The Paradox in Today’s “Pursuit of Happiness”

In neoliberal society, “mental health” is the ideal state for our minds. We don’t even question the idea that we should be striving to achieve and maintain a state of mental health. But the neoliberal definition of mental health is problematic. It’s not a neutral state, but a hyperpositive one. Neoliberal mental health is essentially a constant state of happiness. Not simply a lack of mental illness, but a lack of negative feeling in general. This means constant surveillance and eradication of an inevitable aspect of selfhood–discarding a whole dimension of experience as pathological and unproductive. We’re supposed to let go of negativity, yet maintain unwavering positivity. But mental states come and go, like clouds passing through the sky. It’s unrealistic to try to push some out of the way, or conversely, to keep other ones in place. I think it’s actually healthier to let all feelings come and go, whether positive or negative. Fixation and obsession with maintaining an artificial mental state creates its own pathologies.

We need to think carefully about the consequences of eradicating all negative feelings. While I’d agree that developing a hypernegative mindset is unhealthy and even dangerous, I think the same can be said for a hyperpositive mindset. Positivity means no room for pause, for the critical distance that makes dissent possible. If we stop listening to negativity, we risk ignoring calls for personal or societal change.

Furthermore, “mental health” isn’t a stable position; neoliberal mental health is tied up with the capitalist imperative of ever-expanding growth. We can never reach a state of mental health, because it’s really an unending process of self-optimization and revision. There’s always more work to do, so we’re locked into constant self-improvement. The enterprise model of selfhood encourages us to always produce human capital, not just in our professional lives but also in terms of our mental health. Mental health is its own capital to be accumulated and expanded, without limits or pause. Capitalism drives us to improve our lot in life, rather than simply accept what we have. Similarly, neoliberal subjectivity (one aspect being the enterprise model) drives us towards improving our mental state rather than accepting it. The upside is that we’re optimistic, and encouraged away from unhealthy behaviors and mindsets. However, this constant striving and dissatisfaction creates more problems than it solves.

In an individualist society of agents entirely responsible for themselves, both our wealth and our happiness are in our hands. We internalize the imperatives of capital and enterprise–accumulation, efficiency, competitiveness. Self-control becomes a form of neoliberal control. Like a capitalist exploits a worker, we auto-exploit ourselves–the enterprise model is inside our minds. We measure ourselves against ideals of happiness, which are simultaneously ideals of productivity, efficiency, self-management, etc. In the pursuit of these goals we push ourselves hard, causing stress and anxiety. Failing to achieve these ideals, we develop feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. We’re constantly tracking, interpreting, and micromanaging our feelings. We may become worried that any slowdown in productivity or slight drop in mental health is a sign of failure. Or if not failure, a sign of an underlying mental illness to be identified and treated. Any sort of negativity, any setback or shortcoming, is an impediment to achieving happiness (where mental health = happiness = productivity).

I think the central contradiction of “mental health” as it’s defined in a neoliberal society is that the pursuit of happiness comes to be an unhappy process. This isn’t necessarily a problem with happiness as a goal (although that has its own issues). It’s not even a problem with our means for achieving happiness–therapy, mindfulness, self-affirmation, etc. (though these should be examined too!). Instead, my point here is that the pressures of neoliberal capitalism make mental health into an obligation that we stress and obsess over. It’s another thing on the ever-increasing to-do list of personal responsibility, brought on by privatization and austerity. Another source of anxiety and guilt shuffled into the chaos of our everyday lives–the pressures of competition and auto-exploitation without pause. Without time to be negative, critical, and unproductive, the pursuit of happiness looks a lot like a mad dash to get away from the inevitable–suffering, dissent, and finally meaningful change. In these ways, our pursuit of happiness may in fact lead to unhappiness.