Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Happy, happy. Joy, joy. Wednesday, November 10, 2010.

“If only we'd stop trying to be happy we'd have a pretty good time.” –Edith Wharton

A number of years after Prozac had arrived on the scene, introducing the SSRI and changing the face of psychiatry forever, Peter D. Kramer released the book “Listening to Prozac.” Kramer cited studies showing that even people who weren’t depressed underwent transformations upon taking Prozac. Their self-esteem bloomed and they became more successful. Kramer said that Prozac could make people “better than well.”

I don’t think Kramer’s testimony has stood the test of time. It’s true, I’ve argued that a mega-study purporting to show that antidepressants are no more than expensive placebos has been misinterpreted. I believe strongly that there is a place for pharmaceuticals in the treatment of depression – specifically severe, clinical depression. But the idea that antidepressants are miracle pills that make peoples’ lives euphoric and trouble-free is, well, nuts.

I assume that people have always wanted to be happy. But how have they defined happiness? Until the last century or so, most peoples’ lives were “nasty, brutish and short.” As recently as the early 20th century, life expectancy ranged from 30 to 45. And those 45 years would have been difficult ones indeed.

There were no cures for most sicknesses, women died quite often in childbirth, the death of a child was a common occurrence, and people had to work to support themselves until they died. The technologies that make our lives more convenient – electricity, running water, transportation – didn’t exist.

And yet books and art and poetry depicted not only sorrows but also joys. Dirty and smelly, perhaps sick, often exhausted, people still found a way to be happy. I, for one, wouldn’t have wanted to be alive during Biblical times – what with all those crucifixions and the throwing Christians to the lions and all – but the word “joy” appears in the King James Bible 155 times.

I’m just going to take a wild guess and say that people had a different idea of “happiness” back then. Life was full of suffering, but perhaps they found their joy in the whiff of violets, the brilliant colors of a sunset, the giggle of a child. Perhaps it was enough to have a roof over one’s head, even if that roof was leaky. Perhaps having enough blankets was something to be happy about.

In the United States, a major shift in the idea of “happiness” came in the 1950s, when postwar prosperity ushered in a new age of consumerism and “planned obsolescence” that required houses and cars to grow bigger and fancier. Advertising hit its golden age, seducing the world into seeing America as the place where anyone, if they worked hard enough, could buy anything their hearts desired.

By the 1980s, the idea was entrenched in Madonna’s “Material Girl,” but the means to the end was changing. Two-income households became the norm, the rich got richer, the poor found it harder to get ahead. Today, the American Dream has become a virtual nightmare.

To those who have had and lost, or to those who will never have, “Be Happy!” sounds trite – almost disrespectful. It’s a scary time for many of us. But do we have to give up on happiness? Or can we redefine it again?

1 comment:

  1. I have often thought the same thing. Happiness is not absence of grief, sorrow or pain. The idea that any feeling that is not "happy" needs to be medicated, instead of understood and accepted. I know that I at times have clung to feelings instead of just having them if that makes any sense. I think that we can become stuck by our interpretations that hold us back; and we fail to just be present. I think happiness is a choice ultimately, it is only possible in the present.