Against "Against Happiness"

But should alienation always be eliminated? Some lives are better than other kinds of lives, regardless of the psychological well-being of the person who is living them. And some kinds of lives are so soul-deadening that we might worry more about a person who was not alienated. Is the happy slave really better off than the alienated slave? Is a medicated Sisyphus obviously better off than an unmedicated Sisyphus? Is there not something disturbing about trying to medicate that alienation away?

Kramer seems to miss this point. He argues that in The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus had imagined Sisyphus happy, despite the fact that the gods had intended Sisyphus to suffer. But the happiness or unhappiness of Sisyphus is not the issue. What is the issue is the wisdom of making psychological well-being the sole measure of a successful life. It is not hard to see why a psychiatrist would put Sisyphus on Prozac. Prozac might well help Sisyphus push the boulder up the mountain more enthusiastically. Sisyphus might even appreciate the prescription. Yet this would not mean that Sisyphus had a mental health problem. Sisyphus is in a predicament, and to understand his predicament you cannot simply look at his internal psychological state. You must also understand his circumstances. Given the fact that he will be pushing the boulder up the mountain for eternity, alienation seems like an appropriate response. [emphasis added]

This moving passage is from Carl Elliott's poignant review, entitled "Against Happiness", reviewing Peter Kramer's book Against Depression. Kramer is well known for his Listening to Prozac, an early account of the impact that antidepressants could have on people's lives, well Elliott is the author of the excellent Better Than Well, a "diagnosis" of the American cultural anxiety surrounding the tension between ideals of authenticity and self-improvement. I've read all 3 of these works and I would recommend all of them to individuals interested on this issue.

Elliott finds that Kramer's polemical new book, which tries to argue against people who romanticize depression, is aimed for an audience that scarcely exists. And insofar as it is targeted at an American audience, this is to a large extent right. When I read Against Depression, this did not occur to me, because as an academic in the humanities, I encounter people who try to justify depression all of the time, along with those who decry the overuse of antidepressants and other psychopharmaceuticals.

Regardless of whether the book has an audience, it does address a serious issue. Elliott gets at the heart of the matter in the portion I emphasized above: Should psychological wellbeing--happiness as most Americans understand it--be "the sole measure of a successful life"? This is a question I have struggled with for a few years now--perhaps since I started taking antidepressants myself--and the only response that makes sense to me is "yes".

Even though Elliott does a better job than most in his attack on the "medicalization" of what were once considered character traits (drunkenness as alcoholism, awkwardness as social anxiety, sadness as depression, etc.), the force of his appeal must ultimately be an emotional one. In fact, it's the very same appeal that you find in all kinds of arguments against the use of enhancement technologies on humans. Elliott asks, don't we find this whole business a little disturbing?

A lot of people do. I for one don't. Yes, sadness does have a function in human life. Yes, widespread alienation in the developed world is likely a consequence of the ways in which these societies are organized. Yes, it's a luxury that we even have the opportunity to think about questions of happiness--I was recently reminded of how, for so many, practical matters associated with survival and making a living rule out consideration of such things--let alone to choose many of the conditions of our lives according to whether we think we'll find them fulfilling.

But what does that matter to me as a depressed individual? I cannot change the fact--or at least, I would certainly not want to--that I live in an affluent society that allows me to pay little attention to basic issues of survival. Right now it's unfair, but I think this is a better way to live and I would love to see it more prevalent throughout the world, because it's a way of life that allows us to ask questions of how we ought to live. Moreover, we now live in an age in which we can inquire not only about the requirements of living and of living well, but also of the possibility of living "better than well".

Of course this makes a lot of people uncomfortable. One reason I think this is so, although Elliott doesn't explicitly raise it, is that the existence of this possibility depends on a lot of social conditions which are unjust and produce a lot of unnecessary suffering. Besides America's various underclasses, there are many developing nations in which persons are ruthlessly exploited to produce cheap consumer goods. Similarly, many of us lack awareness of the sordid and bloody history of attaining and sustaining this affluence.

I think that this is an excellent point. In focusing on one's own individual contentment, it's easy to lose track of the massive amount of unjust suffering in the world. However--and this is my central argument against a position like Elliott's--while in a state of extreme sadness, one simply lacks the motivation and the energy to do something about that.

As Spinoza understands it, and rightly so I think, sadness is a recognition of our impotence, of the ways in which we are limited. Nothing is gained by feeling sad about something that cannot be changed--such as the past--and something is lost or at least endangered, viz., our capacity to do something positive, if we feel sad about those things which we might be able to affect.

While sadness might have some evolutionarily adaptive value, it is simply a counterproductive feeling and is by no means a necessary prerequisite of bringing about positive social change. Sadness is the real luxury, not happiness. Alienation may be "reasonable" or "appropriate" in our society, but it sure as hell won't change anything.

Let us return to the example of Sisyphus. Keeping in mind that his situation is fantastical, I think that especially for him what matters is happiness. He is stuck in a situation he has no power to change. What does it matter if he, as Elliott interprets Camus, is happy, not in the sense of emotional wellbeing, but only in the sense of being conscious of the absurdity of his predicament? In other words, what does it matter if he is alienated? Perhaps it makes us feel better that his is an "appropriate response" to his "predicament", but it does little for Sisyphus except perhaps give him some feeling of moral superiority, a slim consolation indeed compared to the tragedy of his infinite torment.

As Wittgenstein so aptly puts it, somewhere in his notebooks, "The world of the happy man is not the same as the world of the unhappy man." And the difference between the happy world and the unhappy world can be the only one that matters in our nihilistic age. (This last point I recently wrote a paper about, so I will not develop it further for right now. By nihilism, I mean something like recognition of the contingency of all structures of meaning. In other words, every belief or value is simply regarded as a choice among numerous others, with no criteria upon which to choose. Picture life in the existential shopping mall, to use philosopher James Edwards' analogy.)

I am not convinced that medicalizing life's woes is incompatible with social critique. The suffering that depression brings about is as real as the suffering of malnutrition, although different in kind. It is certainly tragic that so many ignore the latter kind of suffering, but the cure for this is not to be found in the former. In short, this is why I am against "Against Happiness" and for Against Depression.

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