Happiness or Authenticity?

January 4, 2019

Ed. note: This post is Chapter 11 of Brian Davey’s book Credo which was published in 2015 and can be accessed online here.

This chapter draws on the ideas of Erich Fromm and, more recently, Oliver James, to describe the problem of Affluenza. It critiques the recent enthusiasm of some economists like Richard Layard for a theory of “happiness” and “positive psychology”.

A further consequence of the rise and rise of the advertising and marketing industry is its effects on the culture of society and on general psychological well-being. There is a mental health implication of spending a huge amount of money to try to grab people’s attention in order to manipulate them in the ways described.

In so far as the marketing industry has drawn upon the insights of Sigmund Freud and later psychologists to relentlessly seek to manipulate the general population, the effect has been massively psychologically toxic. Given their utilitarian worldview, most of the economic profession are barely able to understand this. However, there are some therapists who have and their viewpoint represents a deep critique of the market economy. What they have written and said points to the way in which economic relationships and market imperatives have penetrated the core psychological makeup of people.

In place of the banal tautology of 19th century utilitarianism we need a deep study of the relationship between economic activity and mental health because this marketing assault, this religion of consumerism, has many aspects that do not appear to be doing us any good.

Here it is necessary to note that mental health is not the same as the “happiness” of the utilitarians. It is not the same as the “happiness” research which some “radical” economists have used to criticise GDP measures in recent years. This “happiness” literature is merely a modernisation of utilitarian thinking and contains all its flaws. (Layard, 2006)

I am not writing here about happiness as a goal for economic activity, I am writing about mental health. I am writing about “authenticity” which finds expressions in emotions that are appropriate to the conditions in which one finds oneself in life.

If you are involved in a futile activity and getting nowhere, the demoralisation and depression that so drains you of the mental energy and willpower to continue, that makes you give up your futile purposes, can create the space to try a different direction in life. In this sense, depression can be very useful. Nor is the misery and grief of losing a loved one some kind of irrational feeling to be wished away. The grief is appropriate to the love and the loss. It is also sometimes the case that the greatest achievements can only be made by ignoring how unhappy one is feeling and ploughing ahead despite that unhappiness, because that way lies self-respect and actions consistent with your values, although not bringing any immediate joy.

When organisations like the New Economics Foundation, who otherwise do some great work, promote “happiness” as a goal of economic activity, I wonder how that is really compatible with addressing the issues like climate change, peak oil, the brutality embodied and embedded in economic policy, the stupidity of the actions of the finance sector. I do not feel “happiness” when I address myself to these issues. I feel fear, rage, and frustration. How is it possible to be “happy” when one lives in a world characterised by ecological destruction, extreme inequality and injustice? It is impossible to feel happy having to listen day after day to celebrities, marketing characters, politicians and officials justifying sociopathic policies and decisions in an information sphere where these small minded fools get a huge amount of attention for the drivel that they talk.

The alternative, as formulated by therapists like Oliver James is to strive to be “authentic” rather
than “happy”. For me that means living my life by going as far as I can, without overloading myself emotionally, trying to engage with the problems that I see all around me. Writing this book is my best shot at this stage in my life – but writing it is not making me “happy”. Having spent many years of my life in a state of emotional and psychiatric turmoil, going through periods that have sometimes been like hell, I know myself enough to know what my limits are, engaging with various causes but staying back from that level of engagement that would be emotionally reckless because psychiatrically self- destructive.

This is why I do not support the activities and proposals of economists like Lord Richard Layard, an economist who started taking an interest in why so many people were unhappy despite economic growth and who has been very influential for the promotion of therapeutic approaches to deal with unhappiness. It is Layard who is credited with the promotion of the widespread availability of cognitive behavioural therapy as a solution for mass unhappiness in the UK.

