Unhappiness Is Not a Disease

Unhappiness Is Not a Disease
(TanyaJoy via Shutterstock)
Loretta Breuning

We have been trained to see bad feelings as disorders that treatment can cure. We are told that “the science” proves this, so it’s hard to question. A huge percentage of us are now convinced that we have a disorder.

Do we benefit from diseasifying our emotions?

In the short run, yes.

We literally get benefits when a “diagnosis” unlocks free treatment and other legal entitlements.

You benefit socially as well. A mental health diagnosis provides admission to a victim group and a victim identity, which has many advantages in today’s world. And accepting the disease model of mental health protects you from the social censure imposed on those who question it. You’re condemned as a “hater” and an anti-science nut if you question a diagnosis, and that can destroy your career.

We benefit from the hope sparked by the disease model of mental health. It’s nice to believe that “services” can make you happy. It’s a relief to believe that professionals can fix your loved one. If treatment fails, you are told that you didn’t get “the right treatment,” so the core premise that unhappiness is a disease is not questioned.

All these short-run benefits distract us from the long-run harm done by the disease model of mental health. It teaches us that we are not responsible for our own emotions. We learn to blame the disorder, the treatment, and “our society,” instead of learning to build emotion-regulation skills. We diagnose our kids instead of expecting them to build emotion-regulation skills.

We lose our personal agency in the long run when we accept the short-run benefits of the disease model.

There’s no way to measure the harm done by teaching people that they are not responsible for their own brain. But we might be able to measure the harmful effects of the medications prescribed by the disease model. These include side effects, which frequently lead to additional medications; polypharmacy, when multiple medications interact; habituation, a natural response that requires ever-increasing dosages; and cessation effects, which can be debilitating when a person tries to stop.

These problems are widely overlooked because most of our research is funded by the pharmaceutical companies themselves. You don’t hear much about them when you first consider medication. You mostly hear that “accepting help” will fix things. All you have to do is “ask your doctor.” But your doctor’s information comes from pharma-funded sources that focus on one side of the story.

The disease model of mental health claims to serve the greater good, so it’s fair to ask whether the greater good is really served by defining emotions as diseases. Yet you risk being condemned as a hater and a nut if you ask. How did we get here?

There’s a one-word answer that you probably haven’t thought of: Rousseau.

The Rousseauian Fantasy

In 1769, naked girls rowed canoes out to greet European sailors entering Tahitian waters. News of this event spread like wildfire in Europe, and people searched for an explanation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted that this is the natural state, which civilization has deprived us of.

This explanation was popular! Intellectuals embraced the idea that joy is the natural state and “our society” has ruined things.

A century later, Karl Marx added a layer to this belief. He insisted that we could recapture nature’s bliss by tearing down “our society.” This idea was popular, too. People imagined joy popping up like daisies once “our society” was gone.

Any means necessary to bring about this universal happiness seemed justified. Bombs were planted in many countries by eager proponents of universal happiness around the turn of the 20th century. When that didn’t bring the desired result, new approaches were considered.

Thus, “scientific socialism” was born. The term is no longer used, but it was widely embraced in the past century, as reflected in the opening sentence of India’s constitution, which mentions a “socialist secular democratic republic.”

Believers in scientific socialism created “social sciences” such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology to spread the word. Students were trained to construct “evidence” of the flaws of our society and the happiness of other societies. By the 1920s, European universities had substituted the new belief system for beliefs that had prevailed for centuries.

Many scholars fled to New York when the Nazis came, and from there, they spread the new paradigm throughout the U.S. education system. An abundance of “social scientists” assured us that “the data” supported their views. They gave us “studies” showing that animals are happy, children are happy, and hunter-gatherers are happy.

They expect you to conclude that happiness is the default state of nature and that “our society” is the cause of unhappiness. This view is so deeply embedded in today’s education that we think of it as fact rather than belief.

Also in New York, in the 1930s, a young Arthur Sackler began searching for a medication to relieve unhappiness. He and his two brothers were psychiatrists at New York’s huge Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, after growing up with an unhappy mother. Sackler had previously worked in advertising, so he found it easy to advertise his medications to doctors.

