Everyday Angst

Angst is not a word often used in conversation, yet it lists very highly on web searches. I could not find it indexed in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual IV. This book lists accepted mental disorders and the codes many insurance companies use for claims. Two medical dictionaries and a prior DSM (III) did not list angst as well. It’s an uncommon term for a common condition.

The nearest synonym is anxiety, though it does not capture the full meaning of the word. There are typically feelings of dread and frustration in a fluctuating balance. Perhaps many people using “angst” as a search word are trying to capture a state of being they experience. Perhaps there is a perception of something lacking in their existence, and most English words do not capture the essence of their thoughts adequately.

The existential philosophers address the word “angst,” which is actually a German word for “anxiety” or “dread.” The philosophical use of the term was coined by Kierkegaard to denote a state of anguish we feel as the responsibility or burden of freedom. There is dread arising from a lack of purpose, meaning or concern in the universe. We try to impose our values and meanings on an inherently absurd universe. Their is a constant dialectical tension between the man searching for meaning, and the universe that is conceived as mute and uncaring.

While a sense of meaning is important, a sense of purpose can truly keep people alive. In my clinical practice with nursing home patients, a sense of purpose is the single most important factor in turning around many depressive episodes. Most people do not theorize about the meaning of their lives until something dramatic happens. A sense of purpose is nearly prerequisite in the average adult, and it has the advantage of being less abstract than the meaning of one’s existence.

The most clinically meaningful use of the term “angst” is anxiety and frustration with an absent or misguided purpose to one’s life. What makes it clinically relevant is that it captures a broad swath of humanity, and avoids the perception of the universe as absurd. A sense of meaningless absurdity to one’s existence is often a depressive perception, such that taking it as factual would not be helpful in mitigating a patient’s Major Depression or Adjustment Disorder. The typical goal of psychotherapy is to adjust someone to their environment, such that a perception of one’s environment as absurd would render the goal absurd as well.

Angst is a handy word to describe something complicated. A perception that one is on the wrong track in life, that the boat was missed is the precondition of my definition. The ongoing sense of anxious dread serving out the sentence of one’s life is angst. The discovering of an ego-syntonic purpose to one’s life is psychotherapy.

American Angst

There is a tension out there.  It’s in the home, the store and the school.  Tempers are very short.  Frustration tolerance appears to be waning.  If you haven’t lost your job yet, you are aware of many others who have been terminated.  It would be convenient to blame one’s boss, but it is likely they are as fearful as the next person.  Many, if not most, are held hostage to their paycheck.  They fear it will flee without notice, and leave neither food or water for survival.  Since it appears that no one person may be identified as the ringleader, frustration and anger lack direction.  The hapless victims may turn upon each other.

It should be noted that America was warned.  Back in the 1830’s, a highly insightful French bureaucrat offered numerous observations and predictions regarding the future of the young United States.  Mr. A. De Tocqueville opined that the death of our democratic free market economy would come at the hands of business interests controlling the government.  A scant 65 years later, Senator John Sherman of Ohio was able to unanimously pass a set of laws that were aimed at creating fair competition between companies.  At least in part, it was a response to the railroad owners who had the country by its throat.  They essentially controlled the flow of commerce, and a subset of the most wealthy were highly influential within the U.S. government.  The great depression of the 1890’s was believed to be an artifact of the monopolies and moneyed interests that had co-opted the government of the day.  The depression that began in 1929 and really hit in 1931 was largely secondary to unregulated speculation in equity markets.  It was unregulated because few wanted to spoil the party enjoyed by the most wealthy.  Politicians did not want to upset the flow of campaign contributions, and the poor man did not want to spurn the few crumbs that fell from their table.  The middle and lower classes had little to say in the government of the day.  It is as if a salesman questions whether you would prefer the green or red jacket.  The success of this sales strategy is centered on making the customer forget that there are better alternatives.

