The Fetish Of Happiness & The Damning Of The Different: My Indictment On Modern Society

It was watching a TV advertisement earlier tonight that did it. One about happiness and self-esteem. One that really made my blood boil. I have joked for some time about writing something about happy people annoy me, and, well, here it is.

We are living in a society obsessed with happiness. Beyond the point of fetish, we seek out a state of near-universal contentment. Sadness and suffering are viewed as an aberration, a departure from our ‘natural’ state. From Dr. Phil and Opera, to the 219,374 self help titles listed on Amazon, we as a society are engaged in an exercise to rid ourselves of all negative emotions.

On a daily basis are told we must be happy, we must always feel good. If not – there is something wrong with us. If anyone deviates two standard deviations from the mean must mean we are ill. If we feel slightly down, and we are told there is something wrong with us, something a little pill will fix. After all, a gramme is better than a damn. And heaven forbid a child shows signs of creativity – to the meds!

Yet it is this societal obsession with happiness that truly troubles me. For without its opposite, how can we truly say we lived. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Keats, and find him somewhat overhyped, but I very much agree with him when he wrote Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul”. There is great truth in this. How can we grow as people, build character, and truly nourish the soul, without the negative experience that creates true personal growth?

How can we truly experience true blissful joy, without first feeling deep sorrow. How can we soar in the dizzying heights, without first being tormented in the terrible lows.  Our experiences would become shallow and meaningless, our emotions mere husks. For sadness is an essential part of the human experience, it is through sadness that we re-evaluate ourselves, we become better people, we sate our yearning for the intimate and deep relationships to those around us. It is how we can truly relate. Without it, we are but vapid, vacuous vessels of nothingness. No character, no personality, nothing.

Of course, it may well be said that my definition of happiness is not truly happiness. Happiness is, after all, a genuine emotion, and one that should be cherished. What could be greater than the joy received by being in the arms of one you truly love, or whenever you achieve your true purpose. Perhaps by raising concerns about ‘happiness’, I am aiming my sights more at those who are ‘domesticated’, or – to extend the Brave New World analogy brought up earlier, drugged into submission. Perhaps, but this skirts around the issue. And the point I wish to make is that actual emotion has to be truly felt, soas to experience its differing shades.

Because my point on this desire to ‘happify’ society goes far beyond the obliteration of emotions other than ‘happy’. It is intrinsically linked with the movement of ‘self-esteem’, and ‘confidence-building’, perhaps one of the most bumkin notions of the latter half of the 20th century, right up there with neo-keynsianism and social justice. There are few things I can think of that are worse than someone with high self esteem.

Perhaps it is simply a reflection of my own personality, but I have never liked totally self-confident people. In the same way that constantly-happy people have a way of getting under my skin until I want to just scream STOP! (which I may or may not have done to certain cheery people in the past. They don’t like me very much.), such people simply ooze an aura of arrogance and lack of introspection. But I ask you – how can anyone truly claim to know themselves, to be happy with who they are? How can anyone genuinely claim they ought “be themselves” (there’s a cliché if there ever was one) and deny the need for any form of self improvement. How can anyone have the gall to tell me they are satisfied with who they are, and still not think they’re a total d**k. What kind of purile nonsense is the dictum to “just be yourself”. Taken properly, of course individuality is critical, but to accept who you are and to be at peace with yourself without reservation forestalls any concept of self growth or self-improvement. There is a reason we wouldn’t all enter Nozick’s Experience Machine, or take the Matrix’s blue pill. Truth and authenticity are things we place a premium upon.

On a personal level, I have always drifted to those prone to periodic bouts of depression and self-introspection. To the intellectually vulnerable. To the mad. For those were the people who truly had character. For as long as I can remember, the worst kind of insult I could give someone was to call them pleasant; to acknowledge they were nice, reasonable people, but yet to imply I found them as boring as the proverbial Chiroptera guano. For it is precisely the people who doubt themselves, who are unsure of their identity, who have issues up the wazoo, who are truly interesting. For me it is the mad, the crazy, the truly brilliant who transform mere existence into living. As we become more plain as a society, our individualism is stripped away from us, and we are forced to conform.

On facebook there is a rather popular group of which I am a member entitled “I have dated at least one psycho” – it is a shame there is no group “I have dated at least one psycho – and loved it” or “I have dated at least one psycho – and would do it again”. For it is the mad amongst us whose company I truly relish. One of my High School teachers – Mrs. Pride – once gave me a card. I think it was for my 21st, but I could be mistaken.  Inscribed on it was that great line of Kerouac’s: The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. What a glorious line, and how true.

Yet in order to reach such brilliance, people need to first experience the lows. How many of the great geniuses were happy? How many of them did not suffer? For it is only through the fiery torment of suffering that character is built.

This is by no means a glorification of suffering, nor to call to ascetic existence; those who do make such leap are simply acting in a rather shallow act of psychological substitution. Indeed, quite the opposite, for it is the many vices and luxuries of life that, whilst perhaps not bringing happiness, make life all that bit more worth living. My point is not so much against the commodification of happiness, be that a problem as it may, so much as the destruction of individual emotional choice.

