There’s plenty to say about Freud’s mistakes. He was as faulty and confused a pioneer as any. We do, of course, also owe him a great debt, and do not dismiss the totality of him lightly.
One of his better works, brilliant in many ways, is “Civilization and its Discontents”. Written in 1930, it is as relevant today as it was then. Unfortunately, few (if any) of his lessons have been learned.
This small book has as its core the topic of human happiness, a subject that has been approached by great minds and cultures from the very beginnings of civilization. What though, says Freud, if civilization itself is a part of the problem? Freud goes further still:
“my intention [is] to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the evolution of culture, and to convey that the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.” (VIII)
Pause a second: take a breath. Reread that quote. It’s 2015, therefore your happiness is in the toilet.
We are, after all, living in the new age that statistics suggest amounts to a great loss of general happiness, in a mental ill-health epidemic. We call these feelings about ourselves “anxiety, depression, frustration” and so on, and make things like happiness indexes. Much of it, says Freud, comes down to increasing anxiety an emotion of which, he says, depression is only a form. These days, we call depression and anxiety, often lazily, “frequently co-morbid”. I have yet to encounter one without the other.
The question is, why does civilization, in Freud’s view, lead to “forfeiting happiness”? And consequently, what can be done about it?
Well, in the first place, we must imagine, or better still, feel the core of what we might term “instinctual man/woman” within us. This is a core and ancient part of us, so old that it makes civilization look like the blink of an eye. This part of us is both vital (in the sense of vitality and necessity) and full of desire and aggression. The word aggression here also needs qualification: it means here simply active, animated and forceful, capable of, but not necessarily violent. Civilization is the principal that hems this forceful, original man/woman in, allowing through complex structures of behavioural limitation, human beings to live in large agglomerations that nowadays can encompass many millions in our cities.
The prohibitions of civilization are directly analogous to the growth of an internal structure too: what Freud called the super-ego. Put simply, rather than acting poorly, and feeling consequent remorse, the super-ego (literally) knows our very thoughts. Even thinking of acting on the desires of the “instinctual man” results in guilt, so that behavioural limitation in society is joined by psychological limitation. The more that civilization progresses, the more it impinges on our core being, thereby leaving us in a continual state of anxious dread. We might not be doing anything wrong, but there are so many rules, times of day, appointments, forms to fill in, money to earn, general ways in which we must account, and above all, guilt and dread, that we are somehow lost. Happiness, and any chance of contentment has given over to anxiety.
This is a necessarily brief nutshelling of Freud’s reasoning, and if you have read this far I applaud you: it is not for everyone, and by now, you are probably feeling somewhat guilty about spending this time reading, and not getting that thing done that should have been done yesterday…and isn’t it nearly x o’clock, and time to go get…oh and I forgot the washing….and that parking ticket. I wish he’d hurry up! Arrrrgh…fuck! That’s not a bad idea…Nooooooo!
Anyway, on to the next question, and one that Freud left open: what can be done about it? Damn it, more time taken up!
Happiness, or rather its pursuit, said Freud, was truly man’s task in this world. Suffering is inevitable, he said, and yet there were three “palliative remedies”:
- “Powerful diversions of interest which lead us to care little about our misery.”
- “Substitutive gratifications, which lessen it”
- “Intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it…The intoxicating substances affect our body, alter its chemical processes.”
Religion seems to have its own classification to Freud: a mass “delusion”, never recognized by those who share it. Love too, and its pursuit, is given a special category by Freud, one to which I will return. So, rather than the easy-on-the-eye three options, it turns out there are a minimum of five!
I propose we keep it simple. We can divide our options for seeking happiness into three quite simply:
- seeking on the outside,
- taking drugs/alcohol, and
- seeking within.
I’m going to move away from Freud here, because we’re nearing the end of his usefulness, but let it just be remarked that Freud sought in all three areas. He looked to family, friends, colleagues, and perhaps above all, fame, externally. He took drugs, notably cocaine, tobacco and alcohol, and finally he sought within, through self-administered psychoanalysis (a questionable idea, to say the least). Critics have pointed out that Freud’s ego-centricity did not help him solve the problem he postulates in “Civilization and its Discontents”, and that fierce ambition and cocaine use are both linked to the ego-centricity that caused him trouble and professional myopia. Like I said, he was imperfect.
The problem posed is better answered by Carl Jung: Freud’s protégé, turned great rival, and opposer of some of his key ideas, as well as his ego.
Western civilization is overwhelmingly extravert, said Jung. By this, he meant that we are conditioned to look for the answers via the first option: on the outside. Therefore, we look to “experts” to tell us how to feel or be, better. We seek more money and fame. We read, we watch TV, we might even go to a (probably horrendous) seminar, we buy something in an effort at happiness.
In referencing the outside, we also reference civilization, and therefore we do not truly rebalance or come close enough to the problem. To Jung, the guide was always to look for balance. If we are too extraverted, we risk becoming lost, separated from ourselves, and feeling ill at ease. The task that psychological equilibrium was naturally asking of such a person was to balance through greater self-reference, greater introspection.
