A person can’t hold to one value system when they’re successful and a different one when they fail.

envyRecently, I saw that a familiar name had just inked their first book deal. And it was a pretty good deal: good advance, good agent, good publisher, and intriguing novel concept. Now, I have never met or spoken to this author; he and I are not even Facebook friends. But for at least the last five years, I have carried on a bitter rivalry with him (one that exists only inside my head…since, you know, I’ve never had any contact with him).

And because of that rivalry, I sat in front of my computer and immediately started to think of reasons why my book deal was better than his, and (failing that) why I was a better writer and/or person than he was. I was like: his book sounds stupid, and anyway (googling his stories) he’s just another cookie-cutter hack, and, etc, etc,

However, after about ninety seconds of this, I stopped and said to myself, “Oh my god. What am I doing? This behavior is sick.”

Intellectually, I know that (at least for me) envy springs from the belief that I am better than other people. It’s not that I want what they have; it’s that their achievements damage my sense of self. And the way of reigning in that envy is for me to do my best to not believe that I’m better than other people.

Which is easier said than done. I know that I’m not the greatest writer who’s ever lived or ever was. But sometimes I act (in my mind) like my only competition is Tolstoy and Evelyn Waugh and Willa Cather and all the other great writers throughout the ages, when, actually, the truth is that I know and have met plenty of writers who are, in many ways, better than me. Now, I’m not saying that writing is some kind of ladder, where Tolstoy is at the top and then there’s James Joyce, and the purpose of writing is to work your way up the ladder. I know writing can’t be evaluated that way. But all I’m saying is that there are other people in the world who are producing work that is more interesting and has more aesthetic value than mine, and that’s always going to be true.

However, it’s alot easier for me to remember something like that when I’m in a professional downturn. Because when I’m in a downturn, combatting envy becomes something that is of paramount importance to my psychological well-being.

But the moment things start to go well, all the bad habits-of-mind come out, and I immediately start to sample the pleasures of feeling superior.

And those pleasures are incredible.

However, I know that I’ll pay for them.

It’s not possible to live by two value systems and pick the one that best suits me at any given time. If I, during my periods of success, choose to indulge in a system of value where a person’s worth is judged by his accomplishments, then that is the value system which will crucify me during my periods of failure.

Anyway, ever since cutting short the cycle of envy re: that particular author’s book deal (his book really does sound cool, and I’m almost sorry I can’t mention it here), I’ve been thinking about what other value system I can use. Because I think there are a number of bad value systems that writers subscribe to.

For instance, the temptation is to say, “External success doesn’t matter; what matters is the quality of the work and whether or not I’ve achieved my vision.”

But that is also fraught. Because the truth is that sometimes you don’t achieve your vision. Sometimes you work and work and the result sucks. And, of course, all writers (unless they’re incredibly lucky or short-lived or deluded) will eventually come face to face with their own waning powers.

And then there’s also the value system that says, “Life is worthless and we’re all insignificant and nothing matters because we’re all going to die.”

That’s a value system that also has the benefit of being (insofar as I understand it) objectively true. However, it also clashes with my intuition. I can say from morning until night that life is insignificant, but I don’t live as if it’s insignificant. Whether I admit it or not, I do hold some other value system than that.

I don’t know. There are no easy answers. I guess the system that I gravitate most towards is one that views life with a sort of lightness. A value system which holds that life is not exactly worthless, but also not very valuable. Something that allows me to do my work–because doing something is better than doing nothing–without letting me feel too terrible about any shortcomings I might have.

Or I guess I could also believe in God or something.

People care more about feeling important than they do about being happy

l24120428We’re brought up to believe that the purpose of life is to be happy, and that people orient their lives around the pursuit of happiness. This belief is actually the foundation of the entire discipline that I studied (Economics) in college.* However, it’s false.

I can’t believe I didn’t realize it until now. It is obviously false that all people (or even most people) primarily want to be happy. That’s because so many people do things that are not going to make them happy. Careers are a perfect example. So many people choose to work in jobs (investment banking, law, management consulting) where their chance of job satisfaction is very low. They chase dreams that make them unhappy. They break up with people who make them happy and go undertake relationships with people who make them much less happy. They torture themselves with thoughts of what could be, instead of enjoying the moments they have.

If you believe that people want to be happy, then all of this is very puzzling behavior indeed. In order to reconcile it, you must also believe that people are stupid and don’t know what will make them happy.

To some extent, that’s true. But I don’t think that’s all of it. The problem is that we’ve become attached to the idea that success and happiness are married to each other. You’re happy because you have a successful career. You’re happy because you married a desirable person. You’re happy because you’re helping other people.

But oftentimes that’s not true and those things don’t make you happy and people know they don’t make you happy and they still do them anyway, because they believe (whether they know it or not) that it’s better to feel important than to feel happy.

Happiness is nice, but it’s evanescent. It’s a moment-by-moment thing. If this moment or this thought is a pleasant one, then I’m are happy. But I can’t hold it in my mind or in my body. When I try to remember being happy, I can remember the fact of it, but I can’t remember what it felt like.

Happiness does nothing to combat existential woe. In fact, there’s an extent to which happiness makes existential woe feel considerably more woeful. I know I’ve reached a local peak in my happiness when I start wondering, “How long can I be this happy? When is this happiness going to go away?” That’s when the slide begins.

Happiness annihilates itself. When I’m happy, I become more intensely aware of death. The end of happiness is programmed into the universe. Happiness is not an answer. In fact, it’s a problem: happiness highlights the fact that while I am the center of my own existence, I am utterly insignificant to the rest of the universe. It’s only when I am unhappy that I no longer worry about my place in the world, because when I am unhappy, my evaluation of myself corresponds to the way that the universe treats me (and everyone else).

Feeling important, on the other hand, is a much sturdier thing. Feeling important is not an emotion at all, really. It’s a thought. And you build it brick by brick throughout your life. First you establish some standards, “This is what makes one person better than another person.”

Then you adjust those standards until you’re the only person that meets them.

If you do it successfully, then you’re able to go around feeling extremely important. Importance is an answer. If you’re important, then the universe has noticed you and assigned you a pre-eminent place. You still have to die someday, but at least you’re not constantly reminded of that fact.

Of course, the palace is constantly under attack. Not just for you or for me, but for everyone. Nobel Prize winners also go around defending themselves, every day, from invisible attacks on their own sense of importance. The feeling of importance is under attack from the basic reality that you don’t matter.

Feeling unsteady in your own importance is very worrisome, and this worrying tends to cut into your day-to-day happiness–this is why importance-building activities are often also happiness-destroying ones. Furthermore, those moments when the walls of your importance are breached are extremely upsetting, world-destroying moments. A sense of importance can’t fully protect you from existential issues, and it can’t protect you most of the time. But it is one of the easiest and most accessible bulwarks against existential anxiety, and it makes sense that building it up is one of the primary activities in a human being’s life.

 

*In comments, Xan correctly pointed out that Economics is actually much more nuanced than this.