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.

Žižek’s Essentialism

So, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. Again. This time, it’s Žižek. Again. I’ve still not read any of Žižek’s own work, but people mention him often and he is a shameless self-promoter. In this video clip, he responds to whether gender is a social construct. Unfortunately, he conflates gender with sex, and his examples cite transsexuals not transgenders.

sex is about biological sex assignment

To set the stage, sex is about biological sex assignment—the sex category you are assigned into at birth: male, female, or other for some 1.8%. This is a simplistic categorisation: penis = male; vagina = female; both or neither: rounding error. In some cases, a decision is made to surgically conform the child to either male or female and ensure through prophylactic treatment that this isn’t undone hormonally in adolescence.

gender is about identity

Gender is about identity. As such, it is entirely a social construct. All identity of this nature is a function of language and society. In this world—in the West—, females wear dresses (if they are to be worn at all) and males don’t—kilts notwithstanding. In this world, sex and gender have little room for divergence. so the male who identifies as this gender (not this sex) is ostracised.

The example I usually consider first is the comedian Eddie Izzard—a cross-dresser. He’s probably a bad example because he does identify as a male. He just doesn’t wish to be constrained by male role restrictions and wants to wear the makeup that’s been reserved for women in the West at this time.

Žižek eventually gets to an argument about essentialism—so we’re back at Sorites paradoxes and Theseus again. At the start, I could argue that the sexual distinction has few meaningful contexts. For me, unless I am trying to have sex and/or procreate, the distinction is virtually meaningless. For others, only procreation remains contextually relevant. In this technological world, as Beauvoir noted in the late 1940s, strength differentials are not so relevant. End where they are, sex is not the deciding factor—it’s strength.

Žižek’s contention seems to be that the postmoderns (or whomever) disclaim essentialism in favour of constructivism but then resolve at essentialism as a defence because ‘now I am in the body originally intended’. I’ll argue that this is the logic employed by the person, but this person is not defending some academic philosophical position. They are merely engaging in idiomatic vernacular.

I am not deeply familiar with this space, and if the same person who is making a claim against essentialism is defending their actions with essentialism, then he’s got a leg to stand on. As for me, the notions of essentialism and constructivism are both constructed.

Competition and Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson was interviewed by Joe Rogan, where he discussed gender and competition. I am not going to address his gender issues, but I’ll say something about competition. I’ll also ignore his stance that the world is ‘functioning unbelievably well, even though it has its problems’. He gets to competition through some comments on equality.


[Focus] on winning the largest number of games across the span of a lifetime.

Jordan Peterson

Firstly, Peterson differentiates equal playing fields from equal outcomes, a favoured Conservative talking point slash whipping boy. He then sets up a strawman argument relating to people favouring the ‘best of the best’ (which is to say, their personal favourites, I suppose) in lieu of exploring the vast universe of music available on the myriad streaming services, the result being that in the aggregate, the preferred acts make more money through this competition. Of course, this is the result of preference theory, which produces different outcomes based on inputs such a time and place, fads and trends, and the ‘winner’ is the one who attains the most listens.

There’s no accounting for taste.

Having had worked in Entertainment for years, I realised early on that the correlation between talent and financial success was fairly weak. In fact, I had several conversations with artists who felt ‘guilty’ for their commercial success over people they deemed more talented. This is a fundamental problem with market systems, the value calculus is influenced by what Keynes termed ‘animal spirits‘. As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste.

Peterson and Rogan both agree that competition is healthy and necessary, but they don’t define the scale and scope, so they sacrifice a participation trophy red herring on the altar.

Peterson does come back to discuss scope within a timeline of a lifespan, that a single game is less important than a championship—and, apparently, there is more than one championship. What never happens is a definition of what the rules of the game are or how you know you’ve won. I suppose, that’s a relative concern. They also don’t provide any guidance on where to set the dial between competition and cooperation.

If you are trying to get a job versus even some anonymous pool of applicants, then you’ve won this match. I see this as an evolutionary game. I remember a story by Clarissa Pinkola Estes where she tells about a guy who had been climbing the corporate ladder for decades, and when he got near the top, he came to the realisation that he had it up against the wrong building. Perhaps what he thought was a worthy goal (say acquisition of money) was in conflict with some higher ethical goals or deeper friendships.


It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

From what I can tell, Peterson is guided by a sense the virtue ethics are the way to go, and, judging from this interview, he’s more than just a bit of a Consequentialist. But it’s clear he is no Deontologist. Case in point, he claims that the adage, ‘it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’ is a ‘sentiment confuses children’.

Play well with others.

He ends by saying that if you learn the kindergarten lesson to play well with others, you’ll temper your winning or redefine winning within the context, and somehow your goal should be ‘focusing on winning the largest number of games across the span of a lifetime’.

At the end of all of this—given Peterson’s pathological worldview—, it’s no wonder he’s so defensive, combative, and irascible: he is driven to win, and he thinks it matters. And it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t learnt his own kindergarten lesson: Play well with others.

And now for something completely different…

I chose the cover image of this post on the merits of the upcoming competition between Peterson and Žižek on 19 April.