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.

The purpose of life cannot be to pursue your own happiness

I’ve never stopped being annoyed by the ‘y’ in this title

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.

Why is there a spiritual side to becoming sober?

I am not a huge Alcoholics Anonymous person. Before getting sober, I went to maybe a dozen meetings and always found them to be a bit of a letdown. People in meetings are fairly friendly and inviting, but it’s still a social scene. They’re mostly there to talk to people they know, and it’s up to the newcomer to break in and make himself known…which is not exactly easy if you’re still within the throes of alcoholism (with all its attendance angst, depression, and social anxiety).

My Higher Power

After I quit drinking, I made the conscious decision to not go to any more meetings. I didn’t go to my first meeting as a sober person until my 1 year anniversary, and I never worked the program or got a sponsor or anything.

However, I’ve recently started attending meetings here in Baltimore! Not as any kind of desperate lunge for help, but more just because I felt like it’d be good to get out there, get involved in the sober community, etc. And it’s been pretty fun. Now that I’ve spent three years learning how to socialize, it’s really no problem to interact with a roomful of people with whom I have what’s actually a fairly strong connection.

For me, and for most people, the main sticking point with AA is its religiosity. It really is a program whose basis is asking “a Higher Power” to come down and cure your alcoholism. I mean, yeah, you can choose whatever you want as your Higher Power, but it’s pretty clear (if you look into the AA doctrine) that that’s a middle step. Eventually, you’re supposed to realize that your Higher Power is some kind of omnipotent, all-loving God.

When I was first getting sober, I used to joke that my Higher Power was Barack Obama. It made sense to me. Barack Obama is the most powerful being in the known universe. And I’m pretty sure that if he could do anything about it, he’d try to help me get sober.

But all joking aside, I do understand why AA is a spiritual program. Although there is a practical aspect to quitting drinking*, there’s also something spiritual about quitting drinking. Almost unwittingly, sobriety involves a reordering of your moral and ethical priorities.

AA is full of truisms. And one of the truisms is, “Your best thinking is what got you here” (i.e. don’t think, just follow the program). And there’s something to that. I lived life in a very straightforward manner: I wanted to be happy. And when I found something that made me happy, I used it until it almost destroyed my life.

But the happiness that it gave me was a real thing. It’s hard to overstate how euphoric I could sometimes be when I was drinking. Like, drinking made me as happy as any triumph in sober life–selling stories, getting into Hopkins, getting an agent–has ever made me. And it was an effortless happiness that I could get week after week!

That’s a pretty crazy thing to turn your back on. And when you do something like that, you’re saying–whether you realize it or not–that the physical emotion that we call happiness–is not the most important thing in your life.

Which leaves kind of a void. What is the most important thing in my life?

I can’t really say….

…but it’s definitely not God.

*The main practical aspect of quitting drinking is just the knowledge–strange and unintuitive as it may seem–that if you take even one drink you’re probably going to end up spiraling into full-blown relapse. There’s probably some science for why this is, but I think it’s just because alcoholism is a fairly strong compulsion that you mainly beat down through pure desperation. You’re so scared of the consequences that you’re able to resist the craving to drink and, over time, the craving decreases. However, the brain remembers what it was like to be addicted. If you take even one drink, the craving comes back at near its original strength, but, since your desperation has also waned, you’re not quite as able to fight it. The counterintuitive part of this is that it’s really hard to remember what it was like to need to drink once you don’t need to anymore. Once you’re in control, it’s hard to believe that anything could take that control away. However, I have no doubt that if I took a few drinks, I’d be out of control in no time.