Happiness and Its Discontents, Part II

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 second 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

Needless to say, our fixation on the ideal of happiness diverts our attention from collective social ills, such as socioeconomic disparities. As Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, when we believe that our happiness is a matter of thinking the right kinds of (positive) thoughts, we become blind to the ways in which some of our unhappiness might be generated by collective forces, such as racism or sexism. Worst of all, we become callous to the lot of others, assuming that if they aren’t doing well, if they aren’t perfectly happy, it’s not because they’re poor, oppressed, or unemployed but because they’re not trying hard enough.

If all of that isn’t enough to make you suspicious of the cultural injunction to be happy, consider this basic psychoanalytic insight: Human beings may not be designed for happy, balanced lives. The irony of happiness is that it’s precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last. Insofar as each passing moment of happiness brings us closer to its imminent collapse, happiness is merely a way of anticipating unhappiness; it’s a deviously roundabout means of producing anxiety.

Take the notion that happiness entails a healthy lifestyle. Our society is hugely enthusiastic about the idea that we can keep illness at bay through a meticulous management of our bodies. The avoidance of risk factors such as smoking, drinking, and sexual promiscuity, along with a balanced diet and regular exercise, is supposed to guarantee our longevity. To a degree, that is obviously true. But the insistence on healthy habits is also a way to moralize illness, to cast judgment on those who fail to adhere to the right regimen. Ultimately, as the queer theorist Tim Dean has illustrated, we are dealing with a regulation of pleasure—a process of medicalization that tells us which kinds of pleasures are acceptable and which are not.

I suspect that beneath our society’s desperate attempts to minimize risk, and to prescribe happiness as an all-purpose antidote to our woes, there resides a wretched impotence in the face of the intrinsically insecure nature of human existence. As a society, we have arguably lost the capacity to cope with this insecurity; we don’t know how to welcome it into the current of our lives. We keep trying to brush it under the rug because we have lost track of the various ways in which our lives are not meant to be completely healthy and well adjusted.

Why, exactly, is a healthy and well-adjusted life superior to one that is filled with ardor and personal vision but that is also, at times, a little unhealthy and maladjusted? Might some of us not prefer lives that are heaving with an intensity of feeling and action but that do not last quite as long as lives that are organized more sensibly? Why should the good life equal a harmonious life? Might not the good life be one that includes just the right amount of anxiety? Indeed, isn’t a degree of tension a precondition of our ability to recognize tranquillity when we are lucky enough to encounter it? And why should our lives be cautious rather than a little dangerous? Might not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged?

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

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