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The UnHappy Hero Part 1:An Absurd Story

I sit down this morning to begin writing my Friday essay. I notice there is a lot of talk about happiness psychology or positive psychology these days. Positive Psychology, a kind of clinical and supplemental psychology pioneered by Martin E. P. Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, focuses on psychological interventions that are supposed to increase individual happiness.

This notion that applies a therapy to the status of a qualitative state suggests in a causal way that the happiness happening to people as a result of these interventions can be measured, evaluated and further controlled. Happiness, not a subtle organ of the psyche like other psychological terms such as ego and shadow and anima imply, nonetheless acquires psychological status; albeit something abstract and metaphysically invisible and not a thing at all, happiness suddenly has ‘thing-ness.’ Happiness or bliss, as Joseph Campbell liked to call it, is no longer solely a qualitative perception of an emotional, fluid and energetic state or mood according to this viewpoint.

Happiness is now likened to an enduring state as if it were a scientific phenomenon that can be measured and quantified, made to order and made to last. If you are not happy in your life, you can be. If you are happy but it is not satisfying enough, you can get happier than you are getting now.

It appears getting happier is important to Americans –as important as losing weight. So now you can go on an emotional diet and lose your unhappiness, too. Just like taking off weight the weighty unhappiness you feel and carry around with you can be shed. The suggestion is that your unhappiness is not good for you. You better do something about it.  

Once you are convinced of this you can be taught how to shed your unhappiness. You can sign up for happiness intervention therapy and start being happier today. (!) Like the war on obesity going on in our cultural psyche, there seems to be a war on unhappiness being waged. It appears happiness is of considerable value to Americans. Like all valuable things before a consumerist heart and indifferent world, happiness is packaged to sell.

I, for one, have begun to wonder about this fear of unhappiness. I’m wondering if happiness is inherent in the hero archai itself. To the early Olympian hero go the laurel and the admiration in all. And I can’t help thinking again of the Bill Moyer’s interview with Campbell in the Power of Myth Series made for public television. A moment occurs when Campbell says the general advice he gives his students is “Follow your bliss.”  

Campbell’s bliss or happiness was the study of myths. The greatest one, Campbell thought, was the story of the hero. Somewhere in these same interviews Campbell shares the idea we all identify to the hero role. He shares something Otto Rank thought about the birthright of the hero. The hero image is handed each of us in our very birth. It is part of our deep nature of being and Campbell thought that story a story most worth sharing. Since myths are the great stories, our hero story is the one people will tell about us after we are gone. They will try to encapsulate our deepest being, our true language, in a story.

In view of becoming happier I now shall like to think of that hero story as a story most often told post humorously. Humor lightens the grave story, which the hero story was literally.  It was the story told over the burial mound of the hero. A humorless myth will have been an unhappy tale. Apparently, no American today will have wanted to be remembered like that. To be remembered without humor will have meant not having lived as meaningful a life as the happier (and probably skinnier) life people today are able to live. Nowadays, you can’t be too thin, too rich or too happy. wink

This morning I found the originating journal that publishes the results of Seligman’s study and which underlay and legitimate the first programs offering post grad degrees in this kind of clinical training through the University of Pennsylvania. The article containing the findings of Seligman’s study is published in the July-August, 2005 issue of American Psychologist. I am saving the Adobe formatted article so I can consider it carefully and over a period of time. This means I may have just begun a new essay series. Let me try to explain.

Not very long into the article I am thrown out of the findings when I come to the part about doing this study and this intervention and compiling these results via the internet after never having interviewed person to person with anyone at all. The talking cure, Freud’s name for what we call soul-analysis, no longer seems to require the foundational bond between oneself and one’s therapist as persons. Ones ‘self’ is one’s therapist! One will have been taught this therapy, will have constructed this reality and will compensate one’s conscious knowledge of one’s own plight of unhappiness by replacing contact in this depth wisdom with another kind of artifice. It is a supplemental therapy not meant to replace other clinical therapies for depression. The results of the study are documented in a very small convenience sample consisting of white, well-educated and financially comfortable but mildly depressed folk. Such folk are more motivated than other kinds to become happier.  They also do not have the oppressive, darker social ills, ills like violence and poverty to contend as part of their personal context. In other words, their hope is not as challenged.

To make matters worse I went to the movies to see Pan’s Labyrinth a few days prior. Now there is a psyche that can use some happiness psychology! “Wait!” I thought. Is it possible the movie and the psychology appear on the national scene congruent a growing unhappiness-malais clouding over these beautiful and spacious depth-skies behind the eyes of Americans? I thought of the outcry over decisions to escalate war with Iraq, the current number of war casualties and even more far reaching, the number of serious war injuries to the bodies and bodied psyches of young men and women returning from their tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are about to resume civilian life. They will want a job, an education, to get married, have and raise children, go to Disneyland. Many will have to go after these experiences under the duress of severe and painful bodily injury. 

Forget about depression for a minute. What about the image? Does the image of happiness therapy anticipate this darker anxiety? On the inside, the world I can feel in my heart is real. On the outside the world I can touch is real. Happiness therapy is an artifice and another more constructed kind of knowledge. It is not like the wisdom body that is my deep and heroic relation. Yet, taken together do these images express something darker in make-up roiling underneath throughout the archive in our collectivity as national soul?

I cannot help thinking the whole of it anticipates in projection something absurd. The war in its un-accomplishment is absurd; the psychology in its clinical construction and measurement is absurd; the unending downward darkening principle containing the soul of the movie touches upon something absurd.

In the hero’s myth the myth of the unhappy hero contains the image of an absurd hero; the story is a perversed story. The adventure is an absurd adventure. It is brought to bare here through the realization in one of what one is now to be rid. America is unhappy.

Next Week The UnHappy Hero, Part Two: What is Happiness?


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