Virtues & Happiness

I write a lot of posts about what it is to be a good person and to live a good life. I consider happiness to be a matter of living well and living well to be an ethical imperative. Immediately below, you will find my post How To Live Happily: Have No Expectations, which expresses some of my core attitudes and beliefs related to what a good life entails. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you’ll find a number of links to posts that I hope are edifying and thought provoking on the subjects of various moral virtues and practices necessary for goodness and personal fulfillment.


Since leaving Christianity I have been reflexively suspicious of philosophies of resignation. By philosophies of resignation, I mean recommendations that we must renounce our desires in order to be happy and/or good. Nietzsche was my first and most influential guide to post-Christian thinking and Foucault was my second. Nietzsche appealed to (and inflamed) my sense that life was to be passionately affirmed and that struggle was an integral part of the essence of life. True happiness and the richest possible life was to be found in perpetually taking on new challenges, new difficulties, new struggles, and growing through overcoming them. Foucault convinced me that our culture encourages us to waste too many of our energies talking about pleasure instead of having it.

The ideal I ultimately embraced was that life should be a perpetually renewed pursuit of one’s own perfection. And without resistances to overcome, we stagnate or degenerate. This is why among all the traits to cultivate, “the will to power”, understood as the active desire to constantly find new challenges so that one might perpetually grow, was the most ethically estimable. There are limits to how we can ultimately grow. One cannot be blamed for inherent limitations. But the relentlessly reinvigorated, resilient impulse towards growth was the single most decisive character trait; the one that could make the most important contribution to one’s overall excellence. I developed and defended an ethical theory built all around this notion in the final chapter of my dissertation and I still affirm it and regularly develop it in blog posts.

In this post, I want to explore the value of a form of resignation that I am learning which I have found powerfully contributes to, rather than stifles, my own life of perpetual striving and growth. I have increasingly cultivated an attitude of resignation towards expectations. I think that expectations are probably as much to blame for human misery as anything else. At least I think they account for most of my miseries in life. And I think that certain internal dispositions and attitudes that I want to recommend cultivating in the place of expectations have the potential to make us all much more pleased, content, comfortable with challenges, and, so, capable of effectively embracing the will to power (i.e., the will to growth).

New Year’s Day I linked to a study that led researchers to infer that when we announce our New Year’s Resolutions to people and receive their praise for our initiative, our brains start feeling pleasure as though they’re praising us for actual accomplishments. Then we risk getting lulled into feeling like we have already done much more than we have and so we begin to lose motivation to actually go do what we resolved. Our brains get the pay off without doing what the pay off was supposed to be a reward for and prematurely they can lose sight of why they’re supposed to do the arduous tasks they’ve already been rewarded for. Thinking about that study I realized that it’s possible that when we fully expect a good thing to come in the future that our brain begins registering that thing as something we already have. To the extent that this is in fact the case, it might explain why things we never had often feel like things we have lost when we don’t get them.

Now this frustration we feel in not getting particular good things needs such an explanation. This is because normally we are very good at not having countless good things we could imagine having without mourning them in the least. If you were to think of the immense number of possible good scenarios you could be in–the possible range of uniquely wonderful people you could get to know, all the uniquely interesting activities you could engage in with each of those people, all the uniquely interesting places you could visit with them, all the uniquely interesting time periods one could live in, all the uniquely wonderful kinds of life successes you could have and hurdles you could satisfyingly overcome, all the uniquely gratifying skills you could develop, all the possible delightful pleasures of taste and sight and sound and smell and touch that you could possibly experience–you begin to realize that the number of great things you actually will be able to do and experience are a tiny fraction of the total possible good things that could (or even do) exist.

But the vast majority of all these lost possibilities rarely bother us because we are often mostly pleased with what rich experiences, pleasures, and successes we do have available within our lives. There is no need to get down about those great possibilities which are impossible to experience, nor is it usually distressing that we must make choices to only pursue some of even what is possible, since our time and our resources are too preciously finite to pursue all of them equally. It is irrational to feel discouraged about the impossible because feeling bad will not make it any more possible. I do think we can (and maybe even should) rationally feel some twinges of sadness that not all good things are possible for us.