Having been a “customer” of the mental health services, and having then worked on the edges of that service for almost two decades – and seen what is helpful and what is not helpful up close – I am deeply sceptical of Layard’s ideas and his solutions. As Oliver James expresses it:

Underpinning Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a “call black white” positive psychology… An American invention, it fits with the conviction that it is healthy to live in a rose-tinted bubble of positive illusions, in which you believe bad things are less likely to happen to you than is actuarially true, or that you are more popular with friends and colleagues than is the case. In this schema, people who make honest, truthful and realistic appraisals are characterised as suffering from “depressive realism”. Indeed, some scientists have maintained that the bubble of positive illusions is our natural state, reflecting evolution. This is a classic instance of the American intellectual and cultural imperialism which underlies evolutionary ideology. The truth is that many societies, especially those in east or south-east Asia, do not live in the bubble and start, if anything, from its opposite: a harshly realistic view is valued. (James, 2010) (James, David Cameron should measure mental health, not happiness, 2010)

There seems to me to be something very predictable about cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) being promoted by an economist as the treatment of choice for people who are unhappy in a market society. If you are miserable or desperate and go for help you get either a pill or CBT. This is fully consistent with the view of the economists in which society is an aggregation of individuals. CBT locates “problems” inside the individuals who are having the problems because they are not thinking correctly about their difficulties and need to train themselves to think more optimistically.

A therapy for the masses would be like this wouldn’t it? Not just economics but a lot of psychology takes the form that it does because the therapists, like the economists, are part of the club of winners and think that they are qualified to advise losers how to improve their lives.

In so doing they often do not notice or understand what it is like for people who are struggling to survive under greater constraints than they themselves have ever had to endure – fewer resources of available time, often less skill and most certainly less money, less connections, being in the wrong places, at the wrong times.

Positive psychology is more likely “to work” as “self-fulfilling optimism” for people who are starting out with a better hand of cards in life whereas an optimism that is not anchored in adequate starting resources is more likely to lead to disappointment and failure, to bitter disillusion, to the sorts of losses that Kahneman writes that people fear and which can risk destabilising what little one already has.

It is not surprising then that repeated failure by people who have less going for them leads to “learned helplessness”, apathy and passivity. One cannot always pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps and there will be conditions in life when enthusiasm for CBT is likely to wither in the harsh reality because the therapy is not complemented by sufficiently altered circumstances.

That is not to deny that CBT sometimes succeeds – or might appear to anyway. Perhaps, however, that will be because for some lucky people the circumstances of their lives, circumstances that they do not fully control, move on anyway. That certainly happened to me after some of my worst times. Things happen which are not expected. Perhaps the best of all is if one finds oneself doing new things, in new places with new people, becoming a new person and starting again.

Sadly, there are a great many people who become “career psychiatric patients”. Their lives have been frozen by the institutions, the drugs, the places, the “professionals” that are supposed to be there to help them.

Above all else, if one is to be able to move on, to start a new life, after an old life has fallen to bits, it is important to get one’s motivations right. One must be careful about what one is trying to achieve. Having “fallen” once, a “loser” is well advised not to try again by pursuing “extrinsic motivations”. If you want to set yourself up for falling again then go for money, go for fame, go for power. If, however, you want to be on firmer ground in regard to psychological well-being then pursue things that are not about wealth and a futile search trying to get others to think well of you, trying to show off – it will not do you any good.

To have or to be

The psychoanalyst and social critic Erich Fromm drew attention to the very different things that might motivate us when he described people who live to “be” and people who live to “have”. He described the people who live to “have” as “marketing personalities”. This way of putting it is very similar to the ideas of Oliver James, who has written about “Affluenza” as a kind of psychological virus that has done a lot of damage to emotional well-being in market societies through the promotion of extrinsic values. (James, Affluenza, 2007)

Seeking after spiritual, community and environmental goals serves a higher purpose that transcends
or goes beyond the self. Activities of this sort are rooted in the quality of one’s “being” rather than in “having”. People with these motivations are not trying to become “somebodies”. They are not trying to be noticed. What they do is not about being admired; accumulating an audience; being envied; winning prizes; getting medals, titles or celebrity status; having some dignitary telling you how well you are doing; some newspaper article congratulating you; lots of paparazzi flashing cameras at you; the Financial Times quoting you as a stock market oracle or getting a huge bonus so that you can feel that you actually exist. “Intrinsic motivations” entail a “life game” in the sense meant by anti-psychiatrist, Thomas Tzsas, i.e. purposes which give meaning, direction and structure to people’s lives. These are not purposes that require “incentivisation” because pursuing them brings their own psychological rewards. (Davey, University of the North Pole. Life., 2001) (Davey, BA (Hons) in life, 2001)

