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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is Happiness Overrated?

Considering how much misery and turmoil there is in the world, most of us would consider a long, stable, happy life to be a blessing. But University of Toronto Professor Mari Ruti has put forth the theory that human beings “may not be designed for happy, balanced lives” and that “the best lives” might be shorter, messier ones “heaving with feeling and action.”

In an article titled “Happiness and its Discontents” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ruti writes,

Why, exactly, is a healthy and well-adjusted life superior to one that is filled with ardor and personal vision but that is also, at times, a little unhealthy and maladjusted? Might some of us not prefer lives that are heaving with an intensity of feeling and action but that do not last quite as long as lives that are organized more sensibly?

It’s important to note that she prefaces her piece by saying “As a critical theorist working at the intersection of Continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminist and queer theory, I make observations about human life that are speculative rather than empirical.” In other words, her observations are based on theoretical constructions, not on how life is actually lived by real people.

She asserts oddly that conventional happiness is some sort of societal oppression – what she calls “the cultural injunction to be happy”: “[I]n our era, the idea that we should lead happy, balanced lives carries the force of an obligation: We are supposed to push aside our anxieties in order to enjoy our lives, attain peace of mind, and maximize our productivity.” I fail to see how any of those things is bad or who is forcing these horrible expectations upon us – but then, I’m not a critical theorist working at the intersection of a lot of ivory tower busywork.

As an academic, Ruti trots out predictable references to patriarchy, oppression, and exploitation (“women's ability to keep smiling even when they are feeling miserable is one of the many biopolitical tools of neoliberal capitalism”), and fires a broadside at the institution of marriage: “If you want people to show up at their desks every morning, you hype up the value of marriage to such an extent that people are willing to stay in their marriages no matter how lackluster they may be” – as if married couples are nothing more than enslaved dupes of The System.

She continues: “Why should the good life equal a harmonious life? Might not the good life be one that includes just the right amount of anxiety? Might not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged?”

I’m not sure what constitutes “the right amount of anxiety,” but we are all imprudent and a tad unhinged at some point; I certainly have been, and I don’t recommend it. Our actions have consequences not just for ourselves, but for those around us, including loved ones who could be tragically impacted by our unhinged moments of intense imprudence. Many a brilliant artist’s “ardor and personal vision” have left ruined lives in their wake, including their own. Ms. Ruti pays lip service to this by claiming “I don't wish to fetishize psychological or emotional instability; I'm aware of the enormous toll it can exact.”

And yet she’s willing to accept that enormous toll – for others. She tells the story of a young woman who lamented the fact that her father, a renowned psychiatrist who wrote influential books, was largely absent from her life, physically and emotionally. Ruti thinks the woman should appreciate her father’s contributions to humanity more and quit whining about her personal loss.

I have never been one to value the collective over the individual, but Ruti’s assumption seems to be that the masses are mere societal pawns whose conventional idea of the good life is a repressive fa├žade, that they lack a more passionate individual vision and are lesser beings because of it.

By all means, freely choose how you want to live. Strive for passionate burnout over harmonious balance, if you wish – but don’t pretend that it necessarily constitutes a superior or more meaningful way of life.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/12/14)