Why Can't I Feel What I See?

What is the happiness that has eluded our generation?

David Stewart - Gameboys from Fogeys series

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I can’t keep up with my grandfather. Whenever I see him, he’s rushing off to the gym, going on a fishing trip or taking his “baby doll” out on a date. My grandfather is 87 (his baby doll is 90) and he’s one of the happiest people I know. At 32, my gleeful disposition seems to decrease in inverse proportion to my years, and I’m left wondering how my grandfather, who grew up poor in Hell’s Kitchen and fought overseas, is so much more youthful and energetic than I am.

Psychologist Martin Seligman conducted two studies in the 70s in which people of different age groups were asked about depression. Comparing the responses of different generations, Seligman found that younger people were far more likely to have experienced depression than older people. In fact, one study found that those born in the middle third of the 20th century were ten times more likely to suffer from severe depression than those born in the first third. So statistically, my grandfather is more likely to be happy than me.

I don’t get it. I was the first kid on my block to have a Nintendo. I got a car on my 16th birthday. I didn’t have to work a single day in college (unless you count selling homemade bongs at Phish concerts). My grandfather grew up with nothing. He had to drop out of high school during the Depression to help his family get by, earning money shining the shoes of drunks at a local saloon. Why is my generation, one of relative privilege and wealth, experiencing higher rates of depression than any previous generation?

I turned to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard for some illumination on this conundrum. It seems that in the 19th century, for the first time in history, humans began to require observable proof of happiness. According to Baudrillard, happiness became something that had to be measurable in terms of material gain, something that would be evident to the eye. But I’m surrounded by stuff and yet I’m still glum. At my age, my grandfather had fewer possessions and more happiness. So what do you make of that, Mr. Baudrillard? Maybe people from previous generations – whose lives were characterized by the greater effort required to survive – were, paradoxically, mentally healthier (even though they didn’t have iPods). I guess that means that by simply looking around at all my lovely nonessential belongings (acquired with relative ease), I don’t feel as happy as I would if I was busting my hump just to put food in my belly. Or maybe the anxiety I feel has nothing to do with my possessions, perhaps the problem is in my brain.

The nucleus accumbens is a tiny structure of the brain located within the striatum, which controls movement, and next to the limbic system, which is involved with emotion and learning. The accumbens is the main junction between our emotions and our actions. These closely linked motor and emotive functions also extend to the prefrontal cortex, which controls our thought processes. It is this accumbens-striatal-cortical network (the crucial system that links movement, emotion and thinking) that has been dubbed the “effort-driven rewards circuit.”

This effort-driven rewards circuit is a proposed neuroanatomical network that underlies most symptoms associated with depression. It is actually possible to correlate every symptom of depression with a brain part on this circuit. Loss of pleasure? The nucleus accumbens. Sluggishness and slow motor responses? The striatum. Negative feelings? The limbic system. Poor concentration? The prefrontal cortex. The brain is also programmed to derive a deep sense of satisfaction and pleasure if physical effort produces something tangible, visible and necessary for survival. So if I go out in the field and harvest my own food, my effort-driven rewards circuit will be stimulated, causing neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells), which is believed to be an important factor in recovering from depression. Unfortunately I have no field to harvest.

But surely there must be some other means to labor my way to happiness. Apparently the key factor in the effort-driven-rewards scenario is the use of the hands. Our hands are so important that moving them activates larger areas of the brain’s cortex than moving much larger parts of our bodies, like our back or legs. What if I were to try constructing some of my own possessions: building some of that observable proof of happiness that Baudrillard talks about? My grandfather worked as a craftsman his whole life, building and upholstering furniture. Instead of harvesting food, he produced objects.

I considered trying something similar, perhaps by going to work in a factory. But then I read Guy Debord, who claimed that “the general separation of worker and product tends to eliminate any direct personal communication between the producers and any comprehensive sense of what they are producing.” Coincidentally, my grandfather made furniture for people he knew. Most of his work was commissioned – he designed a unique product for a specific need. If I were to work in a factory, I would be assembling mass-produced goods for anonymous consumers. The fruits of my labor would no doubt be added to the crowded apartment of some other melancholic modern soul. This is what Debord calls the “vicious circle of isolation.”

Unlike people of my generation who are increasingly defined by their possessions, my grandfather never owned much. But he never complained about not having because he was too busy being. Perhaps I’m unhappy because my concerns are reversed – I’m too worried about having to focus on being. Human fulfillment is no longer equated with what I am, but with what I possess. Debord says this is the second stage of modernization, “in which social life becomes so completely dominated by accumulated products that it causes a shift from having to appearing, wherein all ‘having’ must now derive its immediate prestige from appearances.” So all I need to do to fit modern society is to appear to be a possessor of a lot of stuff, but in reality I will be and have nothing. I need a personal image. Perhaps this is the visible sign of happiness Baudrillard was talking about. I have to create an image to hide behind, and this image seems to be the only thing I’m able to produce. Have I really been reduced to an image whose sole purpose is to mix and mingle with other seemingly compatible images? Is modern life really so complex?

If we ask Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, modernization is “a process by which capitalism uproots and makes mobile that which is grounded, clears away or obliterates that which impedes circulation, and makes exchangeable what is singular.” This applies as much to bodies, signs, images, languages, kinship relations, religious practices and nationalities as it does to commodities, wealth and labor power. So this image of myself that I have created can be bought, sold or traded – but where does it go?

It goes to the spectacle. The voracious insatiable beast that consumes all images and leaves nothing to waste. The spectacle is society, it’s a looking glass that absorbs your image and gives you nothing in return: no reflection, no impression, just a representation that is beyond your control. The image you projected joins the other images of the “spectacular” society. You’ll never see your image again. You’ll never see the spectacle because it, like you, is just a shadow on the wall of the Platonian cave. The image I’ve projected in this essay isn’t me. It’s the image of a person claiming to be me. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation. You are no longer surrounded by objects, writes Debord, but by a spectacle:

“Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings. The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations, is not identifiable with mere gazing, even combined with hearing. It is that which escapes the activity of men, that which escapes reconsideration and correction by their work. It is the opposite of dialogue. Wherever there is independent representation, the spectacle reconstitutes itself.”

So how do we find the happiness that has eluded our generation? By drugging ourselves into mass status quo submission or by defeating the spectacle that robs us of our singular essence. Be unique. Use your hands. Go out and create.

—Jeffrey Andreoni