On the Impossibility of Happiness: Part 1, Know Thyself

It's that time of year, the time for making New Year's resolutions. Have you made a list yet?

In light of all this goal-making and drive toward self-improvement I thought I'd write some posts on the topic "On the Impossibility of Happiness."

The title is half-meant to be a joke. Of course you can be happy. But through exaggeration I'm trying to highlight how difficult it can be to find happiness, contentment, and joy. About why all these New Year's resolutions, and self-improvement efforts like them, often fail, leaving us feeling guilty, frustrated, or demoralized. So I want to write about the elusiveness of happiness and, in writing about its "impossibility," to find in the details of our failures some insight that might actually be helpful to us. This series will be a very sad story, a tale of defeat and failure. But amidst the wreckage I hope to find some wisdom, or at least a cautionary tale.

Why is it so hard to find happiness? And why is happiness, once we grasp it, so fragile and fleeting? These are the questions I'd like to try to answer.

Let's start with those New Year's resolutions.

When you sit down to begin a self-improvement project you tend to start of with some goals and the choices you need to make to make progress toward those goals. And I want to suggest that our problems begin right there.

Let me rush to say that the problem isn't with the goal-setting. That's a perfectly legitimate thing to do, necessary even. No, the problem I referring to is the problem of self-assessment, self-consultation, and self-reflection. Before we set goals we sit down, introspect, and ask ourselves, "What do I want? What will make me happy?"

I want to suggest that one of the reasons happiness is "impossible" is that right out of the gate we find ourselves unable to answer these very basic questions. We think we know what we want and very confidently write down our goals declaring to ourselves and others "This is want I want." But as any self-reflective person knows, in the wake of all those failed New Year's resolutions, more often than not we didn't, in the end, really want those things. What happened is that we fell in love with the idea of those things, rather than the actual thing itself. Who doesn't like the idea of losing 20 pounds? The idea of that goal is wonderful, alluring even. But the actual process of losing 20 pounds, the real losing of 20 pounds? Who wants that? Most, in the end, really don't.

In short, most of the time we don't really know what we want. Which means we're stymied right out of the gate. We say we want X but our behaviors indicate that we really want Y. We like the idea of X but struggle with motivation. Why can't I move toward this thing that I say I want?

I think the simplest answer is that you really didn't want it in the first place. You're confused about who you really are. You're being defeated by a lack of self-knowledge.

Socrates famously said "Know thyself." It's good advice. And a lot of pop-psychological advice starts with that Socratic premise. Sit down, consult yourself, and make a list of what you want. Your goals, your dreams, your mission statement. It all begins with self-consultation.

But Freud came along and complicated things. At root, Freud agreed with Socrates. The goal of psychoanalysis is insight, "making the unconscious, conscious." Know thyself. But where Freud differed from Socrates was in his assessment of how difficult this process might be in practice. According to Freud, self-assessment is practically impossible to accomplish on your own. At the very least, it is very effortful, laborious, and emotionally difficult. Why? Because our minds are masters of obfuscation, deception, flattery, and denial. No one, unless you like humiliating exposure, wants to know themselves.

The point is, if you sit down at your kitchen table to write down some New Year's resolutions thinking to yourself "What do I want?" you're likely in a highly deluded state of mind. You can't answer that question so casually or easily. The end result will be you jotting down X as a New Year's goal and finding out in March that you really didn't want X after all.

Why is happiness "impossible"? Well, more often than not it's because we go off the rails right from the start. We don't know what we want. We don't know what would make us happy. So how can we find the road forward? We're stuck at square one.

Know thyself? It's a great idea. But really, how many of us deeply and honestly know ourselves?

If happiness begins anywhere it just might begin with that most difficult Socratic question.

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