The Promise of Misery

Communal revenge against the apostles of positivity

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We are not shocked by naked women. Skinny women. Women forced to field abuses in the bedroom or advances in the workplace, women who have undergone operations to whittle their waists into fine points. But an unhappy woman appalls us, especially if she does not collude in regarding herself as deficient. All happy women are alike, but each unhappy woman jolts us in her own defiant way. Each woman sulking in the back of the photograph, ignoring injunctions to smile. Each woman insisting that she isn’t angry, or at least, she wasn’t angry before she was asked if she was angry, which made her angry, and with reason.

But an unhappy woman, consensus has it, is unreasonable or unwell. Her unhappiness is an illness she’s obliged to remedy, either by sequestering herself in therapy sessions or by diligently annotating self-help manuals in her domestic prison—in any case, in private, where her discomfort cannot discomfit. And so in the poem “How to Be Perfect,” we find ourselves implicitly situated inside, in the house, where the writer Ron Padgett instructs,

Don’t stay angry about anything for more than a week,
but don’t
forget what made you angry. Hold your anger at arm’s length
and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball collection.

He writes,

As much as possible, use wooden objects instead of plastic or metal
ones.
Look at that bird over there.

After dinner, wash the dishes.
Calm down.

Calm down! Perfection is within your reach if you will only consent to be happy—if you will only agree to shelve your discontent. “Don’t be afraid,” Padgett advises, “of anything beyond your control. Don’t be afraid, for instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone you love will suddenly drop dead.” Don’t fret about mortality or meaninglessness. Don’t lament the fragility of your body, which breathes with frightening contingency as you scale the slow slope of 4 a.m. Instead, calm down—and don’t forget to scrub those after-dinner dishes.

It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with calm, or with washing the dishes, or with the meditation techniques and modes of positive self-address that so many people (most of them male) have recommended (mostly without prompting of any kind). And it’s not that I begrudge anyone any curative measure that works, whether or not it’s a nostrum. It’s just that the cultists of therapy and self-help impose uneven obligations, demanding the most conspicuous happiness from people with the greatest reason to be unhappy and the fewest resources for becoming happier. The feel-good mantras and fuzzy exhortations to optimism that are rapidly becoming ubiquitous shift the burden of reform away from society, away from a whole culture of men smirking and asking if you’re angry, away from the civility chorus smugly intoning Calm Down! in the face of every human pang, and onto those too uncalm to alchemize their anger into cool glass balls.

Men Against Misery

Self-help—the enemy of the uncalm—is, unsurprisingly, an American phenomenon. It evinces a sensibility well suited to a country where the self has always been the most relevant unit. One of its earliest practitioners was none other than Benjamin Franklin, whose 1758 get-rich-quick manual, The Way to Wealth, frames labor as a cure for poverty and acumen as a cure for destitution. “Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright,” he writes. “When you have got the philosopher’s stone, sure you will no longer complain of bad times, or the difficulty of paying taxes.” Franklin’s advice was as false as it was appealing—who wouldn’t prefer to pay taxes in the inexhaustible currency of self-improvement?—and it reinforced a myth that blue-collar Americans would find difficult to relinquish or escape.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Protestant working classes had developed a robust appetite for books with names like Pushing to the Front and The Way to Win, which counseled that a strong character was the key to a healthy fortune. These Gilded Age exercises in self-aggrandizement blazed a trail for the treatises on winning that began to emerge in the late sixties and early seventies, when self-help as we know it began to flourish in earnest. Born to Win (1971), Winners and Losers (1973), Winning through Intimidation (1974), and The Winner’s Notebook (1967) promised to distinguish the wealthy wheat from the indigent chaff—and thereby set the stage for Trump’s oeuvre, in which winners reign supreme. In Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life (2007), which rose briefly to the top of Amazon’s personal finance bestsellers in 2015 but which nonetheless proclaims itself the preserve of a vanishingly small elite, Trump’s ghostwriter reflects,

to be successful you have to separate yourself from 98 percent of the rest of the world. Sure, you can get into that special 2 percent at the top, and it is not just by being smart, working hard, and investing wisely. There is a formula, a recipe for success that the top 2 percent live by and you too can follow.

If the remaining 98 percent of people follow the formula, will they somehow come to comprise only 2 percent of the population? What are such patent mathematical impossibilities doing in a guide to business savvy, anyway?

Like many books in the self-help tradition, Think Big combines the promise of universal efficacy with a flatteringly individual appeal. It claims both that anyone—ergo, you, so don’t be daunted!—can become a winner, but that some people—ergo, you, so savor your singularity!—are special in ways that others aren’t. This confusion about self and other, about who is to be helped and who is to do the helping, is not unique to Trump’s garbled efforts. As the comedian George Carlin so aptly put it, “if you’re reading it in a book, folks, it ain’t self-help. It’s help.” The central premise of Think Big is that you, or at least the you yet to be elevated by Trump’s sage financial instruction, are inadequate. Only with the aid of the product in question are you able to help yourself.

