Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Artificial Happiness

Here’s
the Neuhaus report of the conversation he had with Ronald Dworkin (not THAT Ronald Dworkin) on the theme of Dworkin’s new book--ARTIFICIAL HAPPINESS. The biotechnological or psychotropic promise is that we can feel good without being good. But the truth is that the secret of happiness is renouncing our right to be happy and living well or responsibly or virtuously as human beings with what we really know. Projects to socially or chemically engineer artificial happiness are always built on the foundation of real misery. Dworkin’s book, Neuhaus complains, could be better, because it’s not clear enough in affirming that we’re STUCK WITH VIRTUE.

Discussions - 25 Comments

Personally, I think the secret of happiness is understanding 1) that everything is temporary, 2) that you have to obey your conscience, and 3) that you need people...we are social animals. Desperate unhappiness occurs when a person tries to freeze circumstances, obeys his appetites over his conscience, and becomes isolated as a result.

Also, as much as I despise Objectivist philosophy, I found Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem to be useful. Confidence in our abilities is probably important in true happiness.

Just my two cents.

Personally, I think the secret of happiness is a good Gruyere. Remember that life is a good slice of cheese.

Ms. Bardot: Agreed. But the frommage *must* be accompanied by a glass, or three, of "Stuck With Virtue" red (from the Frog Town Cellars Winery in Dahlonega). Ain’t no gettin’ ’round it. And at our best we don’t want to "get around it".

dain - But I thought everything was about ME.

Ma’am, I’m sorry to break the news to you, but everything USED to be about you. Now other things have shouldered their way into the national psyche...like Brad & Angie.

dain, Mon petit. Vous etes trop serieux! Dans votre pays, on dit lighten up, dude.

Here’s my chance, Dr. Lawler, to raise a question that’s plagued me for some time about the stuck with virtue thesis. It is one thing, and very well and good, to say that (in virtue of our being human) we can run from virtue but we can’t hide. And though we can craft chemical coping mechanisms for conditions of misery that may or may not themselves be chemical (a rousing defeat for Freud), we can’t create chemical curing mechanisms.

But there is another manner of running, one that is often related to but clearly distinct from the psychotropic approach -- a lifestyle philosophy of the self and self-expression. The art of creative living becomes our therapy; though it cannot sustain us, we can abandon lifestyles as they fail us, and hop on to new ones.

Here’s the catch: although I will grant that people learn from this arduous process and may often find themselves stuck with virtue by the end, on the social level we are stuck with a perpetual class of the young and the virtueless, a category of revolutionary lifestyle with a open and revolving membership. Can a culture -- can culture -- endure this for an indefinite period of time, even if individually the buck stops at virtue?

For those of us who study with the late, great Dr. Atkins, wine and cheese and not only happiness foods but health foods. To BB, you could take lightening up lessons from your sister’s fantastic performances on Green Acres, where she played a women who could be happy anywhere. Gary, I hope you weren’t taking some kind of shot at our fine Georgia wines.

Mr. postmodern conservative--There’s something to what you say. What you’re describing is the single-minded exaggeration of a characteristic of every human life--diversion--found among our bourgeois bohemians. But most Americans don’t belong to the class you describe; they’re better described by Brooks’ other book--about paradise drive. And we also have our religious "counterculture," which showers us with babies and other "survival mechanisms." Your questions is far more urgent for the Europeans, who may not long endure.

Monsieur Lawler: Certainement, no! I first heard about Frog Town from an Italian count this past June, while in Tuscany. His son is the general manager at FT; the son’s father-in-law the owner. I intend to tip a glass or two there sometime with you and Dr. Hartmann in the future.......Perhaps during next year’s Tour de Georgia...
I consider the wines of No. Georgia an ESSENTIAL "survival mechanism", in that it’s useful to toast our babies, and, when things go well, leads to them.

Peter -- Do you have BB confused with Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor? Or, did I miss an inside joke?

Fung: I could claim esoteric teaching but the truth is I wrote before I thought, which happens a lot, as you know. Or I could claim "sister" has a broader meaning than the biological one, but I would never do that, unless talking about nuns.

I spoke of the Christian spiritual tradition in which unhappiness in many forms is an essential part of growth, also in the growth toward holiness. The writings of saints such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are replete with counsel on the uses of unhappiness.


Thank you, Peter, for introducing that article. It is very interesting to see what constitutes happiness for some of the fellows on the blog, as well as those women, who surprised me, because I had not thought so very many women read NLT.


