Why We Are Unhappy
We need standards to fulfill ourselves; choosing the right ones is difficult.
Posted June 30, 2016
Walt Whitman wrote, famously, that he thought he could turn and live with animals.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania
of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
To be fair – though rarely is this poetry’s ambition – animals are much more than the surging physicality and alertness to the world that Whitman goes on to describe in his “Song of Myself.” Our animal friends rage and cringe, and bow before those acknowledged to be their superiors. They jump when startled and behave despondently when dear ones depart. Perhaps they even whine in the night. The emotions we feel are extensions of their concerns.
But of course, the great poet is right in the ways that matter. We humans have special abilities for furbishing our environments with ideas. Ideas – and images too, for these give color and movement to reflection - alter the character of those environments. We rely on ideas and images, as Whitman does in his poem, to describe worldly happenings and impute meaning to them. What has happened, is happening now, and will happen in the moments ahead? Ideas frame our lives and connect us to the other things we’ve done.
But our powers of ideation go far beyond this. We are able to summon conceptions independently of the situations we find ourselves in. So we dream and daydream, plan and reminisce, and yes, lie awake at night brooding about things that never happened and never will.
It is this capacity for independent, abstract thought that helps us establish models or standards, fixed conceptions for the world’s occurrences. We imagine “ideal” conditions – as well as the opposite of those ideals. And we compare what is before us with those visions.
It is the human predicament to live in the shadow of these standards.
All this may seem a bad thing, at least as I’ve introduced the matter to this point. But abstract standards also offer us a distinctive kind of fulfillment, perhaps unknown to animals. We are made happy when we feel ourselves reaching, or even just approaching, our idealized visions.
My previous essay discussed some aspects of that happiness-making process. Four pathways of experience – work, play, communitas, and ritual – were presented. Each was seen as a willful strategy for directing behavior and establishing meaning. Successfully conducted, work produces pride; play, gratification; communitas, blessedness, and ritual, reverence and resolve. These conditions were said to be “versions” or happiness, differing primarily in the role the person played in what occurred. But they are united by the sense that in each case a desirable end was reached, a “good” time was had, and the self was realized in sometimes unanticipated ways. To be happy is to feel oneself moving along personally approved lines.
However, this essay is not about happiness but instead about the opposite condition, centering on emotions of discouragement and discontent. Much as Whitman claims, we are unhappy when we perceive a distance between our standards for the world (and our place within it) and the realities we encounter.
What are these standards? Where do they come from? I would note first there are many different standards that can be applied to any situation – and the art of happiness is choosing ones we can reasonably meet. Expectations shift as we move through the life course; frequently, those expectations are modified or lowered. Such, as the saying goes, is maturity.
Most of us live in the territory between our wildest dreams and darkest fears. These extremes are understood to be possibilities; but others, more proximate, loom larger in consciousness. That is, visions of ideal or perfect conditions are usually adjusted to practical concerns. Sometimes we compare ourselves to what society expects for a person of our “type” or circumstance; sometimes, that comparison is made to what other people – and more precisely, what other people like us – have. Some among us dream big and are dissatisfied until we reach those goals. But others (and here I speak with an older person’s voice) are content with what we’ve had up to this point. Anyone looking in the mirror knows that there are many ways of assessing that image. Happiness – and its opposite – can be found by adjusting the reflecting surface, and by adjusting the scrutiny of the observer.
All this presumes that we operate with uniformly positive images and consequently praise or chastise ourselves for our efforts to reach these. This is not the case. We also maintain images of the degraded and excluded. We know that a misstep can cause us to fall from the statuses we currently occupy. Most people have some sense that horror (confrontation with evils we know) is different from terror (disorientation arising from evils we cannot comprehend). We live our lives accordingly, usually staying away from people and places considered dangerous and defiling. Privileged people, by definition, find it easier to evade these territories and have “safety nets” in place to limit their descent and restore their well-being. That theme will be developed in a later writing.
Because our emotions feature sensations of moving and finding placement, then unhappiness entails the double sense of moving away from idealized conditions and toward devalued ones. Feelings of loss and disfavor combine.
In that light, I must acknowledge that the four “pathway of experience” I described so cheerily above do not always lead to happiness. Failed work produces discouragement, even shame. Play unfulfilled leads not to gratification but to feelings of containment and boredom. Communitas disfigured results not in blessedness but in disconnection and misfortune. Faulty ritual ends in dissolution and disrespect. Formats by themselves do not guarantee beneficial self-realization. That outcome depends on the persons involved.
