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The following is a transcript excerpt from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s tour stop in Wheatland, California. In this segment, he draws on previous philosophers’ writings to form thoughts on why we should not aim for happiness and what should be pursued instead.
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The philosopher Kierkegaard wrote 150 years ago, and he was one of the first psychological philosophers who really wrote about anxiety. He regarded himself rather useless, all things considered. He wrote a section in one of his books about all the industrialists who were operating in Europe at that time, trying in every possible way to make life easier and more efficient and productive for everyone, which was definitely happening during the Victorian period; Europe was rapidly transforming into an industrial powerhouse. He said someone as useless as him with an orientation toward being a student who liked to sit and contemplate ideas, talk in cafes, and smoke cigars and drink could never make anything easier for anyone than everyone was already trying to make. So he thought his task would be to make things more difficult for people because there would come a time when what people wanted was not more ease but more challenge and difficulty. That is really smart — and it is witty and it is true.
Dostoevsky knew this too. He wrote about this in “Notes from Underground.” It is a great book — a very short, absolutely brilliant, compelling, dark read. It is the confession of a miserable, resentful, murderously genocidal bureaucrat who evaluates his own soul and confesses his sins. It is also a critique of the idea of utopia oriented toward security. Dostoevsky was dealing with the set of ideas that are really tearing us apart culturally right now — this idea of an eventual utopia, based on something like security and safety. Dostoevsky really objected to that back around 1860, a long time ago. He said the thing about people that you do not really understand is that fundamentally, we are ungrateful and we can curse; that is what distinguishes us from the animals — which I thought was pretty damn comical. But he said something very interesting: If you set up a utopia so that all people had to do was eat cakes and busy themselves with the continuation of the species, after a surfeit of that, which would happen quite quickly, people would go mad, just to break things so something unexpected and remarkable could happen. We are not built for security and safety but for, let’s call it, adventure.
That is good to know because you do not want to suffer unduly; that seems reasonable. You might think because of that, what you really want is happiness. But Solzhenitsyn, for example, wrote about what happened under Stalin in “The Gulag Archipelago” and said, if your goal is happiness, what are you going to do when the jackboots hammer down your door at two in the morning and haul you off to the prison camp? Because you are not going to be happy there.
Happiness is a boat that is easily capsized and the waves are always there. So if your philosophy is one of impulsive happiness — the same sort of thing Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard were pointing out — then you are not prepared when all hell breaks loose. And all hell will absolutely 100% break through at some point in your life, and you are lucky if it will not be decades. It will certainly be some of it and it might be a lot of it, and for some of you, it is going to be damn near the whole thing. So, if what floats your boat is happiness, you are going to be capsized by the first decent wave. You might ask yourself what you have instead of happiness that might be even more reliable, and I do think that adventure is more reliable than happiness.
In the Old Testament story of Abraham, founder of the Abrahamic faiths and obviously a crucial figure in the development of world culture, Abraham is presented as a late bloomer, to say the least. He is about 83 (people lived longer back then, at least, so the story goes), and he had a very rich father by nomadic standards. He could just sit around in the tent all day with a doting mother and a rich father, eating peeled grapes and busying himself with the continuation of the species. But God appears to him and tells him to get out of his security, get out of his comfort, leave his family, leave his community, leave his nation, and go out into the world. It is very interesting to contemplate the story both from a psychological and religious perspective because what God is presented as in that book, which is a crucial book for world culture, is the manifestation of the spirit that calls even the too-secure and pampered to adventure.
Abraham is a pretty rough guy when he goes out and has his adventure. It is not all skittles and roses from then on, quite the contrary. Right away, he runs into a conspiracy of elites to steal his wife, he runs into tyranny, he runs into starvation, and he encounters war. He goes out in the world and has the whole tragedy of his life, on both the social and political front and individually. But the promise and the implication of adventure is that if you have a sufficient adventure, then that cannot so much protect you from suffering — because perhaps that is impossible — but to justify it. You know this from your own life. When you look at your life, you might look back at travails that you have undertaken.
End-of-life surveys that ask people what they regret have shown they do not regret what they did that did not work; they regret what they did not do that could have worked. They regret the chances they did not take. Even if you do an evaluation of your biography, one of the things you want to be able to say to yourself — maybe there is nothing better you can say to yourself — is: that was extraordinarily difficult but it was worth it. It is not like you can have one of those without the other because you cannot imagine that you could. Have some confidence in what you have managed to accomplish, the kind of confidence that would instill you with a genuine sense of self despite your fundamental inadequacy. To have that fundamental sense of self-regard that is grounded in something real, it has to be based in a narrative that approximates: That was extremely difficult, but it was worth it. You have to have both of those.
You see the suffering in the world: the suffering of children, the suffering of maybe your children, or you are suffering. One of the questions we always ask ourselves (which is technically a theodicy question) is: How could reality be constituted so I can have faith in its essence when there is so much suffering. One answer to that is: How much suffering do you want? You might think, none. But I do not think that is right — at least, you want something approximating optimized challenge. At least, you want to be pushed to your limit, and maybe you find the most exciting times in your life. In fact, you will pay to have this experience, to be pushed to your limit — maybe even a bit beyond it but maybe not so far beyond it that you crumble and break and things fall apart. But could you be pushed to your limit if there was not the possibility of falling apart and breaking? That is an open question. How are you ever going to take something seriously if the consequences are not actually serious? There is something delightful about dancing on the edge. That is why Hawaiians believe surfing was sacred; it is because to surf, you have to be on the edge. The waves can come and take you out at any moment, but without the possibility of the waves rising to take you out, you cannot dance on the edge — and maybe that is exactly what you want to do.
There is good evidence from the neuroscience literature that consciousness itself is something akin to dancing on the edge. So technically when you are conscious (when you are awake), your brain is occupying a position between something like chaos and order. If your brain is maximally ordered, you are just bored and nothing is changing. If you are chaotic, then it is anxiety and catastrophe. You want to be positioned right between those two, and that is when your consciousness is optimized. When your consciousness is optimized, then you are deeply engaged in life and everything seems alive and meaningful. Maybe that is the solution, in some profound sense, to the problem of suffering. It is that you optimize your interaction with chaos rather than being protected all the time from everything that can hurt you.
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Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. From 1993 to 1998 he served as assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Harvard. He is the international bestselling author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules For Life, and Beyond Order. You can now listen to or watch his popular lectures on DailyWire+.