In a recent teachers’ meeting the pressing issue of students’ low attendance this last semester came up. I have not been teaching but my colleagues tell me less than 50% of the students have attended classes, which is even lower than what I saw in the first semester, when we were all still wearing facemasks and enduring the discomfort of the windows open in winter for ventilation to protect us against Covid-19.
The causes for the students’ absence from the classrooms, for this is a general problem not limited to a particular degree, are hard to pinpoint since, logically, you cannot speak with persons who are not there and asking their peers about their absence is useless. Those whose job is to speak to students claim that the missing students are generally disinterested in classroom activities; they find lectures and listening to their peers’ oral presentations boring, which, anyway, is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that about 20% of all the students in my university have notified to the corresponding office that they are unable to attend classes because they are suffering from mental health issues connected with depression and anxiety. These two words have become in this way the most important keywords in our academic life.
Teachers are also depressed and suffering from anxiety, though arguably age and experience give us a resilience the younger generation might lack, at least among the ranks of the more privileged tenured teachers. The younger staff, employed mostly as part-time, temporary adjuncts even when they are doctors embarked in serious academic careers, are also suffering from depression and anxiety caused by the same factor that overwhelms the students: lack of prospects. As things are now, students are being asked to make an effort to train for their professional future by staff who are themselves trapped in a career limbo which is not being dissolved fast enough. My university is boasting these days that they are offering between 50 and 70 new full-time positions every year (most with a five-year contract) but even though my Department has been allocated three for 2022-23, two have come to give adjuncts with an academic career spanning about twenty years the chance to be tenured (of course, somebody else might win the positions after the public examination). As for the colleague who has retired, her full time position has been transformed into a set of three associates, thus saving the institution about half her salary. Depression and anxiety indeed.
Among the older staff, those of us who have been around for thirty years or more, I see mostly disappointment and tiredness. We, lucky tenured, full-time teachers can retire after the age of 60 provided we have been active for 30 years and taking into account that our pension will be reduced in relation to the full-pension which is only earned at 67. The colleague who has retired in my Department is precisely in that situation. I’ve heard of many others who have taken early retirement at a notable economic loss because they could cope no longer with teaching the depressed, anxious students now in our classes and with the pressures put on us by the bureaucratization of the university. I was under the impression that only the teachers less interested in research were retiring or thinking of doing so, but this week a dear friend who has published a marvellous stream of excellent research told me that he is considering retirement, too. He is tired, a word I hear among the older staff with monotonous regularity. I myself feel very tired, and if I am coping this is because I have a low teaching workload and can finally write books. I still have a decade to go, at least, and there are days when that feels a very tall order. At the same time, I look forward to continue publishing once retired, in, hopefully, peace and quiet.
The causes for the general depression and anxiety are transparent: neoliberalism has created a low-pay service economy which only offers bad jobs to the young; climate change threatens to wipe off life on Earth in about fifteen years at the most, and fascism is rising everywhere, undoing human rights which have taken more than 200 years to secure. As if Covid-19 was not enough, Ukraine has been suffering a horrifying invasion for almost four months which, besides, might result in the death by famine of millions in Africa and Asia who depend on Ukrainian grain to survive. Vladimir Putin declared last week that the reign of the West is over, to be replaced by a new era, which I would not mind at all if this was an era of true international democracy and cooperation. I don’t think he meant that. These days I have found myself encouraging my eldest niece along the three days which her university entrance examination has lasted, and while I did that I was feeling horribly anxious about the kind of future she and her generation will find. I know that many of us in our fifties and sixties are thinking that we’ve had a relatively good life (I won’t mention the constant fear of illness or that we’ll never get a pension) but we tremble for what the future might bring to the young, at least I do. So, yes, I understand that they are feeling depressed and anxious, and that they see no point in education, even though they know that without attending university their prospects will be even lower.
The situation is objectively bad but I am also wondering whether it feels subjectively bad because our ability to cope (our resilience) has been undermined by a philosophy of happiness that requires being constantly satisfied. I myself have no personal or professional reasons to feel dejected, but this is how I would describe my state of mind since at least 2008 when the financial crisis erupted. I am not clinically depressed but, like many other of my fellow citizens, I find it increasingly difficult to watch the news (not because I don’t care for the others but because I do care) and even to cope with minor personal crises that are not really that important. I am, besides, as a Gender Studies scholar, sick and tired of the pressures from the left and from the right, to the point that I am considering giving up altogether and writing about other matters, once I’m done with my next book. I am, therefore, trying to understand whether beyond the actual problems the widespread depression and anxiety have to do with the disappointment of a promise of personal and collective happiness, made perhaps in the 1960s, that has failed to materialize.
