“We always have a story.”

Searching for happiness with BoJack Horseman

On the face of it, the Netflix original series ‘BoJack Horseman’ looks like a banal and shallow American comedy, akin to other animated series like ‘Family Guy’ or ‘The Simpsons’. This is reinforced by its gauche palette and anthropomorphised ‘animals’ living alongside humans in the (not-so-fictional) world of Hollywood. From a cursory glance, you shouldn’t be blamed for thinking that the show offered nothing more than light-hearted entertainment. But you could not be more wrong.

Underneath the bright colours and zany characters lies a bleak and startling reality. The show presents to us a plastic world where most people live life in a state of pure distraction. This is not a relatively new nor original thought — Hollywood culture is often blamed for perpetuating the meaningless and superficial — however, we are given the privilege of seeing this through the eyes of BoJack Horseman.

BoJack is a ‘horse-man’ and former TV star from the hugely popular 90s sitcom, “Horsin’ around”. Twenty years later, he has accomplished little else, and we see him living his everyday life trying to find meaning in a meaningless world. In the show, the public only ever see him as ‘the horse from “Horsin’ around”’, but we, the audience, peak behind the curtain and see him for how he really is.

The first season revolves around the creation of his biography, written by the intellectual Diane, who accompanies him during many of his daily exploits. He is a deeply troubled and insecure individual, and sees the book as his ‘last chance to make everybody love him again’. BoJack craves attention and needs constant reassurance from others that he is a good person.

However, once Diane writes an honest portrait of him in his biography, ‘One Trick Pony’, BoJack is forced to confront how others actually see him: a deeply flawed, self-destructive alcoholic. This revelation is hugely troubling for him. Up till this moment, he has been riding on a wave of self-delusion, narcissistically bathing in the fame and run-off from his TV show. Upon reading the book, he realises what sort of person he really is, and he doesn’t like that person at all. He goes on a hugely damaging drug-fuelled bender, attempting to rewrite Diane’s book to place him in a more positive light, but he can’t. In the aftermath, he ends up desperately pleading to Diane (in episode 11 of Season 1):

“Do you think it’s too late for me? Am I just doomed to be the person that I am, the person in that book? It’s not too late for me, is it? It’s not too late. Diane, I need you to tell me that it’s not too late!
I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person. And I need you to tell me that I’m good. Diane, tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.”
“I need you to tell me that it’s not too late.”

A long-running theme in Season 1 is that of popularity and, deeper still, of self-esteem. A huge goal for BoJack is to simply feel comfortable in being, to be able to feel good about himself. What’s particularly insidious in BoJack’s case is that his self-esteem is inextricably linked to other people’s opinions of him. (This is undoubtedly a comment on ‘Hollywood culture’ and performers in general.) Without the adoration of his fans to fall back on, he has nothing to bolster his own feelings of self-worth.

Whenever he ponders too long about this, he inevitably turns to alcohol or drugs to numb himself and forget about his problems. Along with fame and popularity, this is another motif that constantly surfaces throughout the show: most people in L.A. (or ‘Hollywoo’) do not know how to attend to their own lives. They may not have as self-destructive habits as BoJack, but, nevertheless, people keep themselves occupied in order not to think about their lives too much.

BoJack’s biographer, Diane, is more aware of this reality than most. She aims to escape from the city and to do some ‘real’ meaningful work. An opportunity arises for her, and she ponders travelling to impoverished third-world countries in order to document the charitable efforts of the famous philanthropist, Sebastian St. Clair. That said, her partner, Mr Peanutbutter, is apprehensive about this and articulates the situation very well in episode 12 of Season 1:

“You’re not going to find what you’re looking for in these awful, made-up places. The Universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t to search for meaning; it’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”
“The Universe is a cruel, uncaring void.”

Is this the key to being happy? It is a keen observation that perhaps this is what many people do: they simply live in a state of pure distraction. Yet, from my own experience, people are often unsatisfied in doing this. They still choose to search for meaning, however fruitless a task that may be.

The fruitlessness of this task is Albert Camus’ philosophical notion of “the Absurd”: an inherent conflict between people’s tendency to seek meaning in life and an inability to find any. The normal human reaction to this conflict is an experience of anguish and confusion. We are ‘thrown’ into the world, without any purpose or intent on our own part. It really is an absurd situation.

