The Happiness of Constant Striving

Philosophers of happiness have often said that humanity’s eternally recurring and seemingly insatiable desires are a crushing burden and a debilitating problem. To live with an unsatisfied desire, the argument goes, makes one unhappy. Therefore, if one is to be content, expunging desires is of the utmost importance. This dubious notion is the foundation of entire self-denying spiritual practices. Advocates of self-denial invoke the myth of Sisyphus, the king in ancient Greece who offended Zeus. As punishment, he was condemned to push a huge boulder to the top of a hill. However, the simple (but sweaty) game was rigged. Whenever the boulder neared the top of the hill, it rolled back down to the bottom. Some prefer the less strenuous, but equally frustrating Danaidean example. In Greek legend, the Danaides were daughters of the Egyptian prince, Danaus. After they had murdered their husbands, they were condemned in Hades to fill water jars with holes in the bottom.

The Danaides by John William Waterhouse, 1903

Success may not be necessary to attain happiness. For many, the striving itself becomes a fulfilling and satisfying way of life. (Image: public domain.)

The idea seems clear. Since desires are insatiable, it is impossible ever to reach one’s goal. Consequently, one can never find peace and contentment. In turn, this means one must either uproot desires or accept perpetual discontent.

This is a false belief.

The thing to keep in mind is this: some actions are intrinsically rewarding. (I will admit that rolling huge boulders to the tops of hills may not be one of these!) When engaged in such activities, the process or the journey can become a source of delight in itself, thus making it irrelevant whether one realizes one’s “goal.” Seen from this perspective, one’s “Sisyphean” task of pursuing a particular desire may lead one into a kind of alternate reality where conventional goal-driven thinking and values do not apply. Once established in that alternate reality, once the realization dawns that the task or the quest is rewarding in and of itself, then new possibilities transform one’s formerly goal-oriented thinking. Things ramify. Not only new ways of thinking, but also new ways of living take over from the old.

Creative people often find themselves in precisely this situation. At the onset, creators are usually like everyone else. They dream of being famous or successful in their chosen field. As time passes, their absorption in their projects grows deeper and more satisfying. At the same time, however, it becomes increasingly apparent how elusive is success in creative enterprises. There comes a critical moment when the creator realizes that, success or no success, they are not going to give up on their work. They make adjustments. It is no longer a matter of doing projects with the sole goal of achieving fame or making money. The work has become a way of life.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

11 thoughts on “The Happiness of Constant Striving”

  1. Thanks for this post, Thomas. I’ve always had some instinctive sympathy for the idea that our unsatisfied and insatiable desires are the prime causes of suffering, but my experience of writing has been entirely different. I have had plenty of ambitions that have not been fulfilled, but they have come to mean relatively little: the process of writing has become its own reward.

    There was a time when I simply wanted to be a writer. That desire became a habit, which in turn became an obsession. The process of creating is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

    By the way, I’ve blog tagged you – if you choose to play, of course!

  2. Interesting write, Thomas. This describes me to a T. I used to write in the hopes of monetary compensation. I write now because I just like to and I want to get better at it.

  3. Mari, you have found your true path in life. How lucky you are! You may never achieve great fame or amass a huge fortune but come thick or thin, you will always have your writing to sustain you. Few things are as effective in dealing with life’s setbacks as the ability to express your thoughts and feelings through the written word. And yes, I do choose to play!

  4. I too got started with the intention of making money as a writer. In my case, I discovered that I wasn’t really interested in writing commercially viable fiction. What truly appealed to me was the chance to play around with ideas. My biggest problem has been the tendency to graft those ideas onto stories more suited to straightforward “what happens next” entertainment, when I should be writing what the critics call “novels of ideas.” In other words, I still have one foot in each camp!

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