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Forget “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Suffering Can Be Good for You

(Flickr/Simon Plestenjak)
“We are constantly told to free ourselves from our traumas and pain, but what if we just accepted them?”

“I despise the kind of book which tells you how to live, how to make yourself happy! Philosophers have no good news for you at this level! I believe the first duty of philosophy is making you understand what deep shit you are in!” ― Slavoj Žižek

Being a psychology student and also a person suffering from depression for many long years, I visited plenty of psychotherapists, both in my home country of Georgia and in Europe. I learned countless theories and perspectives on and about mental illness—both as a patient and as a student. However, little brought much of a relief until I “discovered” psychoanalysis.

Unfortunately, in today’s academic world, psychoanalysis and its research are not taken seriously and are buried under the strictly scientific and evidence-based curricula. Academic curricula in these particular fields should be more honest, however, and most importantly feel authentic by accepting the mystery and the lack of scientific knowledge in some cases. Only through this acceptance, I believe, will we have space to grow.

I believe that more research has to be done in the field of psychoanalysis to enable it
to develop—instead of leaving it behind and watching it become part of the history.
I am convinced that psychoanalysis cannot be replaced by cognitive and clinical neuroscience. It is extremely important to highlight psychoanalysis as a very helpful lens, which enables us to understand human beings, arts and as a result: the world around us.

Contemporary culture and the market-based consumer society of late capitalism created a heavy background, where we human beings feel pressure and even an obligation to enjoy. In addition, there are other “requirements” like staying positive, having fun—or the highest and most decisive goal: to be successful and happy. But, what does this really mean? How do we define happiness and why are we so desperately trying to achieve this almost imaginary status?

Erich Fromm, German-born American social psychoanalyst wrote:

“Modern man lives under the illusion that he knows ‘what he wants,’ while he actually wants what he is supposed to want. In order to accept this, it is necessary to realize that to know what one really wants is not comparatively easy, as most people think, but one of the most difficult problems any human being has to solve. It is a task we frantically try to avoid by accepting ready-made goals as though they were our own.”

Slavoj Zizek joined in: “Today we are bombarded from all sides by different versions of the superego injunction ‘enjoy!’ from the direct enjoyment of sexual performance to enjoyment of professional achievement or spiritual awakening”

This kind of pressure could potentially be very harmful to mental health and, especially, self-esteem. There must be something wrong with you if you don’t enjoy. Is it not obvious that healthy people should be able and should also want to enjoy sex, relationships, music, food, vacations, parties, weekends, achievements, success, work—anything! Everything! Otherwise, at some point, you will feel like going to a doctor and they will try to cure you, too. Most psychiatrists will probably teach you different techniques, just talk with you, or prescribe antidepressants and “replace” the negative energy, which “poisoned” your system. Isn’t it that what we want these doctors to do? Do we even ask ourselves such questions?

However, is it really necessary to free yourself from your traumas and past? Is it even a healthy wish to want to turn yourself into a blank, perfectly disinfected clear space, with no wounds and pain in order to feel “normal”? Or should we learn to live with our frustrations, wounds, past, and let them teach us, let them enable us to stay in touch with our feelings, to channel this pain in the right direction?

Extreme individualist propaganda keeps working on making us believe that happiness is our own responsibility, which makes pressure even more harmful. As if we could decide to be happy, to be successful. Circumstances, even basic luck, play an important role after all. We are constantly told that we have a free will and in addition to that, endless possibilities—what else could we wish for? All we must do is just overcome our laziness (or whatever is holding us back) and grab it. We have endless sources of enjoyment, endless resources for success. So, at the end, if you don’t do so well, you should feel guilty. Because who else is there to blame? Obviously,  you have not tried hard enough.

I simply do not accept this as truth, and I genuinely believe other people should not do so as well. Philosophy and psychoanalysis oppose popular psychology— which spread messages that leave the society disoriented, with endless frustrations and confusion, disconnects them with their own feelings and leaves them with the only option to numb themselves and follow inertia in order to fit in and simply just function. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoyment, pleasure, happiness, and success. But, to look at psychological struggles of humans in a broader context, in a holistic, authentic way is to realize that, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, “You are allowed not to enjoy.” When you accept this, it will be much easier to heal if one is wounded.