In the early 1800’s, the white house was largely open to all citizens.  Thomas Jefferson famously gave money to people who visited the white house and were in need of assistance.  This is rather quaint and speaks to a less complicated time, yet it also speaks volumes regarding the current access of American citizens to government.  Many believe that in our highly insecure terrorist world that we live in today, having citizen access to representatives would be sheer folly.  Please note that the world has at all times in its history experienced terrorist actions.  It is not a new phenomenon.  The greater apparent frequency of terrorist events may reflect the increase of international reporting.  There may be less serious threats to the existence of the United States today than there has ever been in its history.  The average citizen is not distant from the governmental power base for the safety of themselves or others, rather it reflects a decreasing respect for the opinion of the individual man.  Those who command wages and men have the potential to deliver votes.  As an elected official, it is more efficient to meet with a man who controls a thousand men, than meet with each of the men commanded.  The American people are given the illusion of choice on voting day.  We are given the choice of a red or green jacket.  Better clothes are always left hanging on the rack.

This historical cycle is not a conspiracy of the wealthy against the poor.  Anyone who inherits or acquires wealth will seek to retain and even augment their wealth.  This is neither evil or unexpected; it is human nature to feather one’s nest.  It is necessary for survival, but not sufficient.  The poison element is the advantages wealth confers on the individual.  An employer may peruse the want adds in order to set the lowest possible hourly wage of their employees, whereas the employees are sworn to secrecy regarding their actual pay.  The wealthy person may hire specialists to influence the American government.  The middle and lower classes do not enjoy these options.  The wealthy play golf with their representatives.  The poor leave messages with “staffers.”  These government employees freely acknowledge that the representative won’t actually read any of these messages from average constituents, but if thousands accrue, it might actually influence their actions!  Currently, the influence of one wealthy constituent is commonly more powerful than concerted independent action by hundreds of poor constituents-if not thousands.

The American people are currently called upon to repay the debts of the wealthy few who were successful in curbing regulation, or smugly circumvented existing laws.  It is as if a wealthy carefree relative spent the last 20 years wandering the globe, spending money indiscriminately; only to return home penniless, and expect the poor relatives to pay for his thrills.  The wealthy relative insists that they were actually doing  the family a favor, because some of the money spent may eventually trickle down to the poor family.  Having convinced his family to loan him more money, the wealthy relation resumes the indiscriminate spending, while the poor relations resume the payment of his old debts.  Few if any people would tolerate such behavior in their family.  Why do the American people tolerate such behavior in their government?

Wealthy people necessarily have a different agenda than poor people.  A poor person made wealthy will soon adopt the agenda of other wealthy people, and that agenda will be to maximize their wealth and power.  The centralization of wealth and power into a few always comes at the expense of the many.  Regulation of business is the sophisticated realization that particular types of people will tend to exploit others if given the means.  It would be lovely if this was not the case.  Lack of enforcement of existing securities and antitrust law may assist these people in robbing both rich and poor.  The lower class relations have little to no control over their rich spendthrift relative.  Not only are they paying for their wealth relatives’ past debts, they will soon pay for his current adventures in banking and international politics.  There is no higher governance to appeal the case, as the officials listen exclusively to the wealthy relation.  What is making matters worse, the wealthy relative has discontinued finding jobs for his poor relations.   It is feared that his poor relations will not be able to pay off the debts of their wealthy relative in the future.

Happiness-What Does That Mean?

The primary meaning of happiness, according to the dictionary, is to be favored by luck or fortune.  The third most common usage of the word suggests well-being and contentment.  It is likely that  Tom Jefferson and Ben Franklin meant the latter rather than the former.  The Bill of Rights proclaims that it is a god-given mandate to be happy. It appears that happiness is a good thing.  Unfortunately, happiness is often regarded as a state of being, rather than a label one places on their emotions.

