Does happiness require struggle?

Maarten van Doorn
Mar 11, 2018 · 5 min read

It is a rather unfortunate fact that the leading philosophies of how to live your life appear to be in direct tension with each other.

On one side, there’s the ideology according to which you should work hard, be obsessed and make sacrifices. As echoed by Mark Manson (writer of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck), “Happiness requires struggle”.

Self-help authors from the competing party advocate an opposite lifestyle. Imploring us to care less about productivity, they assert that busyness is for losers and that we should embrace mindfulness instead of diligence. As Power of Now-author Eckhart Tolle advises: “Learn from nature: See how everything gets accomplished without dissatisfaction or unhappiness.”

According to the one, existence is an uphill battle. According to the other, we should stop having a beef with life.

Lets see who’s right.

How to live?

The doctrine that happiness requires struggle combines two ideas. One: reaching every goal that is worthwhile will necessarily require combating difficulties. Two: true happiness can only be attained after having gone through such a “struggle”.

As the British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) remarked in his book Utilitarianism: “It’s better to be Socrates unsatisfied than to be pig satisfied.”

People who are content for mundane reasons merely are ‘happy’ because their ignorance allows them to be. Happiness that is not achieved by completing severe challenges is qualitatively inferior to happiness that was reached thusly (if it is ‘happiness’ at all).

Personal growth requires overcoming.

By contrast, the Buddhist-like view prescribing acceptance denies both claims: valuable achievements do not necessarily require hardship and true happiness need not be preceded by strenuous labor. The mark of true accomplishment is not triumph; true growth happens through acceptance, not through defiance.

Although he wasn’t a Buddhist, Jesus Christ invited us to “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin” (Luke 12:27).

The former view holds that the art of living centers around exerting oneself in an attempt to accomplish a change by achieving what one sets out to, whereas the latter contends that the art of living centers around full acceptance of oneself and the moment.

Let’s analyze what kind of practical philosophy we end up with by extracting the right elements of both theories while discarding the mistaken viewpoints they harbor.

Why we should sometimes suffer

For starters, the mistake of the acceptance-view lies in its wholesale rejection of suffering.

To accept fully implies to stop wanting that some change obtains and hence to be no longer willing to fight to achieve that end.

When we want something, there is a mismatch between how the world is and how we want it to be. Therefore, wanting implies suffering. We do not want to suffer; thus, we should stop wanting.

Indeed, this is the reason that Buddhism thinks we should eradicate desire.

I think Buddhists are right in thinking that we could put an end to pain if we could just stop fighting.

I think they are wrong in concluding that we should therefore stop fighting.

Some pains are worth having.

Worthwhile pains

It is this valuableness that is at the core of the opposing philosophy.

Because some ends are worth achieving, they are worth the hurt one experiences in bringing them about.

Importantly, happiness itself is not one of these ends. Happiness is something that might happen to us when we make the world better through accomplishing what we set out to, but happiness that is not related to such an endeavor is a shallow reflection of the real deal.

While it is intuitive to think that such ‘deserved’ happiness is ‘better’, that would be a mistake. Such happiness might plausibly seem different, but it’s an exaggeration to reduce all other episodes of happiness to “pig satisfaction” and it is erroneous to infer from this difference that happiness through struggle is the only true happiness.

The thesis that true happiness requires resistance is too extreme, because it unjustly devalues everyday pleasures. Appreciating the small things in life does not mean you’re treating yourself to some undeserved joy.

Furthermore, prescribing hardship as a condition for a good life automatically disqualifies everyone who does not want to battle life.

That seems wrong.

Now, the most important point: adopting the ideology that a good life requires tough times is, in fact, a dangerous affair.

The disappearance of value

If struggle is indispensable for having a life worth living, you will struggle. So we fight to justify our lives, meanwhile forgetting the underlying purpose, dissociating our toil from the valuable cause that it was supposed to be labor for.

Tellingly, separation of production and value and increased work-for-work behavior is exactly what is happening these days.

On country level, penis size is inversely correlated to economic growth: for some reason, nations whose male inhabitants have a smaller wiener tend to produce more. And, according to an analysis in The Economist, obsession as such fuels Silicon Valley — not a desire to accomplish something worthwhile.

The message that “if it doesn’t obsess you, it’s not worth doing” is omnipotent in our society. Because we wear stress and fatigue as a badge of honor — perhaps even as a badge of normalcy — depression and burn-out have never been so prevalent as they are now.

The idea we started out with — that some valuable ends are worth some privation — is no longer part of the picture. Rather, we are like the Greek mythical figure Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a stone to the top of a mountain, which then immediately rolled down, again to be pushed to the top by Sisyphus, to roll down once more, and so on again and again, forever.

Our existence has become a perfect picture of meaninglessness, and our pursuit of a good life, rather unsuccessful.

How to find the middle ground

Where does that leave us?

We shouldn’t stop fighting, but neither should we hail strife as prerequisite for having a life worth living.

Enduring life’s punches only makes sense depending on the point of combating; sacrificing your happiness only makes sense depending on what you’re sacrificing it for.

Therefore, it is of the highest importance that we ask ourselves why we want to reach something.

Do you bend over backwards in order to justify your existence or to allow yourself to feel deserving of happiness?

Or do you endure hardship because you want to achieve something that you find valuable?

As vulnerability-researcher Brené Brown, famous for her TEDtalk on The Power of Vulnerability, says:

“Some striving for excellence is internally motivated. [Other ambitions are more akin to] perfectionism, which is a classic defense mechanism because it is dictated by what other people think. Whereas the former starts from a place of being enough, the latter tries to get everything perfect so that one can think one is mitigating judgment [by others].”

Do you feel that you are enough?

Do you strive to subdue those internalized castigations, or do you want to rectify a lack in the world and achieve something valuable?

Why are you fighting?

There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more intimate rambles on happiness, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.

Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. Reconsidering the obvious. Chasing interestingness. Get good ideas that make you think:

The Understanding Project

Do you believe that we can do better at playing the game of life? If you engage with us, you’ll get answers.

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