One in eight people in the world suffers from a mental disorder, with anxiety and depression being the most common. Currently, approximately 301 million people suffer from an anxiety disorder and 280 million suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization. These figures have only increased in recent decades, proving Erich Fromm right when in the 1970s he stated that our society suffers a great psychological Trauma that generates immense discomfort, disappointment and existential emptiness.
The failure of the Great Promise and the loss of our greatest hope
The beginning of the industrial revolution generated what Erich Fromm called the “Great Promise of Unlimited Progress.” The technological advances that it produced brought implicit “The promise of mastering nature, material abundance and maximum happiness and freedom for the greatest number of people”, a hope that has been maintained throughout different generations.
We believed that machines would turn us into super men capable of adapting the world to our needs. People began to feel freer from the chains that previously bound them. And although for many it was just a dream, they clung to it thinking that well-being, comfort and happiness were just around the corner, that it would come with the next industrial advance.
Thus was formed “The nucleus of a new religion, a trinity consisting of unlimited production, absolute freedom and unrestrained happiness. That new religion instilled a lot of energy, vitality and hope in its followers,” according to Fromm. The idea was to reach a level of automation that would generate well-being and comfort for everyone, which would lead to a state of happiness and universal peace.
Industrial society was characterized by despising nature and everything that was not produced by machines. The idea was established that it was only necessary to produce more efficient machines to achieve that ideal society and make us all happy. We think that if Watt’s steam engine did not produce that long-awaited revolution, electric current would, and since this was not enough either, Artificial Intelligence will be.
Victims of this illusion, “The development of the economic system is no longer conditioned by the question: what is beneficial for man? but to the question: what is beneficial for the development of the system?”, erroneously assuming that what is good for the system will also be good for the people.
However, the mechanical loom or the robot have not made us freer or happier and neither will Artificial Intelligence simply because we are starting from the wrong assumptions. “The dream of being absolute masters of our existence came to an end when we began to open our eyes and realize that we have become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, and that our thoughts and feelings and even our tastes are manipulated by governments, the consumer industry and the mass media, which control each other,” Fromm said.
The verification of the failure of this Great Promise – at least at the level of the collective unconscious – has generated a psycho-sociological trauma since more and more people realize that “The unlimited satisfaction of all their desires does not imply living well, nor is it the way to achieve happiness and not even maximum pleasure.” We are waking up from a dream that has turned into a nightmare from which we do not know how to escape.
The 2 psychological errors that prevent us from being happy and finding serenity
Erich Fromm, who was not only a prominent psychoanalyst but also a brilliant humanist philosopher and acute social psychologist, addressed in one of his last books “To have or to be?” what he considers the two biggest errors in our way of thinking that condemn us to frustration as a society:
1. Thinking that the goal of life is to achieve happiness, especially when it is understood as the maximum pleasure and the satisfaction of each desire or need.
Fromm alludes to how the elites of all times, from ancient Rome to England or France in the 18th century, have tried to find happiness through pleasures, embracing a radical hedonism.
However, it is a mistake to think that pleasures and the satisfaction of all desires lead to happiness. In fact, the great philosophers urged to differentiate between desires whose satisfaction only brings momentary pleasure, and those rooted in human nature whose satisfaction leads to personal growth and allows us to achieve eudaimonia.
Fromm notes the dichotomy of our times: radical hedonism is opposed to obsessive work, so that we go from strenuous work to extreme leisure without going through the healthy middle ground. However, this polarity is fundamental for capitalism to survive because it promotes both the consumption of goods and services that in theory should bring us happiness and alienating work.
As a result of this coming and going between extremes without finding authentic satisfaction in any of them, “Our society is made up of obviously unhappy individuals: alone, anxious, victims of depressive states and destructive impulses, incapable of being independent. In short: human beings delighted to be able to kill the time they are working so hard to save,” Fromm wrote.
2. Thinking that harmony and peace can be achieved through selfishness, intrinsic to the functioning of the system itself
The second axiom on which the Great Promise of the industrial age was based is that peace and harmony can be achieved, whether on a personal or social level, through selfishness and individualism promoted by a system that focuses on hoarding possessions and get them as quickly as possible, in spite of others.
According to Fromm, when we immerse ourselves in this search for material things, when our objective is to have, we fall into the error of thinking that we are more the more we have. We anchor our self-worth to our possessions, so we blind ourselves by always trying to hoard more in a banal attempt to find social approval or prove our worth.
Fromm points out that this thinking also leads to meaningless competition, it develops a society in which we believe that “We must feel antagonism towards others”, so that “Customers become people to be deceived, competitors become objects to be destroyed and creditors into entities to take advantage of.” We see the world as an immense competition that gives us no respite, so it is difficult for us to feel relaxed and not experience anxiety.
At the same time, this competitive and materialistic conception means that “I never feel satisfied because my desires are infinite: I must feel envy of those who have more than me and protect myself from those who have less. At the same time, I must suppress all those feelings towards those like me if I want to appear to be the smiling, rational, sincere and kind person that everyone pretends to be.”
Obviously, “Our way of life is pathogenic and ends up producing a sick personality and, therefore, a sick society,” Fromm concluded. We cannot relax if we believe that everyone is our competitors. We cannot feel satisfied if we always have to hoard more. We cannot find serenity if we go from exhausting work to excessive leisure. We cannot be happy if we do not even know what happiness is. And realizing the complex labyrinth in which we find ourselves generates true dread.
Change is essential, as Fromm said, because “It is not only an ethical and religious requirement, it is not only the result of a psychological aspiration derived from the pathogenic nature of our current social character, but a condition for human survival itself. For the first time, our physical survival depends on the radical transformation of our hearts.”
Fromm, E. (2001) Avere o essere? Mondadori: Milano.