If you were to ask high-achievers whether they would be happy with their lives if they never worked, you would be hard pressed to find a 20-to-30-something year old who would genuinely say yes. This is because they have been trained in a system of education where the purpose has become distorted into becoming about the ability to command high salaries. If you ask high-achievers what they would be happy with, they throw out arbitrary measures such as a dollar amount or a job title. If you dig deeper, their justifications for this falter. Most achievers’ sense of purpose is baseless.
If you add up the sum of daily happiness over a lifetime, this is a greater sum than can possibly be achieved with the notion of “success”. The perception that true happiness derives from success is based on the fact that everyone would be miserable if they weren’t fulfilled after decades of hard work. Since the feeling of achievement is less painful than all previous states, we believe that this must be happiness. We cope with the situation we have fashioned for ourselves and proclaim it to be gratifying. Because we have never known true happiness, any state that is not unhappy becomes happiness to us. There is a study that lottery winners are less happy than paralysis victims in the long run, as they realize that wealth does not equate to happiness.
Everything that we have traditionally valued has fallen out of favor whereas the accumulation of money has continued to increase as a value. If capitalism is our only source of purpose, perhaps we aren’t thinking hard enough about why we subscribe to what we do. How many of us can really define why we have set our success metrics at particular points? Why do we care so much about constant accomplishment? A frequent answer is that people desire validation which comes from doing something well, and this stems from our evolutionary competitive instincts. But this does not take into consideration that modern day life does not require the kind of competition we were adapted for. Instead, we have morphed our own evolutionary design to be challenged in artificial competitions by keeping ourselves occupied with infinite games.
Mass digitization has democratized information to such an extent that we are made aware of how boundless what we want can be, creating insatiable desires. We are indignant about what we feel we deserve instead of chasing things we actually want. Advertisements and high-status people create desire for the plebeians; they do not need to know how to want because their desires are dictated for them.
We take it as common wisdom that we should forgo short term pleasures to have some grand success. This indirect pursuit of pleasure means that we have lost the ability to derive real, sustained happiness from true pleasures, independent from what society deems appropriate. We often conflate vices and short term pleasure as one and the same, instead of what we personally actually conceive of as pleasurable. Long term pleasures are dictated and imposed upon us, and we blindly believe that there really is a higher form of pleasure we will reach once we are successful. Truthfully, high-achieving people are not happier than non-achievers. The long march toward supposedly such “success” appears gratifying, but its promises are empty.
Ataraxia (αταραξία is the lack of ταραχή, the lack of disturbance or worry) produces actual pleasure. It originates in Ancient Greek philosophies, in particular it is at the heart of Epicureanism. It is often connected to the two forms of pleasure: eudaimonia and hedonism, where the former is divine happiness and the latter is short term, often sensory, pleasure. In Epicureanism, hedonism is ataraxia, meaning that the ultimate pleasure is the lack of bodily or mental pain. To Epicureans, material achievement is not a pleasure if it requires you to endure pain over years and years, that instead makes a Stoic out of you. It would be perverse to an Epicurean that words like ‘busy,’ ‘grinding’ have become modern day virtues.
Hedonism—not driven by vices, but proper Epicurean hedonism—is only acceptable in modern day culture for housewives and nepo babies. Instead, high-achieving people over-index on professional success instead of learning to find happiness in other facets of their lives. This is especially true of professional women and non-Europeans.
Ataraxia is lost in the modern world. We pursue lives full of stressors, we live in dense, dirty cities working jobs that detract from our happiness, in pursuit of proxies for success like prestige or money. American culture has it wrong. We must no longer deceive ourselves into enjoying the objectively unenjoyable, and then shame the rest of society into doing the same.
In Ancient Greece, the state of ataraxia led to success because its tranquility allowed for greater mental clarity, with the byproduct of enabling success in battle, relationships, and education without sacrificing happiness. To achieve true ataraxia takes discipline and mental fortitude that only the strong-minded can endure. Reaching such a state is the ultimate success, the only one that has a measurable and provable value—actual happiness.