… anything but happiness.

On the matter of happiness, she’s with Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst. Here are some Phillips snippets:

Sanity involves learning to enjoy conflict, and giving up on all myths of harmony, consistency and redemption… A culture that is obsessed with happiness must really be in despair, mustn’t it? Otherwise why would anybody be bothered about it at all? It’s become a preoccupation because there’s so much unhappiness. The idea that if you just reiterate the word enough … we’ll all cheer up is preposterous… The cultural demand now is be happy, or enjoy yourself, or succeed. You have to sacrifice your unhappiness and your critique of the values you’re supposed to be taking on. You’re supposed to go: ‘Happiness! Yes, that’s all I want!’ But what about justice or reality or ruthlessness – or whatever my preferred thing is?”

“The reason that there are so many depressed people is that life is so depressing for many people. It’s not a mystery. There is a presumption that there is a weakness in the people who are depressed or a weakness on the part of scientific research and one of these two groups has got to pull its socks up. Scientists have got to get better and find us a drug and the depressed have got to stop malingering. The ethos is: ‘Actually life is wonderful, great – get out there!’ That’s totally unrealistic and it’s bound to fail.”

“Darwinian psychoanalysis would involve helping you to adapt, find a niche and enable you to reproduce. Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that there is something over and above this. There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. Freud is saying there is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project. That seems to me to be persuasive.”

“One of the things I value about psychoanalysis is that it acknowledges that there are real difficulties in living, being who one’s going to be, and that no one’s going to be having a lobotomy. There isn’t going to be a radical personal change, which doesn’t mean that people can’t change usefully, but really that psychoanalysis is against magic. Ideally it enables you to realise why you’re prone to believe in magic and why you shouldn’t, because to believe in magic is to attack your own intelligence. [S]uffering is not essential. It’s just unavoidable. All forms of suffering are bad but some are unavoidable. We need to come to terms with them or be able to bear them. …[Y]ou really did have those parents, you really did make of it what you made of it, you really did have those siblings, really did grow up in that economic climate. These are all hard difficult facts. Redescribed, they can be modified, things can evolve. But it isn’t magic.”

Happiness is fine as a side effect. It’s something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of fundamentalism. [H]appiness is the most conformist of moral aims. For me, there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident in one thing — the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.”


All of which is why reactions to the decades-long Harvard Grant Study, which followed a group of Harvard undergraduates throughout their lives in terms of their happiness, have been like this:

♦ The lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.”

♦ Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.

♦ Education, marriage, moderate alcohol intake, and exercise are fairly reliable predictors of happiness; so are certain “mature adaptations” taken in responding to challenges, such as maintaining a sense of humor and channeling aggressive feelings into more healthful channels like athletics. As for offering any definitive answer as to how to live the good life, no convenient elixir is forthcoming. To deny the Grant Study its ambitious objective to pinpoint the causes of happiness has a whiff of the wet blanket about it. But there’s something even more miserable about thinking that our happiness can be defined by the jobs we choose, or what we eat for breakfast, or how many miles we run each week. Freud himself pointed out that the only thing normal is pathology, which makes applying a bell-curve-style prescription for joy more than a little reductionist. Even if all the indicators in our lives point to success, a craving for something indefinable may persist.

Here’s an example of how weird, strange, disturbing, and difficult we are:

[P]eople tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day.

In fact, [explains one of the Harvard Grant Study researchers], positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs — protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections — but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Amen, brother. Some of UD‘s most difficult moments in life involve her confrontation with extremely high appraisals of UD.

Don’t get her wrong. She wouldn’t trade these beautiful appreciations — often written as if after lengthy consultations with UD‘s most embarrassingly grandiose narcissistic fantasies about herself — for the world.

But since she knows herself to be much less impressive and much more unpleasant than what she’d like to think she is, part of her responds to beautiful appreciations with fear. “If you only knew,” she wants to say to the writers. “If you only knew, you’d be so bitterly … so vengefully? … disappointed.”

I think that’s why we cross the street.

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5 Responses to “In the Spring, UD’s Thoughts Turn to…”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Wow. This gets my vote for blog post of the year. I think we’ve all had those thoughts.

    The American pursuit of happiness strikes me as a cover for a cultural unwillingness to experience our feelings. "A culture that is obsessed with happiness must really be in despair" hits me as being so true. It’s emblematic of our refusal to accept and be with our emotions…happiness included.

  2. Dance Says:

    PhD graduation at my school involved your adviser talking about how great you were for 5-10 minutes. While I thought it was a really great way to honor a major accomplishment, going through it myself sounded like hell, and it was a small part of why I didn’t bother to walk for my PhD (timing was also off).

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Jonathan: MANY thanks. But you make me afraid!

    Dance: I hear you. Loud and clear.

  4. Van L. Hayhow Says:

    Can’t say I agree. I have been happy some times in my life and unhappy at times in my life. Happy is so much better its off the charts. I can’t imagine why anyone would cross the street to avoid someone who gave them a compliment. That doesn’t register at all. An old boss of mine, many years ago, told me that in the profession I was joining I would do much good for people in distress but that many (maybe, most) of them would not appreciate it. He said, therefore, that if someone wanted to thank you, no matter how busy you were, to take the time to let them and enjoy it (even if that time you didn’t think the result was that great). It was some of the best advice I ever received. So, if you ever see me across the street the day after I’ve given you a compliment, come across the street so I can reaffirm it. Maybe then, we can both enjoy a couple of minutes in what might otherwise be a lousy day for both of us.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    I take your point, Van. From it I conclude that you are a more normal human specimen than myself.

    On the other hand, there IS that result from the study — that many people do report that they’d cross the street…

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