Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): The Principal Challenge to Happiness

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Maggie: What do you think is the principal challenge to happiness? And I am especially interested in your answer as it applies to me and my friends, not to old people in their thirties.

John: Wow, I am not sure what to do with that last part. But the question itself is thought provoking.

Maggie: It came up during a class discussion about the challenges of being a young person today. Nobody really had a good answer.

John: What were some of the responses of your classmates?

Maggie: We all agreed that there is a lot of stress and discontent in the world right now. The news is very negative, especially the political news. It makes us worry about the future. And it makes us a bit apprehensive.

John: The news is very negative. I sometimes get stressed and worried too. But we need to remember that this is just the news as it is being reported by advertisement-driven news agencies that thrive on negative reporting. There are also a lot of good things going on in the world that are not being reported.

Maggie: Do you think we are right, though, that negative news is the chief challenge to happiness?

John: That is part of it, I am sure. But maybe not the principal challenge to happiness.

A greater challenge, I believe, comes from the mass marketing of consumerism to young adults.

As a result of the ubiquitous use of technology and social media, young adults are bombarded with advertisements for consumer goods and consumer life-styles. They can’t escape anorexic models sporting $400 pairs of jeans, photo-enhanced celebrities with bronzed and muscled bodies, the extravagant life-styles of the famous-for-being-famous, and the outlandish expenses of professional athletes. Even celebrity CEOs and infamous ministers participate in the cultural consumerism, spouting secrets to making millions, owning islands, and dripping in lavishness.

As I have said before, there is nothing wrong with having financial security. But our society has developed a level of unsurpassed consumerism that drives a cultural desire for extravagant clothes, hard bodies, and big houses. And this, my dear, leads directly to the principal problem facing young adults today: ressentiment!

Maggie: What is that? Sounds French.

John: Good ear. It is a French word referring to a psychological problem whereby a person judges her self-worth primarily in relation to other people. Let me explain.

People of all ages compare themselves to others. In-and-of itself, this is not a problem. It only becomes a problem when we begin to value ourselves, or disvalue ourselves, as a result of these comparisons.

For example, when a person suffering from ressentiment judges another person as better than herself, she feels bad about herself as a person. She may even begin to resent the other person. If left unchecked, that resentment turns into depression and self-loathing, and even hate for the other person.

On the other hand, if she judges the other person as less than herself, she feels good about herself. She feels more powerful or more valuable than the other person, thereby demeaning the other person.

The current consumer culture fuels the growth of ressentiment in young people. Young adults can’t escape the fabricated life-styles of clothing models, Hollywood celebrities, and professional athletes. Peers with sufficient money adopt this fabricated culture: we have all seen teens driving expensive cars, wearing hyper-expensive clothing, and sporting $300 haircuts.

Being inundated with these images, young adults naturally begin to compare themselves. They focus on clothing or cars or money or athletic ability or body-type or hair-type or social group membership or any other such banality brought to us through the media. When they can’t compare, they feel bad about themselves. Or, on the other hand, in order to feel superior to others they give in to bullying, gossiping, discrimination, and the like, all of which are designed to create feelings of power by minimizing others. These negative comparisons, of both kinds, are hurtful to the person on the receiving end, while at the same time exhibiting a level of insecurity existing in the person actively doing the comparing.

I believe this process of valuing ourselves by comparison—ressentiment—is the chief impediment to happiness in young people. It interferes with the active expression of virtue, destroys friendships, creates false self-perceptions, minimizes the inherent value of human beings, and, in the end, injures our souls.  

Ressentiment, I believe, needs to be further discussed in our classrooms to protect against it.  Maybe you can begin this discussion at your school.

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