It sounds crazy I know, but it’s true.
The key to happiness, to success, to power—any of these things—is not to want them really bad. It’s not putting what you’re after on a pedestal. The key to happiness and success is realizing at a granular level that the things most people desire actually suck.
That being rich isn’t that great. That getting lots of attention is a chore. That being in love is also a lot of work. That the prettiest view in the world still has mosquitos or a biting chill or it’s hot as hell.
Not that this observation is particularly new or brilliant, but I’m not bringing it up to complain. I want to talk about something we see ancient Stoics practice almost as an art form: Contempt.
Marcus Aurelius writes of sitting down to a bountiful feast. He was emperor at the height of the power of Rome so it would have been a pretty nice one. But he didn’t look out and see fancy wine or haute cuisine. Or perhaps he did at first glance, but he urged himself to look deeper. When he did, he repeated to himself what he really saw:
“This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig…this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.”
Why would someone do this? Why would someone contemptuously remove all the dressing and presentation and anticipation from a nice meal? Or from the power and majesty of his role as emperor? (In Rome, only the emperor could wear the purple robe). Well, because those things are total bullshit. And people who don’t see that, who take pride in those things, are likely to become consumed by and addicted to them. The point, Marcus would write later, was to use this exercise in brutal objectivity as a way to lay things bare and “to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”
He didn’t just limit this exercise to food or power either. He went as far as to remind himself that sex was simply “something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.” That’s admittedly a gross and meaningless way to describe something that’s both pleasurable and an expression of love. But hearing it is also like a smelling salt that can wake someone up when they’re drifting towards a bad decision, when lust is leading them somewhere they’re likely to regret.
Louis CK has talked about the same thing. He tells the story of spending thousands of dollars on a trumpet, even though he knows nothing about trumpets or how to play or that it was all the money he had in the bank at the time. On his way home he passed one of those creepy peep show booths and paid to go in. It was only after he jerked off that it occurred to him how stupid it was to buy the trumpet, how he had no real interest in owning one, he just got caught up in the moment. It’s become a bit of a mental exercise for him now when he really finds himself wanting something—would he still want it after he did that? After the release of the excitement and the attention? (More on this in the wonderful book The Philosophy of Louis CK.)
Louis CK also talks about how his dream was always to perform as a comedian at Carnegie Hall. Finally, after years of hard work and success, he gets the opportunity. Yet almost immediately, his mind starts to see the other side of it. That it wasn’t what he built up in his head. “I figured I’d get a calligraphy-written envelope saying you’ve been invited by this committee. But now I know Carnegie Hall is just this place you rent, and it’s actually better to play the Beacon. It’s lower rent.”
It’s not as if the Stoics were Cynics who renounced all worldly goods. Seneca was quite rich. Marcus held power. They just understood what these things really were. It’s what allowed them to utilize them effectively, without becoming dependent on them.
This can often be a lesson you have to experience to fully understand. You have to get to the other side of the fence to understand the grass isn’t actually greener.
Earlier this year I won a Grammy for an album I was a part of. It was very exciting to get dressed up and go. What was it actually like getting one though? It was like any other event you go to that takes way too long: a total drag. It was five or six hours for thirteen seconds of excitement (which I had cut short an important book interview to experience). And then at the end most of the producers don’t even get the Grammy…you have to buy your own plaque online if you want one. It was both an incredible honor and an obligation I would probably skip next time so I can work instead. Certainly having done it now decreases my yearning for any other such “prizes,” I can tell you that. Because having one hasn’t changed my life one bit.
When we are young and ambitious we are susceptible to what psychologists would call the belief in “conditional happiness.” That if we get this, earn that, win this, get promoted to that, marry this or sleep with that, we will suddenly be happy. That we will suddenly feel good about ourselves if we get this good thing.
It’s only with time and the good fortune required to get those things that we begin to understand that this is a seductive and unreachable mirage. As soon as we get those things, we want other things—or they turn out to be disappointing or complicated. We expect that they will be free of our current problems but they aren’t because we bring our problems to them (and create new problems along with them).
Only the philosophers and the wisdom of age can make us understand the truth: That everything sucks pretty much equally. That everything has its problems.
It’s a depressing thought at first and a lot of people fear it. If everything sucks does that mean that it’s all meaningless and that there’s no point to do anything? Does it mean you don’t eat the nice meal, you don’t buy ever buy the trumpet, perform at Carnegie Hall or go for the Grammy?
No, not at all.
Just understand what they are actually are. What they are actually like. Not dressed up in legend, but in truth.
Grasping the true essence of things is the secret to happiness. First, because it can make you happy with what you have right now because I can promise you, whatever it is is plenty enough. Second, because it allows you to enjoy the process and the present moment when you do go for more. I don’t write books because I hope against hope that I can finally have some huge success that will make me rich and famous and thus happy and free. I write books because as grinding and annoying as the process can be, it’s also immensely pleasurable and satisfying. I’m not completely indifferent to the results—I do want them to sell well and I do work hard so they do—but I’m ok if they don’t, and I have no illusions about what success brings with it. Free of that expectation, that need for it to go exactly a certain way, I can actually do better and I have more energy to pour into what I am doing. I can actually live the idea that the effort is all we have, and the results are extra. As it is said in the Bhagavad Gita, “You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits.” Better, don’t even need the fruits because the action is the only part that doesn’t really suck.
I love my wife, my son, my house, my career and have many friends I admire and respect. It’s very tempting to make these things one’s whole life, to see them as perfect and imperishable. But this is dangerous and delusional. Like all external things, they can let me down, tragic events could take them from me—anything could happen. It’s also good to have dreams, to have things you’re aspiring towards, and to try to push yourself to see what you’re capable of doing. Still, it’s also tempting to assume that happiness and self-worth will come along with achieving them. So a little contempt is a helpful tool to create objectivity and perspective.
Marcus Aurelius still enjoyed his nice meal. I still enjoy the things I love. Taking those two seconds to see them from another angle before he did so? That’s the secret to enjoying and appreciating and not being enslaved to them.
Everything sucks. I know it. You know it. Let that free you.