In time, these two threads wove together perfectly. The medical view that unhappiness is a treatable illness was supported by the Rousseauian view that happiness is the natural default state. Rousseauian beliefs support the idea that society is responsible for fixing your unhappiness. Sackler’s skill at marketing to doctors boosted the medical view of emotion significantly. Then they marketed directly to the public. By the late 20th century, the disease model of mental health was firmly entrenched.

The new science of genetics exploded at that time. Money for genetics research was abundant. If you embraced a genetic explanation of human emotions, you could get funding. Not surprisingly, such explanations grew.

The genetics thread was soon woven into the first two. Now, we are told that happy people have good genes. If you are unhappy, you can blame your genes. We are still meant to think that no one is responsible for their emotions and that society is responsible for making everyone happy. We are still meant to call this “the science.” If you accept the paradigm, you are allowed to be on the team. If you question it, you are excommunicated from the world of “educated” people. It’s scientific socialism with a high-tech face.

The preamble of India’s constitution on a sign in Mumbai. (Courtesy of Loretta Breuning)
The preamble of India’s constitution on a sign in Mumbai. (Courtesy of Loretta Breuning)

Inconvenient Truth About Human Emotion

It’s hard to unravel beliefs that are deeply embedded in your education. But the fantasy of effortless happiness starts unraveling as soon as you know the truth about Rousseau.

He hid the fact that the Tahitian women were compensated for the warm reception they gave the sailors. One nail was the price. This commodity was highly desired by fathers and brothers because metal was previously unknown in the Pacific Islands. Young women were pressed into service by their families. Ship captains struggled to prevent this exchange because ships began to fall apart for lack of nails. This was widely known in the maritime world, so Rousseau would have known it, too. But he chose to market a fantasy instead.

Before you entrust Rousseau with your beliefs about human nature, you should know that he fathered five children with his housekeeper and immediately brought each baby to an orphanage so no child of his would be raised by a housekeeper.

Why do we let this man’s theory tell us how to interpret our emotions? Why do we see happiness as an entitlement and blame society for our unhappiness?

The message seduces us because of a little-known fact of human biology: We have two brains. One brain controls our emotional chemicals and another controls our conscious thoughts. The two brains are not connected at birth, so we have to build the connections in order to have insight into our emotions.

But the connections are harder to build than you might think. The limbic brain that controls our emotions is basically the same in all mammals. Animals can’t talk, so your limbic system can’t tell you in words why it’s releasing a chemical. This is why our emotions are a mystery to us, as they have been to humans since the beginning of time.

Our self-talk is controlled by a cortex that’s unique to humans. Our verbal brain struggles to make sense of the chemical surges produced by our limbic brain. It doesn’t know the facts, so it comes up with explanations that make you look good.

The fact is that the animal brain releases a happy chemical when it finds a way to meet a survival need. Threat chemicals are released when it sees a threat or obstacle to meeting a survival need. We hate to think that selfish survival urges shape our emotions, so our conscious brain finds more sophisticated explanations.

The inconvenient truth is that our happy brain chemicals are not designed to be on all the time. They turn on in short spurts, and then they turn off soon so they’re ready to motivate the next step toward meeting a need. It would be nice to enjoy constant dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin, but they are designed to reward survival action, not to make you happy.

It’s the same with the chemicals that make us feel bad. The animal brain releases cortisol when it sees a threat. But animals often feel threatened by social rivals in their quest for the food and mating opportunities that promote survival. Their cortisol spurts often.

If you are open to the facts, you can see that animals are unhappy a lot, children are unhappy a lot, and hunter-gatherers are unhappy a lot.

You would not be happy if you lived on a tropical island. Your happy chemical spurts would soon pass, and your brain would keep finding potential threats and releasing cortisol.

Wrestling happiness from this brain we’ve inherited is a complex skill that humans have strived to build since the beginning of time. My books explain how to build that skill, especially my new book, “Why You’re Unhappy: Biology vs Politics.”

We are less likely to build that skill if we are told that we are not responsible for our emotions.

If you wait for society to make you happy, time will pass and you may wait too long. Fortunately, you can build your power over your brain whether others do or not.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Loretta G. Breuning, Ph.D., is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She is the author of many personal development books, including “Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels” and “How I Escaped Political Correctness, And You Can Too.” Dr. Breuning’s work has been translated into eight languages and is cited in major media. Before teaching, she worked for the United Nations in Africa. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Tufts. Her website is InnerMammalInstitute.org.
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