A traffic jam, a shoe that pinches: It takes very little to ruin a nice day. Nothing can please you then, and your judgment is affected. At first glance, unpleasantness and the resulting peevishness have no political or economic significance. These experiences are commonplace, part of the human condition. But when millions of people daily experience unpleasant sensations, so much so that they feel unsettled and cast about for relief, then politics and economics are indeed affected.
In politics, negative feelings of well-being reportedly drive the anti-establishment vote. According to researchers at Stanford and MIT, Trump won the “unhappiness vote” in 2016, with negative feelings a better predictor of voting patterns than race or class. Negative feelings also play a role in the opioid crisis, as distressed people find their way to drugs. The twelve-month period that ended in April 2021 saw more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S. due to drug overdose, an increase of 30 percent over the year before. Entire industries are built around our desire to address negative feelings. Almost 20 percent of Americans take a psychoactive drug. The global market for psychoactive drugs in 2020 was $35 billion, and is expected to rise to $60 billion in 2031, with Americans taking the lion’s share of these meds. The psychotherapy and counseling market in the U.S. is worth $10 billion.
Plenty of people analyze the root cause of all these negative feelings, and they often theorize according to their particular areas of interest. An economist might search for oppressive financial structures. A social worker might focus more on family dynamics. But there is an irony here: Our determination to find theoretical explanations for our unpleasant feelings is partly to blame for their often explosive political and social consequences.
Consider a common thought pattern: We have an unpleasant sensation. It might be nothing more than the absence of excitement, a lifelessness in life itself. Nothing is distinct, but there is still much to feel. The unpleasant sensation becomes the axis on which our existence turns; it has a disquieting power, and we seek the reasons for it. The inquiry is intriguing, for paradoxically, we like to analyze our woes, and we find comfort in talking about them. Eventually, we call ourselves “unhappy,” but only after we have furnished our unpleasant sensation with a reason of some kind. Before, we simply experienced an unpleasant sensation; now, we are unhappy because . . .
Sometimes, we mislead ourselves. An unpleasant sensation gets the mind churning, and we reach for something in our lives to blame. A man feels an unpleasant sensation. In a flash he ponders a thought he has had before: Maybe he should have started his own business, or married later in life, or traveled more—something. He blames his unpleasant sensation on one of these causes and declares himself “unhappy.” But he errs, for the explanation followed the sensation—so fast that he imagines that the explanation “caused” what preceded it. The drive to explain unpleasant sensations, to understand them, to have reasons for feeling the way we do, is so powerful that sometimes we reverse the order in which unpleasant sensations and the explanations for them appear.
We fall into this way of thinking because so many unpleasant sensations do have specific causes. I stub my toe, and it hurts. I drink too much, and I get a hangover. The cause-and-effect relationship is clear. But generalized bad feelings are different. Without an obvious explanation for them, we fall back into the habit of finding and blaming a specific cause, such as work trouble, money trouble, health trouble, or love trouble, at which point we pronounce ourselves unhappy.
In these circumstances, a person’s unpleasant feeling is real, but his or her unhappiness is somewhat artificial. In real unhappiness, the connection between the unpleasant feeling and unhappiness is immediate and direct. In artificial unhappiness—that is, remote causes of unhappiness that people use to explain their unpleasant feelings—people know what they feel but not much more. They might feel gloomy, bored, or ill-at-ease—a misery of the soul. Failing to understand why, they cast about for causes, thinking backward.
For example, I may blame an overbearing boss for my negative feelings, which I can now describe in more detail as feelings of inferiority. With this thought in my mind, I habituate myself to the causal connection I have made. I decide that my toxic workplace is dragging me down, and I become habitually unhappy. At night, I spar with the day’s shadows; to feel is to reflect, and I turn over in my head the day’s interactions, scratching the wound of my unpleasant feelings as I do. Other people, seeking to help me, encourage me in this behavior. True, the negative feelings are real. But the unhappiness is artificial, which is to say, “constructed” by the explanations I give.