Both philosophers Albert Camus and Søren Kierkegaard suggest three solutions to the Absurd:

  1. Suicide — this is often dismissed, as it is not really a solution but more of an escape.
  2. Religion (or any abstract belief in some transcendent reality beyond the Absurd) — this is often referred to as “philosophical suicide” as it requires unnecessary and irrational thinking.

This leaves the only viable solution to the problem being:

3. Accepting the Absurd — one embraces the fruitlessness of their task of finding meaning in life, and continues to live in spite of it.

This last option is what Camus advocates. Perhaps one could also be happy with a constructed, personal meaning derived from this ridiculous process. In the show, BoJack obviously has great difficulty in this third solution, finding it impossible to construct personal meaning from any of his endeavours, and thus he is currently unable to be content in living his life.

BoJack had a terrible childhood; his father was an alcoholic and his mother a chainsmoker, and both often verbally abused him at a young age. Without a positive role model in his parents, he looked up to the racehorse, Secretariat, and wanted to be just like him. At the end of Season 1, BoJack is cast in the titular role for the Secretariat movie. This is a ‘dream role’ and something that BoJack has always wanted to do. Following the news of his casting, however, he isn’t as excited as expected. The first person he breaks the news to is Diane, and their conversation goes (in episode 12):

BoJack — “I think I just got cast in Secretariat.”
Diane — “That’s amazing!”
BoJack — “It’s everything I ever wanted.”
Diane — “Yeah, you seem super jazzed.” (sarcastically)
BoJack — “What do I do now?”
Diane — “Well, that’s the problem with life, right? Either you know what you want, and then you don’t get what you want, or you get what you want, and then you don’t know what you want.”
BoJack — “Well, that’s stupid.”
“What do I do now?”

This should have been a seminal moment for BoJack, one where he could have derived a great amount of personal meaning. But he is unable to do so. He ends up feeling as miserable as always no matter what happens to him.

There are actually two themes at play here: combating the Absurd, and another idea known as the ‘Hedonic treadmill’. This term was first coined by psychologists Brickman and Campbell, observing that humans quickly return to a stable baseline level of happiness despite the impact from major positive or negative life events. This likens the pursuit of happiness to walking on a treadmill: you keep walking only ever to stay in the same place. This is often likened to ‘chasing after more and more money’, but, as many studies have shown, after some threshold income level, earning any more money doesn’t actually make you any happier.

The hedonic treadmill isn’t a very comforting notion, as it states that a person’s long-term happiness is not significantly affected by external events, but is largely determined by your natural baseline level of happiness, or your ‘hedonic set point’. Season 2 of the show focusses on the production of the Secretariat movie, and it opens with BoJack trying to develop a new positive mindset in the hopes of being happier in his life. However, BoJack’s hedonic set point is naturally very low, and this is hammered home to him when he receives a call from his cruel mother, Bea:

Bea — “I just wanted to tell you, I know. I know you want to be happy, but you won’t be and … I’m sorry.
BoJack — “What?”
Bea — “It’s not just you, you know. Your father and I, we, well… You come by it honestly, the ugliness inside you. You were born broken; that’s your birthright. And now you can fill your life with projects and your books, and your movies and your little girlfriends, but it won’t make you whole. You’re BoJack Horseman. There’s no cure for that.”
“You were born broken.”

This paints a particularly dreary picture. Are we all doomed to stay at our baseline levels of happiness? Is it purely the luck of the draw if our baseline happens to be high or low? It also doesn’t help much that most self-help books on the subject, focussing on mindsets and goal-setting, are utter drivel.

Especially, as BoJack tries in the opening to Season 2, focussing on your mindset or attitude as a path to happiness inevitably leads to feelings of self-blame, which in turn can cause us to punish ourselves. If we’re told that as long as we have the right attitude, we can achieve what we desire, then what happens when we don’t? Mr Peanutbutter puts it well in episode 6:

Mr Peanutbutter — “With the right attitude, every single one of your dreams will always come true! And if your dreams don’t come true, it’s probably because you just didn’t have the right attitude.”
“It’s probably because you just didn’t have the right attitude.”

