The Death of Happiness

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Happiness, and the search for personal meaning, seems to be ever present in the collective mind of contemporary society. In this series of posts, I will explore the search for happiness by the contemporary individual. 

In our contemporary globalized society, we have become accustomed to nearly limitless freedom; freedom to travel, to pursue any life path, to marry or not marry, or any other option ad infinitum. Although this seems like it would produce a world of savvy and satisfied individuals, it seems that the exact opposite is true. But how is this phenomenon possible?

Living in an Other Directed Society

During the latter half of the 20th Century, sociologists began to follow a new model of human personality types that were identified as: tradition-directed, inner-directed or other-directed. Those were directed by tradition adhered strongly to the norms set forth by their family and personal atmosphere. The inner-directed individuals were motivated to achieve the goals that demarcated social success, which in our society has meant material wealth. Finally, the other-directed individuals were motivated by interacting with others and calibrating their desires to fit what other people valued. Now, no individual can be simply categorized by any of these categories, each of these appear in different degrees in different people.

However, as we have rejected the rigidity of society that was seen in the 40’s and 50’s, we have slowly moved toward other-direction. With the advent of social media, merely having material wealth is no longer a show of success or happiness. With constant connections forming, we continually see the lives of others through our own personal looking glass. We compare our own lives to the travels, experiences and successes of others. Unfortunately, our successes usually don’t seem to stack up to those of others.

This feeling is only exacerbated by the fact that there are no longer standards for success anymore. Everyone is constantly walking to the beat of their own drum, and trying to match that beat seems nearly impossible.

The Other Extended

As we try to compare our own lives to the lives of others, we paradoxically try to separate ourselves as well. As we walk out into the world, we constantly try to categorize other people by appearance, race, relationship, social context, etc. This is a very necessary social and biological occurrence; however, with the emphasis on social separation, we lose a vital sense of community. Our society has come to value having everything “our way”; our cars, our phones and even our food.

Much of human fulfillment is linked with social interaction and fostering a sense community. As we continually pedestalize the individual while simultaneously failing to isolate and capture individual happiness, we become castaways on our own isolated islands.

The Shackles of Freedom

At the turn of the 20th Century there was time of great social change in Europe known as the fin-de-siècle. During this time, French sociologist Emile Durkeim started to investigate the rise of suicide and depression in France. He identified a phenomenon known as “Anomie,” or “normlessness”. Anomie is the anxiety and lack of direction felt by societies with ambiguous social norms.

It seems that this phenomenon is looming in our society. The weightlessness of the endless expanse of adventure and choice seems to be suffocating the potentially happy autonomous individual. As we continue to invest ourselves in the intimate details of the lives of others, we increase the potential threat to our own happiness.

Breaking the Shackles

Although the forecast seems bleak, not all is lost. There is much that can be gained from our newfound freedom.  There are no sure answers, but there are ways to break the shackles and see the power and beauty of our own humanity. I will explore the revival of happiness in my next post.

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