Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy

Last Updated on February 25, 2017 by Karl Thompson

Michael Foley: The Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to Be Happy (2010)

age absurdity foleyMost of what modern society tells you about how to be happy is wrong – at least according to a wealth of psychological and sociological research, most modern philosophers and the the insights of pretty much every religious tradition.

This book slates the messages about how to be happy that we get from the mainstream media – from consumer culture and advertising, and from the self-help industry – there is no simple easy-step guide to happiness, and it certainly can’t be achieved through shopping (at least not meaningful, lasting happiness); instead happiness can only be achieved through introspection and damned hard-work, basically, happiness worth having is a painful process of adjustment.

There’s a lot of sociological themes running through this book, it’s especially relevant to the sociology of emotions (it deals with happiness, but also anxiety and depression), hence why I’m summarising it here.

Part One, which consists of chapter one is just the introduction, which I read but haven’t summarised as everything in it’s covered below!

Part Two – The Sources (of unhappiness) 

Chapter 2 – The Ad and the Id

Executive Summary

The ‘Id’ is the unconscious, untamed aspect of ourselves – the root of our (irrational) wants and desires (opposed in Freudian terms to the more conscious, rational ego) – modern consumer culture stimulates our unconscious desires (for stuff, for sex, for whatever) through advertising and suggests to us that the way to realise happiness is to satisfy these wants, mainly through shopping.

In effect, consumer culture presents to us a norm – let your irrational, unconscious desires lead the way – don’t fight them, give into them, satisfy them through shopping.

However, most religious traditions and the findings of modern neuroscience hold and have found evidence for the validity of the opposite view of unconscious desires – religion tends to see wanting/ desire/ lust as bad, as something to be suppressed or overcome if we are to realise deeper, more meaningful happiness, and neuroscience has demonstrated how we make sub-optimal (bad or wrong) decisions when the unconscious rather than the rational parts of our brain are stimulated.

In short, modern consumer culture tells us that we should give into our desires in order to be happy, yet religious and scientific world-views and evidence tells us that doing so will not make us happy.

Shopping won’t make you happy!

More detailed summary

The ad appeals to the ‘Id’ – it appeals to the unconscious, emotional aspects of ourselves through flattering, impressing and stimulating.

Never have adverts been more numerous, ‘entertaining’ and subtly aggressive; and they now infiltrate more corners of our lifeworlds, they are more personalised, and increasingly demand that we interact with them rather than just passively watch them.

This suits the contemporary id, which is rampant, and in no mood to be tamed. Never have so many wanted so much so badly, and never have these wants been so indulged by the advertising industry. Consumer culture (shopping centres and advertising) give us the impression, in fact, that it would be churlish to not want to buy things, and the Id in general embraces this.

Once upon a time, in fact in most religious traditions and many classic and modern philosophies, the id was despised, was seen as something to be suppressed, tamed or overcome. Buddhism is the most obvious example of this – where unconscious desiring is seen as one of the roots of all human suffering. In Buddhism, self-knowledge is applied to generate a method to ‘consciously overcome’ the wanting id.

In Buddhism, the ‘truth of the self’ is that consciousness has no substance – it is merely flux, so all wanting (when it becomes conscious) is fickle – and part of the Buddhist strategy towards happiness is to realise this through meditation – to watch desires rise and then fade, without acting on them, and in this way desires lessen and the ‘mind’ becomes more at peace (less subject to the whims of desire). (NB this is easier said than done!)

Similar ideas of this ‘two-part’ self – the unconscious, emotional wanting side as ‘bad’ and the rational, reflective conscious side as ‘good’, are found in Western philosophies too,– such as Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but these ideas have not been well-received by a wider audience. Most recently, a similar idea of the self is to be found in Freud’s theory of the self.

Modern Neuro science suggests that the rational brain generally makes wiser decisions than the emotional brain*, as demonstrated by the following experiment:

The neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen put subjects into a scanner and gave them the option of receiving a gift certificate immediately or a certificate for a larger amount in a few weeks time. The prospect of receiving a certificate right away activated the emotional brain, while the prospect of a larger certificate in the future activated the rational brain, the pre-frontal cortex – and the area with the strongest activation decided the choice. Most people opted for the smaller certificate immediately.

Here the chapter ends, somewhat suddenly for my liking, but that’s the way it goes I guess!

*Foley does also point to research showing that the brain isn’t simply divided into the emotional and the rational, the two are interconnected and overlap.

Chapter 3 – The Righteousness of Entitlement and Glamour of Potential

Executive Summary

We live in a culture which suggests to us that the individual is hugely important, and in which we believe that self-fulfilment is not only a basic right, but thoroughly deserved (the righteousness of entitlement) – ‘I believe I have the right to be happy’.

We also believe happiness is easy to achieve – as easy as going on a cruise – realising happiness is not that difficult (the glamour of potential).