By this path the more remote “causes” of artificial unhappiness gain traction in people’s minds. In earlier eras, those causes might have been evil spirits. In Salem, they were witches. In our time, the evil spirits tend to be framed in psychological and sociological terms. Whatever formulations are used, remote causes explain ill-defined unpleasant sensations on a mass scale. They purport to explain the unpleasant sensations of not one person but millions. By doing so, they affect politics and economics.
Religion long shaped our attitude toward negative feelings, both insisting that they are part of life and providing supernatural explanations, some of which encourage artificial unhappiness. With religion’s decline as the framework for understanding life’s trials, the modern era has witnessed three waves of artificial unhappiness. The first wave led to psychoactive drugs; the second led to cognitive behavioral therapy; the third is leading us toward new kinds of technology. The third wave, along with its effect on politics and economics, is just beginning.
The psychopharmacology revolution began with a chance discovery in 1952 at Sea View Hospital in Staten Island, New York. Two doctors noticed the antidepressant side effects of the drug iproniazid, which was being used to treat tuberculosis patients. A second breakthrough came in 1957 with Roland Kuhn’s chance discovery of the antidepressant imipramine. These drugs gave rise to the two classes of antidepressants that dominated depression therapy until Prozac came along in 1987: MAO inhibitors and tricyclics. They quickly replaced opium as the primary treatment for depression. In an important way, however, they hardly differed from opium, just as opium hardly differed from alcohol. Alcohol, opium, and antidepressants stupefy people. They induce a pleasant sensation, independent of what is actually going on in a person’s life. Time magazine’s description of patients taking iproniazid—how they grew festive and danced on the wards—could just as easily apply to people who are drunk or high.
The invention of the spectrophotofluorimeter in the 1950s led to a new causal theory of unhappiness altogether. This device revealed an association between the new antidepressants and increased levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Researchers concluded that neurotransmitters must somehow mediate the improvement in mood caused by antidepressants.
Through a series of inferences that lacked scientific basis, neurotransmitters went from being associated with depression, to causing depression, to causing everyday unhappiness. Henceforth, millions of people who felt unpleasant sensations called themselves unhappy and blamed it on neurotransmitters. Both depression and unhappiness fell under a single category, while neurotransmitters became the single cause—often leading to treatment with the same drug.
Antidepressants were sold based on this model for the next sixty years, and still are. In 2019, the FDA cleared the use of the stupefying drug psilocybin, found in “magic mushrooms,” for depression therapy. Researchers emphasized the neurotransmitter connection—the fact that psilocybin acts on the serotonin receptor—to give the drug the imprimatur of science. In reality, the drug hardly differs from psychedelics such as LSD, which is likewise being evaluated as a potential antidepressant, or the drug ketamine, which is now being used as an antidepressant.
As a basis for stupefying unhappy people, the neurotransmitter model eventually reached the limits of what it could accomplish. Many antidepressants give unhappy people a zombie-like sensation. For most unhappy people, this is not enough; they want to feel more than just “less depressed.” Yet drug researchers continue to rely on the “less-depressed standard” to evaluate antidepressants. In “remission,” unhappy people can complain of sadness, weeping, tension, and irritability, and still be considered “cured.”
Yet the political and economic repercussions of the neurotransmitter model endure. Economically, the model spawned a new branch of pharmaceuticals. Politically, it reinforced a longstanding belief that brain matter determines our thoughts, actions, and behaviors. That belief ramifies throughout society, for instance, in law, where it undercuts traditional notions of individual responsibility. Yet the neurotransmitter model—or at least its failure—also feeds into today’s political dysfunction.
In the past, most people looked outward to find the cause of their unhappiness, but the neurotransmitter model thrust their unhappiness back into their bodies, where it ceased to be explained by anything but a chemical imbalance. This gave unhappy people an advantage. If, underneath it all, unhappiness was just a question of neurotransmitters, people could laugh at other speculations. It was certainly easier to say that one was deficient in neurotransmitters than in true friends. Those who subscribed to the neurotransmitter model consequently found their need to connect with the outside world flag.
