- Many people think getting what they want will make them happy
- The philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that sometimes we merely want to want things.
- Blindly pursuing what you think you desire is probably not a good way to live a happy and interesting life.
If you ask most people if they want happiness, they are likely to say yes. Few of those people think twice about their answer. Why should they?
To the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, the answer is that “happiness” is not always what it seems, and getting what you desire might be one of the worst ways to try to reach happiness.
When you don’t want what you desire
Even if they don’t admit it, many people act as though happiness is something they will achieve and continue to enjoy after attaining certain things. How often have you thought to yourself, “I’ll be happy after I get that promotion,” or “All I need to feel complete is one more thing.”
Even if that exact idea hasn’t crossed your mind, it isn’t an uncommon notion. But to Žižek, we don’t really want what we think we desire.
Among his other philosophical commitments, Žižek supports Lacanian psychoanalysis. Indeed, his second doctorate is in psychoanalysis, and much of his work rests on certain psychological assumptions. When he discusses “desire,” he approaches it in a Lacanian fashion.
Lacan, and by extension Žižek, argues that “desire” doesn’t want to get what it wants, but rather to continue to desire. Getting what you want doesn’t satisfy “desire” in the way that eating satisfies hunger. “Desire” only wants to desire. If you base your idea of happiness on fulfilling certain wants, you’ll never manage to feel satisfied.
One can turn to something other than Lacanian thought, which is controversial in many circles, and find similar notions. A number of schools of thought argue that reaching happiness is a process without end. Some aspects of this are even agreed to by those that treat happiness as a state — even if you reach “happiness,” you’d have to work to stay happy.
So for Žižek, chasing after happiness by satisfying your wants or trying to have pleasant feelings all the time is not only impossible, but also unethical.
But if we can’t “get” happiness, then what is there?
Žižek points out that the traditional view of “happiness,” which is hedonistic for many people, doesn’t factor into our view of many situations. For example, when creative people get inspired while working on a project, they are often willing to endure suffering for their art — the question of whether they will have pleasant feelings while at work rarely occurs to them.
This idea — that we are willing to forgo feeling good as long as we have something to chase or a sense of meaning — is an old one. Nietzsche argued, “He, who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.” Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy centers on the idea that the search for meaning was the primary drive in life.
In a certain way, Žižek agrees with them: He is rejecting hedonism and promoting the idea that other things, like meaning, are of greater importance to our satisfaction than merely getting what we want.
A more ancient view, but one that has had an incomparable influence on the idea of a good life, is the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia. While often translated as “happiness,” it is better thought of as “flourishing” or “living well.” A person who is reaching eudaimonia would likely feel happy, but they don’t have to. Importantly, the subjective feeling of happiness is only a small part of living well.
Many modern approaches to happiness treat it as a multifaceted thing, only one part of which is actually feeling good. To reach happiness, you still have to have a sense of meaning and regularly engage in fulfilling activities beyond merely being pleasant.
So, should you abandon the pursuit of happiness? Maybe not. But blindly pursuing what you desire is the wrong way to go about it. Instead, remember that there is more than hedonism — that sometimes wanting something is all we really want to do, and that meaning is often more valuable than pleasure. It’s also more interesting.