What is the point of prosperity?
Though few people ever voice this question openly, the general assumption is that prosperity and wealth increase happiness. The pursuit of happiness (famously grouped with “life” and “liberty” in the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right) has become the pursuit of prosperity and wealth.
That physical comfort and security grease the skids of happiness is self-evident; living a hand-to-mouth existence inside a cardboard box is not as conducive to human happiness as having a comfortable home and secure income.
But it is equally self-evident that a secure dwelling and income do not guarantee happiness; rather, they provide the physical foundation for the much more elusive qualities of happiness. We can make the same distinction between the civil liberties that underpin the pursuit of happiness and the actual pursuit of happiness. The first is a political system devoted to safeguarding liberty; the second is a messy, dynamic process that continues through all of life.
If the basic political and material foundations for the pursuit of happiness are in place, we might anticipate a broadly happy society. If prosperity and wealth are causally linked to greater happiness, we might expect to find that prosperous people are generally happy.
America has great material wealth, but is happiness as abundant as wealth? And if not, why not?
Numerous psychologists have made a career of studying happiness, and as with all social sciences, the field is wide open for cherry-picking data to support a prepackaged view. But data from studies of happiness is suspect for the usual reasons. People tend to report what they sense is expected of them; they tend to make themselves appear more successful (i.e., “happier”) than they really are, and the results can be skewed by the questions and procedures of the study.
The vast majority of such studies of happiness are conducted within a specific cultural mindset. Happiness is an individual issue. Fundamentally, “it’s all in your head” and “the system enables happiness, so unhappiness is your fault alone.”
The “fix” for unhappiness in this paradigm is a carefully apolitical network of pressure relief valves – counseling, therapy, motivational speakers, and so on – all focused on “fixing” the flaws within individuals that are assumed to be the exclusive cause of their unhappiness.
As a result of my work writing Resistance, Revolution, Liberation: A Model for Positive Change, I now question the assumption that our happiness is disconnected from the society and economy that we live in. What if unhappiness is not only just an individual failure, but also the consequence of a deeply distorted society? If this is the case, prosperity in the sense of material wealth cannot possibly yield anything but the fleeting pleasure of consumption.
A Radical Critique of Happiness
Though we think of happiness as a private pursuit, in aggregate the pursuit of happiness becomes what we might call a “public happiness.” As author Garry Wills observed, public happiness is the test and justification of any government. If individual happiness is made difficult by the State, then that State must be judged a failure.
Public happiness is not just the aggregation of individual happiness; it is a reflection of the social and political orders' success in enabling the common good, one expression of which is the potential for individual fulfillment.
In our carefully cultivated cultural atmosphere of individuality, it feels like heresy to question the assumption that individual fulfillment is apolitical. This Status Quo breaks the causal connection between private alienation and the political order so that the atomized individual doesn’t connect his own unhappiness with the sociopathologies of the consumerist-State social order.
The isolated “consumer” doesn’t look at the social order as a potential contributor to his unhappiness, but instead looks to religion, psychotherapy, or medications as private solutions to the sociopathology he inhabits.
The spiritual and psychological traditions of religion and psychotherapy serve as coping mechanisms for individuals as they navigate the many challenges of human existence. Intended to provide insight and solace for the voyage through life, these traditions were not designed to analyze pathological social orders. They are apolitical because they address problems from the point of view of faith and inner understanding.
That we have no field exclusively devoted to understanding systemic sociopathologies is not surprising once we understand the politics of self-interest. How many mortals would place their own prosperity at risk by undermining the intellectual foundations of the Status Quo to which they belong? History suggests that few individuals have the courage to risk status and wealth by undermining the social order that bestows their perquisites.
Social orders that excel in creating and distributing what I term social defeat will necessarily be populated with unhappy, depressed, anxious, and frustrated people, regardless of the material prosperity they possess.
In my lexicon, 'social defeat' is a spectrum of anxiety, insecurity, chronic stress, powerlessness, and fear of declining social status.
One aspect of social defeat is the emptiness we experience when prosperity does not deliver the promised sense of fulfillment. Here is one example: A recent sociological study compared wealthy Hong Kong residents’ sense of contentment with those of the immigrant maids who serve the moneyed Elites. The study found that the maids were much happier than their wealthy masters, who were not infrequently suicidal and depressed. The maids, on the other hand, had a trustworthy group – other maids they met with on their one day off – and the coherent purpose provided by their support of their families back home.
