Happiness has become a tool that rationalizes our whims.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche famously proclaimed “God is dead.” God didn’t die on his own, due to old age or because his diet was high in omega-6 fatty acids. Humans killed Him because we used the concept “God” to explain every argument and justify every war. As Muslims kill Christians in the name of God, and Christians kill Muslims in the name of God, Nietzsche argues God is nothing more than a tool that rationalizes our whims.
To put it another way, God is like that “Blurred Lines” song. It had its place around mid-June, but now it’s been played too many times to sustain your need to whimsically dance around like an idiot. Don’t get me wrong, Robin Thicke looks good in a pinstripe suit, and good for him on pulling off a v-neck without having much upper-chest development, but now it’s weird because we’re starting to think that’s all he wears.
As Nietzsche proclaimed God to be dead, I now proclaim happiness to be dead, and for the same reason. Happiness has been the goal of living on earth ever since Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. The Romans claimed happiness was taking in a gladiator show and conquering people who looked different than you. The Christians, being miserable, moved the achievement of happiness into the afterlife. Francis Bacon told us knowledge is power, and power makes you happy. The Enlightenment philosophers told us happiness was freedom. And in American culture, the denouement of it all, happiness has been equated to wealth, poverty, materialism, and every kind of spirituality your barren aunt Peggy has dabbled in. And the rest of us use happiness to justify our laziness, because it’s incredibly easy to mistake comfort for happiness.
So the concept of happiness, like God, has become used up. As we’ve been slowly realizing for the past 130 years we don’t need God, maybe it’s time to also start realizing we don’t need happiness. I’m not saying we need to be miserable, but it’s unrealistic to fit every aspect of our lives into the knapsack of happiness. Inevitably, we end up leaving the loose ends lying around, and we don’t want to look at them because that perfectly packed knapsack looks all neat and tidy, like something you would post on Pinterest. As a result, we’re a people who have become deeply unhappy but we don’t know it because we’re being so happy all the time.^1
In The Four-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss also laments the emphasis our culture puts on happiness. Instead of trying to be happy, he says we need to be excited. I like Ferriss’s intention here. Excitement is less lame than happiness, it can never be confused for comfort, and excitement demands more from you than happiness does. Best of all, excitement is the antithesis of yoga culture. But Ferriss commits the same mistake the purveyors of happiness make by trying to sum up the supreme psychological state into one word.
How can we not see excitement becoming as impotent as God, happiness, or Robin Thicke’s v-neck shirts? I picture the masses as they trade in their yoga mats for weight belts and then run around trying to be excited all the time. Then, in another 20 years, documentaries will litter Netflix about how to achieve perpetual excitement. They’ll talk to Tony Little. His words will sound nice, but once you think about what he says, he’ll barely seem like a reflection of a real human being. I see a documentary on Crossfit culture that hits the same plot points as Jesus Camp.
Our children will roll their eyes at us for ever thinking we could be excited all the time. They’ll correctly conclude that only a generation of people who were deeply bored would ever wish to be perpetually excited.
Our yearn for God, happiness, and excitement speaks to a peculiar aspect of human nature—we’re feeling junkies. We care more about feeling certain feelings than we care about what we have to do to feel those feelings. “Hey, I love feelings,” we think, “so maybe I can just convince myself to feel a certain way.” When emotion is divorced from reality, feeling one way becomes doctrine, while feeling another way becomes heretical. We hide parts of ourselves because they don’t fit the docrine, and shame sets in. Life is psychological Pinterest, then we get panic attacks or cry for no reason.
The mistake, of course, is believing there’s one optimal way to feel. The best men get up every morning, as sober as possible, and do what they want to do. They will feel excited, they will feel happy, and maybe they will find God. But they will also feel sad and afraid. Some of them will even feel the need to wear a v-neck under a pinstripe suit, and that’s okay too.