It is rational to respond to a bad thing (or a limit on the good) with an emotion that correspondingly acknowledges and feels that badness. That’s healthy insofar as it is intrinsically good both to know truths and, more specifically, to feel truths about value accurately. But insofar as we have a project of thriving and being pleased, it is counterproductive, distracting, and a waste of energy to want what cannot be had. And in the vast majority of cases, we really are wise enough not to. But not when we start expecting it. Because once we start expecting something, I think our brains latch onto it like it’s ours already. It is no longer one of the good things our brain accepts it cannot have “because one cannot get everything one could want”. Suddenly, this is one of the things we convince ourselves we must have. We perceive it as anentitlement.

An entitlement is something that belongs to us. But sometimes we perceive things as entitlements even when we do not deserve them or cannot actually have them. We really are entitled to some things we do not have and cannot have. And some of the things we are entitled to, we have. Coming to consciousness of a true moral entitlement can be very good–especially when we are either threatened with being deprived of it or come to realize we have already been deprived of it to our tangible detriment or as a matter of abstract injustice. Such consciousness should be motivational since justice is important and our own flourishing is important. And so is the flourishing of others who are wronged as we are or worse. So there are things worth fighting for and being agitated to fight for.

But we have to be careful lest injustice make us miserable and compound its abilities to injure us and corrupt us. When we pursue our moral entitlement, we cannot let our happiness and ability to thrive suffer in the meantime while we don’t have it. We cannot let not having it make us miserable since it is not entirely under our control whether we will ever have it. And, on the flip side, some things we have are things that we do not actually deserve, but we risk feeling very aggrieved, even though we shouldn’t, when they are stripped from us. We must train ourselves to recognize and let go of what is not rightfully ours.

Loss hurts. Excruciatingly. Never having many particularly good things is something the brain automatically accepts. What kills us are the losses, real or imaginary. Sometimes we lose things we actually have and that stings. Sometimes we lose things we have latched onto as an expectation and an entitlement. We may have decided it belongs to us morally or believed it was coming to us in the inevitable course of future events. We may think it explicitly or we may have only implicitly developed attitudes and feelings of expectation and entitlement. But however it gets there and however we experience it, having a good thing we believe belongs to us taken away has great power to make us miserable. And I suspect that when we are denied something we expected to have, emotionally and/or cognitively, that thing feels like something we had and lost.

And here’s the irrational part. We become so obsessed with that which we feel has been robbed from us that we lose focus of all the other good things that we could have instead. Everyday there are available to us more opportunities for pleasure and positive experience than we ever even could avail ourselves of. If we only concentrated differently or put our energies into different places, we could find a thousand new ways to absorb ourselves richly in life and a thousand things to appreciate about it. Yet, when we expect a particular good we risk shrinking our perception of all the good in the world as actually being that one piddly little particular good thing. If it doesn’t show up, there’d might as well be no good in the world.

Imagine if the only thing that could possibly make you happy was one grain of sand you had to go find on the beach. Your odds of ever being happy would be exorbitantly low. But good things are as abundant in the world as sand is on a beach. Our problem is that we constantly lose sight of this because we’re looking for one fucking particular little grain that we expected to have and convinced ourselves belonged to us. But nothing belongs to us and nothing cannot be taken from us, not even if we deserve to keep it. But, fortunately, there’s plenty of sand on the beach for the taking.

Oliver Burkeman wrote the following about successful entrepreneurialism:

Research by Saras Sarasvathy, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia, suggests that learning to accommodate feelings of uncertainty is not just the key to a more balanced life but often leads to prosperity as well. For one project, she interviewed 45 successful entrepreneurs, all of whom had taken at least one business public. Almost none embraced the idea of writing comprehensive business plans or conducting extensive market research.

They practiced instead what Prof. Sarasvathy calls “effectuation.” Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, they took stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagined the possible ends. Effectuation also includes what she calls the “affordable loss principle.” Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step.

They didn’t set their hearts on some particular definition of success. They looked at what they had and figured out what they could make of it. Where they could afford to lose, they took chances and eventually some paid off.