Nevertheless, without an in-depth knowledge of the major results from positive psychology, and without the help of a professional in enabling a deep personal change, many of us have to simply make do with how we are. We have our own largely stable temperaments and personalities, and with that, our own hedonic/happiness set points.

In the study of personality, psychologists still disagree on whether your personality is determined purely by genetics, by your environment or experiences, or by some combination of both. In any case, whatever assumption you ascribe to, the development of your personality is largely outside of your control.

The personality trait neuroticism is notable. This is a trait characterised by a tendency to experience negative emotions, including anger, anxiety, fear and depression. Those who score highly on neuroticism are more emotionally unstable, and their negative emotional reactions persist for long periods of time.

BoJack Horseman is a particularly neurotic character. He is often in a foul mood, he is tremendously self-conscious, and he has great difficulty in controlling his impulses. The reason I bring this point up is that the psychologist Hans Eysenck concluded that: “neurotic predisposition is to a large extent hereditarily determined”. This is partly what BoJack’s mother, Bea, was hinting at in the opening to Season 2 in the quote above.

It may be too obvious to say, but a person’s personality influences their behaviour and their reactions to external situations. BoJack’s personality is a hugely important factor in the formation of his hedonic set point, and in the shaping of his emotional well-being. Contrast BoJack’s personality with that of Mr Peanutbutter’s: Mr Peanutbutter is an easily excitable ‘dog-man’ whose hedonic set point is much higher than BoJack’s. He has a very short attention-span, is enthusiastic about pretty much everything, and he seems incapable of not being in a good mood. BoJack resents this about Mr Peanutbutter, and a skirmish on his TV game show turns into a tremendously candid conversation in episode 8 of Season 2:

Mr Peanutbutter — “Why don’t you like me?”
BoJack — “Because, I’m jealous.”
Mr Peanutbutter — “Of what? Diane?”
BoJack — “No, of everything. Everything comes so easy for you.”
Mr Peanutbutter — “Oh, and it doesn’t for you? You’re a millionaire movie-star, with a girlfriend who loves you, acting in your dream movie! What more do you want?! What else could the Universe possibly owe you?”
BoJack — “I… *want* to feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.”
“I want to feel good about myself.”

This simple conversation moved me quite deeply, which is surprising considering it is between two fictional, animal-man hybrids. The language is frank and unassuming, and BoJack’s final confession is brief. But it carries a huge amount of weight behind it, and ties together many of the themes we’ve so far talked about.

He wants to feel good about himself; this includes both the ideas of acquiring an assured self-esteem, as well as a search for meaning. But he doesn’t know how to do this, or even if he is capable. In the Season 2 finale, BoJack additionally says:

“I don’t understand how people live. It’s amazing to me that people wake up every morning and say: ‘Yeah! Another day! Let’s do it!’. How do people do it? I don’t know how.”

Attempting to feel good about oneself is a hugely difficult problem for those it doesn’t come to naturally. There is no clear solution-state, or method of solution. It also doesn’t help that the problem lies within us, and so we are inevitably too close to the problem to begin with.

As Mr Peanutbutter points out, BoJack is hugely successful. He’s rich, he’s famous, he has his dream job and even a loving girlfriend! And yet he is still miserable. This harks back to the ideas of the hedonic treadmill and fixed personality traits. I think the essential thing, though, is that BoJack’s measurable success is completely external to him, but happiness is of course internal.

This observation is a fundamental tenet in Stoic philosophy. Your happiness is not due to external events themselves, but is in fact due to your judgments about them. Annoyingly, this idea has become trivialised in ordinary conversation following sayings such as: “Look on the bright side” or “Every cloud has a silver lining”. But I don’t think we should let the clichés obscure the main idea, as it is hugely important. Our minds are all we have. Our entire conscious experience is determined by what goes on inside our own heads. It is therefore unavoidable that the salient event that causes our unhappiness is not an external one, but is rather an internal judgment we make afterwards.

We often tend to forget this when planning holidays or ‘escapes’. We fantasise about carefree days, relaxing at an idyllic spot away from the stresses of everyday life. But the person we imagine in these future scenarios is not us; it is an idealised version of us. The problem with going on holiday is that you must always take yourself with you, and doing so means taking along the same fears, anxieties and insecurities you have back at home.

