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New Existentialists

The problem isn’t feminism: the problem is that you can’t become happy by proxy

By February 19, 2015February 19th, 2018No Comments

In 2009 a major study (pdf) showed that women were increasingly unhappy in the modern world – and a host of pundits, psychologists, and sociologists asked “What’s happened to the fairer sex?”

Was it feminism that was making women less happy? Economic inequality? Higher expectations? Loneliness? Feminism? (That one came up a lot. Apparently people like to blame things on feminism).

Two years later, another data set has been analyzed, and it turns out that the reason more women are unhappy has nothing to do with women. According to the data, we’re ALL less satisfied with life than we were 25 years ago.

According to an article by Chris Herbst in the Journal of Economic Psychology, “Both sexes witnessed comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported physical and mental health” regardless of education and socio-economic status.

How do you like them apples? Apparently not much.

Assuming that our society prioritizes the subjective well-being of its members … and granted, this may not be a safe assumption … this is an indicator that something is seriously wrong. It should lead to a re-evaluation of the way a great deal of societal activity is conducted. It probably won’t, but it should.

Not least among the fields that should be re-examining their practices is psychology. Because it may not be coincidental that it was over the last 25 years that mainstream psychology lost interest in the subjective lives of its patients.

What else is there to conclude about a period in which, driven by insurance mandates and fads in academia, psychologists increasingly spent less time going talking with their patients about their lives and more time cataloguing their symptoms and comparing them to a checklist? When the issue is posed directly, it’s hard to see psychopharmacology as anything other than a statement of apathy towards the subjective lives of the people we care for. Well meaning apathy perhaps, but still a codification of the idea that it’s not important to know patients as people, or to understand their experience of the world as anything other than a scale from one-to-ten.

Herbst’s data, if true, is a clarion call for exactly the kind of re-evaluation of practices and priorities that existential/humanistic psychology calls for. Surely the past twenty years have demonstrated that we can’t become happy by proxy: we can’t drug, industrialize, spend, or measure our way towards happiness in any meaningful sense. Indeed the very practice of trying to substitute material measures for subjective well-being may be precisely the problem: the notion that we can spend, drug, and build our way to happiness is itself dehumanizing. It tries to replace what is vital to our humanity with some version of a consumer good.

We wouldn’t be surprised that this didn’t work if we’d been paying attention.

Surely 25 years of declining happiness in a period of overwhelming prosperity and mechanization is a call to pay attention. If – if – we truly care about our own subjective well-being, if we truly care about the subjective well-being of others, then there is no substitute for acknowledging and speaking to what is subjective in our own humanity.

That’s true in work and industry, true in social policy and living conditions, and especially true in psychology. Of all fields, of all intellectual disciplines, psychology should be on the vanguard reminding everyone: there is no substitute for the cultivation of an inner life, or for paying attention to the inner well-being of those we care for.