Expectations don’t just misdirect our focus so that we waste our energies and squander opportunities. They also corrupt love. Expectations that someone who is wrong for us is the only one who could ever please us keep us trapped in unhealthy relationships. Expectations we can change someone make us resent them when they don’t change. Expectations that our love will match some ideal we have built up in our minds make us dissatisfied with the rich reality of an actual love we actually have with actual people.

And even when we are with good people, who we should love, we ruin it if we start putting expectations on them as to how they should feel or express their love. When we decide “my lover will do this great thing for me” we now resent them when they don’t do it–even if they never promised it or never should have promised it, given who they are. And they’re highly likely to resent us if we make them promise it and resent us even more if we make them follow through. If someone loves you, there’s no need to try to control them. You’ll smother the love dead if you do. But expectations lead to controlling behavior. They lead to impositions of obligations that your lover will resent. Things are no longer fun to the extent they’re felt as obligations. Even if they are obligations (and those in friendships and loving relationships do have obligations to each other), still the worst thing we can do in most cases is to let ourselves or others feel like they are under obligations.

I have been amazed by all the freely offered gestures of love I never asked for in life. And those gifts are completely untainted because they were never demanded. And often they exceeded what I would have requested. Sometimes I have been gobsmacked at how much I have received simply by not asking or, even, by taking an initial no for an answer and just waiting a little awhile with no expectations. So while it’s good to sometimes ask for good things or let others know you like certain things, expecting them from those you love is usually counter-productive to getting it. Appreciate what they really do offer if it is in fact a lot and especially pay attention to all they give you you didn’t even think to expect.

I’m not saying “resign from desire”. No. Desire. But remember that your desires can be satisfied a million ways, not just one. Desire kinds of good, not their particular instantiations. Desire love. But don’t try to predict or expect or feel entitled to it from any particular person or through any particular gesture. Just constantly seek out good people and offer them your best. And anything or anyone you thought would be good but turned out bad–just abandon it or them. It’s not a loss. It wasn’t an actual good. Desire success. But don’t imagine you really have any idea what it will look like or feel like to get it in specific terms.

And if you have a genuinely good thing and you irretrievably lose it (or if it is best you let it go for the future prospect of something better), don’t feel entitled to it. Accept that it is gone. Actively cherish what you had. Celebrate its positive and enduring place in your life. Memorialize it. Keep it. Your hurting brain is going to cast about for explanations of why you’re hurting. It’s going to be frustrated and terrified by its helplessness to retrieve what it lost and to keep things from being lost. In order to regain your sense of power, you will be tempted to blame yourself because subconsciously you’re probably reasoning that if it’s your fault, that means you were powerful after all and that means maybe next time you won’t blow it and lose something special. But you’re not omnipotent. You cannot keep all good things.

Focus on understanding constructively on how to improve yourself so you don’t let good things slip away insofar as you realistically do have control but assiduously refuse the false and irrational regrets that build up to fit a false narrative that everything really is in our control. Embrace your limits as inevitable and not your fault. Feel your helplessness, without confusing it for hopelessness. Because it’s not hopelessness. You don’t have to be all powerful to be powerful. You don’t have to expect any particular good thing to hope with realistic optimism that some good things will come your way.

Don’t fight your memories of the good lost. Don’t try to root it out of your heart. Savor in your memory what goodness you had. Mourn the loss as much as your brain needs in order to properly process its natural frustration.  And, whatever you do, open your eyes to all the myriad good things you could be doing and could be savoring. Apply yourself to trying to do them and trying to savor them–with no expectations as to which ones you will actually succeed at or actually savor. Just keep searching for unexplored goodness, keep trying to get it, never expect to have it–just hope and keep opening up new explorations on the assumption some of the existing searches will fail. Never expect the good as an entitlement, always accept it with enthusiasm as an unpromised, undemanded gift.

There are so many invitations to love that surround all of us if we only open our hearts widely. Accept the invitations. Open your heart. Be jealous of no one. Dream up numerous plans for happiness but attach your heart to none of them. Scatter seeds widely. Expect nothing. Apply yourself with endless optimism and vigor, and in time you’ll wonder with a perfectly forgetful gratitude why so many gifts come your way.

Your Thoughts?

More on How To Live Happily: How To Live Happily: Truthfully Understand Yourself and Your Constructive Potential

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The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

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