But when the model’s defects were exposed and antidepressants promised only a zombie-like feeling, or at best a transient good feeling, many people found themselves adrift. They had put their faith in medical science as a solution to their unhappiness, and medicine failed them. Still unhappy, but no longer able to call themselves ill, they called themselves cursed. Without the brain-chemical “cause” to blame, they imagined endless other “causes.”
Some of these “causes,” such as loneliness, overwork, or maltreatment, bordered on the political. Yet everything can be made political eventually. One way or another, from whatever direction, politics kept pressing and pushing, tunneling away inside those seeking the “causes” of their malaise. Unhappy people connected through social media with other unhappy people who imagined the same political “cause” of their unhappiness. Together, they reinforced that cause’s validity.
Politics came to be a competition for happiness as much as a struggle of interests. Politics became something for unhappy people to hope in. The political system might never actually eliminate the “cause” of their unhappiness, but that didn’t matter. To hope is to be happy. Happiness is happiness only when a person actually has it, and to hope is to have it. Politics became one of the last few realms in life where hope seemed realistic, where change seemed possible, when so much else in life seemed fixed. To experience the pleasure of hope, many unhappy people grew preoccupied with politics, despite having no tangible interest at stake or even much interest in public policy.
Psychologists noticed the trend. Unhappiness was already associated with political extremism. Increasingly it has been associated with an obsession with politics. One study draws a line between obsessive political thoughts and psychopathology, including depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Another study reveals an association between obsessive political views and anxiety.
In 2016, blue-state voters on average had an additional half-day of poor mental health in the month after Trump won than in the month before. A similar phenomenon occurred among red-state voters in 2020 when Trump lost. Indeed, for the past twenty years, one-quarter of both Republicans and Democrats have complained of depression after their respective candidates lost the presidential election. Grief-related searches typically spike on the internet the day after presidential elections. On the day after the 2016 election, traffic to the website PsychCentral’s “5 Stages of Grief and Loss” page increased more than fourfold. On both sides of the political divide are people whose actual interests are barely affected by the election results, but who nevertheless suffer tremendous misery if their candidate loses. Why? Because losing extinguishes their hope, and therefore their happiness. This makes their unhappiness more like madness, a sort of human rabies, a furious, pointless monomania. Social media fed their hope; after the loss, hope is dashed. Social media then magnifies their unhappiness and covers everything with a cloak of gloom. One crying child makes others cry; worse still, crying makes one cry harder.
In 1860, a Southerner complained of depression the day after Lincoln won. She had good reason to feel depressed: She feared a coming civil war. Her life was at stake. In contrast, many voters today feel unhappy after an election loss in every sense—a matter of vague, intangible factors, such as self-affirmation, intellectual self-confidence, and hope. They are unhappy because politics had given them something to hope in, and now they have lost hope. Theirs is the tragic happiness and unhappiness of total obsession.
The cognitive-behavioral model of unhappiness was less a second wave than a wave that washed over society at the same time as psychoactive drugs, but from a different direction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has its origins in behavioral therapy, which grew popular during the mid-twentieth century. Rather than probe the unconscious, as Freudian psychoanalysis did, behavioral therapy saw mental illness as a reflex response to stimuli that a person has learned over time. Yet behavioral therapy did not treat depression very well. In the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron Beck focused on analyzing and restructuring the actual thoughts of unhappy people. Called “cognitive therapy,” Beck’s method eventually merged with behavior therapy in the 1980s, to become CBT. Today, CBT is the umbrella term for practically all forms of talk therapy.
Unlike the neurotransmitter model of unhappiness, CBT addresses a particular cause’s unique details, thereby treating each person’s unhappiness differently. CBT tries to get people to re-evaluate their attitude toward the “cause” they have given to their unpleasant sensation. In doing so, CBT risks becoming another form of stupefaction, like antidepressants.
