When thinking about happiness, consider Nietzsche.

Posted Aug 22, 2010


Contemporary psychology has rediscovered the study of happiness and morality. Nietzsche had much to say about these topics—well, mostly about the latter. I therefore propose to give Nietzsche another look. I can’t, in good conscience, recommend to dig into his collected works. From the sample that I have read, I can’t say that his writing is particularly accessible to those of us who are not steeped in the cultural history of 19th Century Continental Europe and Germany in particular. I do recommend, however, a reading of “On the Genealogy of Morality,” which ranks among Nietzsche’s mature works, is relatively coherent (i.e., less aphoristic than most of his other works), and on topic. More on morality in a later post.  

Let’s consider happiness. I’m taking my cues from Julian Young’s masterly biography of Nietzsche. Young has found a way to bring Nietzsche’s ideas and the progression of his thinking to life by presenting it in the context of Nietzsche’s life history. In Young’s hands, Nietzsche no longer appears dark and demonic, but human, all-too-human, as it were.

In today’s psychology, there are two major schools of thought regarding happiness. According to one school, happiness is essential to the human experience, it is measurable, and it can be maximized. Within this school, the academic squabbles are over how much happiness is under one’s control, and what exactly one can do to have more of it. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s blog offers a good introduction to this way of thinking. According to the other school, happiness is hard to measure and even harder to predict, particularly one’s own happiness. The best one can hope for, in Dan Gilbert’s memorable words, is to stumble into it. Some languages (e.g., German) recognize the link between happiness and luck; they use the same word.

Nietzsche’s views are aligned with the second school. As Young reports, Nietzsche is sensitive to the paradox of happiness. The paradox is that those who badly want to be happy are least successful when trying directly to create happiness. If happiness is epiphenomenal to other goals and activities, then that’s where one’s efforts should be placed. Nietzsche’s solution is to value a life not by the sum total of happiness attained, but by the degree to which this life is coherent. To him, a coherent life is dedicated to an overarching goal or mission, where the individual’s action toward this goal can be, at least from the individual’s own subjective perspective, construed as heroic deeds. Young reports that Nietzsche’s paragon for a coherent, heroic life was the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini (1805 – 1872), who after many setbacks saw his dream of Italian unification realized. Incidentally, and perhaps importantly, Mazzini was also an advocate for European unification, an idea that Nietzsche himself adhered to.  

There are two possible readings of the life-goal hypothesis. One reading is that adopting a large and lofty mission, like Mazzini’s, is a person’s way to overcome his (or her) own individuality, to put his (or her) own life in the service of a larger cause. If so, dedication to that goal would be selfless, perhaps even altruistic. Happiness would come through the loss of the ego. I don’t think this reading is logical or what Nietzsche has in mind. After all, if happiness is ultimately experienced, if only as an epiphenomenon, the ego is right back in the game. Another, more plausible, reading is that by adopting a large and lofty mission, by making it one’s own, the interests of a larger community (e.g., the Italians) and one’s own merge. Time and again, Young points out that neither Nietzsche nor his philosophy are egocentric. Instead, the rigorous pursuit of self-interest, the striving for personal excellence, elevate the community.

The crux is how to find the personal mission that affords heroic deeds. Nietzsche does not seem to have a pat recipe, and I don’t think anyone else does. Realistically, though, Nietzsche has no illusions about the rarity of grand missions. Everyone knows that his philosophy is an aristocratic one. Excellence, or virtue, is by necessity rare. Not everyone can be the best.

The pursuit of a worthy goal is the path to self-realization. Long before the psychologists of the 20th Century, Nietzsche identified the process of “becoming a person,” “of becoming who one really is” as a master process in an individual’s life. Again, there are two readings: According to one, the true, authentic self resides within the person and is waiting to be liberated. Carl Rogers saw it what way, and current research on the “Michelangelo phenomenon” is in this vein. According to the other reading, the true self is not given and can thus not be revealed. It must be struggled for and built. Bertrand Russell, who found Nietzsche’s philosophy repugnant, at least agreed with him on this point. The desire for comfort is inimical to the attainment of happiness.

As an Ancient Greek reincarnate, Nietzsche has some sense of balance. If happiness could only be had through heroic struggle and if that happiness could only be epiphenomenal, now that would be a grim picture indeed. Nietzsche allows a second approach, which is more easy-going, laid-back, Californiesque. How enjoyable it is to sit in one’s garden, having some olives, cheese, and wine while chatting with good friends! This is happiness according to Epicurus and there’s nothing wrong with it. Everyone can have it. It doesn’t take a hero. Come to think of it, I will now go to the movies with my friends and then enjoy some icecream. Enough struggle for today.