What if the dramatic rise in mental illness in the last decades is the symptom that the whole society is in an unhealthy, harmful environment? What if we tried to fix the environment itself, which initially caused the illness, instead of fixing each and every mentally ill patient individually.

We are constantly told to free ourselves from our traumas and pain, but what if we just accepted them? Then it would make it much easier to truly and genuinely accept others and maybe even see beauty in their flaws.

The French writer  Georges Bataille wrote: “Anyone wanting slyly to avoid suffering identifies with the entirety of the universe, judges each thing as if he were it. In the same way, he imagines, at the bottom, that he will never die. We receive these hazy illusions like a narcotic necessary to bear life. But what happens to us when, disintoxicated, we learn what we are? Lost among babblers in a night in which we can only hate the appearance of light which comes from babbling. The self-acknowledged suffering of the disintoxicated is the subject of this book.”

I see psychoanalysis as a tool that could help us reach the state of “self-acknowledged suffering of the disintoxicated.” Even if it sounds a bit masochistic, paradoxically, it is exactly what is needed for the healing process to begin, both for a society and for individuals. Psychoanalysis has a power to stimulate courage and authenticity through self-destruction and self-analysis.

At the end of the day, studying psychoanalysis, of course, has not cured my depression, turned my whole life upside down or made me happier or richer. I am certainly not writing this article in the past tense with a blissful smile on my face, free from all problems.

Honestly, all that happened was that psychoanalysis helped to change my perspective and relieved me from enormous, immense amount of guilt that came from not being able to function “normally,” enjoy life and its pleasures, functioning as others do. It helped me to reconnect with my feelings.

Psychoanalysis served as a great lens, through which I could see the world more clearly—calmly even. It made my whole attitude towards people, myself and generally everything around, less illusionary, not as fed with ideology and almost free from unrealistic expectations and clichés.

It can begin the long journey towards healing. At least it did for me.

Natalia Lomaia studies psychology in Berlin.

2 thoughts on “Forget “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” Suffering Can Be Good for You

  1. Yes, the liberalized/globalized economy floats on the positivity paradigm where all we have to do is realize that all our problems stem from our perspective (rather than exploitation/deprivation/corruption). Zizek refers to this style of quasi-scientific smile factory mentality western Buddhism. I’ve worked in America in the corporate world as a marketing designer for almost a decade now and this mentality has saturated the workplace to the bone—motivational corporate guru culture. Rather than address systemic failures / economic precarity / meritocratic left behind, the corporate management mentality is to warp its employees minds with relentless doses of cheap positivist psychology to make us turn our cries of deprivation inwards upon ourselves and our own erroneous / ungrateful perspectives. In a sense, to dissociate ourselves from the pangs of austerity and “see in a new way.” Obviously the efficiency equation they are employing relies on washing the mind of your workforce clean (as if they weren’t unique individuals with their own vibrant thought life and beliefs) and smother dissent / negativity at all costs. It’s unbearably condescending mental rape, but people break down because the economic landscape is pretty bleak… unionization has been crushed.. healthcare is tied directly to employers.. education is wholly inaccessible.. AI/machine learning is beginning to displace flesh.. in short, many feel trapped and helpless but to speak of such things openly with coworkers is to be a morale killer/efficiencies disrupter. So the only option that’s left after awhile for many who don’t have the stomach to rock the boat is to swallow the poison. Unless we totally lose our humanity, my belief is that we will look back on this time in history as the gaslighting era, the 21st century corporate psychic holocaust. This managerial atmosphere has become reprehensible and there is no end in sight since the guru culture constantly dumps loads of neuroscience quackery on top of their positive distortions—the mountain of garbage is so big people can’t even see it anymore. Like Goebbels said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Thanks for the write up and for fighting for healthy negativity.

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