The pursuit of happiness?

Recently I’ve wrote about enjoyment in an age of austerity.1  But what about happiness? This might seem a strange question: after all, isn’t enjoyment just another word for being happy? Not really. After all, it’s quite possible to enjoy being very miserable, in the sense one can gain a great deal of satisfaction out of being very unhappy, especially if being happy is frowned upon.

However, shouldn’t we at least be aspiring to, or aiming for, happiness, even if it proves to be very elusive? In fact, isn’t happiness a fundamental right of every human being or even a fundamental need?

Some people have read psychoanalysis in this way. In other words, that human beings are driven to happiness, or at least driven to pleasure. This is what Freud initially thought, and in his early psychoanalytic writings he argued that the reason people were so unhappy, i.e. lacking in pleasure, was because of repressed sexual desire. It followed from this that the aim of therapy was lift the repression and, hey presto! we have a happy person.

The problem is, as Freud was well aware, there was, and still is, a great deal of destructiveness in human behaviour, and this can’t simply be explained in terms of repression. Rather, there seems to be something fundamental in human nature that is inherently destructive. This is what Freud was eventually to identify as the death drive,2 and which Lacan was to reformulate as jouissance. For many psychotherapists and even some psychoanalysts this was a step too far: after all, if it was true, then what hope for human civilisation?

On the other hand, the idea of a death drive does help explain why, in a world in which human beings are supposedly striving for happiness, there is so much pain, much of which would seem to be avoidable.  And it’s not just the obvious manifestations of such pain and destruction, for example, war, murder, sexual abuse, and so on.  Take for example someone who works very hard, who is a dutiful husband and father, who has time for everyone, who appears to be the epitome of self-sacrifice. 

It’s hard to think that such an individual may be caught up in the death drive.  But we all know the kind of person I’m talking about: someone who seems to be a permanent state of both total rapture and extreme (dis)stress.  In a sense this is a ‘legitimised’ form of the death drive, one which manifests itself in hundreds of workplaces and homes up and down the country.  People ‘burning out’, being martyrs to the cause of their work, to their families.  And all this, apparently in the pursuit of happiness, of the dream of a better life. 

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  2. Which Strachey mistranslates as ‘death instinct’ in the Standard Edition. []