What of Freud’s two other, oddly uncategorized, options for seeking happiness on the outside: looking for a god, or for love with another? Well, both other people and gods are generally considered outside and both, if successful, result in pleasant feelings for the individual concerned. Both can also result in the sense of loss of self, and even ecstasy. They can be seen as similar, insofar as they both involve love, although the object of each is very different. The issues involved in finding happiness through love or god/God or gods are of course, very complex however, and demand more time and space than I have available here.
Suffice to say, seeking happiness externally has advantages, and is our dominant means of striving, on the whole.
The second option: taking drugs or alcohol. As I mentioned previously, Freud had experience here, and his lesson is a salutary one. He believed initially that, in cocaine, he had found a wonder drug, and used it extensively. It was only later that the side-effects of cocaine use dawned upon Freud just as they have millions of other users. The same is true of the palliative of alcohol, tobacco or any other drug. They only treat symptoms, are temporary and lead to other, often dreadful problems.
The widespread modern phenomenon of psychology becoming gradually subsumed by drugs in the form of psychopharmacology needs urgent consideration. The energy of a generation, faced with the same conflict with civilization that Freud, Jung and other great minds throughout history have wrestled with, risks a great deal if this becomes a de facto primary treatment (which it arguably already has). After all, what does “palliative” actually mean? It means soothing, calming, mollifying. We are saying, with this widespread prescription, just as we are with “ADHD” in the classroom – “these emotions, these feelings are unhealthy, a sickness…wrong”. But if Freud, Jung and other psychological thinkers are right, the emotions are not wrong at all, but rather a natural human reaction to a given environment. As such, they are not illnesses, but rather an indication of health in danger– of a vitality squashed, and threatened by circumstance.
Furthermore, it is this that we find in common in the majority of depressed people: they are anxious, and they, in some way, feel that they are trapped. They feel that there is no opening for them, no way, no avenue by which their vivid-feeling potential might realize itself in the world. Depressed people, in my experience, are in some way losing hope, and often, the hope of the individual in the modern world. This is a cry we need to listen to, and not drown out in a flood of bottled pills, for it provides the strongest clues to what is amiss.
We are in an epidemic of mental ill-health, and a drug epidemic, the latter being used to drown out the former.
Onto the next: option three, seeking within.
When we talk about introspection or greater self-awareness and insight, some minds become frightened, and think of the extremes. We might, on this end of the spectrum, consider the religious or artistic hermit and rightly consider that this can lead to ill-health too, just as extreme extraversion (in Jung’s meaning of the word) is not healthy, meaning as it does, a separation from the self, from the emotions and internal world at the spectrum’s opposite end.
Balance is the watchword, but seeking within is not as easy as it sounds. For one, many of the contents of the unconscious are unconscious for good reason! A certain past event, time or emotion can have unconscious elements because it was, and remains, potentially overwhelming.
We find problems therefore in endeavours that do not involve therapists. For example, yoga may bring to the surface feelings seemingly ‘out of nowhere’. The arts too concentrate attention on the internal world, and can leave us, if unaccompanied, all at sea.
Psychotherapy had, and still has a great advantage here. Many contents of the unconscious that are repressed, denied or dissociated, are in this position since they threaten us. Something overwhelming from one’s past is therefore often largely unconscious. Similarly, fears, guilt and things we may be ashamed of, sit out of awareness, lurking and making us feel ill. It is not helpful to be overwhelmed by such things coming to the surface all at once, without help. It is only helpful when they can be integrated into the psyche, something that is greatly assisted by being with someone who is a helpful, guiding presence, in a personal, safe space.
It must also be noted that the unconscious also harbours vastly positive things, and not just the scary or unwelcome. Positive, instinctual aspects include creativity, vitality and the very foundations of instinctual man effectively blocked by the superego, since they do not mesh easily with society and are not rule-focussed. Creativity, vitality, and intuition involve the individual, and are inherently difficult for culture to bear, let alone nourish.
Since we are able in psychotherapy to integrate parts of the self which are previously unwelcome, we are able to better integrate the primordial woman/man. We are able to help with the challenge – for it is just that – of being a vital, creative individual within modern civilization.
For all the accomplishments of western civilization, any training received by an individual in how to regard or deal with the inner world (the world we carry around with us every day) remains informal and haphazard. We must consider in open debate, whether modern pharmaceutical interventions are simply a fix with no repercussions, or whether the individual’s clash with civilization which Freud discussed so well has simply met another subversive challenge.
We meet in this discussion a paradox: how do we feel wild and vital within the zoo of civilization? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming the depressed, sad apes we see behind bars? Do we just feed ourselves pills?
The answer must lie in the responsibility of civilization to help the individual feel vital, and also in the responsibility of the individual to help themselves and each other. Arguably now more than ever, we need imperfect striving and creativity, and to pay real attention to the pain of those who suffer. Attention of course, is work, and it is the work of truly paying attention to oneself and one another that is the core of psychotherapy, and what is also so very tempting to avoid, one way or another, particularly if it feels hopeless to do so.