Carl Jung, Self-Development, Videos

Why You Should Strive for a Meaningful Life, Not a Happy One

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The following is a transcript of this video.

“There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy….So long as we persist in this inborn error, and indeed even become confirmed in it through optimistic dogmas, the world seems to us full of contradictions.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The modern world is obsessed with the notion of happiness. It is seen as both the measure and the goal of the good life, and as Sigmund Freud noted, much of what we do is motivated by the all-consuming desire to be happy.

“…what the behavior of men themselves reveals as the purpose and object of their lives, what they demand of life and wish to attain in it. The answer to this can hardly be in doubt: they seek happiness, they want to become happy and remain so.”

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

But is this endless search for happiness really a healthy way to live? For if we are unhappy, which for most people is most of the time, we will probably wonder what is wrong with us. Are we not cut out for this world? Are the chemicals in our brain in need of a pharmaceutical adjustment? Or rather, was Schopenhauer correct in suggesting that aiming at happiness is a futile endeavor? Might we account our lives more fulfilling if rather than striving for happiness, we devoted our energies to cultivating a meaningful life? In this video we will explore these questions.

Happiness has not always been considered a target worth striving for. The root of the word happiness, in most Indo-European languages, is luck or fate, implying that happiness was originally viewed as something to be given and taken away by the gods, or by chance. It was not thought to be attainable through human effort alone. 

In the West it was Socrates who popularized the idea that happiness is the greatest good and should therefore be the ultimate aim of life.

“What being is there that does not desire happiness? Well then, since all of us desire happiness, how can we be happy? – that is the next question.”  

Plato, Euthydemus

Socrates’ assumption that we should aim for happiness was widely accepted by the Ancient Greek philosophers who came after him. The Enlightenment philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, whose ideas laid the foundation for modern civilization, also adopted Socrates’ view of happiness as the ultimate end. But while the Ancient Greeks tended to ground happiness in the cultivation of virtue and personal excellence, some of the most prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment tied the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of pleasure.

“Happiness then is in its full extent the utmost Pleasure we are capable of, and Misery the utmost pain.”  

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

The maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain is the recipe that many in our day use in the attempt to attain happiness. But structuring our life in this manner places us on a hedonic treadmill. We spend our lives frantically running towards the goods, goals, events and people whom we hope will imbue our life with the pleasure needed for a happy existence. Yet upon attaining the objects of our desire, we quickly acclimate to our new conditions and return to our default state of being. Or as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed:

“…[striving for happiness] is like an unquenchable thirst: we may attain some brief satisfactions, 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

In our more introspective moments many of us recognize the constant pursuit of happiness as a grasping for shadows. But what is the alternative? If we abandon the pursuit of happiness, what should take its place? In the remainder of this video we will make the case that we should pursue a meaningful life, for as Carl Jung observed:

“…the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and import our age has not yet begun to comprehend.”

Carl Jung, Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche

One of the main reasons in favor of the cultivation of meaning as our primary aim is due to the inevitability of suffering. While most of our suffering is minor and manageable, we tend to ignore the fact that we are forever at risk of descending into periods of great adversity – times in which we are forced to contend with what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (Shakespeare). In these moments of crisis, it is meaning alone – not happiness – which can provide us with the resilience needed to endure. “He who has a why can bear almost any how” (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols), wrote Nietzsche. Or as Carl Jung put it “…meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.” (Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections) Meaning, in other words, is the raw material out of which we can build our “inner citadel”, or psychological fortress, from which we can navigate the chaotic currents of life. 

But how do we cultivate meaning in our life? While no guaranteed prescription exists, some approaches seem to be far more tenable than others. One approach that does not fall into the category of tenability is the attempt to find meaning through the attainment of external goods such as money, fame, status, or relationships. These goods can augment the quality of our life, but it is unlikely they will imbue it with meaning. Many people develop a successful career, raise a family, amass wealth and social status, only to discover, often around mid-life, that despite their outward success their inward existence remains desolate and devoid of meaning. Or as Jung wrote:

“A career, producing of children, are all maya [illusion] compared to that one thing, that your life is meaningful.”  

Carl Jung, The Symbolic Life

A far more practical approach to the pursuit of meaning is to focus on the cultivation of our character. “What does your conscience say? ‘You shall become the person you are’” (Nietzsche, The Gay Science). Or as the Presocratic Heraclitus put it: “Character is fate” (Heraclitus). If we focus on becoming a more integrated and complete individual we greatly increase our chance of finding meaning for two main reasons. Firstly, this approach is an antidote to the stagnation and passivity which guarantees a meaningless existence. And secondly, by striving to cultivate our strengths we will likely discover the ‘why’ or purpose to our existence which is key to a subjectively meaningful life. To assist on this path we need to discuss the role that goals play in this process.

