Success, meaning of life, and other things

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Lately I’ve been asking myself what makes me happy; I’m not convinced I’ve found the answer yet. It’s essentially an existential crisis around the idea of success and achievement. Cheerful stuff, right?

In philosophy they talk about theories of value: what in this world is good and worth pursuing? In this debate, I’m a self-professed hedonist. In other words, I tend to believe that pleasure – in the broad sense, including both physical and emotional pleasure – is the only intrinsically valuable thing. Conversely, pain is the only thing that is intrinsically bad. The best life is the one that gives you the most pleasure and the least pain, end of.

If someone invents an “experience machine” that would give you a joyful existence till the end of your days, I’m willing to argue that purely from your viewpoint, it’s a wise choice to say goodbye to your weeping friends and plug in to the machine. I’m also willing to argue that if watching professional wrestling (the fake American kind) brings you more pleasure than reading literature, then from your perspective, you will lead a better life by watching VHS videos of The Ultimate Warrior than by reading James Joyce. I took an undergraduate-level philosophy course, fight me!

This, then, means that I should do what makes me happy, whether that means pursuing a high-powered career or lying alone in a dark room listening to trance music on Spotify. (At the time of writing, I’m doing the latter and I’m rather enjoying it.) There’s still something at odds with this philosophical conviction, though. Maybe it’s the social expectation, one I’ve deeply internalised, that ever pursuing more success makes you happier. Or maybe the desire isn’t internalised but comes from within.

Whichever it is, I recognise myself in Paul Dolan’s writing when he says that “paying attention to time as money has been shown to diminish the pleasure experienced from leisure activities”. Last winter when I went to visit Caitlin for dinner, I felt guilty about not spending that time doing YEM work. This Christmas holiday, like every Christmas holiday for the last three years, I felt guilty for not doing anything productive.

The feeling of guilt is a part of my ambivalent relationship with the idea of achievement. On the one hand, dreaming up the kinds of great things I could achieve sends adrenaline through my veins and has me quickly pulling my laptop out of my bag at the airport so I can send some emails before my 6am flight boards. On the other hand, it comes with a sense of inadequacy and disappointment, with thoughts wandering around in endless circles, when things don’t go to plan.

To come back to guilt: does chasing success bring me pleasure, or does it rather help me avoid the pain of feeling guilty about doing nothing productive? Would I be happier if I focused more on other things, like chatting with friends? I enjoy reading, writing and talking about Europe but what if there’s more to life than that? Especially if I manage to overcome the associated feeling of guilt with time, would that make for a better life?

This particularly applies to questions of career orientation. Until recently, I more or less took it for granted that I’ll grow up to be a careerist. At present, I’m conflicted but the feeling still remains. I’ve already felt advance guilt about not yet being a well-known and respected professional in my field, apparently oblivious to the fact that I should probably get school out of the way first, and that few people start their careers from the top.

In the interest of brutal honesty, I should admit that a part of me keeps telling me I won’t be complete as a person until I’m a politician in Brussels. When I followed Europarty congresses this autumn and people I knew were attending, I was asking myself why I wasn’t there, apparently oblivious to the fact that I’ve chosen not to pick sides at least yet. Knowing that people more or less my age – people I vaguely know – will be running for the Finnish Parliament next spring doesn’t make it any better.

I once thought it’s wise to avoid fixing your mind on any single career objective because it carries a risk of disappointment. If you tie your sense of self-worth to the idea of becoming a member of the European Court of Justice, you’ll probably die unhappy because there’s only one seat per Member State and many judges keep their post for over 15 years. I’m now drifting precisely into this territory.

A wise person would ask what exactly makes me think a political career would bring me happiness. Maybe one reason is that being elected is an absolute, black/white measure of success. Either you made it to the European Parliament or you didn’t, and if you did, you achieved your goal and you can be happy. (This reminds me of a New York Times column about Donald Trump, arguing that he “sought the presidency, as so many others surely did, because it’s the ultimate validation”.) On the other hand, you can feel popular, famous and respected, as well as getting to deal with European affairs in your job.

What still hasn’t fully fit into my skull is that the European Parliament hemicycle is not the only place in the world where you can feel respected, and feel a sense of purpose. There are other jobs where you can follow European affairs and where you have to deal with less BS than as a politician. And what’s more, it might be better to take things as they come – if I suddenly wanted to be a gymnast, now would be too late, but politics is slightly different. The Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä was first elected an MP at age 50 (although at age 35 he already was the highest-earning individual in Finland and I suspect that he never was a fan of trance music).

It’s philosophy against the penetrating feeling of guilt. John Stuart Mill’s objection to the type of hedonism I described was that some pleasures, like watching VHS videos of The Ultimate Warrior (not his example), are inherently inferior to others, like reading James Joyce (also not his example). Perhaps the unsatisfied voice inside me is saying that having dinner with a friend, or dedicating more time to your marriage in the future, is an inferior kind of pleasure compared to your career. Or can you have both? Some people would call that by the name “work-life balance”.

There’s no definite conclusion to this rambling because, as I said in the beginning, I haven’t quite found the answer yet. As much as I like John Stuart Mill, maybe suppressing his voice inside me on this question would make me happier in the end. How do you do that? I certainly haven’t succeeded yet.

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