“…[striving for happiness] is like an unquenchable thirst: we may attain some brief satisfaction, some momentary release, but in the nature of things these can never be more than temporary, and then we are on the rack once more. So unhappiness, or at least dissatisfaction, is our normal state of affairs.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation.)
Why do I want to address the topic of happiness if the natural state of being human is suffering? Because, sadly, people still seem to think that happiness is a valid pursuit in life. As my friend Jaelesh correctly said: “one of the main reasons this isn’t such a commonly held idea anymore is that so much of our suffering has been relieved. People can live decades before they experience any real, lasting suffering. And like a child living in a bubble suddenly exposed to a deadly disease, it is so heavy that reaching the other side is much less likely. They have no tolerance built up against it, no roots for the storm.
Anyone met with challenging circumstances and events, whether they be in or out of their control, knows that happiness is hard if not impossible to achieve. It’s a fleeting and wholly unsustainable state of being. That’s not to say that you cannot be happy, but I think it is foolish to place at the forefront of one’s life or pursuits, as it is entirely an externality.
The problem with this external is that it can be snatched away by anything and everything. And this means that life for those who pursue this quickly becomes meaningless if they become poor, sick, old or stuck in a situation that affords little comfort. And some people are born into those states, so it’s almost a joke to suggest that happiness is a worthy pursuit. This seems to be why suicide has risen so incredibly fast. Because people think the only thing worth living for is an excess of entertainment or enjoyment. The moment they are too old to enjoy it, or they get sick, or some other hurdle comes along, they believe life is worthless.
Back to the point at hand: happiness is not a worthy pursuit. Dr. Jordan Peterson’s idea is that the definition of meaning is justifying life’s suffering. But just because we have meaning in life that justifies the suffering doesn’t mean we can or should feel happy as a result. For example, when looking at my siblings open presents, well, yes, I do feel a burst of happiness, but they will probably forget about them in a few weeks, and the happiness itself fades much, much quicker, especially for me, being mostly a spectator. It’s not an emotion that can sustain me in any way.
The things that invigorates me are almost entirely the pursuit of truth and goodness. And that’s hard. It means getting out of bed in the morning. It means studying when there are flashier things and pleasures to have. And a lot of the time, yes, it’s probably not going to be emotionally happy. But I am encouraged by virtue, therefore I am satisfied, and have plenty of meaning that accompany those things.
I think I have to go back to an old adage which I can’t quite pin to one person. “Common sense does not mean common practice.” Unfortunately, we live in an age where virtue begins to slip away from us, being replaced a myriad of materialism and hedonism. And I think Dr. Jordan Peterson is very correct in pointing out this issue. It’s better and more rewarding, at least for me, to strive for things like truth and justice, rather than trying to satisfy my body. That’s not to say I can’t or shouldn’t enjoy the simple pleasures, but rather keep them in moderation to serve a higher thing. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good tea in the morning, or a stroll outside. And I am quite fond of my food, too.
Now you, reader, may be in a situation where you can satisfy these externalities, and you feel fulfilled by them. So why should you strive for something internal instead? Well, the very nature of our reality is to suffer. If you’ve been blessed enough that you haven’t run into this, well, it’s a guarantee that you will in the coming years. Because you will die. It’s in your very nature to die, and the people you love will die too. Those things inevitably bring suffering. In those situations, or any other that brings suffering and sorrow, one can only continue striving for internal convictions. An internal goal such as striving for truth isn’t affected by externalities. And we can use Alexander Solzhenitsyn as a prime example of this. He survived cancer, multiple times, and went through the Gulag Archipelago’s and the Nazi Concentration camps. There was no possible way this man could’ve been sustained by externalities, and a lot would even say internalities. But he survived those things, and came forth to deliver a crippling blow to totalitarianism and the Soviet Union in the form of complex treatises and explanations in his books. And you can see in it his books too, how he sustained this drive for truth and justice inside himself.
Even in this extreme example, we can see how what truly matters is an internal conviction. Once again, this isn’t to say that can’t or shouldn’t look for worldly pleasures too, but it seems to me foolish to pursue those things solely.
As it’s a common motif in this “treatise,” or whatever you would like to call it, let me elaborate on the example of truth as an internal pursuit, and let me give a less lofty and more applicable one in its wake. For me, personally, I find satisfaction in pursuing truth in terms of philosophy and theology, and finding kernels of these truths and ideas in fictional works. Hence my studying at university, and my hobbies being mainly concerned in reading, writing, and watching movies. Hopefully my pursuits can go on to help other people as I grow older, maybe going into the teaching scene. A more practical conviction, to give an example, would be for someone with a temper. Their goal may be not to lose their temper, no matter what happens. Some days, this will be easy. Some days this will be hard. The more they practice, the easier it will become. And eventually, like with any skill, they will be better than they were. It applies to any area of growth or pursuit.
I’d like to apply one final maxim to the entire idea of an internal conviction. It’s Rule Four from 12 Rules For Life. “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.”