Friday, November 26, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness*

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.
The pursuit of happiness is something that is an intrinsic part of every person’s story who is brave enough to come for psychotherapy. And I say brave not just in the sense of personal courage in overcoming one’s own internal fears. But courage also in the sense of being able to overcome the residue of societal antipathy toward the very act of seeking out therapy, or ‘going to someone’ as it is often put.
Yet, when you consider the vast amounts of time, money and energy spent on consumer items, on spiritual enlightenment, on bodily improvements, on escapist activities, on therapies that enourage people to ‘act out’, on medical solutions, on illicit drugs, you begin to see that the pursuit of happiness is not confined to those who take the direct therapeutic route.
But what is happiness? Is it the end goal of therapy? Is that what is being promised?
The idea of happiness was first written about by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. He believed that the end goal of all human existence was happiness, or what he called the Sovereign Good. He believed that we are drawn, almost without any choice in the matter, into trying to find this state of bliss. For him, happiness was a flowering, a flourishing of the human individual. He believed that true happiness contained three important elements. These were wisdom, virtue and pleasure. So, in order to find happiness we had to be wise enough to know how to follow the path that would lead there; we had to be virtuous enough to do all the right things that would make us happy and we had to be able to enjoy, to know the experience of pleasure and so recognise happiness when we had it.
Now while these were the internal requirements that people needed, there were some external factors that contributed to our reaching happiness also. These included a little bit of wealth, a lot of health, some good luck and, indeed, the possession of beauty or good looks. Remember that Aristotle was writing in the context of a society that was predominantly run by men and where women were often not encouraged to get an education. It was also a society built on and supported by legalised slavery, so happiness was not for everyone.
However, that is not to take away the influence of Aristotle. If any of the above ideas about happiness seem familiar to you it is probably because his thinking has been influential in Western thought ever since. And remember, he was writing about 300 years before the birth of Christ. But it is still his ideas about happiness that, modified as they undoubtedly are, have conditioned our way of thinking about the subject today.
Now by contrast, we have Freud. His writings began much more recently in 1895. His idea of happiness is of a quite different order. He believed that when we sought pleasure, a stepping stone to happiness, we were actually seeking to reduce tension or excitation within our bodies and our minds. We were returning to a place of contentment, so to speak, and the pursuit of happiness was designed to restore calm to our internal economy.
But he also added an important point. From birth and early infancy on, we lose a place of perfect contentment by virtue of growing older. We don’t quite know what it is we have lost but we know we have lost something good. Eventually we forget that we have even lost it. But a trace memory lingers on and this memory of what we lost, in terms of an all-satisfying existence, prompts us to re-find it over and over again throughout our lives. It is, if you like, a form of Aristotle’s thinking but in reverse. Instead of being pulled by the promise of happiness that our rational minds tell us is out there, Freud’s thinking was that we are set on a trajectory from the earliest moments of our lives to find again something that we lost and that had once provided us with blissful happiness.
If one goes with Aristotle’s view, then the assumption is that most people will eventually find happiness, using wisdom, virtue and pleasure to make it happen. Yet, while some people do find happiness in their lives, one could say that human kind is more characterised by its discontent rather than by its feelings of happiness or contentment. Very often people are at their most discontent when they have reached a point of contentment, and usually they seek out a new mountain to climb in order to put themselves back into a place of striving and longing, in order to experience the satisfaction of reaching happiness once again. It’s an intrinsically human thing. Often too, you’ll find that many people know that the route to happiness is to follow some simple rules like: don’t go to jail; don’t harm anyone; be faithful in your key relationships; don't use drugs; use food and alcohol in moderation; keep physically and mentally fit; do things for others occasionally; have some form of religious or spiritual faith; the list goes on and on.
The point here is that people broadly know what they should do to make themselves happy. They have the knowledge, in the Aristotelian sense of the word, of what is necessary. Yet they never seem to quite put the knowledge into action, or if they do it all falls apart after a while. This, then, is the more Freudian concept at work. We are driven to re-find something but we are not sure what it is. We seek it here, we seek it there. We think the other has it and want it from them. We think it is in a bottle or in a drug. We think sex will do it. We think fame, or money, or status, or power have the answer. And yet, the answer is not outside of ourselves. Nor is the answer, when we do find it, ever the place of absolute bliss either.
That is why psychoanalytic thinking does not promise happiness to people. In fact, it considers it fraudulent to do so. Rather it seeks to help people open their eyes and see things as they really are. The business of living is occasionally flawed, occasionally beautiful, but ultimately human, with all that that entails. The pursuit of happiness is about knowing that perfection is never achievable and so the question turns to discovering who you really are and being able to be happy with that.
* The above blog is based in part on a paper I presented to The Associaton for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland’s 17th Annual Congress, ‘How to Act - Ethics and the Psychoanalytic Clinic in a Culture of Suppression and Demand' held on Saturday, December 4th 2010 at Independent College, 60- 63 Dawson St., Dublin 2.