Take, for example, a man who blames his unpleasant sensation on the fact that he hasn’t accomplished much in life. A second man blames his unpleasant sensation on his futile career. A third blames his on life’s elemental unfairness. Through “cognitive restructuring,” CBT tries to detach each man from his preferred cause. In the process, it teaches each man new values. It teaches the first man to rethink the cultural norm that emphasizes success, the second to make do with creative outlets beyond work, and the third to accept life’s basic unfairness. Yet all this restructuring borders on stupefaction, wherein reality is overturned and pessimism about life is turned into an almost idiotic acceptance. In these three examples, CBT downplays the values of ambition, the importance of enjoyable work, and the demands of justice. It alters each man’s worldview so that his conscience judges his situation in life less harshly. Each man becomes happier, but at the risk of falsifying his worldview.
More recent CBT modalities, such as mindfulness and biofeedback, likewise risk stupefaction. Unhappy people use these modalities to live in the present and avoid thinking about the past and future. To keep from dwelling on the “cause” of their unhappiness, which is conjured up in memory and anticipated when they are thinking ahead, they put their minds to sleep. “We can’t control what arrives in our life, but we can control how we respond to what arrives in our life,” explains one mindfulness therapist. Like chemical forms of stupefaction, mindfulness and biofeedback shut down the mind, preventing our consciences from rendering judgment on our lives.
The CBT method gradually penetrated American cultural life and changed our politics. The effect was first felt in the 1960s, when CBT penetrated the civil rights movement. Notions of self-esteem and personal identity became central to the movement’s worldview, replacing the older emphasis on voting rights and access to jobs and housing. Soon followed the focus on group identity, the belief that racism is both a conscious and a subconscious phenomenon, and the idea that racism’s effects can be invisible—all hallmarks of today’s identity politics.
The transformation of civil rights into a right to self-esteem was only the beginning. Millions of unhappy people, angry about life but impotent to do anything about it, found psychological release through a four-step method reminiscent of CBT. In the process, they changed American politics.
In the first step, civil rights activists demanded that all disadvantaged people enjoy a feeling of equality with average, middle-class people. Although the movement was motivated by noble goals, it risked impracticality at certain points. For example, in 1970, the City University of New York lowered its admission standards to give everyone a shot at middle-class success and respectability. Yet rather than raise up disadvantaged and remedial students, the reform simply lowered the college’s academic level, making it harder for anyone to get a good education there.
A second step followed. When some disadvantaged people still failed to achieve middle-class success and respectability, they did what CBT encourages. Just as the man who blames an ethic of success for his unhappiness finds relief by embracing “simplicity” and “contentment”—for instance, by smirking at successful people who go to expensive restaurants while declaring his own cheaper meal to be much “better”—those who felt aggrieved by their relative lack of success took average, middle-class people down a notch through ridicule. Activists slandered middle-class people to obscure their positive attributes. They belittled middle-class attitudes toward sex and religion, conservative dress, and efforts to become “solid” citizens. The “culture of irony” that penetrated comedy during the 1970s exemplified this, highlighting easily ridiculed middle-class tendencies.
Still, the values of middle-class success and respectability survived, even as some people failed to achieve them. People might have laughed at the life habits that went along with them, but they could not escape the conflict within themselves between their desire for these things and their impotence to get them. Thus, the third step: To take average, middle-class people down another notch, activists depreciated middle-class success and respectability, calling these things insignificant. In social science, for example, adulthood and maturity ceased to be measured by whether one had a job or a mortgage or was financially responsible—typical middle-class achievements—but by whether one possessed certain psychological traits, such as tolerance and empathy. The social model of adulthood gave way to a psychological model that consisted of values that anyone could possess, including the marginal and disadvantaged.