However, all of this is an illusion and we need to get over these myths. Here Foley draws on existentialism and suggests that we need to realise the truth of our own individual insignificance, and accept the fact that achieving real happiness is a never ending chore of taking responsibility for our own choices in life, and that there is no guarantee that any of the choices we make will ever lead to true happiness (i.e. we are entitled to nothing).

Having said this we can take some comfort in embracing an absurdist position towards modern life (as do existentialists) – by relishing the fact that living modern life means realising that individual freedom means not happiness but hard-work and uncertainty.

Finally, there is at least some hope of transcendence/ change and great happiness in modern-life, we just need realise as a starting point that these things are not deserved and not easy to achieve, and that I am not that important.

Commentary – My way of looking at this is that modern western culture encourages us to pursue ‘shallow happiness strategies’, while Foley seems to be suggesting that we should pursue what I call ‘deep happiness strategies’ – as I outline in this post – What is Happiness?

More detailed summary

We are all influenced by culture, and over the last couple of centuries the demand for specific rights has degraded into a generalised demand for attention and anger at injustice into a generalised feeling of grievance and resentment, the result is a culture of entitlement, attention-seeking and complaint.

Today we believe that fulfilment is not only a basic right, but thoroughly deserved, and that attaining it requires no more thought, effort or patience that an escalator ride to the next level of the shopping centre.

The following shift in values has occurred – we now prefer:

  • Change over stability
  • Potential over achievement
  • anticipation over appreciation
  • opportunism over loyalty
  • transaction over relationship
  • passivity over engagement
  • eloping over coping
  • entitlement over obligation
  • outwardness over inwardness
  • cheerfulness over concerned

Examples of some of the above lie in the following:

  • Our sense of entitlement is seen in our culture of complaint, and the practice of ‘taking offence’.
  • Shopping has become an end in itself and there is an increasing tendency for shopping pleasure to become detached from the actual goods
  • We are obsessed with travel – which increasingly based on expectation of the promise of the next place.

NB – Foley doesn’t state it explicitly at this point, but he obviously disapproves of the above cultural norms and practices – being constantly on the move and feeling entitled do nothing to foster meaningful happiness. Interestingly, a lot of these themes seem to chime with Zygmunt Bauman’s theory of liquid modernity.

What is to be done about this?

After a quick trip through the Stoics and Christ to demonstrate that we can live in a wealthy world without withdrawing from it, he lands on existentialism as offering us a viable strategy to cope with life in the modern world.

Following Satre, Camus and Kierkegaard Foley now argues that realising and even celebrating the absurdity of modern life is one way we can cope/ thrive in this society.

Two of the absurdities of modern life emphasised by the existentialists =

(1) Just as we realise that we are free, we also come to realise our complete insignificance – applying this to modern times, the absurdity of our culture is that it tells us that we are somebody special and that we deserve recognition (in reality, this simply isn’t the case).

(2) Freedom brings with it the responsibility of unremitting choice, but this does not lead to happiness – choice is unsettling, hard work, and full of uncertainties, but it also brings with it the potential for transcendence. Again applying this to our contemporary culture – the message we get is that we should be happy and that this is easy to achieve, in reality the only way to true happiness is struggle.

So I guess what Foley is saying here is that we should realise the truth of existentialism (not dissimilar to Buddhism) and then adopt all or any of the following attitudes towards this absurdity – enjoy it? Relish it? Play with it? Or (ideally maybe) take part in it and take advantage of the real potential for transcendence?

It strikes me that Charlie Brooker does a very good job of pointing out the absurdities of modern life… especially in this clip!

Chapter 4 – The Old Self and the New Science

‘You can have anything you desire and become anyone you wish to be, and there are no limits to potential, achievement and reward… such are the seductive claims of the frenziedly cheerful self-help industry.

The self-help industry has three basic assumptions:

– Fulfilment is a consequence of worldly success

– There are a number of simple steps for achieving fulfilment

– Anyone who follows such steps will discover vast, untapped potential.

However, the message of serious psychology is the opposite of self-help – fulfilment is not easy, but exhaustingly difficult. Self-help insists on transformation, but psychology shows us how difficult transformation is – the id prevents us from making changes through self-deception, self-righteousness and self-justification.

Foley identifies the following barriers to changing ourselves, these are six reasons why most self-help books won’t work (I’ve put the numbering together myself, I think it adds clarity.)

1. Psychological and sociological research show us we are deluded about our current state of happiness

For example:

– Everyone reports an above average level of happiness, this can’t be possible

– Most people in the west report above average levels of performance at work (this isn’t the case in Asian countries)

– Most us think we are less selfish than we are.

If we don’t have realistic ideas about our starting points, then it is impossible to measure genuine change.

2. It isn’t easy to achieve happiness, it takes sustained effort

Firstly Foley wheels out the old happiness survey research to remind us that happiness levels do not improve with increased income in a country, once average income raises above about $20K/ year.

