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David Brooks has been gathering life narratives from…

… a bunch of oldies so the rest of us can avoid their fuckups. From the hundreds of accounts he received, he concludes a bunch of things about how to live happily and well.

One theme that runs through his list is drift. You don’t want to sit around vaguely thinking about yourself all the time; you don’t want to think of time as an aimless flow; and you don’t want to be a “rebel and …outsider. The most miserable of my correspondents fit this mold. They were forever in revolt against the world and ended up sourly achieving little.”

UD thinks that Brooks must mean drifty outsiders, people sort of meaninglessly at odds with their culture. To be meaningfully at odds is to be D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Norman Mailer, Morrissey, Christopher Lasch, Christopher Hitchens, Doris Lessing, Lenny Bruce and tons of others who achieved much. Were/are these happy people? Recall what Adam Phillips says:

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.

Margaret Soltan, November 30, 2011 8:53AM
Posted in: how to make ud happy

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3 Responses to “David Brooks has been gathering life narratives from…”

  1. dmf Says:

    let me know when Brook’s discovers a truism that doesn’t confirm his predispositions…

  2. jim Says:

    I hope I’ve not lived a life of which Brooks approves. That would be depressing.

  3. University Diaries » “Unwittingly, the DSM-5 revisionists are contributing to an impoverishment of meaning…” Says:

    […] and Statistical sampler, bursting with psychiatric diagnoses for everyone in the house. Like Adam Phillips (“[H]appiness is the most conformist of moral aims. For me, there’s a simple test here. […]

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