Yesterday, in a happy coincidence, I read an article in Spiked magazine and the entry on happiness in John Ralston’s Saul’s The Doubter’s Companion.
Saul argued that the meaning of happiness has slipped, and that in modern times we tend to look for the wrong kind of happiness in the wrong places. In Aristotle’s ethics, happiness meant human harmony, and ethical actions were actions that produced that kind of happiness. In modern liberal discourse, happiness means basic material comfort in a prosperous well-organized society. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that Americans had a natural right to pursuit of happiness, he meant the right to work for their own prosperity and to work collectively for that kind of society. When we say that politicians have a responsibility to promote happiness in that sense, we mean to promote laws and policies that promote a prosperous well-organized society.
Happiness has another meaning. Saul suggests that as Western society achieved the goals of prosperity and organization, “the word’s meaning declined into the pursuit of pleasure or an obscure sense of inner contentment”. He cites a comment attributed to the late French president Charles DeGaulle – “happiness is for idiots”. He unpacks this as describing the fact that the political and economic processes of Western society are losing their focus. Those processes should be aimed at maintaining prosperity and well-being, not contentment. People are coming to expect the rest of the world to make them feel good and blaming “society” and life for being uncertain, risky and messy.
The Spiked article, by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel was called The Tyranny of Therapy. They are promoting their new book, One Nation under Therapy. They have a few interesting things to say about what happens when people realize they are unhappy and think they should feel better:
In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Jim Windolf, editor of the New York Observer, tallied the number of Americans allegedly suffering from some kind of emotional disorder. He sent away for the literature of dozens of advocacy agencies and mental health organisations. Then he did the math. Windolf reported, ‘If you believe the statistics, 77 per cent of America’s adult population is a mess…. And we haven’t even thrown in alien abductees, road-ragers, and internet addicts.’ If we factor in the drowning girls, diminished boys, despondent women, agonised men, and the all-around emotionally challenged, the country is, in Windolf’s words, ‘officially nuts’.
Our new book One Nation Under Therapy offers a more sanguine view of American society. It points out that there is no evidence that large segments of the population are in psychological freefall. On the contrary, researchers who abide by the protocols of genuine social science find most Americans – young and old – faring quite well.
Of course, we are not suggesting that everyone is perennially happy or possessed of an abiding sense of wellbeing. Many, if not most, human beings are mildly neurotic, at times self-defeating, anxious, or sad. These traits or behaviours are characteristic of the human condition, often emerging in different life circumstances – they are not pathological. And they are certainly not new. What we oppose is the view that Americans today are emotionally underdeveloped, psychically frail, and that they require the ministrations of mental health professionals to cope with life’s vicissitudes. The crisis authors offer only anecdotes, misleading statistics, and dubious studies for their alarming findings. Yet they are taken very seriously.
They also say:
Where did it come from, this current preoccupation with feelings? It has many roots. One is the eighteenth-century Romantic philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Rousseau, the expression of emotion is crucial to any moral and spiritual development. It can also be traced to nineteenth-century evangelical movements that offered nostrums for liberating their followers from negative emotions. Its more immediate and familiar progenitors are the new psychologies that flourished and were popularised in the USA after the Second World War – notably, Freudian psychoanalysis and a successor that came to be known as the ‘human potential movement’.
Colourful academic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers introduced into American life their ideal of ‘self-actualisation’. Their work and that of colleagues seems at first optimistic, positive, and suitable to a dynamic and energetic society like postwar America. But a closer look shows that both these thinkers were precursors to today’s crisis writers. They were of the opinion that the vast majority of Americans led ‘unactualised’ lives in spiritual wastelands from which they needed to be rescued. Said Maslow, ‘I sometimes think that the world will either be saved by psychologists – in the very broadest sense – or it will not be saved at all’.
We reject the idea that psychology, however humanistic and liberationist, can be a general provider of salvation. This is not to say that psychology has not made impressive progress. We understand very well that the same half century that incubated an unwholesome therapism also saw remarkable developments in the knowledge of the brain and in new medications for severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. And we appreciate that the various talk therapies have real value for many patients. But this approach can be, and has been, taken too far. The popular assumption that emotional disclosure is always valuable, and that without professional help most people are incapable of dealing with adversity, has slipped its clinical moorings and drifted into all corners of American life.
That seems to bring together much of what I have been writing about in my entries on modern psychology and self-help movements.