…..and the pursuit of Happiness

If you were a marketing executive you might seriously struggle to sell psychoanalysis.1 And one reason for this difficulty might be that psychoanalysis has never promised to make anyone happy.  At best, to paraphrase Freud, it can only hope to convert neurotic suffering into everyday misery.2  If anything psychoanalysis is likely to make one less happy, less comfortable, and this is partly because it encourages the questioning of everything that we hold dear – including those who are dear to us.  There is no question that ignorance is bliss; as every politician knows, the last thing the electorate wants is to be told the truth, however much they may complain that their leaders are dishonest and not being straight with them.

Is it fair, though, to equate happiness with (blissful) ignorance?  And who in their right mind would want to be unhappy anyway?  As always, it depends on the context of the question; in the Middle Ages the concept of happiness would most likely have a very different meaning than it does in the early part of the twenty-first century, and especially in the ‘developed’ secular world, where ‘happiness’, along with its close cousin ‘wellbeing’, has taken on an almost divine status.  In case anyone didn’t know it, Britain even has its very own ‘happiness tsar’, Lord Layard, the moving force behind IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies).

However, although it’s easy to cynical about Layard and his IAPT offspring, the fact is they are both symptomatic of our age; an age that cannot bear any discomfort, deferred gratification, pain or suffering.  It’s also symptomatic of an age that demands a technocratic quick-fix solution for everything, including the human condition itself.  If these ‘solutions’ can be dressed up as ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence based’ then so much the better, but this is not the real point.  The main thing is to avoid, at any cost, what it is to be a human subject: the messiness, contradictions, and sheer strangeness that make us human.

Take, for example, the ‘common mental health problems’ depression and anxiety: nowadays we are not supposed (allowed) to be depressed and/or anxious.  Rather, if there is the slightest hint of feeling a bit down or worried, there must be something wrong with us, and we must seek help as soon as possible.  The counter argument that’s always wheeled out at this point is that ‘you don’t know what it’s really like to suffer, to feel depressed or experience chronic anxiety’.  Note, this is almost always a rhetorical statement; no-one actually wants to hear that, ‘actually I do know what it’s like to feel suicidal, deeply depressed, anxious’ and so on.  And no-one wants to contemplate it might actually be the response to the person’s troubles that’s the real problem, i.e. the medicalisation or psychologisation of their experience.   Or that maybe it’s something to do with the kind of environment (social, economic, political, work, etc) that the person feels trapped in that is making them feel so bad.  In spite of decades of real (as opposed to pseudo-scientific) evidence that clearly demonstrates a link between environment and psychopathology, many in the psychotherapeutic world still treat their patients as if they were atomised individuals floating in some kind of existential void, totally immune from the world around them.  In other worlds, if they are depressed or anxious it’s nothing to do with their environment or their history.  Perhaps the real irony here is that as the world becomes ever more drawn into a dark, dystopian and technocratic nightmare, the more society seeks ever more dystopian, technocratic ‘solutions’ to make us ‘happy’.

And this brings us to a deeper problem regarding ‘happiness’.  This is that, in fact, what we now call ‘happiness’ is its complete opposite: an unbearable suffering.  This might explain why the more people strive to be ‘happy’ the greater their suffering.  Lacanians have a word for this type of ‘happiness’: jouissance.  Ironically, jouissance is usually translated as ‘enjoyment’, which suggests that it is closely linked to pleasure and,by association, happiness.  However, jouissance has very little to do with pleasure or happiness.  Rather it is closely linked to the death drive,; an unbinding of life energy; an atavistic trajectory towards a primordial state of being.

Perhaps it might not be too far fetched to argue that those who are ‘unhappy’, as defined by modern psychiatry and clinical psychology, are simply those who can see through the lie of ‘happiness’.  This is not to romanticise misery or human suffering: rather, it is to recognise that an ideology of ‘happiness’ is part of problem not the solution.

  1. Though Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays didn’t seem to have too many problems in this department. []
  2. And its track record on this is not too brilliant either. []