Happiness, Especially For the Demented

Not being a Dutch citizen, I’m not sure how much it will cost to live in this great-sounding village, but I’m moving in as soon as possible. I bet they encourage blogging for all the residents.

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If you want to join me at this “dementia-focused living center called De Hogeweyk, aka Dementia-Village”, you can read about it here.

It’s a very serious subject, of course. How to keep millions suffering from dementia safe and even reasonably happy, if possible. Although that raises the question: should we invest any resources in making the demented happier? 

Mari Ruti, a professor at the University of Toronto, argues that happiness is overrated. Or rather, the kind of well-balanced, anxiety-free happiness demanded by one’s corporate co-workers (“Smile!”) is overrated. The pursuit of that kind of happiness:

(1) Stifles the “idiosyncratic and potentially rebellious energies that, every so often,” break through our bland social personas;
(2) Encourages emotional numbness;
(3) Serves the cultural, economic and political status quo;
(4) May be contrary to human nature (evolution didn’t design us to be happy); and
(5) May lead to lives that are ultimately less satisfying or productive than more anxious lives would be.

Professor Ruti’s conclusion:

There is something quite hollow about the ideal of a happy, balanced life—a life unruffled by anxiety. It’s why I think that underneath our quest for vibrant health lurks a tragic kind of discreet death: the demise of everything that is eccentric and messy about human life. Our society sells us the quick fix: If you get a cold, take some decongestants; if you get depressed, take some antidepressants; and if you get anxious, take those tranquilizers. But what are we supposed to take when we lose our character?

Clearly, if we define “happiness” as “a well-balanced state marked by a lack of anxiety and the presentation of a pleasant persona”, it sounds like a questionable goal, especially for the budding Beethovens and Van Goghs among us (although it sounds pretty good for those of us with dementia). I wouldn’t dismiss Professor Ruti’s critique, however, even if she seems to exaggerate the benefits of living on the edge. There are, after all, more important things in life than happiness. For example, the elimination of real suffering, both physical and psychological:

I do not doubt that it would be easier for fate to take away your suffering than it would for me. But you will see for yourself that much has been gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness (Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, 1895).

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