A lot of the people pursuing intrinsic motivations, it should be admitted, probably are nobodies. They are not trying to climb into the public gaze in order to pursue their interests and have no particular concern for celebrity status or wealth because that is not what drives them. Empirical research suggests that people with intrinsic motivations tend to lead the more satisfying lives (in the sense of authenticity). In contrast it is the people who are pursuing “extrinsic values” such as wealth, or preservation of public image who tend to find that they are never satisfied and whose personal well-being is very fragile. Extrinsic motivations do not encourage “flourishing”. If we pursue these things in the way that the textbooks assume that you do, you will more likely end up unhappy.

Thus, to return to the theme of this chapter, mainstream economists, in their clunky banal approach to understanding human psychology and behaviour, which they suppose to be driven by calculations of individual “utility”, have no way of making sense of why the market economy not only fails as a producer of goods and services, but also why it is a source of misery and mental health problems – including for those who are “successful” in material terms.

This is a way of understanding that is incompatible with the normal assumptions of economics. In fact it makes nonsense of the economic approach to welfare and well-being.

The characteristics of the market form and mould the characters of market actors – or at least those who engage most closely with it and economics is a subject that helps this process. Australian research has shown that if you take a group of students, the business students are far more likely than the arts students to be “marketing characters”.

In his book Affluenza Oliver James, repeats the findings of Saunders, “Marketing characters experience themselves as commodities whose value and meaning are externally determined.” Such characters have the following traits:

… eager to consume; wasteful of goods, disposing and replacing them frequently; having conventional tastes and views; uncritical of themselves or society, un-insightful; agreeing with the statement “having makes me more”; a tendency to publicise and promote themselves; experiencing themselves as a commodity whose value is determined by possessions and the opinions of others; and with values portrayed in television advertisements. (James, 2007)

Studies show people like this are more likely to be “materialistic, conformist, unconcerned about ecology, expressive of anger, anxious and depressive.” A subsequent study by Saunders, again cited by James, explains how marketing characters:

… place little value on beauty, freedoms or inner harmony. Their main pursuits are social recognition, comfort, and having an exciting life. They are extremely individualistic in their social values and do not regard social equality as desirable. They compare themselves obsessively and enviously with others, always having to have more and better things than others, believing inequality to be man’s natural state. (James, Affluenza, 2007, p. 66)

Such people are never contented even when they have lots of money. In an article about what matters to the super rich, columnist George Monbiot describes Saudi Prince Alwaleed. His self-esteem appears to depend on where he is placed on the Forbes global rich list. It seems that the Prince was disturbed when he was listed in Forbes at $7 billion – because this was less than he claims “to be worth”.

Never mind that he has his own 747, in which he sits on a throne during flights. Never mind that his “main palace” has 420 rooms. Never mind that he possesses his own private amusement park and zoo and, he claims, $700 million worth of jewels. Never mind that he’s the richest man in the Arab world, valued by Forbes at $20bn, and has watched his wealth increase by $2bn in the past year. None of this is enough. There is no place of arrival, no happy landing, even in a private jumbo jet. The politics of envy are never keener than among the very rich. (Monbiot, Enough Already, 2013)

A genuine theory of well-being in the tradition of Veblen would encompass the psychopathologies of economic actors including the craziness of “successful people”. It would include a study of how the operation of the market creates psychological pathologies which then enter into the way that those markets work.

Brian Davey

I now live in Nottingham in semi-retirement. This means doing much the same as when I was 64 but with a state pension and tiny private pension as well. In 1970 I got a 1st in Economics at Nottingham University – and then in 1974 an M.Phil. for a thesis on a Marxist approach to the economic development of India. This led to a varied career working with mainly community projects both in the UK and abroad. In 2003 John Jopling of Feasta followed a suggestion of Richard Douthwaite's and invited me to a yearly group discussion by the sea – at Rossbeigh in Kerry. I have been going virtually every year since then and have spent much of my spare time involved in the ecological and economics discussions of Feasta, particularly in its climate work. After Richard's passing I stepped into part of a teaching role that he had had at Dublin City University teaching on a degree in Religion and Ecology. This teaching led, in turn, to this book.

Tags: building resilient societies, happiness, mental health