The Fetish of Happiness

Over the moon: Adam Phillips on the happiness myth in the Guardian, 4 Sept. 2010, is an excellent article about whether or not happiness is what we ought to aim for, as seems to be taken for granted in most Western countries (and certainly in the U.S. explicitly, beginning with the Declaration of Independence).

The whole essay is worth reading, not only for its mimetic sections (two major ones, about the shadow self who seems happy, and the child who steals from the mother); and and so many lines are incisive:

“We tend to pathologise the forms of happiness we cannot bear.”

“It is sometimes said that psychoanalysis is one of the last places in the culture where people are allowed to be unhappy.”

“[W]hat we are lacking when we are unhappy is not always happiness, any more than what an alcoholic is lacking is a drink.

“… the right to pursue happiness has seduced us into pursuing happiness when we could have been doing something better. … What have we lost, or forgotten, or ignored, or paid insufficient attention to, or protected ourselves from by wanting happiness?”

“Lovers often feel that they should be making each other happy when they are in fact making themselves a problem to each other.”

“Do children want to be happy? And if they don’t want to be happy what else might they want to be? This would seem to be of some importance because they are growing up in a world in which their parents mostly want them to be happy …. And by a world I mean the particular cultures for whom happiness has become the preferred object, or the preferred fetish. Children are supposed to be anti-depressants for their parents. Happiness is something parents often demand of their children”

“I want to suggest that a right to the pursuit of happiness is asserted when a capacity for absorption has been sabotaged, when there is a loss of confidence in people’s passions.”

It is this last bit, child psychologist Phillips’ thesis,  that seems self-evident — and culturally denied. To be absorbed by and  into something that makes me lose all sense of time, that gives me dual satisfaction and dissatisfaction as I explore further, that sparks curiosity and desire  and longing simultaneously — whatever it’s called, that’s what I seem always to seek, and it delights me, disturbs me, scares me, and enchants me as it pulls me further away and into an intensely focused vortex, an expansive clearing,  a geography where I can’t locate places like happiness and unhappiness.


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