleasure and wisdom as two different conceptions of happiness.

Also from this perspective, a few comments on various things you say in this post:

-- "happiness is an ambiguous concept": Thinking of happiness as a higher-order concept, in the Aristotelian mode, accommodates this insight. There's a more technical term for "higher-order concept", which I'm forgetting; the idea is that the notion of happiness is kind of a placeholder in a conceptual scheme; it reserves the spot at which the hedonist (lover of pleasure) and the philosopher (lover of wisdom) can have a theoretical disagreement, as opposed to just being two people who've chosen different ends in life.

-- "the concept of happiness can’t operate either to determine and organize our moods": Not sure what you're getting at here. Please say more.

-- "the concept of happiness can't give a purpose to our life": obviously not, as long as it's only a higher-order concept without the details filled in.

-- "On a social level, the critique of happiness is aimed at happiness triumphant, a socio-economic system that is embodied in the treadmill of production": Gotcha here. The most prominent contemporary versions of happiness-as-pleasure serve as the ideology of consumer capitalism.

-- "The connection between these two levels is in the figural structure: the ideal roles and persons that symbolize a human life through time." I lose track of what your critique is here. This here "ideal figure": you fer 'im or agin 'im?

-- Your takedown of the libertarian conception of the self is superb. I'm going to have to read this Wilkerson guy some more, though; he's obviously smart and well-informed, although he comes to some screwy conclusions.

-- I'll have to think some more about the "brainwashing vs. bad faith" issue.

-- "What we have, here, is conceptual creep -- the use of a term to mean more than the term usually means": Given my Aristotelian biases, seems to me that "what the term 'happiness' usually means these days is a case of conceptual decay, not the reverse.

-- "The stubborn notion that social welfare is defined by the increase in happiness": Who holds this notion "stubbornly"? Classical Utilitarians? How much does classic U. inform U.S. social policies? I should think that all that disappeared when Clinton buried what remained of the corpse of the Great Society after Reagan butchered it. And I don't see that, e.g., the swarm of self-help gurus are much concerned about the aggregate happiness -- their most altruistic expressions of intention evince a concern with the happiness of the people who buy their books.

I'll try to throw in more on this stuff later.


roger said...

Alan, interesting comments.
Yes, I have ignored Aristotle - partly because Epicurus was the figure used, in the 17th century, to pull together a sort of anti-aristotelian materialism.

I'm not really sure how I am supposed to understand the 'higher order" Aristotelian happiness. It is not like, say, horse, where there is, on the one hand, the individual horse and, on the other hand, a concept of horse that picks out all horses. Instead, there is happiness in its various manifestations, and then this higher order happiness that picks out none of them, but seems to operate as a purpose. Economists now talk of well being, right? And I imagine that is close to what Aristotle means. Still, I think it is pretty confusing to use the same term to name these various manifestations of a certain mood and this higher order whatever it is.

I think that the re-introduction of Epicurus in the seventeenth century was the beginning, or was part of the beginning, of the modern notion of happiness, and a secular way of organizing knowledge, pleasure, and passion. When I speak of happiness as "organizing" our talk about moods, I am thinking of such things as the way sadness, grief, boredom, etc. are called negative. What are they negations of? The idea seems to be that some central happiness provides the core human positive.

Also, I use the phrase treadmill of production advisedly. It is not just consumer capitalism, it is all the systems that have arisen from the treadmill of production - Maoist and Brezhnevian socialism as well. I think of these as all products of Polanyi's great transformation - the attempt to embed the social in the economic. In its market form, you get consumer capitalism, but command and control economies you simply substitute the monopoly state for the market, with the same effect on the society at large.

So, that doesn't respond to all your points, but some of them. The Aristotle thing I'll have to think about some more. In my perhaps mixed up notion of how the history went here, it wasn't until the 19th century, well after the utilitarians had gotten under way, that the Aristotelian notion of happiness was revived as a sort of protest against the vulgar pushing and pulling of Utilitarianism. temperance.

roger said...

oops. erase 'temperance" after Utilitarianism.

amie said...

LI, do you know the 1941 text by Borges re W.H. Hudson's "The Purple Land"?
Here's a little excerpt:

Improving the perfection of a phrase divulged by Boswell, Hudson says that many times in his life he undertook the study of metaphysics, but happiness always interrupted him. That sentence (one of the most memorable I have encountered in literature) is typical of the man and the book. In spite of the bloodshed and the separations, The Purple Land is one of the very few happy books in the world.[...] I am not thinking of the chaotic debate between pessimists and optimists; I am not thinking of the doctrinal happiness the pathetic Whitman inexorably imposed on himself; I am thinking of the happy disposition of Richard Lamb, of the hospitality with which he welcomed every vicissitude of life, whether bitter or sweet.

Matt said...

I'm not sure you're appreciating the point of Schumaker's view; that is, I think that he would agree that happiness is more in the "pursuit" - in the living of life in a certain way - rather than at the "end" of our pursuits. (This shows up in his criticism of the fast-pace of consumer lifestyles.) Wilkinson's criticism has to do with the idea that Schumaker *moralizes* happiness - that is, defines it as something above and beyond a "mental state." I'm not sure Will would disagree that some people are "brainwashed" in thinking certain ways of life or pursuits will lead to happiness (see, for example, his discussion of "post-materialism" - the idea that money can lead to increases in happiness only if it is spent on things/pursuits that add meaning - and not just pixel-density - to our lives, in his Policy Analysis paper: you can find this on his blog).

roger said...

Matt, I myself don't agree with Schumacher that happiness is in the pursuit - I think that is a contingent matter, but often unhappiness is in the pursuit. My point is that the unhappiness is often what one desires, precisely, in that pursuit - or rather, one desires a number of things, one has a number of temperamental modes, and using happiness as the term to designate them all is ultimately misleading. This is where I think Wilkinson is calling Schumacher on conceptual 'creep' - the use of a term, happiness, to encompass things - moral things, social things - that Schumacher wants us to want. Schumacher may well be right - perhaps we should want these things. But they won't contribute to our happiness - they might contributed to our depth. They might contribute to our wisdom. They might contribute to our social usefulness. They might contribute to our creativity. But there's no reason to think that they will necessarily contribute to our happiness, although contingently, in some cases, they might.

As for the brainwashing comment - I took it from Wilkerson's own comment about Schumacher's claim:

"The book might be more honestly titled Against What Brainwashed People Like You Think Happiness Is. "

Matt said...

Roger, I think I get your point about the contingency. I suppose one might (I don't know if Schumaker goes this far) say that certain things should make us happy. Of course that's a difficult claim to make because it might seem to violate the idea that you can only tell people that they *should* do something if they *can* do it, and maybe some people just aren't psychologically able to feel happy about doing some things that it would be, on some other grounds, good to do. That seems to capture what you mean when you say that people's pursuits often involve unhappiness. But presumably, they aren't pursuing unhappiness, but rather *enduring* some unhappiness now for some future benefit (happiness?) later. I'm reading a new book by psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar called Happier where he identifies such people as "rat-racers": people who postpone present happiness for future happiness. The risk run by rat-racers, of course, is that once you get what you've been aiming for (a better job, and award, etc.), the effects of climbing to the mountain top generally fade - we adapt to raises, status, etc. - and one then has to look for anothe rat-race to enter. This can seem futile. (For lots of people, including Ben-Shahar, this suggests that we had better look for the possibility of enjoying the journey, too.)