The importance of setting goals for the sake of personal development is well-known. For just as the stone can be shaped into a sculpture only through the force of a hammer and chisel, so too our potential, or the development of our character, can only be actualized through discipline, struggle, and exertion. To merely float with the tide of life promotes a weak body and a soft mind. Hence, we need to learn to swim with the stream of life and strive and fight for worthy goals. 

“Foolish are those who…have no aim to which they can direct every impulse and, indeed, every thought.”

Marcus Aurelius

While most are aware of the importance of goal-setting, many make the mistake of sacrificing themselves for their goals. They believe it is the attainment of goals which builds character and cultivates meaning, when in fact it is the continual struggle towards them which matters most. This theme of the importance of incessant striving is foundational in Goethe’s classic tale of Faust. For Goethe has Faust achieve self-realization only through his commitment to perpetual struggle and strife. 

“Who ever exerts himself in constant striving, Him we can redeem.”

Goethe, Faust

In continuously striving for goals it is crucial to keep in mind that our goals are only of value if they contribute to the growth of our character. Sometimes our goals no longer move us forward, as they may have only been appropriate for a stage of our development we have outgrown. At the age of 20 the writer Hunter Thompson elaborated this advice in a letter to a friend:

“When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes…So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. We strive to be ourselves…The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”

Hunter Thompson

In following this advice – in relentlessly striving towards goals while continually modifying them to facilitate the continued development of our character – we will place ourselves on a potentially meaningful life path. Choosing this path requires that we abandon our obsession with happiness and pleasure, but ironically in stepping off of the hedonic treadmill and exposing ourselves to the struggles and strife required to cultivate character, we will likely attain the transient state of happiness far more frequently than those who aim squarely for it. For as Hunter Thompson wrote:

“…who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on the shore and merely existed?”

Hunter Thompson, Security

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Capitole Toulouse - Salle Henri-Martin - Les Bords de la Garonne, Les promeneurs ou Les reveurs par Henri Martin
Eugène Lamy, by Gustave Caillebotte
Detail of Mulher do chale verde by Cyprien Eugene Boulet
Caspar David Friedrich 013
Siemiradzki-Za przykładem bogów
Creación de Adán (Miguel Ángel)
The Debate Of Socrates And Aspasia
"The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino
Declaration of Independence (1819), by John Trumbull
Hollósy, Simon - Laughing Girl (1883)
Godfrey Kneller - Portrait of John Locke (Hermitage)
Brullov Pt Strugovschikova
William Powell Frith The lovers
Mednyánszky, László - Tramp Seated on a Bench (ca 1898)
Self-portrait Mihály von Munkácsy
Eugene Manet (1874) by Edgar Degas
Edvard Munch - Self-Portrait with a Bottle of Wine - Google Art Project
Song of the Lark Winslow Homer 1876
Portrait of a man - painting by László Mednyánszky-2
Karl Brullov - The Last Day of Pompeii - Google Art Project detail10
After Rembrandt - A Man Reading Cat483
Eilif Peterssen - From the Beach at Sele - Google Art Project
Joseph Mallord William Turner - Evening Landscape with Castle and Bridge in Yorkshire - Google Art Project
Turner Buttermere Lake with Park of Cromackwater
Kassel Hoftheater Postkarte um 1910
Peder Severin Krøyer - The Hirschsprung family portrait. From the left Ivar, Aage, Heinrich, Oscar, Robert, Pauline and Ell... - Google Art Project
Carlo Wostry - Dante in pineta
Nikolay Dubovskoy Raduga
Lorenzo Lotto 070
Markus Pernhart - Le Triglav (musée national de SlovénIe, Ljubljana) (9425890552)
Henry Raeburn - Portrait of Sir Walter Scott and his dogs
George de Forest Brush - An Aztec Sculptor (1887)
G. Caillebotte - La Sieste
August Cappelen - Waterfall in Telemark - Google Art Project
Rembrandt - Man in a Golden Helmet - WGA19190
An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower o Wellcome V0017679
Scheffer, Faust met de gifbeker, kopie
Sir William Orpen - In the cliffs, Dublin bay, in the morning
1901 Munch Mädchen auf der Brücke anagoria
Thomas Wyck - A scholar in his Study - Google Art Project
Aivasovsky Ivan Constantinovich merkuri 1848 IBI