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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, July 31, 2006

The Trouble with Unhappiness

I read this on my way to yoga class: “Meditation, yoga, acupuncture, magnets, herbs, and aromatherapy are all variations on the placebo principle. They bring patients to ‘a state of weakened rational activity, filling the emptiness in their lives with romantic notions and grabbing hold of them with useless substances,’” in a Wilson Quarterly review of a book called Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, by Ronald Dworkin, a practicing doctor with a Ph.D. in political philosophy. I bought the book right away. I’m a pessimist. This is not a quality that I like very much in myself, but I find it useful; you’re disappointed much less often when you don’t expect good things to happen to you. I tend to see the dark side of almost anything and agree wholeheartedly with Hobbes’ that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” I find it almost impossible to reconcile myself to the imperfection and uncertainty that are the constants of human life; I don’t believe happiness is possible in the presence of imperfection and uncertainty (as my husband, for example, does). So I dove into Dworkin’s book head first, greedy for evidence that happiness of any kind is an illusion.

I was disappointed at first by his prose. It reads to me like an undergraduate’s research paper. He harps on the same few ideas; he beats you over the head with his thesis, which is that Americans rely on pills to induce in their minds a state of artificial happiness that is entirely disconnected from the facts of their lives. Husbands and wives stay in bad marriages, fearing financial ruin or solitude if they divorce, and anesthetize themselves to the misery of living with a person they cannot get along with by taking antidepressants. Their lives suck, they admit, but that doesn’t trouble them any more. Unhappiness has ceased to be, for these people, a sign that they have to take stock of what’s happening in their lives and make changes. Rather, Dworkin writes, it has become a disease to be treated by popping pills the way you would treat a toothache.

I’m with Dworkin so far. But he gets stuck in this jeremiad. He keeps berating people who look for the easy way out of their unhappiness without exploring the reasons they do it; to him, it’s simply laziness. He doesn’t consider that unhappiness is a complicated state of mind, and that taking the easy way out is a way to cope with a situation for which, as I see it, there’s no long-term solution. To me unhappiness is like slow metabolism, a chronic condition you are stuck with and cannot cure even after years of doing the hard work. I struggle with pessimism and unhappiness every single day. It’s one of the reasons I take yoga. It’s one of the reasons I cannot easily dismiss therapies that rely on the placebo effect. I dislike very viscerally the approach of drugging yourself into a state of not caring about what’s going on in your life. At the same time, I have to acknowledge how painful it is to be aware of your condition as a human being, of the limitations of your reason and your emotions, of the narrowness of your understanding of other human beings and of the world around you. I don’t think it is possible to have that awareness of yourself and be happy. And I don’t think it’s possible not to wish very desperately to be happy in spite of all that.

Perhaps yoga does work on the placebo effect. I started practicing it to keep fit; it’s the only form of exercise I have been able to stick with for several years. Very slowly I became interested in yoga philosophy, but it hasn’t taught me anything more harmful than to be breathe deeply and stay calm (both of which enable me to make more balanced decisions in moments of crisis), and to expect results only after long, committed practice. It hasn’t filled my life with empty romantic notions. It has taught me that going with the flow is sometimes better than trying to fight what is happening to me. I’ve thought about the ethical implications of this approach, and I do not like all of them. I don’t want to go with the flow when innocent people are harmed and discriminated against, when policies are being enforced that destroy the planet on whose resources we depend. But I do want to go with the flow when I’m stuck in traffic and can do nothing to change the situation, when I have to deal yet again with my mother questioning my choice to become a vegan. In those cases I don’t think unhappiness is of any use to me.

Dr. Dworkin seems to think that unhappiness is always useful, and that eliminating it by methods other than philosophy and psychotherapy is a cop-out. He doesn’t acknowledge that there are things that make us unhappy that we can do nothing about, and that this is a situation extremely difficult to live with. He has no sympathy for people who fumble about looking for ways to work out what troubles them, for people who do not have the inclination and time for philosophy or the money for therapy. I appreciate the work he’s trying to do; it is important work. But I don’t think you can do it with the kind of black-and-white and faintly contemptuous attitude about unhappiness that I see on every page of his book.


Blogger Jonathan K. Cohen said...

A partially well-meaning, partially ill-meaning friend of mine sent me two books for Hanukkah one year: "Plato, not Prozac" and "What Would Aristotle Do? Self-Control Through the Power of Reason." Both proved to be using philosophy as a cover for rational-emotive and cognitive-behavioral modes of therapy, which ignore the power of the unconscious and which basically say that "Unhappiness is irrational, you are rational, so stop being unhappy." I found these kinds of therapy less than helpful, and Dworkin seems to be heading towards more of the same.

August 02, 2006  
Blogger Michelle Fry said...

I think that sometimes when you don't expect good things to happen to you, you miss them when they do because you wait for something really big to happen. Meanwhile, small good things are happening all around you. Maybe they aren't happening to you in a big way but they are happening and noticing can make all the difference. But, that's just my opinion.

This was an interesting post to read.

August 02, 2006  
Blogger Marigoldie said...

Very thought-provoking post. Recently, when I confessed on my blog a horrible and relentless dark mood that had come over me (and concerned me for my own safety), I got some emotional comments for and against antidepressants. I'm fairly medicine-phobic but respect it as a sometimes lifesaver. I guess I think it's OK for others but not me. Anyway, it's hard to take a stand on either side of that issue. I don't believe people should be medicated into complacency--I don't think we're supposed to always be happy--but I can't blame a person for trying to save his/her own life. I've helped myself immensely with some good therapy and effort to take good care of myself. I'm hopeful. But I must also say that I'm a big fan of the placebo effect. Whatever works, works.

August 04, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Michelle, you're absolutely right about the small things. Sometimes, not very often, I think about how even having fingers without paper cuts is a great thing.

Marigoldie, you say it's hard to take a stand on either side of the issue of antidepressants -- exactly! My problem with Dworkin is that he writes as if it weren't hard. I'm reluctant to take Tylenol for headache, but I know that antidepressants save lives sometimes. We have to respect what works.

Jonathan, those book titles are very funny, and I say that without meaning any disrespect. I was thinking of reading Jung; his understanding of the unconscious is intriguing and has the potential, I think, to be helpful.

August 04, 2006  

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