About a year ago, a close friend sent me this video of Slajov Zizeck discussing happiness, questioning whether or not we ought to be pursuing it at all. “Happiness,” Zizeck tells us, “is for me, an unethical category”.
When scientists and artists are in the heat of a creative impulse, he claims, happiness does not even enter into consideration. They are willing to suffer to accomplish something higher. The suggestion seems to be that we ought to be cultivating this heat of creative impulse rather than chasing happiness. Even all of modern psychoanalysis, he tells us, shows that we do not really desire happiness at all. But what about the 11 billion dollar self-help or “self-improvement” industry? Is that not an industry devoted to helping us become, well, happier? Have we all just been wasting time and energy worrying about how to be happy?
If Zizeck turns out to be right and happiness is not what we actually want, we might be forced to conclude that we as a nation have wasted at least 11 billion dollars in one year pursuing something that we don’t actually want—a very unfortunate conclusion but hardly unethical.
“We don’t really want what we think we desire.”
We think we want something. We work to obtain it. But as soon as we get it, we realize we didn’t really want it at all. Maybe we wanted something else and were just confused. Is it that we actually don’t want the objects of our desire? Or is it that what we think we desire is not what we truly want? Both conclusions lead us to an even more difficult question: is there anything we truly want?
Most of us (especially those of us who have spent any amount of time or money investigating the world of “self-improvement”) understand that important qualities in life like growth and change and progress are not painless processes. People who commit themselves to some kind of growth— physical, intellectual, mental, even financial—accept and embrace the inevitable pain that comes along with such growth. We must accept this inevitable pain, otherwise we would never continue to pursue any dream or goal we set for ourselves. But why do we set these goals in the first place? Don’t goals develop out of a desire for something? Something like…happiness?
If Zizeck is right and we don’t actually desire happiness, from whence do desires arise? Is there an ultimate desire lurking behind every iteration of our desires? A prime-mover of desire? An ultimate cause of our desire? At some point in our lives, we are all visited by a desire: I want that person, I want that job, I want that experience, I want to do or create this thing. Intuitively, we think this desire must come from an expectation of the happiness we will feel when we obtain this desired object or outcome. But, if we are to believe Zizeck, what we truly want is neither the object nor outcome of our desire, nor the expected happiness we will feel when we obtain it. What then is the source of these desires?
Perhaps it is not that we really want any thing or person or experience, but that we want to want. Perhaps we crave desire more than we crave satisfaction. We desire to desire. Happiness, as the satisfaction of our desire, negates our desire thereby making us…unhappy. It’s seems to me a pretty ridiculous state of affairs to be left in.
As a side note, The UN declared March 20th as the International Day of Happiness to “recognize the relevance of happiness and wellbeing as universal goals”. I guess the UN has not been updated on the findings of modern psychoanalysis (at least as Zizeck sees them).