by Lael Ewy
To look out over a barren backyard in the middle of winter, contemplating crows.
To grumble at the idiocy of workplace rules, the stupidity of traffic, the vapidity of the political status quo.
To despair at a planet polluted and melting, the indifference of those in charge, the greed of those in power.
To, considering these, wonder if going on is really worthwhile, if contributing to them through our labor and social compliance is more morally right than to just stop living.
To do these things is to be unhappy.
But they are both common and widely pathologized.
It’s no wonder that the rise of a psychiatry of depression—indeed, of psychiatry itself—tracks parallel with the rise of industrial capitalism. Certainly, unhappiness precedes these social phenomena, but its one-to-one association with a medicalized illness is a product of how we now live, and a reification of it. The Lord of the Manor cared little enough about his serfs that their states of mind were all but immaterial; it’s probable he considered the serfs incapable of the kinds of depths and nuances of thought and feeling of those of his own class. But it bothers the modern master that his employees are not both compliant to his dictates and also happy about it. As with all other things, “employee morale” has simply become a reflection of the ego of the CEO.
The economy of the US has moved toward services and retail, and the imperative for the worker to always be happy has only increased. Customer service representatives at a call center are judged not only by the speed with which they dispatch customer complaints and the adroitness with which they upsell, but by the attitude with which they go about their work.
To be sure, they “represent” the company; increasingly, they are not the company. They are contractors or other easily-eliminated classes of employee. The company is merely a set of legal parameters. Loyalty and pleasure in one’s work for its own sake are expectations of the company, not something in which they feel the need to actually invest.
Like the Lord of the Manor, they want something for nothing.
But even if they did want something for something, it would imply that emotions, just like anything else worthwhile in this system, are essentially transactional, that, like your labor and your time, I can buy your emotions as part of a package deal. And the lower you are on the economic ladder, the less your happiness is worth, and the more important it is to maintain if you are to be employable at all.
The policing of emotions, then, the sanctions against unhappiness, are matters of economic necessity: you can’t afford to be unhappy. The market demands it.
If you’re poor enough or a person of color, your unhappiness is a positive threat, and the displeasure it causes a literal policeman can be taken out on your body with little or no consequence of the cop.
Fortunately, industry has a solution to our problem in the marketing of antidepressant medications—a quick fix for a population that has as its basic mode of living a series of quick fixes.
At this point, the prescription and monitoring of mood-altering chemicals has become the primary job a psychiatrist does. Insurance companies are happy to reinforce that model: 15 minute “med checks” are efficient uses of a psychiatrist’s time. If psychiatry is, indeed, the medicine of “the soul,” it seems what the soul needs nowadays is a pill, the strength of which is nudged this way and that every other month.
This is a system that, from the perspective of a consumer culture and a market-based economy, ought to make everyone happy.
Only it doesn’t.
We’re sicker, sadder, and more suicidal than we’ve ever been. And when the prescription drugs don’t work or don’t work well enough (statistically speaking, their effect sizes are fairly small), we’re turning more and more to street drugs—heroin and methamphetamine—to fight the depression and the inner pain that still wrack us day to day.
But perhaps my scope here is too narrow: Freud’s theories were built on the discontent of the Viennese middle classes of the 19th Century, mostly of their women, a class which expressed its values as a matter of how contented the household could be. Prior to that, in the US and England, Puritans had gone a long way toward waging war on emotions at large as signs of not being among the heaven-bound. The self-improvement we used to revere in the US was geared toward tamping down both sadness and joy. The former was once considered a sin; the latter a frivolity.
We’ve posited in the Declaration of Independence the right to “pursue” happiness. But now we’ll punish you if you achieve it in excess. And no concomitant right to be unhappy has been widely fought for. Indeed, our scientific community has no solid notion of what emotions are even for.
Sadness, like tears themselves, upwells within us, in unexpected places and unexpected ways. Sad songs, the blues and country, and sad images abound. Edward Hopper’s stark canvases have gained a massive following, and the crying emoji is just as popular as any other. People who would not be able to tell a Picasso from a pizza can easily identify a Hopper. And the same psychiatrist who makes his living waging chemical warfare on his patients’ emotions feels no compunction about indulging in the bluest of jazz.
As someone whose unhappiness has ranged from the merely sad to the existential crisis, I haven’t found unhappiness to be entirely bad. It is unpleasant, and it can be overwhelming. I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit that it has put my life and health at risk. But then, so can the drugs we take to combat it, the work we do that demands we deny it.
Moving through it, wrangling with it, and coming to terms with it can also be deeply satisfying.
If unhappiness exists for a reason, and its ubiquity would suggest that it must, it can help us to see that something needs our attention—something in the way we live, in our relationships with those we love, our orientation to the world we inhabit.
It only makes sense to be unhappy if we’re being abused or oppressed, if we’re dealing with trauma or constant pain. What doesn’t make sense is that we should blame the sadness for the sadness, that we should try to do away with the unhappiness itself instead of trying to change things if we can.
At the very least, the lassitude and disengagement that unhappiness can cause is able to lead us to deep reflection and taking stock, two things our productivity-obsessed culture considers wastes of time. It’s OK for you to express gratitude, of course, because you’re supposed to be grateful for your shitty lot in life, but purely and openly contemplative? Heck, no.
I’m getting upset again. I’m getting unhappy at the disdain in which our culture holds unhappiness.
And maybe that’s not an entirely bad thing.