There is, however, evidence that resisting immediate gratification can bring long term fulfilment as evidenced in Walter Mischel’s 1970 marshmallow experiment:

Mischel sat a succession of four year old children in front of a marshmallow on a plate and explained that he had to leave the room for a moment but that, if the marshmallow was still uneaten when he returned, the reward would be two marshmallows instead of one. Only a third managed to resist the urge to ear it and when Mischel surveyed the children fifteen years later he discovered that those with self control had turned out to be more successful in every way, while the most ‘immediate scoffers’ were more likely to be low achievers and to have drug and alcohol problems.

Next Foley cites some interesting sounding research by Richard Easterlin who surveyed young people about what they thought they needed to leave the ‘good life’ and then surveyed them later in life – the one’s how had realised their aspirations, had just developed new, higher materialistic aspirations. This is the problem of the headonic treadmill – when we get the things/ states/ people we want, we quickly adapt to them and get used to them and the just want more – we up our level of wanting, suggesting that simplistic strategies of acquisition do nothing to improve our actual levels of well-being.

3. We justify our own beliefs to ourself (which tells us it’s OK to carry on just as we are)

-A classic example of this Leon Festinger’s research based on his infiltration of a UFO cult in America – the followers believed that a UFO would save them from a doomed world on 21st December 1954 – but when it failed to turn up, the leader convinced them (and/ or they convinced themselves) that this must be evidence of the truth of their believes – their faith in salvation had in effect saved the doomed world, or at least so they believed.

Foley also cites the examples of violent people in relationships and violent political leaders, who justify their violent atrocities in numerous ways (kind of like Matza’s techniques of neutralisation)/

4. We have a ‘set point’ of happiness, which we revert back to after change occurs

The reality about the future is that it is never as amazing or as bad as we expect it to be – we get used to pretty much any state pretty quickly – we adapt, thus the hopes of self-transformation touted in self-help books are extremely likely to be exaggerated compared to the experience of actually realising the transformation.

5. Our position relative to others effects our happiness (so if everyone’s status changes, so will our level of happiness)

Here Foley cites the classic example of bronze medal winners being happier than silver medal winners because the later compare themselves to fourth place, while the former compare themselves to first place.

Foley also suggests that there is cultural pressure towards being better than the next person – and we live in a society where we invent new ways of being superior – he cites ‘coolness’ as an example – but the numerous forms of cultural capital proudly displayed by the middle classes would be better illustrative to my mind.

6. The asymmetry of emotions

The negative effects of going through a painful process, for example, taking a wage-cut, are greater than the positive effects of going through a pleasurable process, for example getting a pay rise. This suggests that any gains we make are more fragile than we might think – we might get a 10% pay increase this year, but if we then get a 5% pay decrease the year after, we’ll probably feel worse off, even though we’re still better off than our starting point!

As a solution to these 6 delusions Foley suggests CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – he draws here on Albert Ellis who further developed Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – which was intended for the multitude suffering from unrealistic expectations – Ellis’ unholy trinity was the three crippling musts – ‘I must succeed’; ‘everyone must treat me well; ‘the world must be easy’ (he called the three together musterbation’ – related to the three curses of perfectionism, neediness and stupidity. Foley now suggests that we should have balloons floating above cities saying such things as ‘ failure is more common than success’; ‘many will dislike you, no matter what you do’; and ‘the world will not oblige’.

He finishes the chapter by pointing out that a few quick sessions of CBT may help change a few thought patterns, but probably won’t help us overcome the delusions of modern life – The Buddha for example realised that realising genuine happiness would necessarily involve a very long and painful process of introspection.

Chapter 5 – The Quest and the Grail

There are many meta narratives still competing for our attention in the ‘life-explanation and strategy market’ – from religion to politics to evolutionary psychology. There is a temptation to surrender to one belief system, there is evidence after all that believers are happier, but many of these BIG solutions involve too much commitment for most people, and many of the big thinkers who developed strategies for self-transcendence didn’t actually lead regular lives in ordinary society.

So we are left with a situation in which we are forced to pick and mix a strategy of ‘how to live’ from many different systems of thought, and the big question is what do we choose and how?

The American pyschologists Peterson and Seligman observed many cultures and tried to extract the universals for how to live well. They found that the following six elements kept turning up:

– Humaneness



– Justice

– Courage


While acknowledging that finding that ‘transcendence’ was surprising, Foley actually dismisses the above research as not really finding anything that interesting, and being too platitudinous.

He suggests that we should instead see what the great thinkers say about how we should seek to live well – and here the problem is that what they say is in contradistinction to what modern society suggests the good life should be about.

Many of the great thinkers (religious and philosophical mentioned earlier) emphasise the importance of (a) an awareness of our own mortality and thus relative insignificance and (b) the importance of striving and struggling to achieve transformation via detachment, struggle self-knowledge.

He also points out that most of these thinkers did it for themselves, none of them passively accepted the existing order of things, and none of them wanted an easy life.

Next Section – The Strategies (by which we’ve been duped into thinking that being happy is easy)

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