Why are we Unhappy?


In a country like Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s and 1980s, people were, in a way, happy: three fundamental conditions of happiness were fulfilled. (1) Their material needs were absically satisfied – not too satisfied, since the excess of consumption can in itself generate unhappiness. It is god to experience a brief shortage of some goods on the market from time to time (no coffee for a couple of days, then no beef, then no TV sets): these brief periods of shortage functioned as exceptions that remined people that they should be glad that these goods were generally avaliable – if everything is available all the time, people take this availability as an evident fact of life, an no longer appreciate their luck. So life went on in a regular and predictable way, without any great efforts or schocks, one was allowed to withdraw into one’s private niche. (2) A seoncd extremely important feature: there was the Other (the Party) to blame for everything that went wrong, so that one did not feel really responsible – if there was a temporary shortage of goods, even if stormy weather caused great damage, it was “their” fault. (3) And, last but not least, there was an Other Place (consumerist West) about whch one was allowed to dream, and one could even visit it sometimes – this place was at just the right distance: not too far away, not too close. This fragile balance was disturbed – by what? By desire, prescisely. Desire was the force that compelled the people to move on – and up in a system in which the great majority are definately less happy.

Happiness is thus, to put it in Badiou’s terms, not a category of truth, but a category of mere Being, and as such confused, indeterminate, inconsistent (recall the proverbial anwser of a German immigrant  to the United States who, when asked “Are you happy?” anwsered “Yes, yes, I am very happy, aber glücklich bin ich nicht…”) [translation is ‘but luckily I am not’]. It is a pagan category: for pagans the goal of life is to live a happy life (the idea of living “happily ever after” is a christianized version of paganism), and religious experience or political activity themselves are considered higher form of happiness (see Aristotle) – no wonder the Dalai Lama himself has had such success recently preaching the gospel of happiness around the world, and no wonder he is finding the greatest response precisely in the United States, the ultimate empire of (the persuit of) happiness…In short, “happiness” is a category of the pleasure principle, and what undermines it is the insistence of a Beyond the pleasure principle.

(Puppet and the Dwarf, Slavoj Zizek)

 Could this probably explain why  people in the West are so unhappy?

Country HPI Life Satisfaction Migration  % poverty  % unemployed UN Poverty Index
Vanuatu 1 7.4 NA NA NA 128
Colombia 2 7.2 -3 14.5% 10.2% 64
Costa Rica 3 7.5 +49 18% 6.6% 42
Dominica 4 7.3 -930 30% 23% 68
Panama 5 7.2 -40 16,6% 8.7% 59
Cuba 6 6.2 -131 NA 1.9% 52
Honduras 7 7.2 -139 53% 28% 115
Guatemala 8 7.0 -194 75% 7.5% 119
El Salvador 9 6.6 -361 NA 6.5%* 105
St Vincent 10 7.2 -739 NA 15% 80
United Kingdom 108 7.1 +218 17% 4.7% 13
United States 150 7.4 +318 12% 5.1% 7

The chart I have stolen from Wikipedia , which article notes “..Happy Planet Index makes no claims about which is the ‘best country to live in’, but only which is the most efficient at converting natural resources into the conditions for living well. It acknowledges that Western countries, for example, have high levels of well-being and low levels of absolute poverty, but questions whether the societal and economic systems used to maintain these levels are sustainable or just.”

In fact, there is no developed Western country that makes the list until Austria at spot 61. Russia, Estonia, and the Ukraine are at the bottom of the list at 172, 173, 174 in a list of 178 nations. Does Zizek offer us an interesting insight into this question, that is Desire, our conscious idealizing that if realized creates unhappiness?

 Zizek goes into great detail of the implications on the academic Left, and its bluffing to the system. “[T]he old ’68 motto ‘Soyons réalistes, demandons l’impossible!‘ aquires a new cynical-sinisrer meaning which, perhaps, reveals its truth: ‘Lets be realistic: we, the academic Left, want to appear critical, while fully enjoying the priviledges the system offers us. So lets bombard the system with impossible demands: we all know that such demands won’t be met, so we can be sure that nothing will change, and w’ll maintain our priviledged status quo!” If you accuse a big corporation of particular financial crimes, you expose yourself to risks that can go even as far as murder attempts; if you  ask the same corporation to finance a research rpoject on the link between global capitalism and the emergence of hybrid postcolonial identities, you stand a good chance of getting hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

A taste of such criticism can be found in Zizek’s critique of Simon Critchley’s (a professor at the New School University in New York City) book “Infinitely Demanding.” The critique was sharply entitled Resistance is Surrender.


4 responses to “Why are we Unhappy?

  1. Have never heard about the Happy Planet Index. DO you have any more information about it and if it is accurate in any way shape or form?

  2. Actually Blackstone, to confess an inaccuracy in this post, the Happy Planet Index doesn’t measure Happiness, but rather well-being. The actual study measuring percieved happiness ranks Denmark and Iceland highest, the US is 25th, and former Soviet states rear the back alongside Zimbawae, which ranks the lowest..(I believe). However I think the insigts of this post is beyond the question of What country is happy and is directed toward the question of the role of Desire.

  3. That is, implicit in this post is the criticism of the concept of Happiness as goal. To contrast this, I like to bring up the distinctions that can be found in reading Aristotle’s Nicomechean Ethics. Specifically one the translation of the word “Eudimonia,” which has been translated in many ways. Two translations is “Happiness” and “Flourishing.” In these translations one can read that Happiness is the Good which all aim, or it is a sort of Flourishing that we aim at. These have been two distinct readings. The difference lies in the question of the role of the Pleasure Principle.

    Happiness is a mere state in which one can be happy despite being an ignorant slob for example. Whereas Flourishing takes place in a social context and where contemplation itself becomes its own end and doesn’t have a necessary utilitarian purpose.

    Revolutionaries don’t aim to create a “harmonious,” happy society, but actually aim at division, with making distinctions and actively engaging the world in a way that shakes up harmony.

  4. I think requiring that everyone “flourish” instead of being happy is bourgeois. Maybe after work people just want to drink a beer and watch some sports. Not everyone gives a shit about philosophy.

    Also maybe revolutionaries have trouble getting anything off the ground these days because aiming at division isn’t going to unify the proletariat.

    Also people want to be happy. If revolutionaries are just a bunch of haters and complainers who come around and try to bring everyone down and make them feel bad about their place in life well is it any wonder no one wants anything to do with communism.

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