Social Psychologist Erich Fromm Diagnoses Why People Wear a Mask of Happiness in Modern Society (1977)

Mod­ern man still is anx­ious and tempt­ed to sur­ren­der his free­dom to dic­ta­tors of all kinds, or to lose it by trans­form­ing him­self into a small cog in the machine. —Erich Fromm

There are more think pieces pub­lished every day than any one per­son can read about our cur­rent moment of social dis­in­te­gra­tion. But we seem to have lost touch with the insights of social psy­chol­o­gy, a field that dom­i­nat­ed pop­u­lar intel­lec­tu­al dis­course in the post-war 20th cen­tu­ry, large­ly due to the influ­en­tial work of Ger­man exiles like Erich Fromm. The human­ist philoso­pher and psychologist’s “pre­scient 1941 trea­sure Escape from Free­dom,writes Maria Popo­va, serves as what he called “‘a diag­no­sis rather than a prog­no­sis,’ writ­ten dur­ing humanity’s grimmest descent into mad­ness in WWII, lay­ing out the foun­da­tion­al ideas on which Fromm would lat­er draw in con­sid­er­ing the basis of a sane soci­ety,” the title of his 1955 study of alien­ation, con­for­mi­ty, and author­i­tar­i­an­ism.

Fromm “is an unjust­ly neglect­ed fig­ure,” Kier­an Durkin argues at Jacobin, “cer­tain­ly when com­pared with his erst­while Frank­furt School col­leagues, such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.” But he has much to offer as a “ground­ed alter­na­tive” to their crit­i­cal the­o­ry, and his work “reveals a dis­tinct­ly more opti­mistic and hope­ful engage­ment with the ques­tion of rad­i­cal social change.” Nonethe­less, Fromm well under­stood that social dis­eases must be iden­ti­fied before they can be treat­ed, and he did not sug­ar­coat his diag­noses. Had soci­ety become more “sane” thir­ty-plus years after the war? Fromm didn’t think so.

In the 1977 inter­view clip above, Fromm defends his claim that “We live in a soci­ety of noto­ri­ous­ly unhap­py peo­ple,” which the inter­view­er calls an “incred­i­ble state­ment.” Fromm replies:

For me it isn’t incred­i­ble at all, but if you just open your eyes, you see it. That is, most peo­ple pre­tend that they are hap­py, even to them­selves, because if you are unhap­py, you are con­sid­ered a fail­ure, so you must wear the mask of being sat­is­fied, of hap­py.

Con­trast this obser­va­tion with Albert Camus’ 1959 state­ment, “Today hap­pi­ness is like a crimenev­er admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m hap­py’ oth­er­wise you will hear con­dem­na­tion all around.” Were Fromm and Camus observ­ing vast­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al worlds? Or is it pos­si­ble that in the inter­ven­ing years, forced hap­pi­nessakin to the social­ly coerced emo­tions Camus depict­ed in The Strangerhad become nor­mal­ized, a screen of denial stretched over exis­ten­tial dread, eco­nom­ic exploita­tion, and social decay?

Fromm’s diag­no­sis of forced hap­pi­ness res­onates strong­ly with The Stranger (and Bil­lie Hol­i­day), and with the image-obsessed soci­ety in which we live most of our lives now, pre­sent­ing var­i­ous curat­ed per­son­ae on social media and video­con­fer­enc­ing apps. Unhap­pi­ness may be a byprod­uct of depres­sion, vio­lence, pover­ty, phys­i­cal ill­ness, social alien­ation… but its man­i­fes­ta­tions pro­duce even more of the same: “Them that’s got shall get / Them that’s not shall lose.” If you’re unhap­py, says Fromm, “you lose cred­it on the mar­ket, you’re no longer a nor­mal per­son or a capa­ble per­son. But you just have to look at peo­ple. You only have to see how behind the mask there is unrest.”

Have we learned how to look at peo­ple behind the mask? Is it pos­si­ble to do so when we most­ly inter­act with them from behind a screen? These are the kinds of ques­tions Fromm’s work can help us grap­ple with, if we’re will­ing to accept his diag­no­sis and tru­ly reck­on with our unhap­pi­ness.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Albert Camus Explains Why Hap­pi­ness Is Like Com­mit­ting a Crime—”You Should Nev­er Admit to it” (1959)

How Much Mon­ey Do You Need to Be Hap­py? A New Study Gives Us Some Exact Fig­ures

The UN’s World Hap­pi­ness Report Ranks “Social­ist Friend­ly” Coun­tries like Fin­land, Nor­way, Den­mark, Ice­land & Swe­den as Among the Hap­pi­est in the World

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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