It is only natural that our present state of isolation and hopelessness (or, alternatively, desperate denialism) results in widespread melancholy, leading us to yearn for the relative happiness of “normalcy”. But is there really any happiness to go back to? Is a happy life even possible under capitalism? The answer to that question may be much more complex than it seems at first.

The first step in dealing with any problem is always recognizing that the problem exists in the first place, so here it goes: Our society is ill. The prevalence of mental illness (especially anxiety and depression) has significantly increased over the course of the pandemic, but it was already high to begin with (afflicting about 1 in 4 Americans according to the NIMH). And this widespread malaise has arisen in tandem with a general improvement in living conditions, especially in developing countries. Literacy rates, life expectancy, sanitation, access to food (and the share of protein in that food), all figures generally used to measure quality of life are on the rise… and that’s not all. We have increasingly easy access to an increasingly wide variety of goods and services, whether through technological improvement, or through globalization, which has been bridging consumer markets and product suppliers across the world more and more thoroughly. All of which is supposed to bring about a happier and more fulfilling life. How do we explain, then, the growing psychological suffering that afflicts us?

Well, I suspect the answer to that may be precisely in this abundance of products and services at our disposal… or in the mechanisms behind it, at any rate. Studies indicate that a focus on wealth, status and material goods is directly correlated to increased depression and anxiety. It’s not hard to understand that this is directly linked to how difficult it is for most people to fulfill their consumerist dreams, as well as in our drive to “keep up with the Joneses”, which often translates to a superfluous-consumption arms-race, whose competitors try to upstage one another with increasingly extravagant purchases. Which is to say that, by incentivizing consumption, modern capitalism induces angst and a feeling of inadequacy and failure in those left behind in this race. There’s nothing new about that. What I’m arguing here is that this mental suffering is not a failure of capitalism at all. No, it’s quite the opposite: it is the successful culmination of a deliberate project of unhappiness, which is not only intentional, but also indispensable for a consumption-driven capitalist economy to function.

The reason for that is very simple: demand generation. The defining characteristic of capitalism is a continuous growth of capital (that is, wealth invested in generating more wealth), and this growth needs to be fed by economic activity. Depending on the exact form a capitalist economy takes, this may mean a number of things: exploitation of natural resources, industrial activity, financial speculation, and so on. But all these forms of value generation can only be converted into profit (and more capital) if the circuit is closed on the other end with demand. There needs to be a sink for the economic activity, for its goods and services, and it needs to grow continuously in order to keep the capitalist machine running. After all, if nobody pays for those things, they have no value at all.

Why, how do we generate demand, then? Well, demand is the result of a disconnect between what you have and what you want. If you don’t want anything in life, you have no demand. If you have everything that you want, you also have no demand. In order to demand something, you have to want what you don’t have. If that sounds too abstract, maybe an illustration will help:

What demand is.

This may look obvious to the point of being trivial, but it’s important to have the parameters that constitute demand well in hand, as they will be important for this argument. Demand (which drives capitalist economic activity) is the result of a distance between the current situation and the desired situation. What’s interesting, though, is what that means in practical terms. These concepts can be applied to any number of situations, corresponding to various kinds of economic activity. For example, if you want a certain model car, and you don’t have that… you’re a potential source of demand for this car, as long as you have money. That’s very simple… but we can dive deeper. If, for example, you are unsatisfied with your job, we’ve got another potential demand there. After all, we have the current situation (bad job), the desired situation (dream job), and a distance between both. And this distance is important, because the demand will be for something that bridges that distance and connects you to the desired situation: for example, a course could give you the necessary qualifications for the job you want. And so on… demand could come from really any unsatisfied yearning. Have you always dreamed of being a rockstar? Buy instruments and music courses… or movies and books about the rockstars you wish you were. Unhappy in your relationship? Buy a luxury trip to try and rekindle your passion… or join a dating app. For every problem, there is a solution that could make someone else rich.

