Woonsocket Call

The quest for hap­pi­ness may be killing us

- By DAVID VON DREHLE David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly col­umn for The Post.

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 rates.

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.”

If you or a loved one feels sui­ci­dal, please seek help. The 24-hour sui­cide preven­tion num­ber is 800-273-8255. They can’t prom­ise hap­pi­ness – but they can help you find your strength.

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