In a book published this spring, I analyzed several dozen famous accounts of why modern people are dissatisfied with the character of their lives. Bringing together the writings of progressive and conservative authors, Anatomies of Modern Discontent argues that contemporary society–despite its technological splendor and creature comforts–curiously fails to fulfill its members. Feelings of being empty, unacknowledged, and adrift are commonplace.
Here, I summarize four sources of that discontent.
I should point out that discontent and unhappiness are not quite the same. The discontented person senses that there is something wrong with the world and their placement in it. Commonly, the precise identification of that problem eludes them. So also does their ability to do something about it. In contrast, happiness is a much broader term that describes all manner of despondency and dissatisfaction. Unhappy people can be dispirited, upset, or “down” for reasons that have little to do with social circumstances.
Some of this unhappiness is due to the normal traffic of everyday life–and is simply part of the human condition. All of us experience frustration. Things don’t always go our way. More important are the deep and persistent challenges to well-being that have chronic physical and psychological sources. Many of these defy social remedies and require attentive personal care.
Finally, there are conditions for which unhappiness is both necessary and appropriate–think of the sorrow that attends the loss of a loved one or the remorse that follows hurtful behavior. At such times, our sadness is an occasion for reflection and realignment, a precondition for moving on with our lives.
Differently, discontent stems from our awareness of social predicament and, thus, potentially, of improved circumstances. Consider four predicaments: subordination, marginality, privilege, and engagement. Every person is familiar with these standings, which are common placements in a social situation. However, each can also morph into an extreme and disturbing form: oppression, isolation, anomie, and engulfment.
Subordination (as oppression), Most of us are sensitive to the prospect of someone else directing or managing us, especially when we feel those others are not respecting or paying attention to our opinions. These feelings run high in modern societies that emphasize individual rights to freedom and self-expression. Epitomized by our choices to seek jobs, choose life partners, find residences, and vote, means of adulthood having our say.
None of us can escape subordination entirely. Typically, others get to control us, at least for portions of our lives–think of parents, bosses, teachers, coaches, and agents of law enforcement. Commonly, we acknowledge their right to direct us. That acknowledgment converts their “power” into “authority.” And this acceptance becomes easier when we realize their management is only temporary. Children grow up, and students graduate. The rest of us move from workplaces, athletic fields, and courtrooms to other parts of our lives.
is more problematic subordination, which becomes permanent and far-reaching in its implications. That “total” control may result from criteria that the person has no reasonable prospect of changing. Think of race, sex, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. People so designated may find themselves managed, even coerced, by those in the favored groups. Such is the opinion.
To maintain control, manipulators frequently use cultural abuse (stereotypic labeling and language), social discrimination, legal gambits, and even physical violence. Effectively, trapped–consider the woman in an abusive relationship, the bullied child, or the ethnic minority confined to a job with no future–the victim sees few options for personal betterment. “Staying” (and making the best of a bad situation) may seem better than “leaving” (for a world absent any clear support).
Marginality (as isolation), Again, all of us have some familiarity with this circumstance. We know what it means to be on the edge of a group rather than at its center. We’ve visited, or perhaps worked at, fancy places (restaurants, resorts, stores, and the like) that make us keenly aware we do not belong there. We know that our acceptance in many settings is, at best partial and temporary.
Most of us comfort ourselves with the knowledge that there are places where we feel fully accepted, such as our families and circles of friends. We’ve gotten used to a world where we do our jobs in the prescribed ways and quickly return to where we came from. Defiantly, we joke about some of the highly placed people we’ve met and their casual excesses.
More damaging are the extreme forms of isolation that block people from meaningful rights and consequent responsibilities. A thought-stream in the American tradition romanticizes the backwoodsman, lonesome cowpoke, and hobo: people who take orders from no one. Include in that list their modern equivalents: creative artists, musicians, and poets. Still, these people usually find like-minded companions; they have freedom of movement; they possess instruments for self-expression.
How different it is to be truly isolated, stuck in a room somewhere, or doomed to street living amongst semi-strangers! Think of senior citizens and mentally ill people afraid to leave their homes. Add to this list many minority people and the profoundly poor who live in urban ghettos. Consider the physically disabled, who find their access to the ordinary regions of social space blocked.
Like everyone else, explicitly marginalized people seek support and fulfillment in what ways they can. Some take pride in their sense of “difference.” But we should acknowledge that their pathways to self-expression, and thus to happiness, are difficult terrain.
Privilege (as anomie), Many of us idolize the high-status person who has an abundance of rights and few responsibilities. These people live in spacious homes, travel to exotic locales, and patronize exclusive clubs and restaurants. Cost, or so it seems, is irrelevant. They give orders instead of receiving them. How can any of this be a problem?
The rest of us partake of privilege in modest ways. We hold leadership positions in families and various organizations. We get to boss some people if not others. A credit card in hand, we buy our way into settings where staff treat us as “guests” or “clients.” Quickly enough, that sense of exclusivity and license ends.
For several scholars in the human sciences, the unbounded prerogative is an obstacle to happiness rather than a supporting condition. Individuals, or so those scholars argue, flourish only when people acknowledge their commitments to others. Just as we need other people to listen to our concerns and reprove us when we err, we need to reciprocate those commitments by listening to and caring for them.
The alternative, epitomized by Goethe’s great anti-hero Faust, is to move through the world untethered, effectively a slave to their urges and aspirations. Such a person treats circumstances–and other people–as playthings. To be sure, the privileged person can gather a coterie of supporters, but these are largely functionaries or even flunkies. When money and power vanish, so do they.
To that extent, the so-called “loneliness at the top” is self-imposed. The prominent person experiences disorientation because they have no companions they truly respect. Their ambitions are largely attempts at self-gratification. That “vacation mentality” is appropriate for life’s interludes but does not address the complexities of worthwhile existence.
Engagement (as engulfment), Surely, the best course in life is through a middle ground that features substantial rights and equally significant responsibilities. Think of the middle-aged parent with a mortgage and car payments, the looming costs of children’s education, a time-consuming job, and perhaps their own parents’ declining health. Such a person lives on the run, over-scheduled, and sleep-deprived. Whatever those difficulties, they know their contributions are crucial to the well-being of loved ones.
That said, there is a cost to busyness. One can become so involved in the daily routine that they lose sight of fundamental concerns. Time spent at work is time removed from family life. The skills that support a successful career commonly differ from those that make for a useful friend, partner, or guardian. Caretaking itself is challenging. Should one visit Mom in the assisted living center or attend their child’s sports event?
Whatever the choices, time rushes forward. Financial commitments dominate, especially those related to houses and other property forms. Everyone has their own agenda. Occasions spent “together” feel forced. At some point, it becomes difficult even to talk about life’s softer and more intimate themes. Thoroughly engaged, we lose control of our life trajectories. Life becomes inertia.
Is it possible to alter these trajectories and, in the process, enhance the happiness that is every person’s right?