This idea is explored in episode 11 of Season 2. BoJack leaves behind his filming responsibilities on the Secretariat movie in L.A. to go and visit an old friend, Charlotte, in New Mexico. This ‘short visit’ turns into a long stay, and BoJack gets to know Charlotte and her family over several months. One evening, he remembers Charlotte telling him that L.A. is a ‘tar pit’ and asks whether she still thinks so. It turns out Charlotte has grown wiser since her years in L.A. and she articulates the idea above precisely:

Charlotte — “Do I think L.A. is a tar pit? No. No, I think you’re the tar pit.”
BoJack — “Me?”
Charlotte — “No, not *you* you. I’m just saying, like, it doesn’t matter where you are, it’s *who* you are. And that’s not gonna change, whether you’re in California, or Maine, or New Mexico, you know? You can’t escape you.”
“You can’t escape you.”

Perhaps strategically placed, one of the most harrowing subplots in the series happens directly following this conversation. BoJack becomes overwhelmed by his feelings for Charlotte, disregarding the fact that she’s currently married with children. He regrets the many wasted years never finding someone in L.A. and wondering ‘what might have been’. He gets caught up in the moment and pleads Charlotte to come away with him. But she must reject him; she cannot simply leave behind the life she’s built for herself in New Mexico. Charlotte demands he leave the following day.

Earlier in the evening, Charlotte’s teenage daughter, Penny, had made a sexual advance on 50-year-old BoJack and he, of course, declined. It is left unexplained, but it seems that in BoJack’s miserably lonely state following Charlotte’s rejection, he reconsidered Penny’s offer. Charlotte soon stumbles upon BoJack and Penny clearly preparing for something in his bedroom, and any pity she previously had for BoJack turns quickly to a seething rage. She orders him to leave and threatens that if he ever see her again, she will ‘f***ing kill him’.

Exactly one season later, in episode 11 of Season 3, BoJack recounts this story to a group of people at an AA meeting during a drunken, drug-fuelled stupour. He stumbles up to the stand, almost bragging:

BoJack — “I’ve got something for ya. My name is BoJack.”
Crowd — “Hi, BoJack.”
BoJack — “Oh, like you didn’t know? Anyway, I once went all the way down to New Mexico to see a woman that I knew, and she had a young daughter, Penny, Penny Carson. And that’s her real name, you can look her up, I don’t care.
And first, I tried to sleep with the mum, but she said no. So then, I tried to sleep with the daughter, and then the mum walked in on me, trying to sleep with the daughter, and I was like ‘Oopsie doopsie! Exit stage right!’.
The worst part is: I don’t even know what happened after I left! Did I ruin the family? Did I scar that little girl for life? I don’t know! I’ll never know. And that’s just like one of a billion things that I have going through my head, all the time! So, anyone got a better story than that? Didn’t think so, bitches. Where’s my trophy or chip or whatever?”
“Did I scar that little girl for life?”

This is what makes BoJack Horseman an interesting character. Although he makes terrible decisions (such as trying to sleep with his friend’s daughter), he realises how awful he is. He feels terrible about the things he has done, and he hates himself for it. And although he often does despicable things, we, the audience, are still able to empathise with him.

Season 3 of the show revolves around the Secretariat movie release, and BoJack’s subsequent Oscar campaign with his publicist, Ana Spanakopita. But this statement only tells you ‘what happens’ in Season 3. Much more interesting is BoJack’s character development (or lack thereof) and what I believe to be the main novel theme explored in this season, that of ‘taking responsibility’.

I mean this in a very broad sense, in ‘taking responsibility’ for one’s own life, including one’s own happiness. A lot of BoJack’s unhappiness and self-loathing comes from his brooding on the decisions he’s made and the things he’s done. However, BoJack separates his actions from himself, not wanting to let what he does define who he is. He still hopes that ‘deep down’ he is a good person. But this is a fallacy. As Diane says at the end of Season 1:

“I don’t think I believe in ‘deep down’. I kind of think all you are is just the things that you do.”

