People Are Bad at Happiness

infinite jest
Image by dorywithserifs via Flickr

Earlier I argued that it’s a fool’s errand to make your life-long project a quest for personal satisfaction for its own sake. If you want to understand why, all you have to do is try and conceive of what such a project would look like.

By definition, we’re not talking about a project that seeks to directly better the lives of others. Nor is it one that aims towards any higher moral ends. This is a project that is either purely hedonistic or projects towards some other kind of self-affirmation: say, a carefully cultivated self-image or career goal.

So a goal like that is necessarily materialistic. A non-materialistic endeavor projects itself towards something larger than, and outside of, ourselves. If we’re not going to find fulfillment in moral virtue, religion, idealism, compassion or anything else, where does that leave us?

A lot of you probably share my belief that narcissism is morally monstrous, but that’s not really the argument here. I think the more salient point is that it is necessarily self-defeating, for the simple reason that it is impossible to satisfy. That’s because, when it comes to satisfying our own happiness, we’re notoriously bad at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The things we think will raise our overall happiness in the long-term, usually don’t; after the initial endorphin rush dissipates, we’re just left with a higher threshold for maintaining our current happiness level.

David Foster Wallace’s great insight was making the link between a lot of the wildly disparate way in which we pursue happiness through material things: in Infinite Jest, he juxtaposes the pursuit of entertainment, career advancement, fame, and chemically altered states, suggesting that they all operate on more or less the same principle. A small measure of that book’s genius lies in how he demonstrates, with humor and compassion, that all of these things can dull our anxiety and suffering in the short term while really just crippling our ability to function normally without them in the long term.

A lot of self-help pop philosophy is focused on the question, “How do I find happiness?” But reflecting on this stuff has led me to reject the premise. I’m not so sure that happiness qua happiness is a reasonable or worthwhile lifelong goal. If you’re lucky, it’s the byproduct of pursuing a different, worthier project.

(I’m going to try and make this my last Infinite Jest/DFW-related post for a little while. For one thing, I don’t want this blog to become too one-note. But I’m also running out of non-repeated pictures to run at the top of these things.)

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