Self-help—the enemy of the uncalm—is, unsurprisingly, an American phenomenon.

The closest self-help came to acknowledging its covertly altruistic nature was in the early sixties, when it was appropriated by New Age gurus who organized “encounter groups” for people with common insecurities. At this early stage in the genre’s development, soon-to-be- classic feminist works like The Feminine Mystique and Our Bodies, Ourselves so thoroughly mystified everyone that they were routinely regarded as works of self-help. The help on offer—call it other-help—linked solitary selves, promoting solidarity, a virtue anathema to publishing’s marketing departments today.

But by the late seventies and early eighties, self-help had reverted to its ruthlessly individualistic origins—and expanded to target a new market of theretofore underserved selves. The sententious tracts of the Gilded Age had always been aimed at breadwinners and would-be financiers, which is to say, at men. What’s more, their authors had often directly equated masculinity with success. As Judy Hilkey writes in Character is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America, “the idea of manliness, ‘manhood’ or ‘true manhood,’ represented the solution to the problem of achieving victory in a dangerous new industrial age. ‘Manhood,’ in a word, summarized the individual virtues, character, and willpower that made for success.”

The assertiveness literature that emerged as the seventies gave way to the money-manic eighties addressed itself to women desperately struggling to fit into hostile workplaces.

The assertiveness literature that emerged as the seventies gave way to the money-manic eighties addressed itself to women desperately struggling to fit into hostile workplaces—but it didn’t break with the pernicious tradition of conflating manliness and accomplishment. Instead, it encouraged women to act more like men. Books like Jean Baer’s classic How to Be an Assertive (Not Aggressive) Woman in Life, in Love, and on the Job (1976) argued that “women don’t think of themselves as equal to men so they don’t act equal; consequently men, employers, relatives, society do not treat them as equals.” In other words, it’s not men’s fault for undermining women: it’s women’s fault for taking a cue from men and undermining themselves. If women only asked for equality, as men do, they’d get it. After dinner, wash the dishes. Winners and Losers counsels, “if men are better off in any area of divorce, it’s because they choose to be better off; if women are worse off, it’s because they’ve chosen to be worse off.” Calm down!

While popular accounts of selfhood have shifted, the staunchly American premise that the self can transcend its circumstances persists. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the best-selling self-help books in history, Stephen Covey emphasizes that success is a choice. He recounts that a woman who worked as a caretaker to a cranky, tyrannical man initially expressed skepticism at one of his talks. “[F]or you to have the gall to stand up there and suggest that nothing can hurt me, that no one can hurt me without my consent, and that I have chosen my own emotional life of being miserable—well, there was just no way I could buy into that,” she objected. Calm down, he might have been thinking. But then she had her highly effective epiphany:

I kept thinking about it. I really went inside myself and began to ask, “Do I have the power to choose my response?” When I finally realized that I do have that power, when I swallowed that bitter pill and realized that I had chosen to be miserable, I also realized that I could choose not to be miserable. At that moment I stood up. I felt as though I was being let out of San Quentin. I wanted to yell to the whole world, “I am free! I am let out of prison! No longer am I going to be controlled by the treatment of some person.”

But wasn’t she? Wasn’t she now controlled by the treatment of a man who dared to tell someone who cared for other people for a living that she should help herself—that the real issue was not the man abusing her but rather her negative attitude? And wasn’t she slated to remain financially dependent on someone who would no doubt continue to degrade her? And wasn’t she additionally degraded, now that she’d been talked into degrading herself whenever she allowed her degradation to make her just a little bit unhappy?

Perhaps the purpose of this whole song and dance is to convince the marginalized that they are to blame for their own marginalization—to prevent ill-treated female caretakers (and of course the bulk of caretakers are female and many of them are ill-treated) from comparing notes. Or perhaps self-help is supposed to insulate men from the unseemly display of female frustration. “It is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful,” writes philosopher Marilyn Frye. “Anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry, or dangerous.” Whether it is designed to sabotage sad women or console uncomfortable men, the happiness industry has gone a long way toward stigmatizing public admissions of suffering. The self isn’t even the one that self-help is helping: it merits its name only insofar as it perpetuates the illusion that social problems are located at the level of the individual—only insofar as it isolates the marginalized, sealing them off from the social body.

The Isolation Chamber

Therapy isn’t always continuous with self-help—some of it, anyway, is backed by science, though for a time I saw a psychoanalyst who made me lie on a fainting sofa outfitted with a tiny rug for my feet—but all too often, it can play a similarly splintering role. Therapy and self-help may have different content and drastically different credentials, but they’re both the provinces of exiles, the places where we quarantine people whose complaints we’re eager to debunk and reluctant to resolve.