As the Nurse Ratchetts have taken over, and vices frowned upon, spare a thought for those who still prefer to exercise their freedom in such manners. Who dare to be different. Either emotionally, or with some of our deeds. When you look at the people who choose to be slightly outside the norm, do you not, after all, think that They take the joy and sometimes the pain out of living to the very edge and shout back instructions, dire caveats, titillating weather reports. They inspire great writing and bring a reader’s blood to  the boiling point. Without them, the world might be simple and clean, but it wouldn’t be deliciously, fascinatingly, pathetically human, would it? Nor would it be much fun.”

People ask why I occasionally romanticise the smoking of cigarettes. Don Marquis wrote back 1919, that “all that is romantic and literary and spiritual in us holds by the cigarette”, and I feel this rather relevant To once again lapse into a quote, They both raise the pulse and lower it, they calm as well as excite, they are the occasion for reverie and a tool of concentration, they are superficial and profound, soldier and Gypsy, hateful and delicious. Cigarettes are a cruel, beautiful mistress; they are also a loyal companion… they may be compared to making a poem: inhaling the hot breath of inspiration, letting words on paper burn up in the visible air of a muted elocution, exhaling swirling figures of desires, conducting with gestures and modulating in a smoke a lyric conversation overheard”

The fundamental point here is not to glorify smoking, but rather to recognise the fact that that which is now viewed as vice has within it its virtues. And it is the people who embrace this, who continue to exhibit character, that make life exciting. To recognise true individuality.

This of course translates into the political sphere; Alan Ramsey, a journalist with  whom I am normally quite askance to agree with, asked the other day: “I mean, do you really think that the politicians of today, federal politicians of today, are a more interesting group, are a more representative group of the Australian community, when you see them, you know, carrying on in the Parliament or you hear a speech by them, or you hear them talking on radio…You know, it’s Pavlovian, all the time, little puppies, running around, saying the same thing, barking the same bark. It really is – and in Parliament, it’s the same. Parliament has become – well it’s indescribable” And he is right. We have created a society where only the whitewashed can flourish. And it is to all our detriment.

There are many ways to destroy the fabric of society, in much the same manner as there are many ways to burn a book. Already with books the world is full of people running about it with lit matches. Every minority feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of nay author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme”. And we are doing the same with our people. Removing the suffering, removing the sad, removing the different – until, what do we have left?

Perhaps if we as a society worried a little less about being happy, worried a little less about being sure of ourselves, and instead worried a little more as to who we were as people, we would all be better off. It is only through the celebration of diversity, and individuality, and all the sorrow it entails, that we cease existing, and begin to live.

PS: In doing some preliminary googling for this blogpost, I came across Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. I instantly ordered a copy.

PPS: I do not mean in anyway to trivialise the sufferers of true mental health problems. I am not in any way, shape, or form, referring to them. Rather, I am referring simply to the large bulk of society who are not suffering from any such illness, yet feel the need to be constantly, unashamedly ‘happy’

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19 Responses to “The Fetish Of Happiness & The Damning Of The Different: My Indictment On Modern Society”

  1. Jake the Muss Says:

    Sooo you like me because behind my thin facade of cock sure egomania lies a frail lad riddled with insecurity?

    Well that’s just great…

  2. Tim Humphries Says:

    Some of the greatest thinkers and producers in history were of the Melancholic personality type. Take them out of the equation and invention, art, culture would indeed be the poorer. True enough.

    Insecurity often helps in the creative process, I find. Some of my best poetry was written in dark personal periods.

    Maybe the Coalition front bench need to practice creative sadness rather than phoney confidence in an attempt to find creative solutions to our current political woes :=) I know Malcolm would benefit 😛

  3. Jonathan Shuffield Says:

    “We have created a society where only the whitewashed can flourish.”

    This is one of the finest quotes I’ve come across. It speaks volumes about our society, and brought back a lot of memories from my time in DC. It’s going on my Facebook page. Spot on.

  4. Tinos Says:

    This guy argues we can always just synthesise happiness.

  5. Jacques Chester Says:

    I strongly disagree with you, Tim.

    Having been an off-and-on-again sufferer of depression for as long as I can remember, I can tell you that happiness matters. A lot. I’d rather be a happy nobody than a melancholy artiste.

    And I get annoyed when people downplay the importance and efficacy of antidepressants. I have found them to be exactly as advertised: cheap, effective and safe.

    I look back on all the wailing and gnashing I did when I was younger and shake my head. Whole years of my life, totally wasted, because I thought I was too good for the little white pills.

    Well fuck that. Never again. The pills help me to be a saner, more level-headed and yes, happier version of myself.

    To anyone reading this who is suffering: you are not alone. Treatment is possible. See your doctor as soon as possible. Life can be worth living again.

  6. Jacques Chester Says:

    Here’s another view I posted a few years back at Club Troppo.