Well, since we know what the basic components of demand are, what could we do to keep it constantly high? Looking at the picture above, there are couple elements we could focus on. For example:

Focus on the current situation

It seems very difficult at first to work on people’s current situation; after all, it’s not very practical to take material goods away from consumers, or wreck their marriages, make them not know how to play the guitar, and so on. But I wouldn’t discount the relevance of current-situation-based demand solutions. Planned obsolescence is a very real thing: companies have been getting better and better at making things that either don’t last very long or quickly become irrelevant when the new product is released, and that’s clearly aimed at creating a situation where you don’t have what you want. In a more perverse vein, several business models that are ostensibly all about “comfort” or “convenience” actually function by artificially worsening your current situation, and then selling you something to make the problem they created go away. For example, “free” mobile apps that run increasingly annoying and intrusive ads, and sell a “premium”, ad-free version; or airlines, whose cost-reduction measures have the added effect of making your flying experience as hellish as possible (increasingly close-packed seats, increasingly scarce and low-quality food, less or no luggage space, longer lines etc.), but who sell the privilege of simply not having those problems for a (very high) price through the flight class system.

However, those examples demonstrate what’s wrong with trying to force demand only through the current-situation side: our resilience and our capacity to adapt. What happens when airlines and apps try to sell you premium experiences is that most people simply cram themselves into those tight seats and try to endure their flight by amusing themselves with mobile games that stop every five minutes to show them a thirty-second ad. In other words, as bad as our current situation is, our natural tendency is to adapt to that and move on. This is well-illustrated by studies that track the reported happiness level of people that undergo dramatic events, whether positive or negative. For example, people who win the lottery tend to have their happiness briefly spike and then return to their previous level; similarly, people who have an accident that leaves them disabled have a temporary dip in happiness, also returning rapidly to their previous level. That is, happiness is relative – it’s a matter of expectation versus reality. If our reality is altered, all we need to do is adjust our expectations, and we’ll be as comfortable as before (and, therefore, without the disconnect that generates demand).

But… what if it’s our expectations that are being manipulated?

Focus on the desired situation

What we have here is the domain of advertising/marketing, one of the most striking and most important aspects of consumer capitalism. What market tries to do is exactly creating demand where none existed before or increasing current demand. That sounds like the end of our discussion on demand… but I’d like to drill down on it a bit further.

Looking at marketing through our demand-generation scheme, what it does is trying to alter our desired situation. In practical terms, what that means is creating an image of perfection (or a number of options thereof), something to be looked up to as one’s life goals. An idea of what does it mean to be the “perfect man” or “perfect woman”. (The images of perfection that marketing sells us are starkly segregated by gender.) This image can’t be created wholly from scratch; if it is to have a strong grip in our psyche, it needs to be rooted in our society’s culture. We arrive, then, at the “ideal man” as being a masculine, strong man, who imposes his will, gets all the women he wants, and earns enough money to provide for his family; and the “ideal woman” as being beautiful, young (or youthful-looking), elegant, always cheerful, and either a seductress or a good mother (depending on her life stage). In both cases, that’s someone who should make their gender peers envious – and therefore, someone who should stand out from the rest, someone above average. (Keep that in mind.)

All of that seems simple enough: you create (or reinforce, or manipulate) an image to be aspired to, and sell things that are supposed to help people get there. That doesn’t sound so bad, actually. After all, what’s wrong with having dreams and life goals, and striving for them? Doesn’t that amount to capitalism encouraging people to be the best version of themselves? To “work while they sleep” in order to achieve more each day? Conventional wisdom sure does say that, and it is certainly what capitalist doctrine preaches… but there is plenty of reason to be skeptical of that. To the point:

The true secret of demand.

Yes, it’s the third element in our demand scheme, the very distance between the current situation and the desired situation. I’ve been drilling on this scheme so insistently because understanding the importance of that distance is paramount – everything falls apart without it. If it falls down to zero, or in other words, if the current situation becomes equal to the desired situation, there is nothing to demand. You don’t need anything else to get there, because you already are there. And what does that mean in practical terms? Well, that’s where things start to get sinister: it means we cannot achieve our dreams. Or at least we shouldn’t, for capital’s sake. Because, if a person is happy, they don’t need anything beyond the basics (food, shelter etc.), they have no hole in their soul to fill with purchases. There is no dissatisfaction to be addressed by the market. At the end of the day, the engine that drives the economy is just that: dissatisfaction. It’s all about wishing for that which you don’t have… but, more to the point, not having that which you wish for.