I loved that point, above, mentioned by Neuhaus, for a couple of reasons. Reading that first Theresa, years back, gave me perspective, well, on many aspects of my Christian experience, but on living with unhappiness, or even depression. My po-mo sons want me to take anti-depressants so I can be "happy" and "normal" and are baffled as to why I resist. But the truth is that the secret of happiness is renouncing our right to be happy and living well or responsibly or virtuously as human beings with what we really know. is just what I say to them. I do wish wine and cheese would do the trick, even temporarily, as I could reasonably indulge those pleasures whenever I was around those sons of mine, and they would quit harassing me on this topic. It makes me unhappy.

But now I get to my real point in this which is to say that they, the pro- "drug yourself to happiness" folk make it a point of social consciousness, even contientiousness, that we NOT be unhappy. We are a drag on the greater social happiness if we do NOT go with the program, and as is pointed out by Neuhaus, to say that unhappiness has utility is to cross an article of their faith. It is not quite as distressing as to say to a Muslim "Your religion, because of jihad, is not a religion of peace." to which they say "You must die if you do not acknowledge Islam as THE religion of peace." but nearly so.

Kate,
Very personal and profound. As Walker Percy says, you have the right to your moods, because they are your access to the truth about your being. But if moods are just collections of chemicals to be evaluated according to comfort, convenience, and productivity, that right makes no sense. If your employer or your sons tell you to "dress for success"--or go with the program--when it comes to moods by getting yourself down to the drugstore, you have no "point of view" to resist that anyone else must recognize. The possibilities of effective mood and memory control are potentially the most tyrannical features of biotechnological progress. Have you read Percy’s LOST IN THE COSMOS? You’ve elevated this thread beyond Georgia wines or even my Georgia whines.

Have others followed the Art Buchwald sage over the last months? This is a happy man on borrowed time (he got a better deal than he expected), who has had bad bouts of depression over his many years. His two short volumes of memoirs - his early life included a childhood in the NY Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Marines, and a GI-bill-financed period in Paris following the war - are hilarious and wise.

With all due respect for Kate - I love her posts and wish she was my neighbor, sons and all - I must defend cheese and (even NoGA) wine. In the ordinary course of things, good cheese and good wine - enjoyed with good friends, and even good enemies - are elements of personal and communal convivality and sanity.
Surely Chesterbelloc wrote definitive essays reminding us of their ennobling place in our common lives?
I’ll have to pick-up the Buchwald memoirs just to scour them for references to cheese and wine!

Dr. Lawler... your post makes sense....but it would require a very long essay for me to disagree completly. Lets just say that I don’t see why one should be forced into onotologizing this question in either direction. That is to say that you have an absolute "point of view" to resist or accept regardless of its recognition. In other words the true tyranny isn’t biotechnical progress but the supposed need to justify this into a larger system. Why should these collections of chemicals be evaluated according to X, Y and Z??? In your example: comfort, convenience, and productivity? It is in the setting in stone of the grounds for evaluation that we go wrong. In the end only the individual can determine the proper grounds for the manipulation of his or her own chemicals. In other words Kate is complaining about "ousiotic"/"ontological" structuring...and not about the chemicals themselves. In the end she is just asking for understanding from her sons.

I would hasten to add that happiness in cheese, chocolate, wine or a good cigar is equally "artificial" and equally a matter of manipulating chemicals...and perhaps even more effective/promising of a means to "effective mood and memory control"(thus these aren’t the true ennemies?) in part because of the "ontological structuring" or significance we attach to these. That is to say that the chemicals are only and always only one side of the equation...it is the significance and intimacy we attach to these material objects that we consume that release happiness.

In point of fact then we see that people want us to "get with the program" just as they want us to drink wine with them or smoke a fine cigar. In the future perhaps it will be "soma"...but it will always be about shareing a view of the good in common, that will go a long way towards releasing happiness.

In other words happiness is partially found in discovering that which is good "ontological structuring itself" and partially found in being able to share that common view of the good with another.

Not good enough...

What does "ontologize" mean? I know the noun.

John Lewis,
I just wish my sons didn’t understand me so well. Most people never know when my "moods" are off as I do not believe in letting my moods impinge on other’s moods. Neighbors and friends never know. There’s even this: (as I defend the normally non-public nature of my depression, having publically exposed myself) if I begin a slide into depression in December, my husband notices about mid-February; as in "Have you been ok, lately?" The son who really notices (and then tells the others, the rat) picks it up in my letters to him and other writing.


