Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the great philosophers of the 19th century.
Taking himself “philosophize with a hammer”, Nietzsche analyzed the way people think about a topic, took out his hammer and went to work.
One of his targets was the most famous theory about the role of happiness in life.
That sounds interesting.
Happiness should not be your goal
In Nietzsche’s days, the doctrine of ‘utilitarianism’ was the most widely held view about the role happiness in life. Utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) argued that happiness-maximization should be the goal of behavior and the guide for deciding how to act. Nowadays, celebrated philosophers like Peter Signer advocate a form of utilitarianism.
The idea that happiness-maximization is the criterion one should use in deciding what to do and how to act has probably been the most popular ethical view throughout history.
In opposition, Nietzsche insists that happiness should not be your goal.
For example, in his magnum opus — Thus Spoke Zarathustra — his protagonist declares:
“Do I strive after happiness? [No,] I strive after my works!”
And in Twilight of the Idols, he explicitly states that:
“Man [should] not strive after happiness.”
At this point, any philosopher worth his salt asks: “But what exactly does Nietzsche mean when he says these things?”
The context of these passages suggests that Nietzsche takes happiness to be some state of being content — or ‘happy’ — with it all. Utilitarianism, similarly, understands happiness to consist in the experience of a desirable mental state.
While utilitarianism sees happiness as the highest good, Nietzsche thinks that having such feelings of satisfaction as a goal is rather a base thing.
In today’s culture, where mental illnesses that centrally involve the absence of such feelings are more prevalent than ever, these feelings are perhaps less simple than Nietzsche imagined them to be.
Regardless, Nietzsche is taken to have held the stronger opinion that insofar as one is feeling satisfied, one’s life is not a success.
That’s a position worth investigating.
The game of life never ends
“Happiness is the feeling that power increases — that resistance is being overcome.” — Nietzsche
Nietzsche argued that happiness is not found by default, but is achieved as the result of hard work.
One has an unsatisfied desire, works to satisfy the desire and experiences pleasant feelings of desire-satisfaction as byproduct when the goal is reached.
And this rhythm never ends: whatever destination we reach, there is no such thing as happily ever after.
We cannot withdraw from the cycle of dissatisfaction → labor → goal-achievement and choose to simply stay happy.
Nietzsche equals attempts to do so with a “longing for a land without homeland” and states:
“I am bitterly opposed, to all teaching that look to an end, a peace, a ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’. Such modes of thoughts indicate fermenting and suffering.”
For Nietzsche, this concern for a peaceful, unconditioned happiness is an expression of flight, of weakness, because it implies that you stop wanting that some change obtains and hence are no longer willing to fight for it.
Nietzsche saw that when these feelings of happiness are your direct goal, you’ll stop doing the hard things, which causes you to end up losing your happiness in the long run: aiming at feelings of satisfaction in fact drives you away from real happiness.
For Nietzsche, if we try to opt out of this fight — and just be happy with it all — we are foolishly trying to escape from the contingency that is the very essence of happiness.
How to balance feeling good with struggling well?
There’s seems to be something right in Nietzsche’s idea that there is no happiness ever after, because, having achieved such a peaceful ‘all is well’ state of mind, we would soon find ourselves needing something else to struggle for.
Thus, paradoxically, to stay happy, sometimes we need to embark on something that might entail a temporary loss of happiness. We cannot opt out of the game: if we never risk losing, we’ll lose for sure.
Refusing to play this game robs our lives of challenges that make our lives meaningful.
If feelings of satisfaction would be our guide for deciding how to act, such meaningfulness would be lacking.
But on the other hand, Nietzsche underestimates the value of such feelings.
After all, pleasant feelings play a more important role in our lives than as a mere byproduct of accomplishing something meaningful.
Some help from Tim Urban
“One is micro happiness: are your Tuesdays good? Are you generally having a good Tuesday? Then there’s macro happiness, [where you say] “I’ll dig into this current life for 20 years, I love it.” Or are you like I was for nine years after college, which was like ‘I’m doing this now but I really want or I should be doing ______.’”
Personally, this distinction makes a lot of sense to me. Nice Tuesdays and grander endeavors are both genuine happiness.
Importantly, these two forms of happiness are not independent, but influence each other.
Too many Tuesdays spent comfortably on that couch can cause your life to evolve in a way that you would, on reflection, no longer “dig into it”.
We all know these people who value their micro-happiness (their comfortable Tuesdays) too much and therefore lose their macro-happiness (their deeper life satisfaction) on the long-term.
We will eventually lose our feelings of contentment if we would only aim at them directly instead of as an end product of something that makes those feelings meaningful.
That means that sometimes we need to sacrifice our micro happiness to have a shot at remaining happy on a macro level.
That is the truth in Nietzsche’s theory: these feelings of satisfaction can never be the end of the story, but, paradoxically, you need to be willing to put them on the line to keep them in your life.
The secret ingredient
Let’s pull it all together.
The secret ingredient to happiness is to risk losing it.
In the long term, rejecting the possibility of unhappiness guarantees unhappiness.
If we are happy, to stay happy, we need to keep playing, to keep exposing ourselves to the possibility of losing.
And how do we become happy in the first place?
I’m afraid Nietzsche can’t help us here. In his posthumous writings, he confesses:
“What must I do to be happy? That I know not.”
There’s more to that
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