Trying to understand if that is the case, I’ve read back-to-back, quite by chance, two books that are in deep dialogue with each other. For reasons I cannot explain, I had not read yet Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), originally titled Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager. Possibly, I was under the wrong impression that this would be a dry philosophical book, when it is a memoir of Frankl’s harrowing experience of being a prisoner of the Nazis in diverse camps. The other book is Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives (2018) by Eva Illouz and Eric Cabanas, originally published in French in the same year as Happycratie: comment l’industrie du bonheur a pris le contrôle de nos vies. I was reading this book and thinking of how it connected with the other when I came across a quotation from Frankl, which proved there is indeed a connection.
Frankl (1905-1997) was a prestigious neuropsychiatrist in Vienna, when in 1942 he and his family were imprisoned and eventually separated. During the three years of his imprisonment, he managed to make notes about his mental condition and that of his fellow prisoners, finding solace in the hope of meeting his young wife again without knowing she had already died. Frankl’s memoirs are different from those of other Holocaust survivors precisely because he has an extremely lucid understanding of resilience, a word that is now trending as much as depression and anxiety. It would be obscene to speak of happiness in the context of the camps and what Frankl describes is a situation in which the Jewish prisoners adapted as well as they could to the erosion of their humanity because they placed resilience before any other value. Their thoughts, so to speak, whether neither positive (that would be foolish) nor negative (that would be suicidal) but focused on surviving one step at a time. Frankl claims that the most resilient prisoners were motivated by the idea of something left behind which needed to be continued, whether this was a career and a marriage as in his own case, or other questions. This is why he explains that for many the darkest period came after their release when they found that the life whose memories had been sustaining them in the camp no longer existed. Many also suffered, I will add, because their accounts of extreme suffering were not believed. Frankl’s volume was translated into English in 1959, which suggests that for about fifteen years survivors’ accounts were of little interest at least in the Anglophone area of the world.
Illouz and Cabanas cite Frankl as part of their efforts to demolish positive psychology, the American school of thought claiming that psychology should not be limited to treating the mentally ill but should provide everyone with tools to feel mentally stable, and, ideally, happy. They complain, very rightly, that neoliberalism has turned positive psychology with the acquiescence of their inventors into a tool to make individuals responsible for their welfare, thus avoiding the structural issues which are at the root of much human suffering. Within the parameters established by the neoliberal ‘happicracy’, the students are not depressed and anxious because the present and the future are bleak, but because they are mismanaging their mental health. Many of the ‘happicratic’ gurus base their careers on teaching persons who are not mentally ill to feel bad because they are not working adequately towards happiness. This would be the equivalent of telling the Jewish prisoners that the problem is not the camp but their negative approach to the situation. Resilience is in many ways part of positive thinking, but the difference is that whereas true resilience refers to the ability to cope with negative situations, of which life has many, resilience is now being sold as a tool to secure personal happiness against all odds, which is not. At the same time, if the absurd promise that you can lead a life free of care (for this is what happiness is about) had never been made, depression and anxiety would not be so widespread.
For me the main conundrum is why so many whose lives are quite good in comparison to the lives of the many disenfranchised persons in the world, in the West and everywhere else, suffer from depression and anxiety. I am a confirmed atheist but I tend to agree with the Christian view that life is to be endured, not enjoyed (or only enjoyed in special moments). Life needs not be a valley of tears and, certainly, what angers me most is that it could be much more satisfactory if we respected human rights and did away with the patriarchal hunger for power. Yet, I find the declaration in the American constitution that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” not only hypocritical but also a poor foundation for a communal life of peace and justice. Perhaps if all the negative energy consumed by depression and anxiety could be channelled towards a demand for social and personal justice we would feel better, but as Illouz and Cabanas suggest, that’s the whole point of neoliberalism: making us focus on our personal happiness (or lack of it) as the world remains in the hands of the few that are destroying it for their own personal gain. And, presumably, happiness.
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