Objectifying your dreams

A few months ago I oh-so-dramatically announced my temporary retirement from the corporate world in favour of a masters in philosophy. I was aware of the strong millennial trends to #quityourjob, #dowhatyoulove and #pursueyourdream, but I’d like to think I wasn’t influenced by them too strongly. To briefly and blandly describe the reasons for this life decision, (1) I wanted some formal education in the subject matter, and (2) I had the sense that I would be happier in pursuit of it. The relation between these motivations is the subject of this post.

A few weeks later I was strolling along to the library feeling good about life. I had a free day (no lectures) and intended to spend it doing some extra reading. There was no feeling of dread for the task ahead, no sense that I was obliged to spend the day thus because someone else wanted or needed me to, and no pressure to produce any output from it. I simply felt happy and contented. I realised I had felt continuously happy and contented for weeks. This was a change.

But then I hit a prime quarter-life crisis birthday and realised I needed to come down from the clouds and take stock. 

Right now, I’m living the dream. That happy feeling alone tempts me to continue living the dream – without consideration of the content of the dream. But many of the factors that are currently making my life happy and non-stressful would eventually have to change. I would have to start producing some quality output, for one thing. My time would be regulated by other people’s marking deadlines and teaching timetables, and I might well get the Sunday night dread at having to deal with admin or irksome university policies. Were these changes not imposed on me, I’m sure the happy factors would sour of their own accord: it would start to feel frustrating and self-indulgent not to be outputting or contributing to the field, for example. In terms of that warm fuzzy feeling of happiness my life would look no different to another kind of life (for example, life in the corporate world). So everyday contentment, while clearly not to be sniffed at, probably shouldn’t be the sole motivator for my decisions.

One of my first ever classes this year was about hedonism. A hedonist considers wellbeing or the good life as consisting in experiences of pleasure. These can be of the most basic sort: eating chocolate, or turning a blind eye to the homeless man on the street to avoid feeling guilty or moved by his plight. In the past, I’ve wondered about the trade-offs between instant and delayed gratification: is it better to gobble all your three sweets at once (more sugar in less time), or eat them one by one (less sugar now but prolonged experience of sugar)? The hedonist takes the instant route.

But you can imagine a more sophisticated hedonist who realises that there are other types of things that can be pleasurable or make one happy, things that maybe require a little of that trade-off of present pleasures for future gains (for example, working hard now so you can get a degree and a good job, where you think a good job will make you happy). He still pursues happiness, but he recognises that some goals that require some present sacrifices provide greater happiness or fulfilment than he would get from never denying his immediate wants.

The hedonist acts the way he does for the sake of pleasure or happiness (defined however you want). I started to wonder whether I was being hedonistic about studying – and whether the #dowhatyoulove and #pursueyourdream stuff was really about being happy in the moment and nothing else. The hashtag version of that mentality says ‘It doesn’t matter that you’ve got a cracking salary and pension; if you feel the slightest twinge of dread, boredom or stress, you need to quit and become a travel blogger NOW. Life’s short’.

Another word for what I thought I might be doing that sprung to mind was ‘objectification’. You can objectify a person by treating them as an object or tool rather than as a person with agency/dignity/rights, etc – some might say, by treating them as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I think I might have been objectifying philosophy (lol), by considering continuing to pursue it as a means to happiness. Did I think my life good because I was pursuing a goal that made me happy, or because I was happy as a result of pursuing a goal? Did I want the good experience of living the dream, or did I want the actual dream?

These are classic problems! It’s not simple to know what your own motivations are: if a certain pursuit does make you happy, untangling why you are really doing it becomes a chicken-and-egg problem. It’s not simple, either, to work out the best balance between short-term and long-term happiness, and whether happiness per se can be considered a worthy goal at all (as opposed to a lucky byproduct achieved by pursuing other worthy goals). But it’s interesting to observe these forces in action in your own life (while simultaneously reading about the phenomenon).

Here is a potential way out of the chicken-egg cycle: if you concede that you are motivated by your happiness (howsoever defined) and no other goal, then your personal success is measured by how happy you are. However, the pursuit you’re engaged in may proscribe a more ‘objective’ standard of success. In philosophy, it’s (one assumes) quality of published argument; in football, it’s goals scored. If your contentment lies in pursuit of your dream rather than in achieving a standard set within the framework of the dream (suggesting happiness is a byproduct as described above, and not the aim itself), then maybe you are a hedonist. 

Inadvertently falling into hedonism and objectifying your dreams has consequences. If we value ‘external’ standards of success at all, and are willing to put up with some hardships to achieve them, then we may recognise that contenting ourselves with our own contentment holds us back. For example, skim-reading an article and taking neatly sub-headed notes in your favourite coloured pen before ticking it off the to-do list might provide the sense of achievement that hits high on the happymeter, whereas straining your limited faculties to fully understand the issues raised such that you can rearticulate and critique them doesn’t quite have the same effect. I would prefer to achieve the latter, but contentment with my contentment would stop me from taking that extra step.

And this is why #dowhatyoulove and #pursueyourdream are problematic. Surprisingly enough, I don’t think they have worked these problems out.

So, why do you really want to #dowhatyoulove? Is #doingwhatyoulove really superior to #doingwhatyoudon’thate or #ploughingonthroughindifference if the latter has other benefits than in-the-moment happiness? Is #doingwhatyoulove inherently fulfilling or happiness-conducive in the long term? Questions worth asking before any major life decision.

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