If happiness is considered as a mood state, it should also be considered time-limited.  Emotions ebb and flow throughout days and weeks, and happiness is a qualitative label to describe the flow.  Mood is conceptualized as the average of emotions across time.  One may feel anger and happiness in extremes throughout a difficult day, but the overall rating of one’s mood may not change significantly.  Affects are the facial expressions indicating emotions to others on an immediate basis, and summing these over time reveals mood.  For example, a surly mechanic may inspire an angry affect, but the injured party’s mood will return to baseline after the incident.  Affect is typically fleeting, and mood is considered the emotional baseline.

Aristotle believed that happiness is the only human activity pursued for its own sake.  People pursue health, wealth, and power in order to be happy; as a means to an end, and not an end unto itself.  Happiness could be considered as a goal of behavior.  Jefferson was an ardent admirer of Aristotle, and likely influenced his thinking on the subject.  Happiness for Aristotle was not just a label for an emotion, but described the behavior of one who acts in accord with their virtuous nature.  When the purpose(s) inherent in our nature are fulfilled, we may be labeled “happy.”

A realistic definition of happiness incorporates the behavioral features of Aristotle, combined with modern knowledge of the brain.  While mood is considered the baseline, this does not mean the base is stationary.  When we accomplish a goal that is considered important, the affect is one of happiness.  Goals may be a manifestation of purposes inherent in our nature, but this is not necessary the case.  It is a modern certainty that environment plays a huge part in developing our “natures,” and the process continues throughout our lives.  How people define “virtuous” and their “nature” changes throughout the lifespan.  Consider that we are born as a book, and others may write in it as they please.  We may edit and filter, but graffiti will influence the copy.  Our genes define the size, shape and quality of the binding, yet the content is a joint venture.  To construct a modern theory of happiness is to realize that goals are products of genes shaped by experience- filtered through the prism of immediate need.

To be happy is to accomplish a goal.  The goal must be consistent with what we consider to be justified and necessary.  It must be meaningful to the person.  A state of happiness necessarily ebbs until a new goal is accomplished.  Happiness is less a mood state than an emotional reaction to the attainment of a goal.  It medicates a sense of stagnation by obtaining an assurance of progress.  Happiness cannot be pursued for its own sake.  We pursue happiness through our goals.  The Bill of Rights was correct in writing the “pursuit of happiness,” since it is never the object of lasting attainment.  If your goal was to read this post, I hope you’re happy.

Normal-What Does That Mean?

It is often overlooked.  How do clinicians diagnose mental illness without knowing what it is to be normal?  This is not a trivial question.  Defining normalcy is a central issue in the training of psychologists.  Researchers focus on symptoms that reliably differentiates normal from abnormal functioning.  It is the path of least resistance to dwell on symptoms, since through the use of informants, the researcher may obtain some degree of objectivity.  What is overlooked, for the sake of objectivity, is what normality actually feels like to those who experience this state.  Unfortunately, the feeling of being in a normal state of mind is hopelessly subjective.

People who are labeled as mentally ill often comment that they just want to be “normal like everyone else.”  Like looking over the fence into the neighbor’s yard, people imagine the thoughts and emotions of others.  Implicit assumptions are made with a minimum of data.  It is often assumed that a labile (roller-coaster) mood is a sure sign of mental illness.  Patients often assert that they are more tense and anxious than normal people.  Everyone knows that seeing bugs that aren’t there definitely means one is crazy.  This could be termed a trinity of assumptions regarding normal people; that they are less moody, less tense, and never experience hallucinations.

There is some truth to the trinity, but more often than not, it serves as an ideal that is always out of reach.  Most people seriously under appreciate the degree to which normal people suffer with low moods, anxiety and transient hallucinations.  A large distinction is that for normal people, these symptoms ebb and flow, whereas for the mentally ill, these states of mind merely continue to flow.  Stated another way, normal people suffer low moods and anxiety states.  It surprises many people to learn that most normals experience transient hallucinations.  Large well-controlled studies of average people reveal how often they experience bizarre sensory phenomenon.  Almost on a weekly basis, the average person is prone to experience a bug crawling on their skin or up a wall, only to have it disappear when they look again.  If the bug disappears when they again look, psychologists call this normal, if they multiply when the person takes another peek, then we label these unfortunates as psychotic.