  7. Tim Andrews Says:

    Jacques – as I attempted to point out in the footnote at the end, this very much isn’t intended as being aimed at targeting people who truly suffer from mental health issues, nor was it intended to downplay the role of antidepressants when needed.
    My apologies if it came across as such – it was not intended to.

  8. Jacques Chester Says:

    Tim;

    The problem is that your message — which I’ve seen before from others — deters sufferers of depression from seeking treatment. People hate to be labelled as weak or defective and will avoid getting treatment. It’s stupid, but it’s all too human. The danger is in stigmatising the condition.

    More to the point, depression is very common. Something like 1 in 4 people will experience clinical depression during their lifetime. I would rather that antidepressants be overprescribed than under. Happy people are more productive, more healthy, cost the taxpayer less and improve the lives of everyone around them. I think that’s a good thing.

  9. Tim Andrews Says:

    Jacques,
    Fair point, and I certainly do not doubt the efficacy of such medication, nor the positive benefits it can bring. They certainly play an important role.
    I am, however, deeply cautious of saying that I would rather they be overprescribed than under, as I know far too many people who used them when they were not necessary, and who bitterly regret the results.

  10. Jacques Chester Says:

    Tim;

    Shouldn’t you be asleep? 😀

    Let’s agree to disagree. I quite like your blog, even if I only ever turn up to disagree with you!

  11. Tim Andrews Says:

    Well, if you read my most recent post, you’ll find that I only really like people who disagree with me anyway! 🙂

  12. Jacques Chester Says:

    I’ve been told that I’m a likeable guy.

  13. baris Says:

    PS: I agree with you but be better to foot your thoughts on the law of physics.
    PPS: I am writing this notes to top coz I realised I am not a good writer who carries his reader to the end of his words and I have some flaws in my argument. So I wanted to make the point on the very top of my text.

    I know scientists hate us drawing links in between their findings and philosophy but if we believe that there is a universality in the laws of physics and us be a part of this universe from our pure existence, I think we have to look deep into the laws of physics sometimes to justify our thoughts, philosophy for life.
    I also want to keep this short.
    The second law of thermodynamics tells us the energy in the universe tends to a state of order where there will be no matter, thus the end of everything. (-273 degrees celcius) in closed systems which means there is no input from an external energy source. The electrons will always move from “hot” to colder one until reaching a point of balance at that “end”
    that movement of electrons gives its “life” to the universe. When that movement will stop everything will end.
    when there will be no opposites, everyone will be happy, and dead.
    For our world, it is safe as long as sun shines above us.
    For our society it is almost impossible to have a homogenous state of soul too but we can get close to it by an immense propaganda inequavial to the one carried out by Nazis.
    There is energy in conflict, when there are opposing sides in the soul.
    More poles you have, there is a higher velocity of exchange, thus a life more than vegatative existence.
    Globalising happiness might be an utopian goal for some and it won’t happen. The globalisation is a domain only accessible to us living in the advantaged societies. In these societies, we are trying to zero the possibility of any conflict by making everyone happy. With drugs and externally imposed reference points. When we will, somehow, catch the state of sheer happiness, this will be a dead society. So those in power will run their horses in the free plains of their own benefits without any resistance.
    There is also the catch phrase of pursuit of happiness. Lacanian critique to this would be a reference to his object of petite desire.
    You can at most get close to happiness, the moment you would call yourself happy would be a representation of your state of happiness thus only an image of it – unfullfilling version – not the real one. Let them explicitly tell us how happy they are every time they play nintendo wii with their friends after a dinner party over a glass of wine.

  14. Famona Says:

    Great post. I have a nephew with Aspergers and have argued strongly that it should be seen as a positive rather than a negative. So he doesn’t run around “happily” with his brothers but he creates the most amazing things in the quietness of his room. Aiming for happiness seems like a dumbing down of our natural state which has every nuance of emotion, sometimes all in a 1 minute period. Thanks for sharing, it reminded of one of my favourite quotes…

    Happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig. The ideals that have lighted my way are Kindness, Beauty and Truth. – Einstein

  15. My Blog: One Year On « The musings of an Australian classical liberal in Washington DC Says:

    […] Joy of Argument & The Tyranny of the Pastels The Fetish Of Happiness & The Damning Of The Different: My Indictment On Modern Society Running On Thin, Cracking Ice (or, another self-indulgent whine) Addiction Is […]

  16. Against Happiness « The musings of an Australian classical liberal in Washington DC Says:

    […] By Tim Andrews Some time ago now, when I was writing my blog post on the Fetish of Happiness & the Damning of the Different (a theme on which I really ought expound upon at some point): , I came across Eric Wilson’s […]

  17. Always Look On The Bright Side Of Death « The musings of an Australian classical liberal in Washington DC Says:

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  18. Steve Says:

    Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
    Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
    Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
    Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
    Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
    Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
    Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
    Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

    REJOICE, AND BE EXCEEDING GLAD: FOR GREAT IS YOUR REWARD IN HEAVEN: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

  19. Steve Says:

    Thou shalt not plant thee a FETISH-OF-HAPPINESS of any trees near unto the altar of the LORD thy God, which thou shalt make thee. De 16:21

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