Freud, Goethe and Burke on Happiness, Pleasure, and Satiation

Defining ‘happiness’ is hard; how are we to know what to do to be happy, if we don’t have a good handle on what happiness is? And thus, the persistent efforts through the ages, of philosophical minds–and more recently, grimly determined social scientists and psychologists alike–to provide some delineation of the concept. (Even David Brooks thinks he has something to contribute to this discussion and thus, often deigns to provide–from his Op-Ed perch–disquisitions on moral psychology.)

One recurring suspicion has been that happiness might not be all it’s cracked up to be; that happiness may only be transient, not a sustainable state, that to seek recurrence of a pleasurable state might be to commit oneself to a foolishly deluded pursuit of rapidly diminishing value, that satiation is likely to result all too soon on the attainment of a pleasurable state, leaving one again, discontent and unhappy. (The phenomenon, noted by many over the years, of how seeking the re-creation of a pleasurable event like a particularly successful vacation or family reunion, never, ever works, is related to this suspicion as are the drug addict’s vain attempts to re-experience the first really great high.)

At the heart of this suspicion is the notion that novelty and contrast play too great a role in our understanding of happiness and pleasure. This has often been articulated, and quite well too.

For instance, in that masterpiece of modern pessimism, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud notes in Chapter II,

What is called happiness in its narrowest sense comes from the satisfaction——most often instantaneous——of pent-up needs  which have reached great intensity, and by its very nature can only be a transitory experience. When any condition desired by the pleasure-principle is protracted [link added], it results in a feeling only of mild comfort; we are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, much less intensely states in themselves. [footnote 8]

Footnote 8 reads:

Goethe even warns us that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days. ““ [Freud then adds: ‘This may be an exaggeration all the same.’]

And of course, Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, in ‘The Difference Between Pain and Pleasure’ famously noted,

[I]t is very evident that pleasure, when it has run its career, sets us down very nearly where it found us. Pleasure of every kind quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference

So there is resonance, when it comes to talking about happiness and pleasure, between ambitious psychoanalytic speculation which references the insight of the poet–always great diagnosers of the human condition–and philosophical attempts to analyze aesthetic sensibility. (These suggestions show too, that nothing is quite as much a downer as talking about happiness.)

More seriously, what lends these commentaries their particular gravity is that securing novelty and contrast is hard work, requiring constant reinvention, at the end of which awaits, not a serenely quiescent state, but further disappointment. Thus too, the particularly irony of the pursuit of happiness: it marks the beginning of a journey, which is always a return to the state which prompted its commencement.

5 comments on “Freud, Goethe and Burke on Happiness, Pleasure, and Satiation

  1. D3CRiP says:

    At every attempt we try to reinvent our daily lives, we put at risk the rigidity of the rules we’ve become accommodated to live and rule by. The envelope is overwhelming per se, in the sense that it may produce results that are unknown to us at the time of forethought. The unpredictability of these features can be quite daunting and make it an arduous task for the all-too generic mind. Risks are psychological barriers at the rudimentary level, that one must be willing to put aside to reinvention.

  2. […] In a post last year on the subject of happiness, I had cited Freud and Burke–the founders of psychoanalysis and political conservatism, respectively. Their views of happiness spoke of the seemingly necessarily transitory nature of the sensation we term happiness–Freud even enlists Goethe to help make this claim–that happiness was marked by brief, fleeting intensity, by its ‘novelty and contrast’. […]

  3. […] his polymathic explorations of literature, legend, poetry and art. I have noted this last feature in an earlier post on Freud where I pointed out his invocation of Goethe in discussing the nature of human happiness; all too […]

  4. […] again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, […]

  5. […] elusive and desirable entities can rapidly lose their allure once they are in our possession. We may even tire of them, find them oppressive, and seek relief in some kind of novelty, some kind of deviation. (Freud quotes Goethe in Civilization and its Discontents as noting that […]

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