It’s a very common thing to state that you can’t directly pursue happiness, that if you do something solely for the pleasure and satisfaction that it brings you, then that pleasure and satisfaction will eventually fail to come (it’s called the Paradox of Hedonism). I’ve often thought that this was bull. I understand that it’s difficult to directly pursue happiness, but what else is there? It’s a bit silly for us all to go around pretending like we don’t really care about happiness and are just doing things as an end in themselves when really our entire lives are just a desperate attempt to evade suffering and acquire pleasure.
But I’m starting to come around. Not because I’ve stopped believing that happiness is the ultimate aim of life, but because I’ve stopped believing that there’s any straightforward path to happiness. For me, happiness seems to come and go in weird ways. Sometimes it seems to result in greater productivity and sometimes it seems to be a result of greater productivity. Sometimes it’s not correlated with productivity at all and then there are also times when I don’t feel like working at all. Happiness is like the weather. We all want the weather to be good, but when it’s bad, what can we do?
To a large extent, The Magic Mountain deals with many of these themes. In it, there’s an anarchist dude, Settembrini, who preaches the standard cant: the mission of man is to eliminate suffering and usher in a world of universal peace and happiness. And then there’s Naptha, who has a more quasi-mystical bent. It’s not entirely clear what the latter believes, but to me he’s a representative of the other path: the notion that there are things in the world that transcend happiness. To him, the Middle Ages were a healthier time than now, because we didn’t pretend that suffering could be cured: instead, suffering was worshipped. It’s weird and not altogether pleasant. But there is something to it…
Because there is a hollowness at the core of Settembrini’s philosophy. We feel, in some way, not just that it’s impossible to eliminate suffering, but that it’s pointless to do so. There’s a sterility to a world of infinite happiness. In some weird, irrational, altogether intuitive way, it feels like a dead end.
Anyway, my disenchantment with the pursuit of happiness is rooted in more practical considerations. A belief in the pursuit of happiness is a pleasant belief when you’re happy, but that is not the time when we need our beliefs. Our beliefs are what we rely upon to guide us when we are otherwise adrift. And it is at these points that a belief in the pursuit of happiness is not only useless, it is actively harmful. Because if you believe that happiness is the ultimate aim and purpose of life, then when you’re unhappy, your life is purposeless. If you’re unhappy, you’re just taking up space.
And there’s a sense in which you might say, “Oh, but if you believe in pursuing happiness, then you’ll pursue those things that make you happy and you’ll eventually be led out of unhappiness.”
But it doesn’t really work like that. Because when you’re unhappy, you don’t even really believe in happiness. It all feels so impossibly distant to you. Furthermore, it’s not always clear that the things that normally make you happy are going to work this time.
Whereas if you believe in something else–anything that is external to you–then you at least have something to guide you during dark times. You can at least get up in the morning and say, “I may not be happy, but the purpose of my life isn’t to be happy, it’s to do this other thing.”
Of course, it’s also very easy to get trapped by stoicism: to start thinking that since there is no chance of being happy, then there’s no problem with doing things that are bad for you and will never lead to happiness. So you do still have to, in some ways, look out for your own happiness even when you’re not looking out for it? And then that, again, is the ultimate problem with the whole Paradox of Hedonism concept. I guess the solution is to take advantage of moments of happiness to formulate your beliefs and aims (thus ensuring that these aims are unlikely to be incompatible with happiness), and then to hold fast to those aims even when you’re unhappy.