Happiness and Its Discontents, Part I

The Call of Character

This week our featured book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living by Mari Ruti. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have the first part of an excerpt from Mari Ruti’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Happiness and Its Discontents.”

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Happiness and Its Discontents
Mari Ruti

As a critical theorist working at the intersection of Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory, I make observations about human life that are speculative rather than empirical. That may explain why my definition of character pertains to what is least tangible, least intelligible about our being, including the inchoate frequencies of desire that sometimes cause us to behave in ways that work against our rational understanding of how our lives are supposed to turn out.

If identity captures something about the relatively polished social persona we present to the world, then character—in my view—captures something about the wholly idiosyncratic and potentially rebellious energies that, every so often, break the facade of that persona. From this perspective, our character leaps forth whenever we do something “crazy,” such as suddenly dissolving a committed relationship or leaving a promising career path. At such moments, what is fierce and unapologetic about us undermines our attempts to lead a “reasonable” life, causing us to follow an inner directive that may be as enigmatic as it is compelling. We may not know why we feel called to a new destiny, but we sense that not heeding that call will stifle what is most alive within us.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that finds such insurrections threatening, not least because they make us less predictable and therefore harder to control. This is one reason we’re constantly reminded of the importance of leading a happy, balanced life—the kind of life that “makes sense” from the viewpoint of the dominant social order. Many of us have, in fact, internalized the ideal of a happy, balanced life to such an extent that we find it hard to imagine alternatives. As Freud has already claimed, there is little doubt about what most people want out of life: “They want to become happy and to remain so.”

A quick survey of our culture—particularly our self-help culture—confirms Freud’s observation. One could even say that, in our era, the idea that we should lead happy, balanced lives carries the force of an obligation: We are supposed to push aside our anxieties in order to enjoy our lives, attain peace of mind, and maximize our productivity. The cult of “positive thinking” even assures us that we can bring good things into our lives just by thinking about them.

In this picture, anxiety is somewhat of an embarrassment: a sign of existential failure. Although the rushed pace of contemporary life makes tranquillity more and more difficult to come by, we are repeatedly warned against the pitfalls of anxiety, including the psychosomatic symptoms it’s supposed to spawn. So-called wellness experts deem agitation to be bad for us. Magazine articles offer tips on how to overcome stress. And New Age gurus equate enlightenment with serenity.

All of this can make us feel so anxious about feeling anxious that when we catch ourselves getting a little stirred up, a little excited, even in a good way, we end up suppressing our feelings because we fear that our ardor might deliver us straight into the lair of … anxiety. In that sense, we are getting a general education in emotional numbness; essentially, we are taught to fear aliveness in all of its manifestations.

The socially coercive aspects of our culture’s mantra—anxiety bad, happiness good—are obvious. As Theodor Adorno noted back in the 1950s, the reminders to be happy that saturate our culture “have about them the fury of a father berating his children for not rushing joyously downstairs when he comes home irritable from his office.” Any woman who has been told by a strange man on the street to “smile” knows exactly what Adorno is talking about: Public displays of female unhappiness, let alone anxiety, are not allowed. If patriarchy is to survive, women need to reassure men at all times that all is well in the world by appearing cheerful. Your grandmother died this morning? You’re giving a major talk in half an hour? Never mind, I want to see you smile!

From a Foucauldian perspective, one could propose that women’s ability to keep smiling even when they are feeling miserable is one of the many biopolitical tools of neoliberal capitalism. Simply put, grumpy waitresses are bad for the economy. Ditto for people who opt for ardent but untidy love affairs over the more sanitized sexuality of the marital bed. If you want people to show up at their desks every morning, you hype up the value of marriage to such an extent that people are willing to stay in their marriages no matter how lackluster they may be.

According to this way of thinking, the powers that be need to know what to expect from us, so that they can sell us everything from opinions to beauty products. And as the feminist theorist Sara Ahmed has argued, nothing makes us more docile than the societal “happiness scripts”—such as the idea that marriage is the pinnacle of human life—that guide us to specific life paths while making others (those judged devoid of happiness) seem inconceivable.

Read the article in its entirety at The Chronicle‘s website.

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