Anxiety and the Well-Lived Life

"Needless to say, our fixation on the ideal of happiness diverts our attention from collective social ills, such as socioeconomic disparities. As Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, when we believe that our happiness is a matter of thinking the right kinds of (positive) thoughts, we become blind to the ways in which some of our unhappiness might be generated by collective forces, such as racism or sexism. Worst of all, we become callous to the lot of others, assuming that if they aren't doing well, if they aren't perfectly happy, it's not because they're poor, oppressed, or unemployed but because they're not trying hard enough.

If all of that isn't enough to make you suspicious of the cultural injunction to be happy, consider this basic psychoanalytic insight: Human beings may not be designed for happy, balanced lives. The irony of happiness is that it's precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last. Insofar as each passing moment of happiness brings us closer to its imminent collapse, happiness is merely a way of anticipating unhappiness; it's a deviously roundabout means of producing anxiety. [...]

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 not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged? [...]

I don't wish to fetishize psychological or emotional instability; I'm aware of the enormous toll it can exact. And I know that there are many people who live under unbearable burdens of uncertainty. But we are mistaken when we interpret anxiety and other forms of existential disorientation as being at odds with a well-lived life. It may well be that they are an essential part of such a life."


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