Seeking Happiness Seems to be Part of System Justification

An economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and our personalities – neoliberalism favors certain personality traits and penalizes others. Our society constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted citizens. An increasing number of people in search of happiness fail – feeling humiliated, guilty and ashamed. We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system. A neoliberal meritocracy would have us believe that success depends on individual effort and talents, meaning responsibility lies entirely with the individual and authorities should give people as much freedom as possible to achieve this goal.1

Dr. Robert Holden writes, “‘Destination Addiction’ is a major block to success. People who suffer from Destination Addiction believe that success is a destination. They are addicted to the idea that the future is where success is, happiness is. It is a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is somewhere else. We suffer, literally, from the pursuit of happiness. We are always on the run, on the move, and on the go. Our goal is not to enjoy the day, it is to get through the day. We have always to get to somewhere else first before we can relax and before we can savor the moment. But we never get there. There is no point of arrival. We are permanently dissatisfied. The feeling of success is continually deferred. We live in hot pursuit of some extraordinary bliss we have no idea how to find”.

Holden then goes on to list some of the symptoms of destination addiction: “Whatever you are doing, you are always thinking about what comes next. You cannot afford to stop because you always have to be somewhere else. You are always in a hurry even when you don’t need to be. You don’t like your job but it has good prospects for the future. You never commit fully to anything in case something better comes along. You hope the next big success will finally make you happy. You always think you should be further ahead of where you are now.” Rather than being caught up in the progress, we should try to live for the moment. Happiness is not a destination, it is a choice we make. To find happiness with the life you have and to achieve the goals important to you, you must confront the limitations of the system.2

More than half of US workers are unhappy with their jobs. The frustration you experience by not living the life you imagined is created by the resentment that the outcome of an event is less than you imagined it would be. Expectations are an illusion – they add useless pressure to everyone. Life is not perfect – removing expectations will let you appreciate your life as it is. Most will identify we can’t change something if we don’t recognize there is something to change. In order to learn to accept reality we must become aware of the source of negativity. Some propose that rhetoric around self-care is nothing more than a neoliberal trap. Studies reveal that adherence to neoliberal values of self-enhancement – power and achievement – predicts the motivation to gain social approval; this motivation, in turn, favors the adoption of context specific competitive performance-approach goals, which predicts the condoning of cheating.

Democracy funded and fueled by corporate power disenfranchises the individual, provoking some to search for empowerment through identity politics. Within neoliberalism a person’s identity becomes so undermined by the system that he/she must adopt a social identity in order to create a sense of personal identity and connection with others. Neoliberalism has turned us into competitive individuals. In such a system everyone has to make those choices that turn his life into a professional success or personal happiness; moreover, these choices depend solely on his or her personal efforts. This creates a binary system of winners and losers. As humans are social animals this is a formula for unhappiness. The construction and perpetuation of stereotypes such as abusers of the welfare state, social scroungers, social hammock, is creating strong prejudices in people’s thinking. These ideas are purposely marginalizing the unemployed, the homeless, asylum-seekers, etc. and diverting suspicion from the real culprits.

The word “globalization” rings in most people’s ears as a signal of our advancement, the recognition of our limitless ability to create and have – beyond measure – anything we want. In the culture of today, where the digital age beckons us into the virtual world of tomorrow and an overstimulated frenzy to keep up, it has become me against me. Neoliberalist policies limit government regulation and allow business owners and investors to run their businesses in a manner that maximizes profit for themselves and their stakeholders, with no regard to their workers.  Neoliberalism increases income inequality by rewarding those who are already wealthy, while providing fewer nets for poorer populations to fall back on. A person born into wealth may find it easier to receive a college education, access a wealthier network, and consequently land a higher paying job. In contrast, individuals from low income communities cannot access those same opportunities nor advance their socioeconomic status.

As a result of the perceived connection between self-esteem and societal/educational ‘problems’, low self-esteem has been viewed as characteristic of ‘at risk’ individuals, particularly adolescents. Furthermore, those identified as low in self-esteem are often encouraged to participate in special programs aimed at improving their self-esteem (usually to enhance achievement or employability). Because marginalized groups are disproportionately represented in statistics relating to truancy, delinquency, suicide, abuse and under achievement, and are therefore assumed to be ‘at risk’, low self-esteem tends to be automatically associated with marginalized ethnic/cultural groups, the unemployed, and those from lower socioeconomic groups.  It would also appear that if the individual fails to achieve the desirable level of self-esteem at the end of the program, rather than perceiving the ‘problem’ as societal, or questioning the program itself, it is typically the already marginalized individual who is blamed.

Is it possible, then, that self-esteem is being used to maintain marginalization, by creating group differences which uphold inequalities? So, while it is possible for certain individuals to perceive themselves as ‘successful’ or ‘intelligent’, it may not be possible for others. The system can pathologize whole groups of individuals by applying the label ‘low self-esteem’ to certain (groups) of individuals, assuming homogeneity among members of the group. Consequently, the inequalities of power which the system claims to be addressing are in fact being maintained.3 “For youth disadvantaged by our social and economic system, believing it is fair can have long-term negative ramifications across a range of outcomes,” observes Erin Godfrey, assistant professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author. Godfrey’s study finds traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally leads to success show a decline in self-esteem during their middle school years.

“If you’re in an advantaged position in society, believing the system is fair and that everyone could just get ahead if they tried hard enough doesn’t create any conflict for you … [you] can feel good about how [you] manage it,” said Godfrey. But for those marginalized by the system – economically, racially, ethnically – believing the system is fair puts them in conflict with themselves and can have negative consequences.4 Although we use social comparison in part to develop our self-concept – that is, to form accurate conclusions about our attitudes, abilities, and opinions – social comparison has perhaps an even bigger impact on our self-esteem. When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others, we feel good about ourselves, but when the outcome of comparison suggests that others are better or better off than we are, then our self-esteem is likely to suffer. Upward comparison may lower our self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as well off as others.

The current economic system is bringing out the worst in us. Society is becoming more divided because wealthy and powerful figures are promoting the notion of meritocracy while failing to address inequality. For those who believe in the fairytale of unrestricted choice, self-government and self-management are the pre-eminent political messages, especially if they appear to promise happiness. In effect, the transition from organized capitalism to neoliberal hegemony is part of system justification and meritocracy – the great delusion that ingrains inequality. We need to open wide conversations on institutional discrimination and other systems of oppression. This includes those involuntarily socially marginalized, who remain outside ‘the major area of capitalist productive and reproductive activity.’ However, marginalized people are not responsible for ending their own oppression. It more important for the apologists for neoliberal prejudiced views to step out of their echo chambers and see the marginalized as humans than it is for the oppressed to humanize oppressors.

1 Paul Verhaeghe (29 September 2014) Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us

2 Mark D. Griffiths (20 July 2016) The Search For Happiness.

3 Sonja J. Ellis (1998) Is Self-Esteem Political?

4 Melinda D. Anderson (27 July 2017) Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color

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