It is an important book about many things, perhaps too many things. What he calls artificial happiness is being promoted by mood-enhancing drugs recklessly prescribed by primary-care physicians, by the obsession with exercise, and by "alternative" medical practices from acupuncture to meditating with crystals. What Dr. Dworkin has to say about mood-enhancing or psychotropic drugs is I think the most persuasive and most important.
The book is also about turf battles within the medical profession, between primary-care physicians, specialists, psychiatrists, and the pharmaceutical companies. Dworkin's argument is that the champions of "artificial happiness" are winning all the battles and now have recruited religion, as well, to their cause. He is greatly alarmed that religious leaders are not alarmed by the psychotropic revolution. I believe he is on to something to which more attention should be paid.
In our discussion, I suggested that I was not very taken with his extended treatment of the fascinating discussions about the connections between brain, mind, and consciousnessdiscussions in which I have played a modest part over the years. Against the more vulgar materialists and determinists, the book seems to come out on the side of the proponents of "emergent materialism." I indicated that I found this position philosophically unpersuasive, positing as it does the grounding of the rational in the irrational. Dworkin indicated that he was not advocating that position, only reporting it. I wish that were more clear in the book.
It should also be underscored that the pharmaceutical remedies for clinical depressionin the tradition usually called melancholy of various gradations, or acedia, or spiritual torporcan frequently be a great blessing, so long as they help equip people to address other problems rather than escape or evade them.
A particular strength of Artificial Happiness is its treatment of the doping of millions of children with Ritalin and other drugs. We are running the grave risk of depriving the next generation of experiences that are essential to growing up. Sadness, failure, disappointment, and other aspects of unhappiness are both inevitable and necessary in learning and achievement. What is often called attention deficit disorder (ADD) is in many cases the most natural of childhood conditions, notably among boys. Dworkin makes a convincing case that the life experience of young people is often being repressed and distorted for the convenience of teachers and parents.
At the core of Dworkin's enterprise is a sharp critique of the now widespread notion that unhappiness is a disease that is to be medically treated. I spoke of the Christian spiritual tradition in which unhappiness in many forms is an essential part of growth, also in the growth toward holiness. The writings of saints such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta are replete with counsel on the uses of unhappiness. Pushing the envelope for the crowd at the Strand, I alluded to the understanding of "redemptive suffering" in the course of attaining happiness, as in wholeness, as in holiness. My impression is that this got into territory where Dr. Dworkin, and some in the audience, were not comfortable, as in happy. But our solid agreement is in contending that it is false and dangerous to go along with the notion that unhappiness is a disease to be medically remedied.
And Dworkin is surely right that we need to contend also against religious leaders who aid and abet the notion that happinessas in feeling good about oneselfis the goal of life. I believe he exaggerates the dominance of the tradition associated with Norman Vincent Peale, "positive thinking," and feel-good religion in general. His point is that the psychotropic revolution is putting such religious approaches out of business, and with the unwitting cooperation of the happiness preachers.
There is no doubt that entrepreneurial religionistsas is evident in the world of megachurches, but not only therepromote a gospel of happiness: Everything goes better with Jesus, just as everything goes better with Coke. But that kind of religion has always been around, and its sharpest critics are from within the Christian community. Dworkin's argument is that more and more people are discovering that everything goes better with Prozac or Zoloft. Or at least everything that is going wrong is easier to ignore.
But most clergy, contra Dworkin, do not feel they are being pushed out of the happiness business by pill-pushing doctors, because they never understood themselves to be in the happiness business to begin with. More precisely, they do not understand themselves to be in the business of making people feel good about their disordered selves and their disordered lives. Their business, if one must use the term, is speaking the gospel to sinners, who are rightly unhappy with their sinful lives, and providing the sacramental means by which the Holy Spirit guides them toward holiness.
But again, Artificial Happiness is very much worth reading. Ronald Dworkin ends his book on this unabashedly moral note: "And nothing is more telling than the fact that doctors, despite all their accomplishments, remain unable to answer the most basic question of life, the question that gives life its coherence and when answered makes happiness and contentment possible. That question is: How should one live?"
And, as I underscored Tuesday evening at the Strand, that happiness and contentment is finally to be understood in relation to the words of Saint Augustine: "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
In addition to which:
From the beginning, First Things has been a collaborative enterprise. It is not just a magazine but--as we rather pretentiously put it--a universe of discourse. Which is another way of saying that it is a moveable feast of personal and intellectual friendships. From time to time, we'll be posting here pictures of some of the people who sustain the First Things conversation.
From left: Joseph Bottum, Fr. Neuhaus, and Russell Hittinger at an FT conference. None will admit to remembering what was so funny.
To access the running gallery, click here.