"I find it odd that people are striving for happiness as a primary goal in life, I'm interested in other things. Hope or no hope, optimism, being part of something meaningful like striving for justice, or equal rights for all humanity. It's a much more dignified goal than personal happiness. Who cares about that?" - Werner Herzog
It is a truism that happiness, when you’re happy, is a limited commodity, but misery when you are miserable knows no end.
Happiness has a ceiling, a limit, beyond which lies torpidity and boredom. Whereas disquiet, uncertainty, angst and disappointment are bottomless wells from which the opportunities to learn are inexhaustible. This is pain’s purpose: to deeply ingrain with us life’s lessons.
The insatiable desire to overcome adversity has as its spring man’s desire to find meaning. It’s not that happiness and pleasure are to be scorned, but rather, should be seen less as a final destination than as a motivation to fulfill that which we value.
Pleasure has value. It infuses a desire for quality, thus promoting a state of becoming that not only satisfies the individual but improves the quality of his existence as well.
This desperate search for happiness is a form of utopianism: A quest for a ‘vanilla’ world where the notion of challenge is an anathema, where any deviation from the median is feared, where the self-delusion of a life of ease becomes the fantasy, tragically obscuring the higher ideal of value fulfilment: the primordial driver towards self-actualisation for human beings, in whose light mere happiness seems prosaic and childish, an illusory shadow cast on the wall of Plato’s cave.
Utopian fantasies represent a fraying around the edges of the self, with an ever-present threat of a complete unraveling hovering menacingly overhead. How are you supposed to find out who you really are when you’re trapped in a world devoid of stimulus, pressure or provocation?
The ephemeral nature of life ensures the challenge of existence. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Our world, and by extension, your life, is a moving playing field where the idea of justice can only exist in relation to injustice, concordance with discordance, light with dark, and happiness with despair. To fight against this is to refuse to accept the world as it is.
In his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi remarks,
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
In other words, we need to be confronted with challenges that demand that we push our boundaries, expand our horizons, and become better than we were. That becoming is based on an excitement of spontaneity and play, transformation and durability as well as fulfilling the desire to be more than we were.
Writer Jane Roberts said, “Value fulfillment always implies the search for excellence — not perfection, but excellence.” Perfection, as our world culture has largely defined it, implies a static state of being, where no future growth or achievement is possible. If we become perfect in every possible way imaginable, we’d be pretty bored.
By exploring our own abilities and psychological potential, we learn more than what we understood before about ourselves and our universe. That knowledge expands the quality of our being and affects all motivating factors in our lives. By exploring ourselves and our existence, we find meaning and fulfill that which we value.
What makes life so desirable is the inevitability of death. “If one lived forever the joys of life would inevitably, in the end, lose their savour. As it is, they remain perennially fresh”, said Bertrand Russell. Again, we see the ephemerality of life and all it contains as being the necessary and determining catalyst for change, challenge and value fulfillment. And, it is the attainment of such fulfillment that allows for, temporarily, the conquest of happiness.
The wheel will then turn, change again will compel us to overcome new difficulties, and in so doing, develop our abilities, compel us to learn, create, solve problems, and help others to do the same.
It is the pursuit of happiness, not its temporary attainment that makes life worth living. For by pursuing it with such vigour we realise that its achievement is transitory but the lessons learned along the way make us who we are.
The final words I leave to Schopenhauer,
“If the lives of men were relieved of all need, hardship, and adversity; if everything they took in hand were successful, they would be so swollen with arrogance that, though they might not burst, they would present the spectacle of unbridled folly-nay, they would go mad. And I may say, further, that a certain amount of care or pain or trouble is necessary for every man at all times. A ship without ballast is unstable and will not go straight” -Arthur Schopenhauer
The Carousel would like to thank J. A Gleeson for this article.