I recently finished reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel about the near future. It took me nearly four months, and would have taken longer if I had not had extra time on my hands as I recovered from surgery. Reading the middle third of the book was like wandering through a wilderness; I kept going out of sheer determination, but it seemed like I was getting nowhere. There’s some satisfaction at having persevered to the end, but mainly there’s relief.

One of the reasons I initially decided to read the book was that I had seen the DFW interview movie The End of the Tour (2015) when it was first released, and that movie (which I discussed here) had made me curious about DFW’s analysis of the struggles those of us living in modern (or postmodern) USA have with living meaningful and genuine lives. As I read IJ, I paid attention to anything that shed light on this issue. There is of course much more to the novel than this, and I don’t want to suggest that DFW wrote primarily to offer advice about how to live with American entertainment, excess, and irony. I do want to focus on that issue in giving my thoughts about the book, though.

Just a couple of caveats before I begin. I have no particular expertise at literary analysis and only limited knowledge of DFW’s life and works, so readers are likely to find more astute information about IJ elsewhere. I’m merely sharing some of the thoughts the novel prompted in me. Also, I haven’t taken especial care to avoid spoilers, so if you’re reading IJ and don’t want to know what happens, it may be best to wait until you’re ready for such information before you read what I have to say.

To start, then, this post will focus on one feature that stood out as I read, namely that IJ portrays a world in which human desire is prevalent and problematic. Pretty much everyone is pursuing something they yearn for, usually something they hope will make them whole, or at least better. These desires aren’t a sufficient guide for life, though. In fact, they are likely to make life worse. In one of the two main settings for the novel, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent students all begin with a desire to make “The Show,” the professional tennis circuit. Not reaching this goal is problematic, but achieving it is even more fraught with danger:

“It’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines….” (p. 437-8)

Thus Schtitt, the head coach of the academy, is as interested in helping his charges avoid the perils of success as he is in helping them succeed. As one of the staff explains,

“The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks.” (p. 680)

In the other main setting, Ennet House–a halfway house for recovering drug addicts–the residents had desired what they thought drugs could provide, be that pleasure or escape or peace, but eventually they were always disappointed. More than this, they became trapped. For example, one of the residents, Joelle van Dyne, attempted to kill herself by overdose just because she had been imprisoned by her addiction. Here’s where she found herself:

“It is the cage that has entered her somehow. The ingenuity of the whole thing is beyond her. The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much. She’s lost the ability to lie to herself about being able to quit, or even about enjoying it, still. It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole.” (p. 222)

Desire is dangerous; it’s likely to become our master. DFW sounds almost as pessimistic as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer here, sharing with him the idea that what motivates human beings is primitive, illogical desires that can never be satisfied. Many of the characters in the book are caged in some way; typically this is the result of having pursued desires that seemed to offer bliss but end up causing harm.

Schopenhauer thought all we could do to mitigate the force of desire was to lead very constricted lives; fortunately, Wallace is more hopeful. I’ll discuss where he finds hope in a later post; let me close here by noting that for him at least one path to release could be found in addiction recovery organizations such as AA or NA. That this approach works is a surprise even for those in recovery. At one point, Don Gately, a staff member at Ennet House, reflects:

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy, slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons…and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’s had and then lost, when you Came In.”  (p. 350)

We all could use a little help; the trick is to figure out what will genuinely provide assistance and what promises to do so but ends up harming us instead.

 

I recently re-read a blog post I had saved from a few years ago about the American pursuit of happiness. Ruth Whippman, who is English but living in the U.S., notes that the achievement of happiness is particularly prized here:

“Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love.”

Some try to flaunt their success via material accumulation or conspicuous consumption. However, it is quite a challenge to accumulate resources sufficient to induce envy in others. For those of modest means and shabby circumstances, there is an alternative way to compete in the successful-life sweepstakes. Simply asserting “I’m happy” is the lazy person’s strategy to quell doubts  that he or she has in fact achieved the good life.

Ruth Whippman

Ruth Whippman

Whippman notes there is a considerable difference in approaches to happiness in UK and the US:

“Cynicism is the British shtick. When happiness does come our way, it is entirely without effort, as unmeritocratic as a hereditary peerage. By contrast, in America, happiness is work. Intense, nail-biting work, slogged out in motivational seminars and therapy sessions, meditation retreats and airport bookstores. For the left there’s yoga, for the right, there’s Jesus. For no one is there respite.”

