When my son was a little boy he loved a Richard Scarry video he called “Busy People.” It showed a town populated by anthropomorphized civic-minded cartoon animals doing happily doing their jobs to the rhythm of catchy tunes – teaching school, delivering the mail, running the grocery store, etc. Each “person” knew his place and dutifully did his or her job with a smile so that Busytown ran like a happy well-oiled machine. Through the centuries there have been all kinds of philosophies about what motivates human activity — from theories that we act out of pure self interest to theories that our actions are motivated by instinct for the advancement of the species. I think we are motivated by a combination of self interest and concern for the good of the community, but mostly self-interest.
Some governments have tried to operate on the theory that people will work solely for good of the collective, but it soon becomes apparent that these kinds of systems need a strong dose of government coercion to get people to work for the greater good, whereas no one ever has to coerce us to work for our own self-interest. Pascal offers an entirely different take on what motivates human activity, and that is what we are going to discuss today.
Just for today’s discussion let’s leave God out of the equation. If you are familiar with the Bible, think Ecclesiastes; if you are familiar with The Beatles think John Lennon singing “Imagine there’s no heaven…” Just pretend (if you are a believer) or be confident (if you are not) that it’s just us here in the physical world, getting born, living, and dying. People have told me that the idea to dying with no hope of existence after does not bother them in the least. If they say that’s how they feel I have no reason to doubt them. But Pascal would have us believe that the vast majority of the human population will do just about anything to avoid thinking about death and the impermanence of life.
So if it is just us and physical world where we live and then we die, Pascal says our only hope of happiness is to distract ourselves from thinking about our condition by finding attractive objects of desire that motivate us enough to focus our attention on achieving them. An object of desire can be something big and long-term like power or financial security or something small and short-term like hitting a billiard ball or catching a rabbit:
“That is all men have been able to devise for attaining happiness; those who philosophize about it, holding that people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare that would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature. The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but hunting it does so.”
Given the unpleasantness of contemplating the wretched state of our existence, Pascal says, there is nothing wrong with engaging in diversions so long as you are aware that what you really seek is to be diverted. But, he says, there is a problem when we really believe that the object we seek, whether a dead rabbit, money, or a powerful position, will enable us to rest and be satisfied for the rest of our lives. Those who believe that achieving the object will make them happy are simply deceived about human nature and will end up in a cycle of frustration. They will either achieve their goal only to find out it does not deliver the happiness they expected, or they will not achieve their goal and be frustrated in the belief that their failure to achieve the goal is the cause of their unhappiness.
Deep down we realize that frantic activity is not real happiness, so we imagine that the frantic activity is the means by which we will eventually achieve happiness. We imagine that once we achieve the goal we will be able to rest in happiness, and when this does not happen we repeat the cycle:
“All our life passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.”
Let me say that while I think Pascal is onto something here, I don’t think he addressed that portion of frantic human activity motivated by the need for survival. There is an assumption of a certain level of security and leisure time that many people did not and still do not have that perhaps reflects his own social-economic status. True, if you have to work 16 hours a day to avoid starvation you are motivated by an avoidance of death, but there is a difference between facing imminent death and thinking about death. Pascal is addressing the kind of activity that keeps us from sitting around thinking about death.
Some of Pascal’s examples of frantic activity include rabbit hunting, gambling, and jockeying for social position. I wonder what he would think of all the options for diversion we now have available! He did not know about video games, texting, TV, movies, extreme sports, fanatic spectator sports such as soccer and football, competitive eating, social networking, motorcycle clubs, or fast cars. I am thinking about all the way I and the people I know spend our time and the ends we hope to achieve. Here are a few frequent goals of mine or people close to me:
Goal: Getting published.
Activity: Writing and marketing.
Would publishing your book bring permanent happiness?
Successful authors I’ve read about repeatedly say “no.” They bask for a while in the glow and then it wears off and they start all over with a new project. Most writers are aware that most of the satisfaction has to be in the process and that meeting the goal of publication is only a temporary spike on the satisfaction meter.
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Goal: Perfect body.
Activity: Running and working out.
Would achieving a perfect body bring permanent happiness?
Perhaps it would, within narrow parameters. Physical health is a wonderful thing. But those I know who work out fanatically seem never to be satisfied and even when they reach a certain level of physical perfection it must be scrupulously maintained. Also, there seems to be a certain amount of fear of losing the perfection achieved as the body ages.
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Goal: Personal success that can be demonstrated by driving a nice car and living in an expensive neighborhood and other symbols of worldly importance.
Activity: Working and doing all the things necessary to advance themselves professionally.
Would achieving success bring permanent happiness?
People do seem to enjoy financial success, but then they also never seem satisfied and are not content to sit in their expensive homes and be happy with all they have achieved. They are always busy climbing to the next rung on the ladder. Accumulating status symbols seems to breed the need to accumulate more status symbols.
* * * * * * *
Can you think of a goal you could achieve or an object you could acquire that you believe would bring you permanent happiness without fear, the type of happiness that would completely satisfy you?
Note: As far as I can tell Pascal did not address finding happiness in a love relationship, but I will need to study the matter further. My best guess is that he would say that to seek permanent happiness in this way would not be wise since people are not only physically temporary but are full of shifting passions. I’m sorry to say, I don’t get the impression he was a real romantic guy.
I do know people who seem to have found a way to simply “be” and exist in peace and contentment. However, these people seem to be tapping into a spiritual dimension – and within the scope of this discussion we cannot allow a spiritual dimension. Maybe next week we will allow the possibility of God into the equation.
Welcome to my blog….This is where I try out ideas for essays and possible books. I write about literature, life, and mostly end up in the places where life meets literature. I love comments!
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- Review of Solaris by Stanislaw Lem September 7, 2014
- So glad to have finally read it! The Republic by Plato September 3, 2014
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