The New York Times blog snagged a brilliant interview with British philosopher and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Western culture’s fixation with happiness. According to Phillips, this notion that a good life is a happy life is a detrimental misnomer that consequently drives the individual into deeper dissatisfaction. Insofar as pain happens regardless, the pursuit of happiness is an unachievable end, an ideal unrealized. This cultural philosophy is fundamentally hedonistic, “evacuating pain” and caulking the holes with something more palatable. It sees pain as a privation–an appetite–and in fear seeks to substitute the appetite with an overfeeding of the wrong kind of food:
One of the obstacles is the demand that we be happy, that we enjoy our lives. I think it’s a huge distraction, and it’s very very undermining, I think. So, living in a quasi-hedonistic culture, I think it’s a big problem. It’s wrong because, if we are to make this crude, in the old days whenever that was, there was an internal injunction to be good. Now the injunction is to be happy, or to be enjoying yourself. And the reason this is a distraction is because life is also painful, in other words—and it’s a very simple thing and its very obvious—and it starts in childhood—which is that if someone can satisfy you, they can also frustrate you. This is ineluctable, this is structural, it is never going to change. This means that everybody has to deal with ambivalence. They are going to have to deal with the fact that they love and hate the person they love and hate.
What we are continually being sold are possibilities for pleasure…as though all we want to do is get away from the pain and increase the pleasure. I think this is a very impoverished view of what a life is, even though every life has something to do with the pain and the pleasure. But there’s a difference between evacuating pain and frustration and modifying it. And what we’re starved of now is frustration. There isn’t a really powerful account of the value of the state of frustration. It’s as though we are phobic of frustration. And as soon as there is a moment of frustration, it has to be filled with something. It’s a bit like the mother who overfeeds her child—she does that stop her child from having an appetite, because the appetite is so frightening.
Fancies of satisfaction are saboteurs of pleasure.
Here Phillips is saying that longing solely for happiness literally sabotages the pleasures of experience. A life built in pursuit of ultimate satisfaction often tends to run your satisfaction to the ground. When we pin our satisfaction on a life rubric, we become bound to keeping up on whether or not we are reaching it–and because we don’t, we never are. This is Icarus. This is Babel. It’s the tower of pride to presume to grab at the idolatry of happiness, and its consequential curse is that tantalizing zilch. You reach and get nothing in return.
Phillips argues that the cultural models of “the good life” need to be redeemed, need to make room for the reality of pain and the unpredictability of life. He uses the term “fictions” to describe these models, as though they are always utterly unreal and must always be planted in the humility of surrender (i.e. “This model is merely a fiction…I submit that it will not go this way.”). Fictions, as opposed to Ideals, allow room for play, whereas Ideals create a universal standard that universally humiliates. Fictions allow for the possibility that the pleasures of life may come despite us.
I think that it would be possible to have pictures of good lives that are not set up to make one fail. So that a more realistic idea, as opposed to ideal, is one that is genuinely attainable…Ideals create a sort of fight-or-flight. Either you run away from it, you get rid of it, and produce a new one, or you comply with it, or you battle with it. I would be interested in people producing fictions that are discussable, that are realistically possible, rather than humiliating. Because the other thing about cultural Ideals is that they are set up to humiliate us. So that the fictions would be non-diminishing, they would be genuinely possible, but they would keep alive the idea that we don’t know who we might become, and that who we want to be is very important.