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The quest for happiness may be killing us

Is our desire to be happy at the root of our suffering?

Disappointment is a uniquely human condition, the flip side of our capacity

for creativity and invention. Only humans “dream things that

never were” and “say ‘Why not?’ “ as George Bernard Shaw famously put

it. This capacity gives us flying machines and pocket computers. It also

gives us rising suicide rates in countries around the globe, from the

United States to India to New Zealand.

To be unhappy enough to end it all, a person must first imagine a condition

of greater happiness, then lose hope that the greater happiness can

be achieved. Anyone this side of Dr. Pangloss in his best of all possible

worlds can start down this dismal path. Because there is no limit to human

imagination, there is never a shortage of greener pastures.

Though we’re shocked when the rich and famous kill themselves, the Kate

Spades and the Anthony Bourdains, we shouldn’t be. Neither wealth nor

celebrity nor any other endowment quiets the human impulse to wish

some things were different than they are.

John Keats, for instance, was a handsome and massively talented young

man of 23 when he pronounced himself “half in love with easeful death.”

Ruminating on the sweetness of an unthinking nightingale’s song, he catalogued

just few of the disappointments of human consciousness:

“The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs . . .”

A strong case can be made that modern society does a poor job of preparing

21st-century humans for the inevitable ebb and flow of discontent.

Indeed, British therapist and philosopher James Davies has

buttressed that case formidably in a scholarly tome titled “The Importance

of Suffering,” and follow-up bestseller, “Cracked: Why Psychiatry is

Doing More Harm Than Good.”

Davies argues that we have created a culture that assumes happiness to

be the normal, healthy human condition. Deviations from the blissful

path — sadness, anxiety, disappointment — are thus treated as illnesses in

search of a cure. This “harmful cultural belief that much of our everyday

suffering is a damaging encumbrance best swiftly removed” gets in the

way of a more robust response, he writes: namely, approaching unpleasant

emotions as “potentially productive experiences to be engaged with

and learnt from.”

I would not go quite as far as Davies does in his skepticism of psychiatric

medicines; clinical depression and anxiety are serious illnesses that have

become more manageable with the help of prescription drugs. But he is

unquestionably right that these chemical compounds alone will not

make the world appreciably happier. Despite widespread use of the prescription

pad, we’re seeing an epidemic of opioid abuse and rising suicide


Historically, cultures have celebrated the value of endurance in the face

of suffering and the understanding that comes from adversity. This was

the bedrock on which Robert F. Kennedy stood during his finest hour,

when he broke the awful news of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder

to a predominately black audience in Indianapolis 50 years ago:

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” Kennedy said. “He wrote: ‘In our sleep,

pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our

own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of

God.’ “

Few leaders speak now of pain as a positive good. There’s scant room in

today’s Prosperity Gospel for Paul’s notion of the kind of “comfort, which

you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we

suffer.” It’s hard to imagine a president writing, as Abraham Lincoln did

to a despondent young West Point cadet: “Your good mother tells me you

are feeling very badly in your new situation. Allow me to assure you it is

a perfect certainty that you will, very soon, feel better — quite happy — if

you only stick to the resolution you have taken.. . .”

Lincoln could write that with conviction because he knew the depths

firsthand. His friend Joshua Fry Speed grew so alarmed at young Lincoln’s

despondency that he removed every sharp implement from the future

president’s room. Biographer Joshua Wolf Shenk writes persuasively

that living with deep sadness was a key to Lincoln’s success: “With Lincoln

we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine

the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop

crucial skills and capacities . . . and whose inimitable character took

great strength from the piercing insights of depression . . . forged over

decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.”

© 2018, The Washington Post

. . .

If you or a loved one feels suicidal, please seek help. The 24-hour

suicide prevention number is 800–273–8255. They can’t


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