The Corner

Artificial Happiness

I’ve got a piece up on NRO today called “The Book is a Breeze,” about Artificial HappinessRonald Dworkin’s powerful new book about anti-depressants and contemporary American culture. In that piece I link to a couple reviews of Artificial Happiness that require subscriptions. So here I’ll post some excerpts from each. First, from long-time National Review columnist, Florence King in The Wilson Quarterly:

There’s nothing like an authoritative, well-documented Grand Guignol horror story.  If you’ve ever wondered about the source of those big, ecstatic American smiles or the frantically cheery commands to “have a nice day” that have become an inescapable part of our national life, read this riveting book and wonder no more.

Dworkin presents a gallery of legal druggies who are so content with their artificial happiness that they have lost all incentive to take action against what made them unhappy in the first place.

As others have noted, we need only imagine Abe Lincoln, a clinical depressive, on Prozac: “Well, the Union is finished, we’re two countries now, and slavery is a fact of life, but hey, I feel good about myself.”

…our belief that happiness is the measure of life has a direct bearing on both abortion and euthanasia.  The first trimester fetus lacks the rudimentary nervous system to experience self-awareness.  Without self-awareness there can be no happiness, and thus, in the happiness-is-all worldview, no need for life.

Dworkin himself has read widely, and it shows on every page.  His best observation is reminiscent of a poem by Wallace Stevens or the baleful imprecations of ancient Greek drama; “And there is something unpleasant about their happiness, something lacking in warmth.  There is nothing sunny in the sun; it’s more like a hot moon.  Their happiness radiates unwholesomeness because it emanates from an unnatural source, not from real life.”

And here’s an excerpt from Thomas Meaney’s review in The Wall Street Journal:

If the pursuit of happiness was once an ideal in American life, the entitlement to happiness may now have replaced it.

More than 15% of Americans now use [anti-depressants].  Needless to say, they are not all clinically depressed.  Whereas Sigmund Freud once described the goal of psychotherapy as, “transforming hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness,” many doctors now see it as their duty to eradicate ordinary unhappiness completely.

Most troubling of all is that drugs are now being prescribed to children whom they may inhibit from developing the very skills that could make them genuinely happy.

One point not sufficiently stressed by Dr. Dworkin is that doctors unwittingly commit an injustice to sufferers of clinical depression by liberally prescribing antidepressants for mere unhappiness. A whole range of profound distinctions is lost thereby, and varied states of mind collapse into a single category. Thus when someone says he is just plain glum these days, he sounds hopelessly quaint. The catch-all word “depression” now covers sadness, dejection, disappointment, dissatisfaction—anything that stands in the way of happiness. All such unpleasantness becomes a “condition” that calls for “treatment.”

It does not require any nostalgia for the romantic cult of melancholy to realize that low spirits are not an evil in themselves. In some cases, what we now call depression—even the fear of it—can help us to reach out to others and find a way of correcting the course of our conduct or our expectations. For some it can even lead to philosophical introspection—or religious epiphany.

My piece today is a short take, rather an extended reflection on the many bold, penetrating, and controversial arguments in Artificial Happiness. For a more detailed discussion see “No Brainer,” which I wrote in 2001 as a response to an earlier version of Dworkin’s argument.  (Dworkin’s original article is not web-accessible. Buy the book!)

In “No Brainer” I talk about Mary Eberstadt’s work on Ritalin. Dworkin takes a quick poke at Eberstadt in Artificial Happiness, where he argues that doctors and the ideology of artificial happiness are driving increased rates of Ritalin use, not the absent-parent syndrome Eberstadt talks about. This strikes me as a false dichotomy. Nothing in what Dworkin says shows that his own explanation and the Eberstadt effect can’t be happening at the same time.  At any rate, you don’t have to agree with everything in Artificial Happiness to see what an extraordinary book it is.


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