Misery Loves Company

misery

I read an interesting piece (subscription only) in the Sunday Globe Ideas section yesterday. With a headline of “The Triumph of Coping,” the article is a conversation with Jennifer Silva, who finds that, “the American Dream is being replaced by a new kind of story.” In a series of 100 interviews with working class people, she found that, in place of the old story of unlimited opportunity for upward mobility (The American Dream), a new tale of struggle against “emotional problems, mental illness, family chaos, and addiction… To her surprise, hard-won emotional self-management was often viewed with as much pride as diplomas or marriage certificates.” The context for this finding is that current employment situation, on the whole, has replaced well-paying, relatively stable jobs with uncertain, low-paid jobs in the retail and food service industry, resulting in “financial instability that hurts community and personal relationships.”

I interpret this finding, based only on the scant information in the article, that success (or finding happiness) in life comes from a sense of having faced the hardships out there today and managed to come through on one’s own. The mythic American dream has been replaced by what I would consider a pathological variant. The positive individualism characteristic of America of old has become a new sort of individualism finding happiness by discovering what’s “wrong with you … and make it your job to fix it yourself.” She calls this process “privatizing happiness.” Wow! I hope she is not right but her work looks to be well-done.

She slips in a paragraph near the end about those in her survey that were “emotionally or economically successful.” Here’s her response.

The few people I interviewed who objectively achieved upward mobility by getting college degrees and then using them to get good jobs, what really struck me about them is that they had good networks. They had people in their community who could help them figure out what kind of jobs and then how to go to school. They have someone translating the tools and knowledge and skills they needed to work their way up. Otherwise people are trying really hard, but without knowing the system they often make choices that set them even further back.

I don’t think it takes a lot of sociological research to come up with her findings. Silva, with a Ph.D. in sociology, is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Humans are social animals. We evolved in families, then tribes, then communities of many tribes and now a global, highly interconnected world. Humans have always coped; happiness and other measures of success in life, except for a very few privileged people, have always come only through human efforts, both toilsome and innovative. The headline writer for the Globe article has little or no sense of our species’ history. Coping is a natural human capability, not something to see as a triumph. I might have written “The Sadness of Coping Today.”

The focus is better placed on the isolated context for those finding happiness through their battles with loneliness, mental dysfunction, family breakdown, and other abnormalities of life for many today. Abnormal because a sense of the normal lurks in the background in the myth of the American Dream: happily married with 2 or 3 kids in a lovely house on a lot with a beautiful lawn and a diploma on the wall, coming home from a great job to dinner prepared by Mom, and so on. I must admit that my own early adult life was a bit like that for a time. But was that ever normal? There’s no such dinner waiting when Mom now is the breadwinner or the only source of money in many homes. For many, there is not even a home nor job.

I’m a child of the Great Depression era that had many of the same features as today, but also some critical differences. Life’s hard circumstances, created by the basic workings of an unstable economic system, were mitigated by relationships. Some were created by the great government programs that put people to work, but in the company of others. In my own case, my parents lived in an apartment that they could not always pay the rent for. The landlord let them stay saying he kne`w that ultimately they would be able to, and they did. There was a sense of care both in the big picture and the small.

Silva’s data show the importance of care. Those in a network of caring relationships found themselves in happier places that those, either by choice or necessity, coped with life all on their own. Taking a leap, I suspect that whatever positive feelings of success or happiness ensue from an isolated, individualistic encounter with life are empty feelings, empty of the satisfaction coming from successful, empathic relations. I hope Silva is wrong in finding that this new story of winning against all odds without help from others is becoming the new normal. The need for and difficulty of coping in the present economic and special conditions of the US is different from that of the past, but it is not necessary to go it alone. A long time ago, people understood that, “Misery loves company.”

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2 Comments

Antony Upward said:

John,

I've read both your books on sustainability, and have been carefully reading your discussions of care as the non-addictive re-framing of the fundamental driver for human action.

In my work on Strongly Sustainable Business Model design I've been using the work of Manfred Max-Neef on Universal Human Needs (and non-human) and Satisfiers (refs below). This work is also extensively used by NGO's such as The Natural Step.

But I am having a hard time reconciling your statement in your recent commencement address that "Need is only an invention, but an invidious and insidious one." and Max-Neef's contention that "Human needs must be understood as a system: that is, all human needs are interrelated and interactive. With the sole exception of the need of subsistence, that is, to remain alive, no hierarchies exist within the system. On the contrary, simultaneities, complementarities and trade-offs are characteristics of the process of needs satisfaction." (1991, p.17).

Yes I can take care to ensure I, my fellow humans and other life has the materials required for survival - but is it an "invention" to say this care comes from the function (purpose) of each of these systems: a need to survive and reproduce? Further, why should I care to do more than just survive; why should I struggle to languish or better still flourish? Doesn't this have something to do with meeting other functions (purposes / needs) of the system?

So, I was wondering if you might explore this topic in a future blog post? It would really help those of us interested in making flourishing our formal goal to connect with those, like the Natural Step, taking a science based principled approach to achieving sustainability, but who believe that flourishing is utopian (which I know you've also addressed). I think being able to carefully explain this need / care difference could be helpful in getting them fully on side.

Warm regards
Antony

Jolibert, C., Max-Neef, M., Rauschmayer, F., & Paavola, J. (2011). Should We Care About the Needs of Non-humans? Needs Assessment: A Tool for Environmental Conflict Resolution and Sustainable Organization of Living Beings. Environmental Policy and Governance, 21(4), 259-269. doi:10.1002/eet.578

Max-Neef, M., Elizalde, A., & Hopenhayn, M. (1991). Human Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections [Desarollo a Escala Humana: una opci├│n para el futuro]. Uppsala, Sweden; New York City, New York, U.S.A.: Dag Hammarsky├Âld Foundation; The Apex Press, an imprint of the Council on International and Public Affairs. http://www.max-neef.cl/download/Max-neef_Human_Scale_development.pdf

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Antony, I also have referred to Max-Neef, and am familiar with the cite you mention. I believe we are talking about the same thing, but using different language. The most important piece in his article is the table (7.1) of needs and satisfiers. His notion that all have to be satisfied as a whole was instrumental in my own thinking. The vertical axis, axiological, is like my categories of care only an aid to analysis and discussion. All have to be taken care of. The first few he deems as exogenous, or similarly to Maslow's heirarchy, as coming from the physiological requirements of life. I would have no issue calling these "needs," but choose to call them caring for one's self.

The horizontal axis is more interesting and is divided into four columns: being, having, doing, interacting. Being comes first and refers to the human ontology, including its cultural basis. I would add that it recognizes Heidegger's notion about being-in-the-world or as being thrown into the world. These are "ontological" categories as is my divisions of care. Whatever differences we have is in the words we use, not in the underlying concepts. I have been careful to avoid "need," as it has come to be understood as having psychological, not ontological, roots. What we do require are the means to satisfy our categories of care, or Max-Neef's needs. Those requirements have become equated to our needs. I don not think that there is any real difference between Max-Neef's thinking and mine. I have always considered it thus. But the specific words do get in the way.