Existentialism: Nietzsche's Happiness
Themes from Existentialism
Contrasting Happiness: The Common View and Nietzsche’s View
The ordinary concept of happiness is that a) happiness is achieved when all of one’s desires are fulfilled, creating a permanent sense of fulfillment; and b) negative emotions such as pain and suffering impede happiness. This idea is often thought of as a sort of paradise, where all desires, including basic needs, are provided for in a state of bliss. I will prove this view false by providing counter arguments from Nietzsche’s concept of the will of power and my own ideas. In part (ii), I will briefly explain Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power. In part (iii) I will prove part (a) of the ordinary concept false by saying that (iii b) some desires can never be fulfilled, (iii c) new desires can arise, making permanent fulfillment impossible, and (iii d) the will to power suggests happiness is achieved during the process of fulfilling desires, not afterwards. Part (b) is proved false by arguing that suffering is essential to happiness, not an obstacle for its achievement.
II The Will to Power
Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power states that humans have an inherent desire to feel competent--that they can manipulate their environment to meet their desires. More specifically, it is the will to overcome resistance in the pursuit of a desire, since the resistance in the environment is what gives one the sense of competence. If every desire was easily fulfilled without any sort of challenge, one would not feel any great sense of accomplishment. This is why our culture celebrates people who overcame great adversity to do great things.
The common view of happiness implies that happiness is able to be reached. But this is not true. In this part I will disprove part (a) of the commoners’ view of happiness, namely that happiness is achieved when all desires, basic or not, are fulfilled. I will do this by saying that happiness cannot be achieved because (iii b) some desires are impossible to fulfill, (iii c) new desires arise, as humans are fundamentally unsatisfied creatures; and (iii d) according to the will to power, even if all these desires are obtained, the source of happiness is gone upon attainment.
III b Impossible Desires
Some desires are impossible to fulfill within our lifetimes. For example, the desire to memorize all the digits of pi is impossible to fulfill within a person’s lifetime because pi is an irrational number so it has an infinite number of digits, all of which will probably never be discovered within an ordinary mortal’s lifetime even with supercomputers available. If a desire is impossible to fulfill and happiness requires all desires to be satisfied, happiness is impossible.
III c Spontaneous Generation of Desires
Even if all our desires are somehow satisfiable, there is nothing to suggest humans cannot develop more desires over time. The common view implies that humans have a finite number of desires. But experience shows this not to be the case: even if, say, our most prominent desires are satisfied, we continuously invent new ones to go after; as the saying goes, “the grass is always greener on the other side.” For example, a wealthy businessman may have become CEO of his company, but develop a new desire to merge with other companies or start a new relationship or retire and start a popcorn business, all while neglecting his pre existing desire to buy a new house.
A possible counterargument is that a person may satisfy all of her/his desires briefly before a new one crops up, getting a short-lived burst of happiness. I consider this improbable because most desires are manifestations of baser desires that manifest in the form of multiple, smaller desires at the same time; even if these are all fulfilled at once, which is improbable, new ones may be created in the process and thus there is no time when all desires are fulfilled. For example, the base desire for social interaction may manifest in the need for family and friends; if these two are satisfied, the person may in the process realize the desire for romantic love has been brewing and thus the person’s desires remain unfulfilled.
III d The Will to Power Drives New Desires
The will to power disproves the notion that happiness comes from the fulfillment of all desires. In the will to power, happiness comes from using (and therefore realizing) one’s ability to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of a goal. If one is motivated by the will to power, 3 things happen: 1) one desires something 2) there exists some resistance to achieving that something 3) said resistance is overcome and thus the desire is achieved. There is a problem here: overcoming the resistance puts an end to the activity of overcoming the resistance, and thus an end to happiness. This means that in order to be happy, one must keep seeking new obstacles to overcome--one keeps inventing new desires for oneself. And if one keeps inventing desires for oneself, one cannot be happy in the common sense.
IV Suffering and Pain
The common view states that suffering and pain impede happiness, out of the notion that suffering is not conducive to feeling happy. This view is false because the will to power states that suffering is integral to obtaining happiness, and therefore helps rather than impedes happiness.
Recall that the will to power describes happiness as something achieved when obstacles are challenged and overcome in pursuit of a desire, because happiness comes from the ability to manipulate the environment. Since suffering is essential to facing obstacles--exertion of climbing a mountain, anxiety when asking someone out--it is also inherent in obtaining happiness. In fact, since under the will to power one seeks obstacles to overcome, one seeks suffering and thus displeasure! An analogy would be mountain climbers, always in pursuit of larger and larger challenges.
The difference between the common view and the will to power is that Nietzsche thinks that happiness comes from overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a desire, whereas commoners view it as seeing desires realized. Thus their respective ideas both see happiness itself as a purely positive emotion, but Nietzsche sees suffering as essential to happiness whereas the commoner sees it as an obstacle. The happiness itself does not include suffering, in Nietzsche’s view--it only involves suffering as part of the process of obtaining happiness; that is, the happiness is felt after overcoming the suffering. So happiness in the purest sense does not include suffering in either view, but the obtaining of happiness is not, in Nietzsche’s view, free from suffering whereas it is in the commoner’s view.
IV b The Common View and Blissful Things
The commoner may argue that there is happiness in simple blissful things--a day on the beach, petting a cute dog--that do not involve suffering as part of their experience. This type of happiness is not what Nietzsche refers to, but that does not disprove this argument, merely provides an alternate definition.
It could also be argued that such moments of bliss do not fulfill all of one’s desires, under the assumption that everyone has some desires that require overcoming obstacles. All people have the need for food/water, shelter, sex, and socialization, and all of these require overcoming obstacles. For example, there are obstacles to fulfilling the need for socialization: worrying about what the other person thinks of you, navigating different expectations and needs within a relationship, etc. Thus applying the will to power is inescapable for the type of fulfillment described in part (a).
Even so-called blissful desires that don’t require overcoming significant obstacles do in fact have some obstacles. Driving to the beach might involve traffic, perhaps the dog might try to harm you. Such obstacles might not be particularly significant, and thus their happiness won’t be as great as desires more difficult to fulfill, but suffering is still part of the process, or will to power, and is therefore inescapable.
I have disproved the common notion of happiness as a state resulting from the fulfillment of all desires, and suffering/pain as impeding happiness. I did this by proving part (a) wrong with 3 arguments: some desires are impossible to fulfill, people generate new desires for themselves, and the will to power drives people to seek new desires. Suffering is in fact necessary for happiness, according to the will to power, despite the apparent existence of happy desires that do not involve suffering.