Activists during this phase did not say that middle-class success and respectability were bad, only that the measures of traditional middle-class success and respectability were bad. It is the old story of the fox and the sour grapes: The fox does not say that sweetness is bad, but that those grapes are sour. Adulthood was still praised—but now a tolerant, empathic thirty-something who dressed in grunge style and played video games all day was considered more mature than a bank executive with a house and a family who lacked the same ethical consciousness. New avenues to middle-class success and respectability opened as a result. Nevertheless, there remained people who failed to achieve any semblance of success or respectability. Their inner tension, manifested in an impulse of resentment, still begged for release.
Release came in the fourth and final step, whereby middle-class success and respectability ceased to be good and became evil. Success itself was said to be the product of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and transphobia, and impossible to reconcile with the values of inclusivity. The nuclear family, once good, became a manifestation of the evil patriarchy. America’s success as a country became evil; patriotism, once good, likewise became evil. Free speech became an enemy of progressive values. Good manners became evil, as they prevented activists from shouting down the defenders of middle-class respectability. Police who protect life and property—two major bourgeois concerns—went from good to evil. Art that appeals to middle-class sensibilities, ranging from Shakespeare to Jane Austen, went from good to evil—or at least suspect—while art steeped in revolutionary social justice became the supreme good.
Psychologically, the systematic reinterpretation of middle-class values promised a great deal more than the depreciation of middle-class success had: It brought release to millions. Successful and respectable middle-class people, once a cause of pain and envy for others, were now to be pitied rather than respected. They were, if not evil, then at least beset with evils. The disadvantaged and marginal, especially the unhappy among them, were the pure, the elect, and the good.
All that remained was for successful, respectable middle-class Americans to buy into the new values, to poison their own minds, to feel guilty and ashamed of their success and their country’s heritage, to wallow in the morbid and to dwell fanatically on the lives of victims. Many do. Hence the dawn of woke politics, which is perhaps best understood as CBT on a mass scale.
We are amid the third wave of solutions to unhappiness, one that adopts technologies such as virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics. In the first wave, neurotransmitters were blamed for unhappiness. In the second wave, wrong thinking was blamed. In the third wave, reality itself is blamed. Rather than stifle people’s desires by numbing their minds, as antidepressants do, third-wave technologies give people a technological substitute for what they desire. According to third-wave ideology, what people want, they should want. No more talking people out of their desires, changing their value system, or prodding them to compromise in life, as CBT does. The only impediment to satisfying one’s desires and finding happiness, says third-wave ideology, is reality itself, which can be corrected and presented anew.
The first virtual reality machine was built in the 1950s, and by the 1960s the technology was being used in flight simulators and, later, video games. In the late 1990s, VR was adapted for use in pediatric burn units to distract children during painful dressing changes. Over the next twenty years, VR technology expanded into other areas, such as adult burn units and trauma units, again to relieve people’s pain through distraction. Gradually, experts in the VR field recognized that VR worked by more than just distracting unhappy people; it worked also by immersing unhappy people in another world. If people felt sufficiently present in that other world (that is, if that world seemed sufficiently real to them), they would feel more relaxed and stress-free—in other words, happier.
Today, VR is moving rapidly in this direction, trying to bring happiness to the masses by giving them a virtual substitute for what they desire in life but cannot have, the lack of which “causes” their unhappiness. For instance, people who want to travel, but who lack the time or money to do so, can pretend to hike Everest or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef through VR technology. A man who always wanted to serve in the military can pretend to do so in VR. A woman who always wanted to be a doctor can pretend to practice medicine in VR. The possibilities are limitless.
AI offers another option. Rather than rationalize their unhappiness through CBT, lonely people can simulate companionship through AI programs such as Replika, an app that learns and mimics a person’s personality to become that person’s friend. For many lonely people Replika serves as a sounding board and secret confidante.
Robotics is a third avenue of development. People (mostly men) can use a sex robot not just to enjoy sex, but also to simulate an actual relationship. One man who goes by the name of Brick Dollbanger describes his relationship with the robot Harmony, manufactured by RealDoll, as both physical and psychological. He reports, “I would just sit and talk to her [Harmony] for half an hour every night when I came home from work.” Sex robots let men like Brick simulate relationships with beautiful women, thereby eliminating the “cause” of their unhappiness.
