Our right to be sadder but wiser

Or, is toilet paper marketing robbing you of your power?

vol. 1 issue 38


In a new America, I envision we will create what I call “herd immunity to anxiety and depression ™”. That was the initial goal of creating this online journal of American studies, in fact. It’s why I call it docu-mental, emphasis on the mental part.

You can read more about how I came to believe that was possible by visiting this page, but in short, it is my goal to help people calm down, reclaim their own mind, and then show others how to do the same by teaching other people to see through the potential BS in any prescriptive or didactic messaging.

I believe that most of the time, by being in control of how we process the ubiquitous messaging that assaults us daily, we can control our mental states.

Today, I am thinking about how letting others define us as individuals is connected to how we define our individual happiness, how this then connects with our freedom, and ultimately, whether the end result is that we are vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

My observation is that it’s easy to become destabilized if we let others define who we are, tell our story for us. It’s not always a pernicious event; sometimes it’s as simple as the people around us having bigger egos than we do, and so they suck up all the oxygen in the room. The power-grabber isn’t evil necessarily, just oblivious. That is certainly a legitimate take-away from the story in yesterday’s journal entry.

But, also as evidenced in yesterday’s entry, when we let others tell our own story rather than insist on telling it ourselves, then our power to define who we really are as individuals is eroded. That is fundamental to our right as Americans, at least according to the Jeffersonian credo that we are all endowed with the inherent right to pursue happiness.

After all, if you don’t know who you are, it’s hard to know what will make you happy.

But is being happy the goal or part of the journey?

I’ll come back to that thought in a moment…

Also at this nexus of identity and happiness is freedom.

If another tells us who we are, then are we really in charge of our own minds? Or, are we sheep, constantly being corralled by profiteers who shape our minds and our identities to make it fit into their brand, whether it be in religion, politics, or markets?

If we are being manipulated, that is what I would consider pernicious, because that is being done to us, intentionally, and most likely without our expressed consent.

It’s stealing.

And it’s not freedom.

Once we’ve been indoctrinated through this act of theft, we begin to fear leaving the slot we’ve been placed within, we fear thinking outside of the box we’ve been assigned. And if we are living in various states of fear, how can we also be free to be happy?

But hang on. Before you start renouncing any of the groups to which you belong, whether it be those who use iPhones over Androids, or worship via Catholicism over Anglicism, also consider that one of the most consistent findings in the social and mental health sciences is that humans are group animals. Being shunned or alienated from our group is one of the most traumatic experiences for humans to bear.

So, how do we find the sweet spot between being authentic as an individual, and being integrated into a group so that we can be happy?

That brings us back to the question of whether happiness is an end goal.

The first thing I suggest is to start by looking outside of our Anglo-Western set. That is to say, to understand that the pursuit of happiness is not the obsession of all peoples. In other words, you don’t have to be concerned with happiness.

For example, also in yesterday’s entry about the Lakota Music Project, I noted that American Indians tend to see themselves as of not on this planet. That means they see themselves as changing with the seasons, flowing with the energies rather than shaping them and bending them to their will. This viewpoint automatically precludes them from taking happiness from inside themselves and outsourcing it to another who will somehow package it and sell it back to them.

Consider: If your view of the world is that you are already and always will be connected to it, then no matter how much of an individual you are, you are also never fully alone.

Contrast this with how in our current America, we’ve outsourced our state of mind by separating happiness into market shares. We let others sell us the idea of who we are, and then tell us that unless we stay true to that identity (or “brand”), we can’t possibly be happy.

This is why we have the self-care industry, the self-help industry, even a mental health industry which I argue is messy mix of genuinely helpful science and not so innocuous messaging to be happy or die.

The end result is an industrial pressure on us to Be Happy! It’s less an inherent right than a thing to be gained in segments, either by purchasing it or manufacturing it. That very much describes an end goal, a product and not a natural state of being.

Happiness has become a tool for keeping us fearful of falling out of line, as my podcast guest Ron Purser explained talking about McMindfulness. Happiness has even become a competitive sport where we try to out-happy each other on social media with our photos of a fabulously curated selves.

Which means that the second way to resist being unhappy about being unhappy is to recognize who stands to profit from this dilemma. Once you follow this line of inquiry, it’s easier to see how you are vulnerable to being manipulated.

Even if it means being manipulated in unlikely ways, such as being tricked into buying a certain brand of toilet paper for fear of ruining your child’s education, and thus their future ability to be happy. Really!!

You can see how this works by spending time with this excellent munchtime* read. It’s a provocative and concise piece (that is to say, easily digestible in a less than ten minutes) by historian Cody Delistraty who traces how the right to pursue happiness has been used as a stealth weapon over the past few centuries.

Here’s a snippet:

Today, market research, built on Watson’s work, has only continued to grow, pioneering in-store face-scanning – to determine consumers’ emotions in front of certain products – advertisements that seem to follow us across every digital platform, and, eventually, the Holy Grail of market manipulation: being able to create products that hack our happiness, that make us neurologically need to use and buy them. (Already this exists to some extent: for example, think of how Facebook manipulates the mood of users with its News Feed algorithms.)

But if we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated into pining after peak experiences, then we leave ourselves open not only to market manipulation but also to loneliness, poor judgment and, ironically, an abiding sadness.

Back to that part about creating herd immunity to anxiety and depression…

There’s plenty of advice for how to identify and deal with each, some of it useful, some of it specious, and all of it stuff that over time, I am sure docu-mental will address.

But as a starting point, let’s at least agree that up until now, maybe our framing of these issues has been faulty and that they are less connected with the pursuit of happiness, and more to the pursuit of authenticity instead.


A note on the above photo: It’s a moment of synchronicity. On my recent sojourn in the UK, I spent an afternoon in London’s Science Museum where I wandered through an exhibit on the history of plumbing of which this advertisement was a part. Struck by the abject shamelessness — but humor — of its manipulative intent, I took a photo of it, intending to use it in an essay for docu-mental.

Soon after, I came across Delistraty’s piece and so was able to learn the history of the advertising campaign, and of the negative use of such psychology by advertisers like
J Walter Thompson. Now I share all the pieces in one equation with you!


*Munchtime reads are for breakfast on the West Coast, lunch on the East Coast, and tea-time in the UK, or whenever the heck you want to chew on a meaty thought!