Freud & happiness

I’m just revising an essay on Buddhism and psychotherapy, and was checking up a reference to Freud’s Studies on Hysteria. This book, co-authored with Josef Breuer, was one of the earliest texts to describe the process of psychoanalysis.

He concludes the book with an oft-quoted remark to the effect that therapy can alleviate ‘hysterical misery’, compared to which ‘common unhappiness’ was far preferable. This is usually quoted to suggest that Freud believed that therapy could only lead to ‘common unhappiness’; but that’s not quite the point he was making.

The remark came in the form of an imaginary dialogue, where a patient asks him, ‘If my problems have been caused by my history and circumstances, then how can therapy help?’

This is a crucial question, one which is faced in a different way within Buddhism: if suffering is all due to past kamma, then how can action in the present free me from what was done in the past? The answer the Buddha gave is that suffering is influenced but not determined by past kamma; we create suffering through our responses to our present circumstances. By responding differently, we alleviate suffering.

Freud, however, sidesteps a direct answer to his own question. His answer avoids the question of how an inner-directed therapy can address problems that have an external source, and simply asserts that the process works, and can be verified by the patient’s own experience.

I was intrigued by his notion of unhappiness here, and did a quick search of this book for mentions of happiness and unhappiness. The results are really rather striking, I think. Here are all the mentions of happiness in Studies on Hysteria, finishing with the ‘common unhappiness’ passage.

We must not vaunt our happiness

we do not boast of our happiness until unhappiness is in the offing

many misfortunes and not much happiness

the blow fell which destroyed the happiness

their lost happiness

their former family happiness

the happiness she had lost

the gloomy reflection that … this happiness should have come to such an end

the contrast between her own loneliness and her sick sister’s married happiness

she sat down and dreamt once again of enjoying such happiness

a doubter feels himself threatened in the matter of his happiness

to threaten his happiness

his feeling of unhappiness and his incapacity for work grow more intense

But you will be able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

It’s all a bit miserable, isn’t it? There’s no real investigation of happiness. Rather than the hedonic experience of happiness, for Freud the main point seems to be a conventional contentment. But even that is far away; the words speak of loss and ending of happiness. Happiness is something hard to gain, to be envied if others have it. Even if you do have it, you fear its loss; and you cannot make a display of it to others.

Freud was a doctor, and he is concerned with curing those who are suffering. But still, this treatment of happiness is dreadfully impoverished. It is a startling point of difference with the Buddhist texts, which are equally honest about acknowledging the reality and depth of suffering, but which speak of happiness all the time, praising it, analyzing it, and showing how to reach it.


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