Happiness is for Opportunists

Happiness was never important.
The problem is that we don’t know what we really want.
What makes us happy is not to get what we want.
But to dream about it.
Happiness is for opportunists.
So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself.
We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street.
What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog.
I think we should say something similar about happiness.
If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid.
Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.

— Slavoj Žižek (Guardian Web Chat, 6 October 2014 (revised 8 October 2014))

I agree with most of Žižek’s sentiment here. I dissect it into four elemental blocks, three of which I care about.

Žižek talks Happiness

Element One

Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists.

Seeking happiness is similar to the enterprise seeking growth. Like growth, happiness is an outcome or a side effect. There is no sense in pursuing it for its own sake.

Herbert Simon noted in the mid-1950s that people satisfice—a portmanteau of satisfying and sufficing—rather than optimise. Behavioural economics has run with this in the past few decades.

The challenge is that people don’t know what they want, so they are easy prey for marketers hoping to attract their interest. These are the opportunists.

Most people tend to behave like they are on rudderless ships easily buffeted this way and that. Easily lured by the call of the sirens, the call of marketers and other hucksters peddling happiness. There is the occasional Odysseus cum Ulysses, the metaphor for restraint—but not of self-control because even Homer realised how ridiculous of a notion that is.

Self-help and fashion industries extract billions from not-quite happy consumers who buy into the false promises and hype. Social media is toxic with these same promises, like the life coach earning some 30K a year dispensing advice.

You need to dream. Dream big. Such and such and so and so had dreams, and look at them. If they didn’t have a dream, they wouldn’t have attained whatever it was they had dreamed. These other losers? They don’t have the right dreams or they aren’t big enough. The universe isn’t going to pay attention to small dreams. You need to attract its attention. Perhaps, these other people just don’t know how to dream. They aren’t doing it right. But I can teach you how to dream for a few shekels.

The problem is that research shows that happiness—by whatever measure—is fleeting. And it fleets fast—usually a matter of weeks. Some people have dispositions that facilitate their happiness. It just takes less for these people to be content. Perhaps they define happiness subjectively as being content. Maybe your threshold is too high. Maybe they are kidding themselves. Does it matter? Perhaps they are not comparing themselves with others, the root of unhappiness.

John Lennon penned a lyric, dream, dream away. What more can I say?

Element Two

So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself.

I disagree with Žižek here, but perhaps I am deluding myself. I don’t subscribe to the notions of self or of identity. These are fictions. Finding oneself is just as much a distraction as anything else. You might do this, read books, write blogs, play piano, play cricket, learn Tai Chi, or drink chai tea.

This is where I find myself at odds with Existentialist—the philosophers who admit that there is no meaning to life but who insist people must make it, e.g., Sartre with politics, Camus with Art, or Kierkegaard with his personal religious experience.

Element Three

We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog. I think we should say something similar about happiness.

I’ve got nothing to write here, which is why I left it out of the graphic. Go buy yourself a dog.

Element Four

If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.

This is an obvious nod to Nietzsche and his master and her aesthetic. Masters have their own ethics and outlook, but the pursuit or maintenance and appearance of power are more important than happiness. The herd, which is to say most people, seek the elusive goal of happiness.

Happiness and how to defeat it (part 1)

Some Utilitarians claim that humans are happiness maximisers or at least a large component of utility is happiness. Besides happiness (nor pleasure) is not everyone’s goal. Utility maximisation has a near-term bias, and preference theory leaves a lot to be desired.

Utilitarians are not hedonists, per se, but perhaps this is only moderated by the downsides attributed to excess.

Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Some people defer happiness in their engagements of so-called labours of love. Stereotypical entrepreneurs, forego near-term happiness in the hope of some future benefit. Given the low probability of even a remotely positive outcome, this is taking a lottery mentality. In the US, much entrepreneurship is reserved for the children of the affluent. This is a hobby, and they typically have several safety nets for the almost inevitable ensuing failure.

In any case, if happiness is a goal, rational choice and homo economicus have surely gone missing.

Four Nobel Truths

Buddhism has its Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is suffering
  • Suffering is due to attachment
  • There is a way to overcome attachment
  • Follow the Eightfold Path

Happiness-seeking is precisely what will ensure unhappiness. One might even argue that this is the general malaise evident in Western society. As Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and others have pointed out, people rather satisfice, a strategy of getting to good enough. Perhaps this is not letting perfection be enemy of the good, or perhaps this is somehow realising the asymptotic path of diminishing returns ahead.

Happiness should not be a goal; it’s a side-effect, a result of pursuing one’s interests. And happiness is ephemeral. We’re likely all aware of the person who was asking for just one thing to achieve happiness is quickly seeking the next thing because happiness comes with an expiration date.