If feelings like these were confined to the present – what we are doing now to address our current circumstances - the challenges of living would be simpler. Indeed, Whitman was a champion of that fully lived moment, when we embrace concrete, sensuous existence. But unhappiness also centers on past occurrences, such as an ill-chosen act or a disgrace that can never be rectified. And we are tormented equally by events to come, not just the “revenge of the future” as Henry James called it but also the realization that none of our better dreams will come true. Our willingness to impose extended versions of time on our lives both ennobles us and casts us into misery.
To use a metaphor – perhaps an overly aggressive one - our standards are swords, with two sharp edges and the capacity to cut in many ways. Such swords inspire and reward (what Freud called the “ego-ideal”); they also control and condemn (his “superego”). Swords clear the way ahead and give us courage. They also keep other people, potentially our supporters, at bay. So armed, we make allies, and enemies. Standards affect all these things, and without them – mentally weaponless – we would have difficulty making our way through the world.
Once again, where do these models come from? It would be silly to say that humans are merely creatures with ideas. At some level, we are Whitman’s animals. We have their basic needs, response patterns, and habits of awareness. We know pain and pleasure. Those standards for relating to the world are established by processes we do not control. When we support the body’s requirements of us – by eating, sleeping, moving, or finding shelter – we are contented.
In other writing, I’ve depicted such bodily functioning as the establishing of physical meanings or “understandings” (literally, principles we stand under). We have biologically engraved patterns of recognition-and-response. To operate in such terms is to impose meaning on our lives. The better part of happiness is obtained by honoring bodily knowledge. We ignore it at our peril.
But this is not enough for us. We depend – and indeed, because of centuries of evolution are now forced to depend – on symbolic directives, understandings that build off forms of physical awareness but become extremely abstract, elaborated, and mental in character. We are “principled” in this other way. We operate with Big Ideas.
Many of these standards are the legacies of our societies. Others are placed on us by the people we interact with. Still others are supplied by media forms – books, movies, TV, and the like. Whatever their source, these models are of a different sort than physical claims. We do not follow symbolic directives in the driven fashion we search for food, water, and relaxation. Nevertheless, we want to confront and engage them. Fulfilling their requirements gives us a kind of satisfaction. Even pursuing them may be pleasing.
Call those principles beliefs, values, and customs. Call the endings they prescribe goals. Identify the objects and behaviors that particularize them as symbols, visible forms that show others – and ourselves – that we are behaving in the proper ways. Typically, we “desire” to move along these routes, but we do not “need” to. That is to say, our compulsions are psychological (and cultural) rather than physiological. Although this freedom – to pursue one abstract vision rather than another – is thought to be one of the hallmarks of the human condition, it also generates great confusion over what standards to honor and how to determine if adequate satisfaction has been gained. These sound like matters for philosophers and moralists to debate. They are instead, exceedingly practical matters, indeed advertising’s everyday business.
Modern people are unhappy then because they cannot experience completion. Always there are new – and higher – standards to meet. Inevitably, there is “unfinished business.” Everyone is urged to move forward, but no one knows if they have already reached their destination or if that end-point is years ahead.
We may accept society’s directives as our own – as standards for identity and behavior - or we may fight to hold our own views. Most of us exist with a complicated, fluid combination of these themes. Some life-strategies seem to please our parents and friends if not ourselves. More commonly perhaps, the opposite occurs. Frequently, a situational approach is adopted. That is, each setting we enter is thought to have its own requirements of us – and we of it. To use postmodern language we have plural, sequentially situated selves. There is no longer a center of being - for centrifugal forces to tear apart.
If we are denied feelings of completion and are confused about worthy standards to follow, what is the path to happiness? For many in the positive psychology and sociology movement, there must be a commitment to discover and honor some deep personal center, an “authentic” self that constitutes a place where we can be, existentially, at home. That center must be connected to the bodily concerns that orient every member of the human species. It must contain worthy values that articulate reasonable life-ambitions and make coherent a trajectory of past, present, and future. And it must acknowledge the importance of other people to who we are and what we do.
It is not to be imagined that such core commitments are easy to discover or to maintain, for the forces of modernity urge ever outward. But unhappiness – of the deeper, more enduring kind – is the fate of those who do not gather themselves with that resolve.
Whitman, W. (1855) “Song of myself.” In Leaves of grass. New York: Whitman, p. 38.
Henricks, T. (2012). Selves, societies, and emotions: Understanding the pathways of experience. Boulder, Co: Paradigm.
James, H. (1956). The Bostonians: A novel. New York: Modern Library, p. 162.