Happiness in a Structurally Unhappy Culture

Modern media continually inject us with two anathemas: news and advertising. I will address the latter, which hinges essentially on a message of the form: YOU NEED X. This is what David Cross called “an existence based on manufactured necessity.” (Alan Watts has spoken somewhat on this subject from the Zen Buddhist perspective; without recommending him per se, I recommend reflection on his commentary.)

Individual notions of happiness are subjective, and so ideas of unhappiness are, too. I focus on one issue: does something about the capitalist model nudge us towards something we are prone to find unsatisfactory? I think so, and I think advertising is the connection between a business’ need to make profits and the idea that we lack (or “want”) something. It does not seem likely that we will make as many purchases if we do not feel we need or want anything. Markets are created as people discover a lack—and so there is an interest in manufacturing those lacks (“wants”). A common response to wanting something is some kind of unhappiness. The argument, then, is this: Capitalism emphasizes markets to create profits for businesses. Businesses use advertising to create and expand markets to generate more profits (for the business). Advertising often tells consumers that they lack something in their lives— that something is wrong, insufficient, or missing—and that the business can resolve it. The effect is twofold: 1) we feel our lives are constantly amiss, 2) we feel a continual need to “fix” our “broken” selves/lives/identities/being—and this requires that we work to get enough money to pay for these products and services throughout our lives.

If this line of thought has anything to it, then it is simplistic to think of the problem as strictly being money or power systems or economic structures. One of the fundamental assumptions of this argument is that our happiness is at odds with feeling that something is wrong with our personal state of affairs (whatever we may call “our lives”). This gives us a different notion of what the problem is and how it might be resolved (or what attempted solutions might not work). It seems that mere changes in external systems (especially economic structures) won’t be sufficient if we remain under the belief that our lives are ineffective and in need of constant aid. The corollary is the question: Can we then recover some of this happiness within the current system? If no economic or political system can make us happy so long as it imposes a continual feeling of our own inadequacy and insufficiency, can we achieve feelings of worth and sufficient value within a system that attempts to convince us of our continual want? The answer is crucial in helping us decide whether the next great revolution must be an internal or external one.

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One response to “Happiness in a Structurally Unhappy Culture

  1. In Orson Welles’ classic “3-2-1 Penguins!”, the lesson of the Chocolate Frosted Black Holes is relevant here: “You have to be content with what you have.”

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