An Extrapolation of Thoughts from Paul Graham: (Un)Happiness

If you haven’t noticed the link on my blog to Paul Graham’s website, you should do so now. It’s there for a reason. (Imagine that?!) In all seriousness, though, it really is worth having a look at his site, especially his essays. He’s a well-known essayist who writes about intriguing topics in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. (Has that moniker reached the status of cliche yet? I would hope not, because it does describe his writing.) Most importantly, though, he has very original ideas and the essays are really worth reading. Some might not appeal to you due to their specificity, but there are a lot have a wider purview.

The essay that got me to writing this post was one that he released recently. The essay is entitled “Is It Worth Being Wise?” and deals with the difference between wisdom and intelligence and the role each plays in the modern world. More importantly, though, Graham raises the issue of whether happiness and/or contentedness are truly possible for intelligent people. As he puts it,

To me it was a relief just to realize it might be ok to be discontented. The idea that a successful person should be happy has thousands of years of momentum behind it. If I was any good, why didn’t I have the easy confidence winners are supposed to have? But that, I now believe, is like a runner asking “If I’m such a good athlete, why do I feel so tired?” Good runners still get tired; they just get tired at higher speeds.

People whose work is to invent or discover things are in the same position as the runner. There’s no way for them to do the best they can, because there’s no limit to what they could do. The closest you can come is to compare yourself to other people. But the better you do, the less this matters. An undergrad who gets something published feels like a star. But for someone at the top of the field, what’s the test of doing well? Runners can at least compare themselves to others doing exactly the same thing; if you win an Olympic gold medal, you can be fairly content, even if you think you could have run a bit faster. But what is a novelist to do?

It’s tough to isolate a quote in Graham’s essay that encapsulates his thoughts regarding contentedness, but I think the one I’ve chosen comes close. I think it’s really interesting to consider the question of happiness or contentedness in contexts other than those of intelligence alone. The one that I’ve been grappling with recently (and not only on my own account) is that of privilege. In a similar fashion to the inventor that Graham names above, I have the ability to make significant changes to the world and more specifically to South Africa. How should (or can) I reconcile myself to my current lifestyle whereby I am nowhere near South Africa and not close to making a difference any time soon? Should my lack of activity be cause for serious unhappiness on my part?

The moral implications of one’s actions (or lack thereof) are closely tied to one’s own morality. In my case, I am not unhappy in my current situation. For the time being, I am of the opinion that I won’t be able to make a serious difference at home at present. I am also still working out quite how my skills can be put to work in the real world, so that at a later point I may use them efficiently in some beneficial endeavour. But now comes the most interesting part of my thinking: I don’t think or feel that it is my responsibility to bring about change. I suppose that is where some of my existentialist leanings come into play, but that is how I think about the world: I would like to do good, but I don’t feel driven to it. I am still working out how I should feel about the unused potential that I possess…

I am currently happy, but given the above thoughts, should I not be? How do you feel about your happiness (or lack thereof)? Some comments would be interesting.

Oh, and does the fact that I am currently happy imply that I am not intelligent, but only wise…?

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