Perhaps sensing the need to secure their longevity, both self-help and therapy have taken measures to ensure that displays of unhappiness remain safely segregated from life. To fail to fix yourself by yourself is precisely to fail by the lights of Stephen Covey and other devotees of radical responsibility. “Transactional Analysis,” an early self-help fad popularized by Thomas Harris, author of the hit monograph I’m OK—You’re OK, has it that “the patient . . . is responsible for what happens in the future no matter what has happened in the past”: no matter how insurmountable the material or cultural obstacles he’s faced, no matter how violently or viciously he’s been victimized. If divorce laws are unfair to women, if your employer paws at you beneath your desk, well, it’s all your fault. (A consistent theory would have it that the caretaker’s vitriolic employer was likewise wholly responsible for his behavior—so I guess Covey and Harris believe that harassment is entirely the harasser’s fault, but, somehow, entirely the victim’s fault, too.) To seek help from others, even in the modest form of encouragement or support, is to demonstrate the kind of reliance that smacks of weakness and excuse-making, of undue abdication. The only alternative that Thomas and Covey sanction is to shut up and “choose success.”

If therapy itself does not take matters any further, we wrench it one step forward when we afford it such an elaborately confessional quality. “I’m not her therapist,” an acquaintance will snap, implying that anguish has no place in polite conversation. The suggestion is that pain belongs in therapy, fortified by the anodyne paintings and muted by the padded walls. The therapist’s office is as ritualistically private as the priest’s stall, but the penance it prescribes is not prayer but silence. It’s inconspicuous, camouflaged in a respectable building lined with other doctors’ offices. If you ever encountered anyone you knew in the foyer or the hallway, you could claim you were on your way to the dentist or the cardiologist. You almost wish you were. It would be less embarrassing to need bypass surgery or a thousand root canals.

That unhappiness is never public is the mechanism of its pathologization, for isolation is discrediting. I have a desperate fear of flying, and when the ground drops out from beneath the plane, I watch the passengers around me, who are fumbling with knotted headphones or already falling asleep. No one else looks nervous, so I conclude that my panic must be ill-founded. But this principle cuts both ways. You look around and no one else is flailing, crying in public, so you conclude that you’re crazy. If your reaction were rational, wouldn’t everyone else give some indication of feeling the same way?

The secret is: they do. In fact there are thousands of them not actually having bypass surgery or root canals but instead sitting on fainting couches behind closed doors with their feet perched on tiny carpets, all of them stifling the sobbing, all of them feeling the same way. They do! And perhaps they should. Perhaps their anger and anxiousness aren’t character flaws or symptoms of some illness but rather appropriate, rational, sane responses to a warped and wretched world. As Audre Lorde writes in The Cancer Journals,

Like superficial spirituality, looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening or dangerous to the status quo. . . . The acceptance of illusion and appearance as reality is another symptom of this same refusal to examine the realities of our lives. Let us seek “joy” rather than real food and clean air and a saner future on a liveable earth! As if happiness alone can protect us from the results of profit-madness.

. . . In this disastrous time, when little girls are still being stitched shut between their legs, when victims of cancer are urged to court more cancer in order to be attractive to men, when twelve-year-old Black boys are shot down in the street at random by uniformed men who are cleared of any wrongdoing, when ancient and honorable citizens scavenge for food in garbage pails, and the growing answer to all this is media hype or surgical lobotomy; when daily gruesome murders of women from coast to coast no longer warrant mention in the New York Times, when grants to teach retarded children are cut in favor of more billion dollar airplanes, when nine hundred people commit mass suicide rather than face life in America, and we are told it is the job of the poor to stem inflation; what depraved monster could possibly be always happy?

Lorde was suffering from breast cancer, and as she rightly notes, she had many causes for complaint: she was a victim of institutionalized racism; a victim of her own body, which was bad enough; a victim of the misguided belief, an unfortunate Judeo-Christian holdover, that sickness is evidence of wrongdoing or sin; and a victim, no doubt, of the medical establishment’s pernicious tendency to dismiss expressions of female pain as exaggerations. (Men who arrive at the ER with stomach pain wait an average of forty-nine minutes to receive painkillers, while women wait an average of sixty-five.) It isn’t just that therapy and self-help separate women from other women: they also keep all marginalized groups, all of whom are stereotyped as different kinds of crazy (“angry” black women, “neurotic” Jews), from coming together and commiserating.

I’m not okay—you’re not okay. Maybe someday we won’t be okay together.