Do not be deceived as to what normal people experience.  Normalcy is not an ideal state of being, often imagined as being in a good mood and free of tension.  If this were the average state of the individual, most would never be motivated to leave their homes.  Tension drives behavior.  Tension is interwoven with life and abandons us at our death.  It is a river that needs to be channeled, not dammed into a confined space.  Similarly, bad moods are inescapable, yet they also may be a vector for change.  Research into the sensory experiences of normal people should convince us that we are all a little crazy.  Psychotherapy is typically more effective and rapid when the patient entertains realistic goals.  The ideal of the normal person is often a fantasy, and it may drive people towards emotional goals that are impossible to obtain.

Induced Angst

Angst is one byproduct of the U.S. government’s upcoming default on August the second.    Angst may be defined as a deep seated insecurity experienced by those free to choose.  A dread of one’s personal responsibilities.  Dread experienced by the American public is not a deep seated insecurity to manage the burden of personal responsibility.  It is a public realization that no political figure will realistically appraise the situation, let alone offer a viable alternative.  The potential for economic disaster will be kicked down the road a few years.  Domestic dread will increase as core local services are extinguished.  Foreign dread will decrease the willingness to buy American debt, which in turn will increase the domestic dread of financial ruin.  Personal dread may be lessened by the illusion of choice, that is the choice of a candidate.  It is increasingly a choice between dysfunctional alternatives.

The exertion of greater personal control is one method to reduce angst, and hence the accompanying anxiety.  The less control one perceives in their environment, the greater the anxiety and anticipation of possible disaster.  The choice of political parties gives people a sense of control, as do the choice of pundits.  The amplitude of the anger may proportionally increase the perception of personal control.  The partisan bickering will become louder as the deadline for the federal budget draws near.  Appointed representatives of the American people will blame each other for the mismanagement, and the citizens will choose their sides.  The system on which they depend will remain in place, though each side declares a victory for progress.  Public angst will increase proportionally with the increased awareness of illusionary choice.

What can be done to lower the public angst?  Greater public control over the government would likely decrease the angst.  Violence is the ultimate form of control, but it is not a viable alternative.  Think of the peasant revolt during the French Revolution.  Aristocratic blood flowed in the streets and alleys of Paris, yet the monarchy regained control shortly thereafter.  Many decades passed before democracy was formalized in France.  Class violence in America would likely result in greater repression of the lower echelon, and little else.  Class divisions based upon wealth would be strengthened, not diminished.  Gated communities may become modern castles, keeping the hordes of the impoverished at bay.  Angst-ridden dread may explode into vengeful anger.  Anger devoid of a clear goal would be less than helpful, and possibly disastrous.

The solution to decreasing public angst and increasing actual public control of the government may be rather simple.  It will engender massive political resistance, since it robs those who currently hold the reigns of power.  It would weaken control of the government by the wealthiest, and hence the most powerful individuals.  Consider the symptoms of disease that infest most governments; for example, secrets, influence peddling and blatant misrepresentations to the public.  The first and last are common to most autocratic forms of government, and all three may threaten the health of any democracy.  The following proposal is one method to regain public control of American government.  It is primarily aimed at reducing influence peddling, and would hopefully reduce the propagation of secrets and lies as well.  It strikes at the diseased heart of local and national governance.

