Slavoj Žižek: What Fulfils You Creatively Isn’t What Makes You Happy

While theorist and provocateur Slavoj Žižek tends to get characterized—especially in a recent, testy exchange with Noam Chomsky—as obscurantist and muddle-headed, I’ve always found him quite readable, especially when compared to his mentor, psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan. As an interpreter of Lacan’s theories, Žižek always does his reader the courtesy of providing specific, concrete examples to anchor the theoretical jargon (where Lacan gives us pseudo-mathematical symbols). In the short Big Think clip above, Žižek’s examples range from the history of physics to the Declaration of Independence to the familiar “male chauvinist” scenario of a man, his wife, and his mistress. Žižek’s point, the point of psychoanalysis, he alleges, is that “people do not really want or desire happiness.”

This seems counterintuitive. Happiness—our own and others—is after all the goal of our loftiest endeavors, no? This seems to be the pop-psych rendition of, say, Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. But no, says Zizek, happiness is an integral part of fantasy. Like the philanderer’s mistress, the object of desire must be kept at a distance, he says. Once it is achieved, we no longer want it: “We don’t really want what we think we desire.” And in keeping with Žižek’s example of infidelity—which may or may not involve the chauvinist killing his wife—he tells us that for him, “happiness is an unethical category.” I find this statement intriguing, and persuasive, though Žižek doesn’t elaborate on it above.

He does in much of his writing however—explaining in Lacanian terms in his essay collection Interrogating the Real that our desire for something we think will bring us happiness can be construed as a kind of envy: “I desire an object only insofar as it is desired by the Other.” Furthermore, he writes, “what I desire is determined by the symbolic network within which I articulate my subjective position.” In other words, what we think we want is determined by ideology—by the cultural products we consume, the soup of mass media and advertising in which we are permanently immersed, and the political ideals we are taught to revere. What does authentic “self-actualization” look like for Slavoj Žižek? He tells us above—it means being “ready to suffer” for the creative realization of a goal: “Happiness doesn’t enter into it.”

Žižek cites the example of nuclear scientists who willingly exposed themselves to radiation poisoning in pursuit of discovery, but he could just as well have pointed to artists and writers who sacrifice comfort and pleasure for lives of profound uncertainty, religious figures who practice all kinds of austerities, or athletes who push their bodies past all ordinary limits. While there are several degrees of pleasure involved in these endeavors, it seems shallow at best to describe the goals of such people as happiness. It seems that many, if not most, of the people we admire and strive to emulate lead lives characterized by great risk—by the willingness to suffer; lives often containing little in the way of actual happiness.

Whatever stock one puts in psychoanalytic theory, it seems to me that Žižek raises some vital questions: Do we really want what we think we want, or is the “pursuit of happiness” an unethical ideological fantasy? What do you think, readers?

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

Slavoj Žižek Examines the Perverse Ideology of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy

Slavoj Žižek on the Feel-Good Ideology of Starbucks

In His Latest Film, Slavoj Žižek Claims “The Only Way to Be an Atheist is Through Christianity”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.


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Comments (17)
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  • Corvus says:

    I think he is correct except for one thing, “happiness” is not the goal, the “pursuit of happiness” is the goal. The joy is in the “pursuit”, as witnessed by the actions of those who attain their wildest dreams, lottery winner often blow through their winnings and end up back where they were or worse off. Millionaires want to be Billionaires despite the fact that more wealth, at that point, is meaningless.

  • Luiz Eduardo says:

    Hey. I parcially agree with him. Finding people that have a good life and work is often good to go, Ray Bradbury got almost instantly in my mind. “You should do the things that you love , and love the things that you do.”
    And yes. We fail in this pursuit. But finding the pleasure in the failure unconsciously or conciously, if this is the way. This is pursuiting happiness after all, even if happiness is suffering. But, personally, i suffer from suffer, though i hope to build my life in a way that i still suffer, since i can learn lots from it.

  • Luiz Eduardo says:

    Btw, from Brazil, awesome blog!