Wippman notes that “The people taking part in ‘happiness pursuits,’ as a rule, don’t seem very happy.” Indeed, despite the assiduous efforts of many Americans to become more happy, surveys haven’t shown increases in happiness over the past 40 years. What’s the problem? Why aren’t we doing better at bolstering our happiness stores?

One answer is suggested by the epigraph to Whippman’s post, a quote by Eric Hoffer: “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” Wippman suggests that “The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety.” She thinks such anxiety may result from constantly wondering whether we are happy enough. Specifically, we’re likely to fret that our happiness doesn’t measure up to that of others. What if my hard work to be happy doesn’t make me as happy as someone who isn’t even trying?

I suspect that there are additional ways in which the pursuit of happiness increases anxiety. One of these is that we mistake the right to pursue happiness with an obligation to do so. This seems to be a bigger temptation for secular America than religious America. Among the secularists, life typically centers on furthering one’s interests and constructing the most balanced and complete life one can. What better reflects success at these self-enhancement projects than a sense of well-being or happiness? And, if happiness is absent, doesn’t that mean that one is not doing life right? In much of the world, unhappy people readily shrug their shoulders, point to circumstances that impede good cheer, and turn their attention to something else. Americans, in contrast, are expected to get to work clearing the path that will lead to felicity. We owe it to ourselves, the thinking goes.

So, the American troubled by unhappiness sets out to rectify things–but how to proceed? The American anxious to drive along the highway to happiness finds the signs along the route to be confusing, contradictory, or downright peculiar. Whippman notes the odd offerings posted on a message board in the California cafe where she was writing–Maum Meditation, TransDance, Chod Training and wolf colostrum. Will any of those really gain us life satisfaction?

Indeed, the road to happiness isn’t as direct as we might hope. When I drive from North Carolina to St. Louis, I won’t find signs for St. Louis right away. Instead, I have to head for other places–Sanford, then Winston-Salem, then Wytheville, and on and on, until, the journey mostly completed, I finally spot a sign for St. Louis. Similarly, I’m only likely to reach happiness if I forget about happiness and instead head for more proximate destinations first.

There are some good guides for where to head first on this journey, including Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, which suggests such activities as forgiving, nurturing relationships, and expressing gratitude. Another favorite of mine is David K. Naugle’s Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives, on the ordering of the affections. Following the advice of these authors may make us happy eventually, but will probably first make us better people. We might even gain the maturity to regard any happiness that results not as something we earned but as a gift. Then perhaps we could stop striving to be more happy and enjoy whatever measure of happiness we receive.

 

Over the past four decades, income inequality has grown considerably, with those in the top income brackets increasing their incomes substantially while the rest of us in the middle and lower brackets have stagnated.  So the rich are getting filthy rich, while the rest of us are barely getting by.  Maybe it’s scant consolation, but growing income inequality hasn’t been matched by a growing inequality in happiness.  In fact, in a recent three-part blog entry, economist Justin Wolfers reports that a study he did with fellow economist Betsey Stevenson found the opposite.  The happier among us are less happy, and the unhappy are less miserable. 

Specifically, Wolfers and Stevenson used data from the General Social Survey, which asks a representative sample of Americans: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are: very happy; pretty happy; or not too happy?”  Tracking how many survey respondents gave each of the three possible responses, the researchers found that, since 1972, an increasing percentage chose the middle category, but fewer and fewer people described themselves as either “very happy” or “not too happy.”  This change is evident in the graph that Wolfers provides:INSERT DESCRIPTION

The researchers performed several additional analyses, and found that the decline in variability took place pretty much whatever region, gender, race, education level, age, marital status was examined.  Overall happiness levels haven’t changed, but there are fewer people in the higher and lower categories, and more in the middle. 

Wolfers doesn’t speculate about the reason or reasons for this trend.  Whatever the answer, it has to apply to all demographic groups, since the decreased variability showed up everywhere.  Does anyone have a suggestion?

Thanks to Carl Dyke for sending a link to the web page.