Psychiatrist about happiness. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was an Austrian psychiatrist, cultural theorist, religious critic and pioneer of psychoanalysis, considered one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century.
In the recently published work “Anxiety in Culture” (translated from German by Jacob , cover artist Jurgis Griškevičius), S. Freudas presents and details the origin, guilt, suffering of aggression arising from the restriction of personal aspirations for happiness, tensions between the individual and society; speaks of the relationship between man and culture from an anthropological and ontological point of view, and interprets culture as the limit of natural desires – vital and destructive.
Our exploration of happiness has revealed almost nothing that would not be so universally known. Even if we continue to consider the question of why it is so difficult for people to become happy, the opportunity to learn something new would not increase. We have already mentioned the answer to where the suffering comes from, citing three sources: the superiority of nature, the insubordination of our bodies and the inadequacy of the means to regulate mutual relations in the family, in the state and in society. For the first two, our decision does not hesitate for a long time: it forces us to acknowledge these sources of suffering and succumb to their inevitability. We will never control the whole of nature, our organism, which is itself part of nature, will always remain a temporary, limitedly adaptive and functioning entity. This perception does not paralyze, on the contrary, it shows direction to our activities.
Although we cannot undo all the suffering, we are still able to do some, and still others we know how to mitigate it, we have been convinced of this by millennial experience. But our view of the third, social, source of suffering is different. We do not regard it as a source of suffering at all, it is difficult to understand how our own regulation can provide anything other than protection and well-being. However, when we think about how unsuccessful our efforts to protect ourselves from suffering in this way are, there is a suspicion that perhaps behind all this stands the part of the aforementioned irresistible nature, this time appearing as our own psyche.
When considering this possibility, we are finally faced with a statement that is so remarkable that it is worth stopping at. According to him, most of the responsibility for our troubles lies with the so-called culture; we would have been much happier to abandon it and return to primitive conditions. I call this statement remarkable because – no matter how we understand the concept of culture – it is not indisputable that all our means of defending ourselves against the sources of suffering depend precisely on culture.
In what way have so many people come to this strange, anti-cultural stance? I believe that long-term, deep dissatisfaction with the existing cultural conditions has laid the foundations on which, for some historical reasons, the aforementioned belief has grown. The last two reasons I think I recognize, but I’m not trained enough to follow their chain deeper into humanity’s past. Already the victory of Christianity over pagan religions should have been marked by such hostility to culture, since it is very close to the Christian devaluation of the earthly world. A later reason arose when, with the advancement of research expeditions by the sea, contact with primitive peoples and tribes was established. For Europeans who lacked detailed observations and did not understand their customs and behavior, the life of the squatters turned out to be simple, carefree and happy, as if inaccessible to culturally superior newcomers.
Later experiences corrected some of these beliefs; an easier life, often mistakenly attributed to the lack of demands of a developed culture, has proved to be dependent on the richness of nature and the more comfortable satisfaction of the necessary needs. The last historical case is close to us; at the same time, the mechanism of neurosis was discovered, encroaching on the already meager amount of happiness available to the civilized person. It was discovered that people become neurotic because they cannot endure the scale of the renunciation caused by the cultural ideals imposed by society, and it was concluded that the abolition of these conditions, or a significant restriction on them, would restore a greater possibility of happiness.
Here a disappointing moment comes to the fore. Past generations have made extraordinary progress in the field of natural sciences and their technological application and have consolidated their dominance over nature to an unprecedented extent. The details of this progress are universally known, here it is not necessary to name them. People are deservedly proud of these achievements. But now they think that they have noticed that the acquired management of time and space, the enslavement of the forces of nature, the fulfillment of the expectation that has existed for millennia did not catch the experience of the pleasures of life – it did not make people happier. Having said so, it would be sufficient to conclude that the management of nature is not the only condition for human happiness, nor is it the only goal of cultural aspirations, but on this basis we cannot claim that technological progress is worthless to our economy of happiness.
Increase in happiness
I would like to ask: isn’t this a positive pleasure, an undeniable increase in happiness, if I can ever hear the voice of my child, hundreds of kilometers away, or immediately hear that a friend has safely reached his destination after a long and difficult journey? Does it mean nothing about the achievements of medicine, a significant reduction in infant mortality and the threat of women becoming infected during childbirth, even a good extension of the average life expectancy? For a long time to come, we could list the advantages taken over from the age of scientific and technological progress so strongly hated, but here the voice of a pessimistic critic is heard, noting that all these joys follow the example of “cheap pleasures” given in one anecdote: a person creates for himself such a pleasure, sticking out a naked leg from under a blanket on a cold winter night and bringing it back.
If it hadn’t been for the railroad that allowed me to cross the distance, my child wouldn’t have left his birthplace, and there wouldn’t have been a phone to hear his voice either. If shipping had not been developed, my friend would not have travelled to another land and I would not have to quell my anxiety with the help of a telegraph. What are the benefits of reducing infant mortality, if that is what has led to the greatest abstinence from childbearing, and we are now raising fewer children in general than in times when hygiene was not yet ingrained, and we have made it more difficult to make the conditions of sex life in marriage more difficult, thus probably doing the bear a disservice to natural selection? Finally, why do we have this long life if it is so frustrating, lacking in joy and full of pain, that we can only meet death as a deliverer?
There seems to be no doubt that our well-being in current culture is not good, but it is very difficult to judge whether (and to what extent) people were happier in previous times, and how much this was due to cultural conditions. We will always have a tendency to imagine suffering objectively, that is, to transfer ourselves with the pretensions and sensitivities inherent in us to other conditions, in order to check what pretext we find for a feeling of happiness and misfortune. This view, seemingly objective at first glance, since it distances itself from variations of subjective sensitivity, is, of course, the most subjective of all possible because a person puts his own in the place of all other, unknown mental states.
Still, happiness is something completely subjective. Although in horror, when we think of the slaves in the galleries of antiquity, of the peasants in the Thirty Years’ War, of the victims of the Holy Inquisition, of the Jews waiting for pogroms, it is nevertheless impossible to empathize with the situation of these people, to memorize all the changes in the receptivity of pleasure and unpleasantness, which is influenced by the natural insensitivity of the senses or their gradual awakening, the abolition of expectations and many other, rougher and more sophisticated methods of anaesthesia. In the case of the possibility of extreme suffering, certain mental protective mechanisms are also triggered. It seems infertile to me to further develop this aspect of the problem.
It’s time to look back at the essence of a culture whose value to happiness is so questioned. We will not give any formulations expressing it in a few words until we learn something ourselves on the basis of our own research. For a start, it will be enough to repeat1 that the word “culture” denotes the total sum of achievements and regulatory measures that separate us from the animals of our predecessors and serve two purposes: to protect man from nature and to regulate relations between people. In order to understand more, we will connect the individual features of culture that appear in human communities. We will allow ourselves to do this without turning our heads to the use of language or, as they say, a sense of speech, in the hope that in this way we will correctly express internal insights that are still opposed to expression in abstract words.