In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud suggests that the purpose of life is the pursuit of happiness – guided by what he calls “The Pleasure Principle”. In addition, he concludes that an individual’s value judgments follow directly from his/her wishes for happiness. However, at the same time, Freud suggests that happiness is a strictly transitory state that is by no means long-lasting. He provides many suggestions as to why happiness is so elusive, and upon considering them our “pursuit of happiness” and value systems appear both absurd and tragic.
In general terms, Freud points out that happiness can be attained by employing certain mechanisms. This implies that individuals must consciously try to be happy – it does not befall them easily or naturally. Two such mechanisms are art and science. Science is deflection, making light of misery, and art is substitutive satisfaction, diminishing misery. Freud concedes that each individual uses these mechanisms to varying degrees – some depending on only one of them.
Freud also remarks that happiness can be attained by throwing caution to the wind, isolation (happiness of quietness), joining a human community, intoxication, internal/instinctual manipulation, replacing a displaced libido with the sciences and/or creativity, delusion (religion), love/love objects/sexual love, and appreciation and enjoyment of “beauty”. The relevance of these terms may not be obvious to everyone, but nevertheless Freud acknowledges the tools and methods by which to achieve happiness. However, these suggestions are stymied by a Byzantine series of actions/reactions that conspire against our pursuit of happiness.
According to Freud, these actions/reactions occur between civilization and the individual, and within the individual. Freud acknowledges that happiness is an aim within civilization, but it is pushed to the background. However, in the individual, the pursuit of happiness is foremost. Freud goes on to suggest that individual power means happiness (i.e., no restrictions on satisfaction), whereas involvement in a community with restrictions and a justice system restricts individuals, depriving them of their instinct of satisfaction. This leads to “cultural frustration” and “disorder”, not to mention severe impairment of sexual life and instinctual aggressive behaviour. Regarding actions/reactions within the individual, Freud explains that suppressed aggression is turned inward against the individual’s ego, where it is taken over by the super-ego. The super-ego (conscience) then attacks the individual’s ego with the force he/she would have directed outwards, had the aggression not been oppressed. This results in a feeling of guilt. Thus, Freud concludes that the price we pay for civilization is lost happiness through a heightened sense of guilt.
The struggle for an individual to achieve happiness is further complicated by what Freud terms civilization’s super-ego. This super-ego is yet another method by which to watch over the individual. It creates strict demands and a “fear of conscience” for all those beneath its gaze. The super-ego leads to the creation of ethics which further infringes on the happiness of individuals. For example, the super-ego issues commands that the individual may not be capable of obeying. Thus, revolt occurs in the individual leading to neurosis and unhappiness. For example, “love thy neighbour” is a command that is impossible to fulfill – according to Freud. To add to the dilemma, Freud portrays happiness as fleeting with age. The child’s ego – similar to a more primitive or primary adult ego – is more content.
So it appears that an individual searching for happiness must contend with his/her own super-ego, civilization, and civilization’s super-ego – all of which are in a constant state of interacting and competing. This brings to mind the question: why doesn’t the individual just leave civilization? While Freud did acknowledge isolation as a method by which to obtain happiness, two cruel twists of fate conspire against such tactics.
Firstly, Freud points out that the development of an individual is torn apart by two urges: egoistic (urge towards happiness) and altruistic (urge towards union with a community). This is a constant struggle. Secondly, in a more ironic twist, civilization may create unhappiness (manipulating mutual relations), yet it protects us against nature (suffering), therefore providing a certain degree of happiness.
Thus, it appears that a vicious cycle of multiple interactions – replete with Catch 22 situations – will prevent most people from achieving happiness. The result of the pursuit of happiness is nothing short of an absurd comedy of errors. The tone of this situation is probably best captured in the following quote from Freud himself:
“What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself!”
This phrase could very well have been written by Kafka and I would not know the difference!
In this absurd situation, how do we find happiness? With both external and internal forces working against achieving happiness, it is plausible that both forces must be “agreeable” simultaneously for an individual to glimpse happiness. In addition, this window of opportunity must remain open long enough for the individual to realize that they are happy. It is analogous to a safe cracker trying several dials to achieve one exact combination that will open the safe. During the window of opportunity, any external disturbance and/or attack from the super-ego would cause the individual to lose grasp of the moment. This is the root of the transitory, fleeting nature of happiness.
Under these conditions, “prolonged” happiness seems impossible. You would have to have a very primitive, “inexperienced” mind – and next to no external stimuli! – to achieve it. This is probably the key to the popularity of Yoga and eastern philosophies in general. Reducing exterior “noise” and “living in the moment” would help one grasp those rare windows of opportunity.
Freud himself does not provide easy answers regarding how to be happy. Ultimately, he suggests that happiness depends on how much satisfaction you can expect from the external world, your degree of independence from it, and how much strength you have to alter the world to suit your wishes. Needless to say, considering the amount of work that goes into it, happiness should not be taken for granted!
In closing, if the purpose of life itself is the pursuit of happiness, as suggested by Freud, then what are we left with? There can’t be much purpose in life if, according to Freud, we are forever searching for something that is rarely there. And what do we make of value judgments based on that same search? Maybe the key to happiness and wisdom is this: ignorance is bliss. Maybe only those who are “unaware” of the inner workings of their minds – let alone Freud’s ideas – are truly happy. Maybe they are capable of making better value judgments. Maybe they can obtain prolonged happiness since they do not have to work hard for it, waste time thinking about it, or worry about when it will end. It is impossible to tell. As soon as you start studying them they might become conscious of their thought process and start questioning themselves – their own happiness. Incidentally, if you ever encounter such a person, do not let them read Freud. Truly happy people do not need to. Freud himself was unhappy and troubled to begin with. While I enjoy his work, I am keenly aware of his highly subjective point of view – a view which is replete with his own personal neuroses. But I don’t want to be too hard on him. After all, he’s just provided me with about three hours of deflection and substitutive satisfaction, of which this paper is evidence.