In a previous post, I briefly explored the relationship between happiness and the struggle to make a better world – looking specifically at the nature of “hedonic” happiness, which comes from intense experiences and immediate gratification, versus “eudaimonic” happiness, which comes from building positive social relations over time (or struggle). Arran James has posted a nice expansion of that piece with his usual insight, eloquent prose, and direct connection to real, concrete struggle. His conclusion is that happiness is not as common as we tend to think, nor is it necessary to live a good, positive life. We all experience distress, whether external or internal or some combination of the two (another not-so-clear dichotomy), and much of our distress stems from the awful socio-economic conditions in which we find ourselves in this time. Nevertheless, many are able to struggle despite their experience of distress, and the struggle itself can be a source of relief. He concludes,
I don’t think that this means that human beings require “revolt, not therapy” but that we go some way to produce a politics that is also therapeutic and a therapy that is openly political. Such “political therapeutics”, meant in a similar way perhaps to Foucault’s “political spirituality”, must be involved in critiquing psychiatric and psychotherapeutic power but must not lapse into uncritical rejection of the potency of medications and forms of therapy to help people get themselves to the position of being capable to continue struggling.
I suspect that there may be a particular kind of person that is likely to engage in struggle – a great many people simply don’t, and choose instead to go on with life as prescribed to them by the social system. I suspect that these people are particularly sensitive to the hardships they see around themselves. They are empathetic, concerned, open, aware, vulnerable (in the positive sense of the term), and engaged. People like this are canaries in the coal mine – they experience the anxieties and hardships of the world on a visceral level, often not recognizing it as part of the larger world but experiencing it directly and internally (this bias is exacerbated by the psychological tendency to internalize distress, as discussed by Arran). These people are, therefore, the most likely to engage in struggle, but also the most likely to struggle with the distress that has become an essential part of human life.
I’ve experienced this back-and-forth between the struggle to keep going and the struggle to make a difference for years. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression of and on since I was 16. After the first incident, I recovered quickly and thought I had freed myself largely through hedonistic experiences rather than struggle. I was concerned, but I became more concerned about my internal pleasure rather than the quality of the world as a whole. I quickly found that I was not free, and that the internal pleasures and peak experiences that I relied upon could be just as damaging and distressing as the ordinary stresses of life.
My next experience of anxiety came when I was 20 – in 2001, just a few months before the 9/11 attacks. I was unsure about my future – working in childcare, but not confident that this was the right career for me – and seeking out experiences that would take me away from the scary, sad, and lonely world of normalcy. I had my first panic attack on the way to Colorado for a series of concerts. I spent two days there going to shows and trying to free myself again, but ultimately locked inside a panicked shell. I couldn’t sleep, barely ate, and felt as though I was weighing down my friends around me. I had to go home – I left early and went back to Lawrence. I spent the next month going through at least one panic attack per day. I lost 20 pounds that month and could only bring myself to eat candy. The only thing that stopped it was a prescription for valium. The valium killed the panic, but I continued in a state of heightened anxiety for months afterwards. I went to therapy and learned cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helped tremendously. The ability to recognize the distressing thoughts allowed me to reach a level of stability. And it was from there that my life changed dramatically. I became more socially and environmentally conscious – no longer focused on my own internal freedom, my focus shifted to the world around me. I began to engage in struggle rather than trying to find myself, and, on the whole, that has been my life ever since.
I have not had a panic attack since I was 20, but I have experienced a lot of anxiety and depression since that time. When I was in my early 20’s, I became depressed about the direction my life was taking. I took a huge risk and left my job to go back to school – this was when I started the path to anthropology. However, taking that risk and experiencing the sudden precarity of student life stimulated my anxiety again. I had to go back on klonopin to make it through.
Now, for the last year or so, I’ve been suffering from depression again. Much of it has to do with the life of a graduate student – always financially unstable, always living at the whim of the University or the department, and the strain that it puts on personal relationships. It has sapped my strength, and kept me from engaging in struggle as much as I would like. There are times when I’ve been stable and capable of being engaged, but it is a struggle to maintain that and finish projects that I think of as valuable. I am working on it, and hopefully this year will be less of a burden (I have a better GA assignment, will be starting my dissertation research, and have several very good projects in the works), but it’s never easy to tell.
The thing is, some part of me values these experiences. Every one of them has changed my life. They have been hard to slog through, but they have pressed me to become more than I was before. I value my anxiety because, when it doesn’t overwhelm me and drive me away from life, it is this same way of thinking and acting that stimulates me and allows me to come up with new ideas, to get excited about a project. It gives me an energy and a mental edge that many people don’t have. I don’t wish it on anyone, but I would say that, if you do have it, you should try and recognize the value that it brings to your life as well as the harm. Don’t romanticize it, but don’t think of it as a flaw either. It’s what makes it possible for me to struggle!
With all this in mind, my sense is that happiness is not the goal. Perpetual happiness, like utopia, is a state that lacks difference. At the same time, we should not passively accept distress. Distress is a symptom, and a symptom is a sign – a sign that something needs to change, that we need a difference in our lives and our world. For some, this is the beginning of struggle – the struggle to find some stable place from which they can live and act, because getting out of bed in the morning is a struggle itself. But that isn’t the end of the struggle – from that stable place, the struggle becomes the one for the “political therapeutics” that Arran mentions. For those who are sensitive to hardship and distress, we will always move back and forth, from the struggle for life and self to the struggle for a better world. It is this movement that makes us who we are, and, though it is not fun, pleasurable or happy, it is what makes a better world possible. That’s something more valuable than all the hedonic experiences the world could offer.