DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!
It’s only fair that I warn you in advance that this post is going to get dark while I draw on several psychological and sociological studies to prove that everything good is bad for you. What follows is, hopefully, a persuasive, mostly reasonable argument that demonstrates how unfettered capitalism is a machine for producing human beings incapable of empathy or rational thought. In short, a world of sociopathic idiots. Evidence continues to accumulate proving that the capitalist system we live within not only makes humans unhappy (even, maybe especially, those who benefit most from it) but also crueller, more selfish and sociopathic (I’ve written more on what I call ‘psychopathonomics’ here and here). Them’s the facts, Jack! Or some of them anyway.
Let’s start with ‘happiness’. We’ll get to the mechanics of how we are told to get happiness later, but first of all we need to consider the effects of happiness and see if we can’t glimpse the skull beneath the grin.
I’m only half-joking. Though it is more difficult to discern whether Liverpool university’s Richard P Bentall (rhymes with ‘mental’) was joking in this abstract from his 1992 article A proposal to classify happiness as a psychiatric disorder, published in the Journal of Medical Ethics:
It is proposed that happiness be classified as a psychiatric disorder and be included in future editions of the major diagnostic manuals under the new name: major affective disorder, pleasant type. In a review of the relevant literature it is shown that happiness is statistically abnormal, consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms, is associated with a range of cognitive abnormalities, and probably reflects the abnormal functioning of the central nervous system. One possible objection to this proposal remains – that happiness is not negatively valued. However, this objection is dismissed as scientifically irrelevant.
Whether or not Bentall was offering a Swiftian Modest Proposal. more recent studies suggest that he was likely correct about the potentially negative effects of happiness. Firstly, happiness makes people more stupid. Psychologist Joe Forgas has conducted a number of studies demonstrating that people who feel happy people are, as New Scientist puts it, “less able to develop a persuasive argument, more gullible and worse at remembering objects in a shop window than their unhappy fellows“. Forgas explains that this may be because rely more on their own thoughts and preferences when they are feeling happy, so pay less attention to the what is happening in the world around them.
More troubling is that in further experiments Forgas found that happiness could increase selfishness. Forgas suggests that “positive mood is in a sense an evolutionary signal, subconsciously informing people that the situation they face is safe and non-threatening”, encouraging people to focus on their own personal preferences. This tendency has been demonstrated on chemical level as well. Oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone’, released when you cuddle a loved one, for instance, is not quite the cuddly, cheeky pheromone it’s been made out to be. In fact, rather than unconditionally support trust in others, it appears to simply enhance feelings of trust, affection and willingness to cooperate with those already known to us. For instance, Carolyn H. Declerck found that oxytocin made people more cooperative in a social game, but only if they had met their partner beforehand. If they knew nothing about their partner in the game, oxytocin actually made them less cooperative.
More dramatically, but in a logical progression from above, the University of Amsterdam’s Carsten de Dreu has demonstrated that Oxytocin makes us favour our own ethic and racial groups. Dr Dreu describes this as “a “tend and defend” response in that it promoted in-group trust and cooperation, and defensive, but not offensive, aggression toward competing out-groups.”
So happiness makes us stupid, but it also makes us selfish and racist. Stupid, selfish and racist. Sounds like a stereotypical right-wing jerk, huh? Of course I write that with my pheromones making me blindly and stupidly defend some imagined intelligent, broadly socialist, liberal (or better, anarchist) group from some moronic, evil Other, but still, there’s some truth to it. For example, Hodson and Busseri (2012) have found that lower intelligence and poor abstract reasoning in childhood is predictive of greater racist and homophobic attitudes in adulthood, an effect mediated through the adoption of right wing ideologies.
At this point it seems possible to make a suggestion, extrapolating from this wildly biased selection of data (it’s a blog post, not a research paper!). The desperate scrabbling for some form of happiness, recognised by our bodies as the release of oxytocin, leads us to believe that this mere chemical reaction is happiness itself. As with any addiction we keep pressing the button that triggers our high, and as with any addiction this habitual process takes its own toll. Our capacity for love actually diminishes, extending only so far as immediate family and friends, while the ‘other’, either embodied or as a more generalised fear of change to our current ‘happy’ circumstances, becomes the object of our suspicion, the shadow of our love; that which we come to hate. Which would be fine if we were able to examine, discuss and learn to control this process like rational, carbon-based beings. Except our happiness addiction is also diminishing our intelligence. This toxic mix of then manifests as conservative ideologies and world-views that promise to keep us safe from “the others” and keep our happiness circuits in a state of prolonged narcotic stimulation.
Maybe I’m overselling it, but you see what I’m getting at, right?
The story so far: We ‘have demonstrated that happiness, far from being the best thing ever, promotes stupidity, selfishness, and blind defence of one’s ‘in-group’ over ‘outsiders’. But what does our society believe is necessary for us to be happy? A good job, a nice house, and all that jazz. Capitalism, baby! Now luckily for us, despite promoting the notion that capital will make you happy, and happiness being, as we now know, extremely bad for you, capitalism also promotes intelligence, kindness, and trust in others.
Oh I’m sorry,that was worded incorrectly. I meant that capitalism makes an already dangerous psycho-chemical situation considerably worse.
The very nature of capitalism – the pursuit of profit – depends upon placing the economic realm above all other concerns. This is the reason that the corridors of big business are filled with high-functioning sociopaths and psychopaths. As I’ve written elsewhere on the blog capitalism involves a system of what I call ‘psychopathonomics’. but for now consider the rich have, in a variety of psychological studies, been shown to be more selfish; feel less empathy and find it more difficult to recognise emotions in others; display a higher propesnity for unethical behaviour; and more likely to reachh punitive jusgements about criminal behaviour based on essentialist notions of class position (i.e., that social class is founded in genetically based, biological differences).
Interestingly, there are studies that show the inverse to be true as well, so that, sombunall people from lower social classes felt more empathy than those from more privileged backgrounds. The irony of this is that the accumulation of goods and capital we are told will make us happy appears to be the very same process that will diminish our capacity for intelligence and empathy; in short, our capacity to fully experience love. Not just because the system requires and rewards sociopathy, but also because it diminishes the capacity to experience emotions fully in those lower down the social ladder, hence the increasing rates of depression in recent years (which, if they continue at their current pace, will, by 2020, make depression the second most disabling condition in the world behind heart disease).
So now then. The more money you have, the higher your social status and power the less your ability to feel empathy; the higher your stupidity and more increased your inclination to right-wing ideologies and prejudices. The less money you have the more possibility of experiencing empathy, except in a world increasingly run on sociopathic principles empathy becomes a drawback, necessitating a retreat into depression. Relief from this depression can be found in the love of one’s friends and family, causing a psycho-chemical reaction that diminishes intelligence and heightens fear of the other and change. Into this mire step charismatic, sociopathic leaders with social policies and ideologies that both encourage a sense of ‘love’ (of family, of country, of god, of money) while actually diminishing it.
After all, is it love to say “ever since you were born it’s been my dream to see you grow up into a wealthy, prejudiced moron”? Except we never say that. We say, “I just want you to be happy”, never stopping to consider the implications of that; the flimsy, morally bankrupt framework our contemporary, all-too limited vision of happiness is premised upon. As R. D. Laing once wrote:
Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiosity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love.