Happiness is watching Fight Club, reading Nietzsche and thinking about Ecclesiastes
In case you didn’t know, I’m in between jobs.
Largely it was a personal choice. I was employed, but was moving in an imbalanced direction. I took corrective action, but found myself adrift. Personal health is so often contrarian to professional health, isn’t it?
I’ve had the chance to speak to a lot of people during this quieter period of quasi-busyness. We chat about their dreams, my dreams, their lives, my life. We chat about what we hope to be and what we are now. Through most of these conversations, there are themes.
One of them is a restlessness that comes from lives described by the movie “Fight Club” (if you’re not familiar…a source of tremendous insight into masculinity for all of its absurdity, sex and violence):
“I see all of this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We are the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t. We’re slowing learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
How people react to this disconnect—this dissonance between intended lives and someone’s current actionable circumstances, gets me thinking a lot about what it is to be happy.
What is happiness? Is it a chemical reaction in the mind, alterable with alcohol and prescribed medications? Is it sexual satisfaction? Is it nothingness…enlightenment? Is it professional achievement? Is it this ‘bucket list’ of stuff people build out?
Is it a job? Is it in having a job? Is it in having the right job? What’s the right job? Money? Relevance? Transcendent purpose?
One of my favorite books of the Hebrew Scriptures is Ecclesiastes. Christians especially get all weirded out by that. “Why Ecclesiastes? It’s so depressing.”
Sure it is—well, really, it is and it isn’t. With the right perspective, it’s tremendously enlightening. My Buddhist friends will completely understand the juxtaposition of futility, suffering and happiness. The rest of you might need a moment.
Have you read Ecclesiastes? It’s fantastic. It’s 12 chapters. You don’t have to read the whole thing, but go take a look at the first bit. And don’t just read the “seasons of life” part that everybody fixates on because of the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds. Get to other parts. See if that stuff doesn’t hit you.
It’s the same stuff Nietzsche talked about thousands of years later (which is strangely apropos, given the parallel Ecclesiastical/Nietzschean idea of Eternal Recurrence).
The author of the book goes through these seasons in his life. He’s a king—thought to be Solomon, said to be one of the wisest persons to have lived. He builds, destroys, acquires, gives away, celebrates, mourns…goes through all of this wrestling with the meaning of life and circumstances, trying to find a meaning behind it.
And he does and doesn’t. He sees that, regardless of what you do with yourself, you’ll die. Regardless of how good of a person you are, you’ll be forgotten. Regardless of what you build and the legacy you leave, it will be squandered by people who come after you, who won’t even know it was you who gave them anything.
However, he’s able to distill down from his tremendous wealth and position a basic set of truths, accessible to all. These truths are independent of wealth or position. They can be gained by anyone. They’re a matter of attitude.
The central truth is this: “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil.”
The theme is repeated, with other turns of phrase. Basically, it’s this idea that we have our lot in life…that we are largely powerless to single-handedly alter the course of organizations, nations and the state of the world…that when faced with the enormity of the ocean of life’s challenges—the circumstances of broken humanity at large—we should instead focus on our localized portion of reality, rather than project laments about unrealized idealized outcomes to out-of-reach situations.
Elsewhere Ecclesiastes admonishes that “there is nothing better for people than to be happy and do good while they live.”
So there is an overall purpose to life well lived. It shouldn’t be Hedonism. This is where I do depart from Nietzsche and assert that there is nobility to selflessness and edification of others and that we can induce lasting ripples into the the seeming futility of life. We can enact lasting change through being good people and ushering goodness into the lives of those around us.
But the words “finding satisfaction in their toil” are important—toil, especially.
The author of Ecclesiastes says happiness is found in our attitudes. Moreover, it is up to us to find satisfaction in our work. It is not up to us to necessarily find work that is satisfying.
That’s an important distinction.
When figuring out my next move…what job I should take…where I should live…who I should date…it’s important to recognize the significance of attitude over circumstance.
Better to be a happy janitor than a miserable CEO. Better to enrich and be enriched through the lives of a half-dozen real friends than to amass a shallow one-way relationship with a 1,000 people. I’d rather have someone who would help me move over a dozen fawning well-wishers.
Better to steady my mind and steel my resolve to find satisfaction in my work—my toiling.
Better to find happiness now, rather than wait for it to find me. Because that’s the lie—that we think the world owes us happiness. We wait for it to show up.
Turns out it’s all around.