The “American Dream” (as well as the “Chinese Dream”) presumes the opposite would be true, and this explains why reaching material abundance is not the promised fount of fulfillment: It fails to recognize the other necessary conditions of human happiness. It is a monoculture of the spirit, as brittle and prone to collapse as any other monoculture.
Sociopathology and Stress
The physiology of stress illuminates many of the dynamics that we see manifesting in the poor mental and physical health of the American populace and in their passivity in the political and financial realms.
There is a growing body of evidence that unremitting stress has a number of subtle and destructive consequences to both mental and physical health. In addition to the common-sense connection between chronic stress and hypertension, evidence is mounting that obesity and other so-called “lifestyle” diseases are causally linked to stress-related conditions such as inadequate sleep and chronic inflammation.
Western medicine traditionally divides physical and mental health, but it is self-evident (as Eastern traditions have long held) that the mind and body are one. The physical consequences of mental stress make this abundantly clear, as the powerful hormones that we experience as “mental stress” erode the immune system's responsiveness.
Behaviorally, stress fuels addictive disorders by breaking down the self-control that inhibits destructive bingeing, impulse buying, unsafe sex, and drug/alcohol abuse.
The consequences of chronic stress are multiplied by our reliance (or perhaps more accurately, our addiction) to digital media and communication. Clinically, these manifestations have recently been termed Attention Deficit Trait (ADT), a broader, more inclusive term than the more familiar Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
ADT manifests as distractibility, inner frenzy, impatience, and difficulty in setting priorities, time management, and making informed decisions. As these loop into positive feedback, previously competent people become harried underachievers who berate themselves for their inexplicable loss of competence.
ADT, unlike post-traumatic stress disorders triggered by a single event, arises not from a single crisis but from a chain of events that in less stressful times would be considered “a bad week” but in chronic stress are experienced as an unending series of emergencies. The response – to try harder to keep up and successfully manage the crises – only increases the stress load and sense of failure as the ability to rationally analyze and pursue plans degrades with each perceived emergency. Making matters worse, the conventional American “solution” to being overwhelmed is to avoid expressing these difficulties lest this be interpreted as complaining or an equivalent personal failure.
This is the consequence of pathological chronic stress being normalized. An accurate description of the condition is dismissed as whining, and the truth-teller is instructed to keep his head down and his nose to the grindstone.
With the rational mind and self-control centers suppressed, we are prone to zombie-like passivity – in effect, “sleepwalking” though life. This dynamic may help explain Americans’ remarkable political passivity as their civil liberties are curtailed and their financial insecurity increases.
The stresses created by these pathologies are not abstract; rather, they lead to the self-destructive behaviors that are now ubiquitous in America: impulsiveness, addiction, abuse of drugs and alcohol (which are often attempts to self-medicate social defeat), obesity, impoverished sense of self, low level of fitness and vitality, inability to concentrate or complete coherently organized tasks, high levels of distraction and passivity, and a loss of resilience and self-reliance.
This is not to say that all disorders arise solely from pathological social orders. A percentage of the human population is genetically vulnerable to mental disorders, and life itself is filled with challenges and unwelcome surprises that create stress. Since it is self-evident that the financial and political order we inhabit influences our mental and physical well-being, what are the long-term consequences to individuals living in a sociopathological system of financial neofeudalism, an autocratic, expansive Central State that enforces extremes of wealth and power and an unparalleled corporate marketing/media propaganda machine?
Anyone who claims these pathologies have negligible effect on individuals’ well-being is either in denial or is a well-paid shill for the Status Quo.
The net effect of chronic stress results in the ability to implement coherently organized positive plans – the foundation of fulfillment – being severely impaired. This explains why happiness is so difficult to understand and why it is even more difficult to sustainably pursue in a pathological system that disrupts our capacity for rational analysis, self-control, and coherent action.
Consumerism, Happiness, and Power
The notion that increased consumption leads to increased happiness is self-evidently false, yet consumption remains the focus of our economy and society. The appeal of consumption is understandable once we grasp that it is the only empowering act in a neofeudal society where we are essentially powerless.
In the mindset of the consumerist economy, purchasing something feels empowering because the act of consuming is experienced as renewing our sense of identity and social status. But since that identity is inauthentic, the sense of euphoric renewal is short-lived and soon defaults to the base state of insecurity.
Since the consumer is only empowered by buying and displaying status signifiers, the balance of their lives is experienced as powerless – that is, a chronic state of social defeat.
In the act of consuming, the only feature that continues on after the initial euphoria fades is the debt taken on to make the purchase.
In Part II: Finding Authentic Happiness, we consider the foundations of a sustainable pursuit of happiness outside the sociopathological Status Quo.