Is Diane correct? What, if anything, does ‘deep down’ even mean? If your actions never reveal that you can be a good person, then how can you ever claim to be a good person? Perhaps, at the heart of it, the notion of ‘deep down’ is meaningless. It’s all meaningless. BoJack simply uses his belief in ‘deep down’ as a thin ray of hope to justify his terrible actions.

In episode 7 of Season 3, BoJack has a surprisingly enlightening phone conversation about this with an employee (dubbed ‘The Closer’) from the ‘L.A. Gazette’, a newspaper he wishes to unsubscribe from. BoJack tells her about another mistake he recently made: sleeping with his roommate Todd’s close friend, Emily. She asks BoJack why he did this, and homes in on this important issue BoJack has surrounding his actions, saying:

The Closer — “When you do bad things, you have something you can point to when people eventually leave you. It’s not you, you tell yourself. It’s that bad thing you did. Do you often keep people at arm’s length? Are you afraid of being known, and knowing others?”
“It’s not you, you tell yourself. It’s that bad thing you did.”

BoJack reacts in the same way he always does to inconvenient truths, and he deflects these questions away, not wanting to believe that this newspaper employee may be correct. He still clings to the notion that perhaps he is a good person ‘deep down’. But in doing so, he never fully takes responsibility for who he is. In episode 10, BoJack confesses to sleeping with Emily to his roommate, Todd. Todd is understandably outraged at this revelation, and he confronts BoJack about taking charge of his own actions:

BoJack — “Todd, I’m sorry, alright? I screwed up. I know, I screwed up. I don’t know why, I…”
Todd — “Oh, great! Of course, here it comes. You can’t keep doing this! You can’t keep doing shitty things, and then feel bad about yourself, like that makes it OK! You need to be better!”
BoJack — “I know. And I’m sorry, OK? I was drunk, and there was all this pressure with the Oscar campaign… But now, now that it’s over I, I…”
Todd — “No! No, BoJack. Just stop. You are all the things that are wrong with you. It’s not the alcohol, or the drugs, or any of the shitty things that happened to you in your career, or when you were a kid. It’s you. Alright? It’s you… Fuck, man. What else is there to say?”
“It’s you.”

Todd hits the nail on the head here, reiterating Diane’s view that all we are is the things that we do. But BoJack doesn’t want to believe this, and it is preventing him from being able to take charge of his own life, to take charge of his own happiness. This was hinted at in the very first episode of the show, when BoJack first meets Diane:

Diane — “You’re responsible for your own happiness, you know?”
BoJack — “Good Lord, that’s depressing.”
Diane — “No, it’s not!”
BoJack — “I’m responsible for my own happiness? I can’t even be responsible for my own breakfast!”

This idea of ‘taking responsibility’ calls to mind Nietzsche’s so-called ‘will to power’ in his philosophy. This ‘will’, he believed, is the principal driving force in humans. It should propel us towards human flourishing, and towards being the best possible versions of ourselves. In his magnum opus, ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’, he writes the rallying cry: “Become who you are!”.

BoJack is obviously averse to this idea. Understandably, although it is important to take responsibility for your own happiness, it is very difficult to know how to go about doing this. Happiness is a strange beast. It’s something you cannot pursue directly; it is a state of being. There is no use chasing after happiness as BoJack tries to. It arises as a by-product from doing things you find meaningful and living ‘authentically’. In Nietzsche’s words, by becoming who we are. Obsessing over our own happiness is not the answer, and it is not the same as taking responsibility for it. As Diane says to BoJack in episode 3 of Season 3:

BoJack — “So what, I make you unhappy? Is that what you’re saying?”
Diane — “It’s not about being happy! That’s the thing; I’m just trying to get through each day. I can’t keep asking myself: ‘Am I happy? Am I happy?’. It just makes me more miserable.”
“I’m just trying to get through each day.”

Perhaps this is the take-home message. We should all take responsibility for our lives, and for our own happiness (or lack thereof). But we shouldn’t search for happiness. As the old adage goes, we just need to take each day as it comes. And in taking each day as it comes, we can try to embrace the Absurd, become who we are, and finally flourish as human beings. That sounds like a very good aim to me.

Thank you, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, for creating this show.