In each case, technology replicates the things people believe are missing from their lives and thus “causing” their unhappiness. With their longing satisfied, their sense of discord between how they live and how they wish to live fades.
But similarities remain with the other two waves. With technology, people rely on stupefaction to experience happiness. Their good feeling is no more derived from real life than is the good feeling obtained through mindfulness or an antidepressant: It is a self-deception. True, being self-deceived is different from being deceived. Self-deception is active. Brick Dollbanger, for instance, has actual sex with Harmony. Yet his relationship with Harmony is no more authentic than the experience of a child who plays at fighting, gets some real bruises, and calls it war. It is a counterfeit of reality.
The third wave’s economic effects are only beginning. VR and AR (augmented reality) contribute $46 billion in wealth to the global economy. That number is expected to rise to $1.5 trillion by 2030. AI is expected to contribute an additional 14 percent (or $16 trillion) to global GDP by 2030. In 2019, the U.S. market for chatbots (robots that keep people company) was $400 million; by 2027, it is expected to rise to $2 billion. Sex robots alone may double the global market for sex devices by 2027.
The third wave’s political effects have yet to be felt, but some predictions are possible. On the one hand, a happy people, including a stupefied people, are easy to govern. They are satisfied with their lives and reconciled to themselves. On the other hand, a madman no longer knows for sure where he is, or what he sees, or what he is doing, and people who use technology to live life outside of reality are in this sense a bit mad. Madmen are hard to govern. Moreover, the less people see reality, the more their minds will go in dangerous utopian directions.
Yet in my estimation, the greatest risk to American politics is not that people will grow mad but that they will grow bored. Substitutes for reality, even very high-tech ones, have the curious power of devaluing one’s feelings. Inevitably you feel the unreality; its shadow falls black across your path and things seem less brightly colored; they do not go to the heart as much. When happiness is guaranteed or your money back, you grow bored. Real happiness always presupposes some uneasiness, some sore spot that awakens you to the possibility of its loss. People enjoy a little difficulty in life. When an obstacle is in a person’s way, the blood tingles. That’s why no one would want to play a game if there were no possibility of losing. Such uneasiness, which incites hope, is essential to happiness.
Third-wave solutions to unhappiness usually avoid arousing in consumers this feeling of unease—and therefore hope. Replika, for example, can be trained to be always agreeable and never argumentative. A man will always be able to have sex with Harmony. True, some video games and VR experiences include the possibility of losing, but the loss carries no actual risk; the scenario isn’t real, which is why manufacturers need not fear hurting customers if they fall off Everest in VR, or accidentally kill a patient in a VR operating room. It is this falsity that prods VR and AR users to regard the alternative world created through technology with suspicion, thereby dampening the technology’s ability to arouse the feelings of unease that inspire hope, and bring happiness.
Stupefaction achieved through technology will not be as complete as that achieved through antidepressants, or through CBT’s inverted value system. In any event, people want to live in the world, not within themselves. Bored and stifled, those who rely on technology to satisfy their desires are bound to feel a new kind of unpleasant sensation. They will then look for a “cause” to explain it, only now, having endured fake relationships, fake companionship, fake travel, and fake interesting work, they will see the deceit perpetrated on them as more comprehensive, and conclude that the system as a whole is failing them. They will blame a wider audience; they will take more risks politically; they will grow more radical.
Life has always dealt more harshly with some than with others. This uneven fate has always troubled the body politic, even more so in a democratic age that promises equality. Third-wave technology is no more likely than the first and second waves to succeed in solving the unhappiness problem, and it may have even more disruptive social and political consequences. This is to be expected, for no technical solution will shield us from the wrath of the slighted, the wretched, the unlovely, the uncertain, and the humiliated. That problem must be addressed politically, morally, and spiritually.
Ronald W. Dworkin is a physician and political scientist.