Happiness Related to Politics


The other day I heard a report about a survey on happiness. I don’t know the exact methodology, but I found the results somewhat surprising.

Designers of the study said that conservatives reported being happy more often than liberals. They surmised that conservatives tend more often to be married and to frequently attend church than liberals, activities with a high correlation to happiness.

A somewhat more (but not entirely) suprising result was that fanatics are happier than either conservative or liberal. If you assume that fanatics are happier because their worlds are simpler, that their views are predominantly black and white, with very few grey areas, this may also be unsurprising.

I think these results are probably superficial. They probably rely on self-reporting, which is unlikely to be entirely accurate. In the case of fanatics in particular, I wouldn’t put too much trust in this survey.

Sigmund Freud made the idea that sexuality is a very large part of and influence upon our lives more widespread than ever before. In his psychiatric practice, where he was pioneering the method called psychoanalysis, he came upon the damage that sexual repression can cause, as well as evidence of pedophilia and incest which, as I understand it, he didn’t want to believe. He was, I think, ambivalent about sexual repression, knowing something of the damage it could cause, but also believing that without it society could be torn apart by anarchic impulses.

Wilhelm Reich, one of his successors, had contact with, and may have studied with Freud in the 1920s. He believed Freud’s view that sexuality was an extremely important part of human life, but took it further, and came to different conclusions from Freud.

Reich believed, as did Freud, that repression caused unhappiness for many. He went further than Freud in finding that repression didn’t affect only the mind and emotions, but also the body. His finding was that with repression the body suppressed feelings by clenching muscles. Such muscles would often become chronically tense, affecting large parts of the body. The parts of the body that were so affected he called armored. Although he was a gifted and insightful therapist in the Freudian sense, he went further than Freud by working directly on the body, working the chronically tightened muscles until they relaxed. When they did, the patient would often respond with outbursts of emotion, frequently of tears, which Reich called, “the great softener.”

Dr. Ellsworth Baker was a student of Reich’s, and applied Reich’s methods to his own treatment of patients. In Man in the Trap he tells something of Reich’s methods and views, then gives some histories of the treatments he applied to his own patients. One point of particular interest to me was Reich’s relation of sexual health to political views, as well as to behavior.

Reich saw political ideas as a sort of continuum: in the center were the two most relatively healthy groups, and other groups extended from these, having exaggerated versions of either conservative or liberal worldviews.

The natural conservative Reich considered to be probably the closest to sexual health in the civilized world. Such a person is religious, and tries to live in accordance with his religion, is involved with work and family, believes in being as self-sufficient as possible, and in responsibility for self and community.

Natural liberals may not differ a great deal from this picture, except in being more worried about the state of the world as a whole. They are not necessarily less religious-minded or family-oriented, but may worry more about things they can’t immediately control.

From these two positions come the variations that reach to the extremes on either end of the political spectrum, as Reich saw it. The extremes have their differences, but are also very much alike. The conservative extreme Reich called “black fascism”. The obvious example of this was Nazi Germany. Reich himself became a Communist in the 1920s in an attempt to combat Nazism. He may not have had great belief in the Communist program, but thought it the only political movement in Europe strong enough to combat the Nazis. The Nazis, however, were much abler at propaganda than the Communists, and we know the results of that.

The other end of the political spectrum Reich called “red fascism”. He described the two fascisms as both being mystical, but in slightly different ways. “Black fascism” was mystical about folk and blood (in the racial sense), and nationalism. “Red fascism” was mystical in a quasi-scientific way, talking about “the dialectic”, mythologizing the mandate of history, and being internationalist, rather than nationalist.

Both groups were similar, however, in liking to kill perceived enemies.

Both killed “traitors”: anyone who disagreed with the ideology of the rulers. Nazis also killed on a racial basis: anyone of an “inferior race”–Jews, Gypsies and Slavs–as well as anyone who was “inferior” in other ways: homosexuals and the developmentally disabled.

Communist enemies were usually individuals from social classes: aristocrats and “Kulaks” (wealthy peasants). They were, of course, just as intolerant of dissent as the Nazis. And both were totalitarian, identifying good with their respective parties. Nazis also identified good with the German country and race, while in theory Communists identified it with the “international proletariat”. The latter was more difficult to implement, so Stalin came up with the correct line (the Communist form of political correctness) of “socialism in one country”. The ideologies differed, the methodoligies did not.

The political center was then the part of the population from which hope of government that was NOT totalitarian might come. The American dream has represented that hope, and has sometimes been a fairly effective factor in our history. But our country too has totalitarian tendencies that have been noticeable and influential.

Reich’s belief was that sexual repression was the psychological basis of totalitarianism. His belief was that the body, once freed of the physical “armor” made by repression, became self-regulating. Self-discipline is the answer that repression tries to be. But in order to discipline one’s self, one must first experience. Repression is flight from experience.

Reich said that through a “complete” orgasm one experienced a deep relaxation and openness, which seemed to be one of the benefits sexuality was intended to provide. “Armoring”, the physical expression of repression, prevented such a complete orgasm. And, he thought, the attempt of natural desires to emerge through the armor changed these desires into something less natural. The result would be sadomasochism on an individual or mass scale. Such a view accords with the history of the 20th century.

So I wonder about the survey described above. Superficially a fanatic may be happier than either a conservative or liberal, though hysteria on either side of the political continuum would seem to dispute that. And the horrific acts that fanatics can justify seem to have roots in something more than what the fanatic believes is right or wrong. I think such acts must begin in personal and societal pathology that justifies terror in the service of something better, or merely in the service of personal revenge for suffering.

Unfortunately, we live in a sick world. Whether Reich’s description of the sickness is valid, and if it is, whether it’s the deepest and most valid description, it’s at least a provacative view implying what we need to do to become healthy. If it is valid, I doubt that it’s the last word.


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