Misery Loves Solidarity

Here’s another way of understanding why the “self” belongs in self-help. Self-help concerns the self because it excludes others—because it actively discourages acts of intervention or compassion. Self-help is for selves because it is selfish on the giving end (that is, the not-giving end) and lonely on the receiving end (that is, the not-receiving end). It isn’t hard to see that the shame that attends female unhappiness compounds the initial unhappiness, which might have been bearable. It was bad to fear planes tilting up the steep sky, bad to ascend the uphill days, but it was worse when men told me to jettison my anxiety. Then I was anxious about being anxious in addition to just being anxious. Then my unhappiness wasn’t just unpleasant but also unspeakable, and I had to choke on it whenever I tried to gulp it back.

I don’t object to happiness, whatever happiness even amounts to, as if any of us had any idea, but I cannot stomach its fetishization: the way it’s foisted on “crazy” women and “angry” people of color, the way it’s used to discredit anything uttered in a spirit of dissatisfaction. Happiness is a law that’s rigidly enforced, and any deviation from absolute unmitigated joy is supposed to remain a disgraceful secret.

If divorce laws are unfair
to women, if your employer paws at you beneath your desk, well, it’s all your fault.

Just think of the classic literature of womanhood: Mrs. Rochester festered in the attic, and the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” had no one but the furniture to confirm her suspicions. Her sickroom was so airless that she had to animate its trappings, just for company. The confinement of women, it emerges, is usually solitary. If we let them out of the attic or off of the psychoanalyst’s sofa, we’d risk a collective reckoning. People might start to notice that they had difficulties in common. And if they started to identify the struggles they shared—if they started to say not just “me” but “me too”—they might also start to realize that the problems they faced weren’t personal.

Lydia Davis, a shrewd chronicler of female unhappiness, frees misery from its strictures. In “Negative Emotions,” a story so short and so apt that it’s worth quoting in its near entirety, she indulges a fantasy of public, communal revenge. One day, “A well-meaning teacher” sends a quote from a Buddhist monk to his colleagues at the school:

Emotion, said the monk, is like a storm: it stays for a while and then it goes. Upon perceiving the emotion (like a coming storm), one should put oneself in a stable position. One should sit or lie down. One should focus on one’s abdomen. One should focus, specifically, on the area just below one’s navel, and practice mindful breathing. If one can identify the emotion as an emotion, it may then be easier to handle.

The other teachers are offended. They “thought he was accusing them of having negative emotions and needing advice about how to handle them. Some of them were, in fact, angry,” and justifiably so. In the end, they decide to follow the opposite of the Buddhist monk’s advice:

The teachers did not choose to regard their anger as a coming storm. They did not focus on their abdomens. They did not focus on the area just below their navels. Instead, they wrote back immediately, declaring that because they did not understand why he had sent it, his message had filled them with negative emotions. They told him that it would take a lot of practice for them to get over the negative emotions caused by his message. But, they went on, they did not intend to do this practice. Far from being troubled by their negative emotions, they said, they in fact liked having negative emotions, particularly about him and his message.

In the introduction to her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness, the philosopher Sara Ahmed writes that “happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods.” Feminism has therefore “struggled against rather than for happiness.” In other words, the spectacle of female anguish can be revelatory. I find it rapturous, because I am an unhappy woman: a woman whose misery has often been characterized, by irritated interlocutors, as willful. I have been what is sometimes called “depressed.” What this means is that I have shed tears in public when it was not appropriate to do so. Have had difficulty heaving from the bed to the bathroom or facing a refrigerator whose sparse contents I knew were rotting. And some days the bare act of existing without any embellishment or pretense of achievement winced like a freshly skinned knee.

You know what’s actually therapeutic? Screaming where people can hear you. Weeping on the train.

In 1937 the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran described “the voluptuousness of suffering,” a phenomenon so universally recognizable and ubiquitously salient that the novelist Machado de Assis, writing in Brazil fifty years earlier, eulogized “the voluptuousness of misery.” (“Memorize this phrase,” he urges, “if you do not succeed in understanding it, you may conclude that you have missed one of the most subtle emotions of which man is capable.”) Maybe it is willful. Maybe there is something ever so slightly ecstatic about the perversity of it all.

You know what’s actually therapeutic—more therapeutic than staring at the ceiling desperately inventing a string of “free” associations, more therapeutic than reading a book with a vested interest in establishing your insufficiency so that you will have to purchase its string of accoutrements and sequels? Screaming where people can hear you. Weeping on the train. Indulging in the intimacy of jointly cultivated resentment. Seeing your suspicions that you aren’t a self-pitying maniac confirmed.

So shatter the dishes. Dismantle the glass ball museum. Never meditate. Say no as often as possible. Pour weed killer on the flowers. And above all, do not calm down. Let the loathing simmer until you can boil the apostles of positivity alive, like so many wriggling lobsters. And while you are seasoning your fury, while they are engaging in positive self-talk to no obvious avail, while you are lowering the knife toward their necks, ask them if they are happy. Let the highly effective wonder why it’s suddenly so difficult for them to choose success.

Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard.

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