All: Being female, perhaps I am given to understanding any larger issue in personal terms. Somehow, I thought I was establishing some kind of credentials on the issue where I really have none. I have been "forced" to read all sorts of stuff on the social implications of people who do not give themselves to science on this issue of remedial biotechnology. All this persuasive stuff does remind me of how Huxley’s soma might have insinuated it’s way into his brave, new world.

Gary, I have nothing but the greatest respect for and delight in cheese and wine. If the effects on the happiness of the individual were more lasting, wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe I should indulge more frequently.

Peter, Percy’s LOST IN THE COSMOS is near the top of my list of desirable books to acquire and read since you mentioned it before on the blog in other connections. I am on an earn-as-you-learn program to teach writing to college students and read either about teaching writing (deadly dull) or I read my students’ writing, about which I will say nothing.

Mr Lawler,
Have you ever suffered depression, or do you personally know anyone who has? Just curious.

As for Dworkin’s book, I think it is a load of alarmist hysteria. You’ve hit the bottom of the barrel of things to complain about when you worry that too many people might be happy.

Mr Lawler, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but chemicals really have a lot to do with happiness. I’m not arguing against the need for virtue, but you can be as virtuous as a monk and still suffer from depression. If you can relieve chronic depression, or even "mere" unhappiness through medicine, what is the real problem? Are people just supposed to fatalistically bear with unhappiness for virtue’s sake (or to quote Neuhaus, for "holiness" sake?

I’ll refer you to a very wise man on meaning and suffering, Victor Frankl. Frankl said that to survive suffering one must find meaning in it. But suffering can only be meaningful when it is unavoidable. If suffering is avoidable, one should avoid it. Putting up with avoidable suffering isn’t meaningful, it is masochistic. There is no virtue in masochism.

Robert Duquette, I know you are not addressing me, but having lived with depression for some 37 years, I think I can speak to your point.


I think people ought to learn to manage themselves, in whatever condition they find themselves. To avoid the pain of being is to live only half a life. When I was very young, I did not manage my depression very well, but I learned how to cope, how to contain myself, how to live with my flaws within my context. I have lived a useful life, raised six children, and have a multitude of friends. I find that since I have faced down depression, that not much else in life frightens me.


My parents have been on various anti-depressants since years before I knew I had depression. They have not lived happy lives, have always depended on their medications, changing them when they were inadequate, and have never learned how to manage themselves. They are my exemplars of the medicated life and I would not live as they have. They describe their meds as helping them get through the day. They can not laugh at themselves, they take everything about themselves and their depression very seriously. They live isolated lives.

I do not. I find that inwardness, and self-seriousness, to be nearly fatal. Forcing myself outwards is one of the best ways I have found to cope with depression. I do not know if giving of yourself is what Peter Lawler refers to as being virtuous, but it really is the best way to survive either unhappiness or depression. To live to be of benefit to other people, is not such a bad way to live.

Unhappiness and depression are NOT the same things. Unhappiness is situational. Depression is equally unavoidable, but does not depend on circumstance. You write of “fatalistically” bearing with unhappiness, and sometimes fate just brings us such things. To know HOW to get through such things ought just be part of life.

I know to speak of strength of character is unpopular these days, but to deal with, to overcome, to even ignore the unhappiness one might be feeling, either situationally or even in depression, is to demand character of oneself. At one time, character was not just the inner person, it was the role one played in life. George Washington considered it as such, for example. Today, it might be considered hypocrisy to have one’s outer self NOT reflect one’s inner feelings. I say, to do so, to have a different outward character when needed, is very useful, correct, and even can work it’s way inward. To accept the role of depressive is defeating, and truly, one need not. I do not see that, to battle with, and perhaps even triumph over, one’s flaws, is masochistic. To overcome, even if one can not defeat, such a thing, is to find a kind of triumph in being human.