First, all personal meetings between representatives and petitioners to influence the government are videotaped and made permanently available on the internet.  The same would be true of telephone conversations, or any other form of communication with the constituency.  Second, whether the petitioner is an individual or a huge corporation, there is a standardized form, available to all on the internet, that is submitted to the representative in their area.  All such petitions are permanently archived on the internet.  The elected official would be free to choose the particular petition they favor; however the choice and its ramifications would be available to any interested party.  Third, any breach of the above two rules by the representative, even in ignorance, is considered to be a felony offense against the American people.  Fourth, any government documents deemed “secret” are only labeled as such after a review by a civilian board formed for this one purpose,  Government employees can no longer label a document “secret” unless a civilian board agrees.  Such boards exist now, but are apparently unwilling or unable to make useful decisions in this regard.  Fifth, all candidates must be forced to use the same amount of funds for pursuing political office.  Currently, the wealthiest or best fund raisers obtain political office, which is not the best selection criteria for someone to represent the will of the people.  It proves the candidate is greedy and possibly crafty, rather than a humane and capable administrator sought by the voters.

Modern American politicians have forgotten that they are servants of the people.  Politicians must relinquish any pretensions to privacy when they run for public office.  Most government secrets protect those employed in the government; not the people they were hired to serve, or elected to represent.  Competition between politicians must be fought on a level field of play.  Transparency forces vermin into the shadows, but it is not likely to make them disappear altogether.  The public must be willing to suffer the anxiety engendered by change, or starve from the mindless angst that binds us to the present course.

Anger Management

The word “anger” is strangely intimidating.  It is not uncommon to observe someone in a rage, yet deny they are angry.  A common response is “I’m just frustrated.”  Most people do not want to be labelled as angry, and refuse to label themselves as such.  Labeling another person as angry is rarely taken as a friendly gesture.  It is typically interpreted as an accusation.  Even if the intention is centered on the welfare of the other person,  the response is to deny or escalate.  It is difficult to imagine a friendly way to qualify someone as angry.

A professor once told the author “We are all angry, it is a question of when and where it is displayed.”  This quote portrays anger as a universal human phenomenon.  The perception of anger will change based upon the situation in which it is displayed.  Heads will be more likely to turn at an art gallery than at a sporting event.  Cultural and socioeconomic factors will alter how people perceive and interpret anger in other people.  Overt displays of anger may be tolerated in Rome, but eschewed in Milan. Tooting the car horn is almost expected in Manhattan, but it is an invitation to fight in Chicago.  Displays of anger in the upper classes are often viewed as indicative of low class behavior.  There is greater acceptance of angry behavior in the lower classes than those above.  Displays of anger in the upper class may lower one’s status, yet the same display in the lower class may elevate one’s status.

The physiological response of anger is often triggered by failed expectations.  Modern call centers often trigger anger by failing to provide an easy interface, a timely response, or a person who speaks the same language.  Since we are paying for a good or service, there is an expectation of a timely and coherent response to our questions.  Most people expect their children to be cooperative and do well in school.  When they fail parental expectations, anger or sadness is the result.  We expect significant others will support us and not betray our confidence.  When they fail to meet these expectations, anger or sadness is the result.  Consider the experience of being abandoned by someone you love.  Thoughts of the good times will engender sadness.  Thoughts of the bad times will engender anger.  Anger is often preceded or proceeded by sadness.

Is the lowering of one’s expectations the way to rid oneself of anger?  Not really.  Decreased expectations of others and oneself will decrease the occurrences of angry reactions.  It will not rid oneself of anger.  To rid oneself of anger is not possible, or even desirable.  Appropriate anger may change the behavior of oneself or others in a positive fashion.  Having no expectations of one’s children will decrease discord, but it may also breed sloth and disrespect.  Accepting substandard services from a company will be easier than arguing, but may cost the person additional money and reinforce the company’s poor performance.  There is a delicate balance between acceptance, expectation and anger.

Many years ago, the wife of a Russian diplomat overheard an American woman decry the anger expressed by American males.  She turned to face the American woman.  She explained that all the angry young men left their warm beds to fight Napoleon, and none came back.  When Hitler threatened the fatherland, the angry young men left their warm beds to fight once again, and none came back.  She cautioned the American woman.  The next time she heard a bump in the night, perhaps she would appreciate her angry young man.  Said another way, do not be too quick to condemn all angry reactions.  There are positive and negative aspects to all human emotions.  The consequences of an emotional display is more important than the emotion displayed.