In order to understand what’s behind that, let’s go back to our demand scheme. We’ve seen that, in order to foster demand, companies may either try and manipulate the current situation by worsening people’s quality of life, or manipulate the desired situation by creating goals and expectations. However, if what really matters is the distance between those two, how do you manipulate that? The problem is, that distance cannot be manipulated directly. A distance is defined by the relationship between two points, and it can only be altered by moving either one of them, or both. So, what matters here is working on those two poles by keeping in mind the relationship between them, so that they never meet.

In practice, that means that people must be kept, as much as possible, in the following state of contradiction: they must believe that they can arrive at an ideal of perfection (which I like to call the “consumer nirvana”), but that must actually be impossible to achieve. In other words, people must be deceived and led to believe in an unachievable dream, which keeps them in a constant state of dissatisfaction. And that’s how we arrive at the conclusion I alluded to at the beginning: unhappiness is not capitalism’s failure, it’s its success. It’s not an accident – it’s a deliberate project. Because unhappiness is a problem, and problems require solutions, which can be sold. And the secret is to sell solutions that don’t resolve the problem. It’s like that old folk tale about a doctor whose son decided to take up his father’s career and work at his office; when an old patient comes around with a chronic illness, and the son figures out what’s wrong and cures him with a simple treatment, his father scolds him: “You moron! That illness paid for your medical school!”

Of course, that only works if the illusion that the solutions are real and can actually solve your problems is maintained. Or, alternatively, that “consumer nirvana” is within anyone’s reach. That all you have to do is try, and you’ll get there. This has a bonus effect of shifting the blame for inequality onto people’s own effort (or lack thereof), which hinders criticism of capitalist status quo, always a good thing for the owners of capital and their allies, of course. But maintaining that illusion also has the added effect of validating the struggle for the unachievable. And, if that makes people feel bad for not attaining the success they should, because everyone else seems to be killing it (social media are great at perpetuating this impression), and that all looks so easy, so why can’t you it as well… This whole feeling of utter failure is itself a great opportunity to sell solutions in mental health, or better yet, life coaching, entrepreneurship lectures, and other such things supposed to help you “make it big”. And what if you buy so much stuff that you run out of money? Excelent! One thing that capitalism always needs is cheap labor with as few rights as possible, and the more desperate people are, the easier that is to find. So have yourself some gig-economy jobs, app-based or not, which serve to make products and services cheaper for those other people who can (still) afford them.

I hope I’ve made my main point clear enough: People must necessitate things that they can never achieve. I’m not talking about concrete things, such as cars or trips; after all, that’s what’s being sold. (However, it’s still very important for people to wish for such material things that they cannot afford, so they never stop running after them.) I’m talking about the necessity for things such as the admiration and envy of your peers, about power, youth, and yes, happiness itself. After all, nobody buys a luxury car because they need it to get around – it’s a token of power, something for others to envy. The real need is a deeper, psychological one, and that can never be fulfilled. Not in the least because, as I’ve mentioned previously, what matters is not being well, but rather being better than everyone else, being above average… but, by mathematical necessity, most will not fall into that category. Once again, what’s important here is the contradiction itself: not only wishing for what’s impossible, but also believing it’s possible. And it’s the dissatisfaction that comes from this unsolvable paradox that keeps the wheel turning.

Okay, now that we’ve understood the terrible predicament we find ourselves in, in which everything is geared toward generating profitable unhappiness, what is there to be done? In that regard, I’m sorry to say that I have no miraculous solution to sell you. (By the way, pointing out the contradictions of capitalism is itself a very good source of profit.) Over the course of the years, I’ve been developing my personal philosophy little by little, and a lot of it is all about being at peace with one’s flaws, limits and mistakes, and I think that could be a good path toward dealing with this paradox: understanding, and accepting, that you will not achieve perfection (in whichever form you seek, or have been imposed), and that there’s nothing wrong with that. That it’s perfectly fine to not be the most successful, beautiful, powerful etc. person around. If only because the people around you that you envy and whose success is being rubbed in your face are really just desperately trying to convince themselves they’re happy, when they’re actually just as unsatisfied as you are. Because dissatisfaction is a must.