I couldn’t help but notice the blog stream that Peter began with the mention of my book. I did want to say a few things.
First, I make an important distinction in the book between clinical depression and everyday unhappiness. The former is a disease; although the biochemistry of depression is not clearly worked out, there is sufficient morbidity and mortality associated with the problem to merit the term "disease," and to treat it. Everyday unhappiness, almost by definition, has no physical signs or symptoms; it is simply part and parcel of normal, everyday existence.
Second, in regard to Mr. Arquette’s point, I want people to be happy. That’s why I wrote the book! The problem is that so many people I interviewed for the book were stuck in a sham happiness, stagnating in situations, jobs, relationships that these people knew were bad, but which they lost the impulse to exit because of their Artificial Happiness. At other times, people with Artificial Happiness were making major life decisions without clarity of mind--for example, with an artificially inflated notion of self-esteem.To the extent that they went on to have happy lives, they were lucky more than thoughtful, since the Artificial Happiness was often the deciding factor in their decision.
Third, I use the term stupefaction to describe people with AH. What is stupefaction other than seeing life in a different way because of a chemical, even though life itself has not change? The same problems exist, but the eye of the mind is no longer pained by them; the problems grow distant. Of course, stupefaction from antidepressants doesn’t cause people to lose their jobs or vomit in the streets, unlike stupefaction with alcohol. But it is stupefaction nonetheless.

Thanks to RD for a comment that I endorse so much that I wish I had written it. It’s very unlikely that "artifical happiness" can really make us happy. It’s very unlikely that many of us can feel good without being good. That’s not to say that clinical depression doesn’t need to be addressed, and one legitimate way is chemically.

Mr Dworkin,

Thanks for your reply and e-mail. Please forgive my tone, but I do take serious issue with your book.

Is AH a true, clinical condition, or is this a term you coined? I’m thinking the latter. The words you chose, like "stupefaction" and saying that people on antidepressants have no conscience seem awfully sensationalized, and if you are going to be describing a problem to the general public like the use of antidepressants I think you’d want to be very precise with your language. Do you really think that people who take antidepressants have no conscience? Shouldn’t we be detaining them somewhere, where they can’t to any harm to society?

You contradict your thesis with the example of Alice Hudson, who decided to leave her unhappy marriage after she started taking Zoloft. Here is a case of a person who wasn’t "frozen" into a bad situation by her medications, but somehow you know that she made the wrong decision because of them. Your method allows you to criticize any decision that these people make or fail to make and attribute it to the medication. I don’t see any scientific rigor in your approach, it appears very much that you are making personal judgments about other people’s lives. You are free to do so, but you shouldn’t give it the imprimatur of science, you should clearly label the book as an opinion piece.

I have been on antidepressants on and off (presently on) for ten years. I didn’t go asking for them, my wife arranged an intervention with my doctor after noticing my lack of interest in normal things, including eating. Your description of artificial happiness bears absolutely no resemblance with my experience. If anything the drugs restore normalcy, and not some mindless state of euphoric stupefaction. If you want to help people make better decisions, you could start by toning down the alarmism and providing some real, usable information.

Mr. Arquette, I think you should read the book more carefully.

First, of all, Alice Hudson did not, I repeat, did not leave her husband. (See page 7-8). That was the problem. She stayed in an abusive relationship because she felt content with her Artificial Happiness.

Second, the idea of people on antidepressants not having a conscience is discussed very specifically in the book. It does not occur in adults who take antidepressants when life goes sour. It does not involve you. My concern regarding conscienceless individuals is a theoretical one—and I say this at the beginning and the end of the book--something that might arise if we drug millions of children, such that the only experience they ever known in life is AH. The mass drugging of children with antidepressants has started only recently. We have no experience with it. I trace out one possible future. That theoretical concern is not related in any way to the more practical concern I have in the here and now, of adults (not children) using AH. These adults have consciences; that’s precisely why they’re unhappy! They feel a discord between how they live and how they think they should be living. But rather than change their lives, they treat their sensation of unhappiness independent of life.

Third, you say you took antidepressants because you were depressed and not eating. I assume that means you lost a considerable amount of weight and probably couldn’t function at work. Mr. Arquette, that’s clinical depression, not everyday unhappiness! Check the DSM. Of course you should have been medicated.

Fourth, I describe people in the book who made decisions to leave their jobs or their relationships because of AH. What concerns me is that people, who have their own special psychological make-ups suddenly make important life decisions on the basis of AH, decisions that would have gone the other way had they not enjoyed AH. We begin to lose the guiding thread of their lives, their identities. Are these the same people? How can they be, when nothing in their history would have led them to make these decisions they made had they not had AH?

Fifth, of course AH is a coined term. But as a doctor, I can tell you, you should be careful putting too much faith in official diagnoses. After all, homosexuality was listed as a disease forty years ago; today, homophobia, the exact opposite, is listed as a disease. My particular concern is with diagnoses that are open-ended, such as the specious category of minor depression, which merges with any case of everyday unhappiness. In any case, AH was coined not in the hope of making it an official diagnosis, but to make a point.

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