  • Ryan says:

    “I want lots of things I don’t want.” Yossarian

  • Leonardo says:

    I think the whole reasoning is a bit shaky, since it’s based on the assumption that ‘happiness’ is (i) one and only thing, (ii) static, not dynamic, always the same, (ii) identical for everybody, (iii) and *the* thing everybody desires. This is obviously untenable, since everybody has different aspirations, and likes/loves different things, which represent the goal of their aspiration. I definitively agree with him that not everybody, maybe nobody at all, desires what Slavoj Žižek conceives as happiness, nevertheless I think that most of our aspirations are associated with something that we identify to a certain extent with our own happiness. And of course they can change during our life. If this is the message, it’s not such great news…
    Regarding the separation between happiness and ethics, if I understand his point, it’s also not new: Kant compiled an entire ethics which is not based on any entity a posteriori, happiness being one of them.

  • Férial says:

    it’s an interesting theory and I tend to agree although his point of view needs to be developed to be fully understood

  • Michele says:

    Happiness is indeed an unethical category if you see it as that static situation in wich you have obtained the object of desire. The pursuit of happiness is therefore no more than the idelogical fulfilment of what we percieve as a need. There is no room for other humans in that, they enter the frame only as objects.
    But happiness is not about possession, nor it’s the merely absence of suffering, it’s about action and interaction, it’s about being. If you see this way is there’s nothing strictly unethical in the pursuit of happiness, it’s just no more about only you and what you crave, but there’s a whole world involved.

  • William Large says:

    ‘where Lacan gives us pseudo-mathematical symbols’.

    What made you write that? It doesn’t really add anything and is just a snide remark.

  • Morten says:

    This reminds me of a great essay by Paul Graham who writes about the difference between being an entrepreneur vs. wage slave, the wage slave is like a lion in the zoo, he gets the beef (paycheck) regularly, but his freedom is very limited. In contrast the entrepreneur is like a lion in the wild, free, but when you look in his eyes, more worried.

    Some people are content working for others, and some chose their own path, I don’t believe any one path brings happiness, except in small doses here and there. Happiness is a myth as far as I’m concerned, maybe it’s possible for people with very low IQ’s to sustain blissful ignorance for longer periods, but to anyone who can read the newspaper, happiness will always be fleeting and impermanent. In that sense I fully agree with Zizek’s assertion that “happiness” is an ideological construct, mainly used as a tool by advertisers, i.e “you don’t have happiness, but this product / service will give it to you, if you buy it” – which it obviously never does, though it doesn’t stop people for fruitlessly pursuing it through consumption.

    What does help bring some happiness, however fleeting, is helping others, living in harmony with ones philosophy, meditating and cultivating good social relations. The ancient greek philosopher Epicurus believed friends are the most important aspect to leading a “happy” life. There’s also a great book by Matthieu Ricard called “Happiness” where he combine neuroscience with Buddhist philosophy to give the reader, who apply himself, useful tools to cultivate happiness and well being, I’ve read it 7 times myself, and highly recommend it.

  • Signmeupstef says:

    Bang on. good read!

  • Frodo Biggun says:

    I quite enjoyed it. Philosophers often need their nonsense punctured by a clear-sighted naysayer, they are paper tigers so often if not always.

  • M says:

    Agree w Morten! Nevertheless, I’ve been quite perplexed, how does Zizek come up with his examples, “a man who intentionally exposes himself to a nuc. radiation” — this is hilarious! Does he make them up out of nowhere and as he speak? It looks like it to me, and that’s where he gets me, mostly *being from the same country as he is, perhaps it’s just the inherited sense of humour that we share. Anyone else looking for similar “incidents”?

  • Jack says:

    If I want the small flat that I live in, the one child that screams a bit too much and the wife that nags my every slur, I will be happy…

    However, if I instead spend my time wishing for a five-bedroom house, three perfectly behaved children and a partner baking me fresh cup-cakes whilst ignoring my utter drunkenness, I will be unhappy.

    Perhaps it is the distance between what one wants and what one has that equals how happy one feels.

    I have no idea if this works tho, as I still can’t afford that yacht.

  • Cranston Brecht says:

    This perspective is always refreshing, however I think it would useful to have a working definition of happiness. It may have been mentioned in the article but if it was I missed it.

    Is happiness a state of joy, reverie, the absence of discomfort? Is it a sustained sense of well being? Or is it a broader state that acknowledges suffering as a tool that moves us to a state of integrated self awareness?

  • majobrs says:

    Zizek is saying something radical and useful here, in his usual sloppy way. Our culture has elevated happiness – satisfaction, fulfillment, contentment, jouisssance etc. – to an ethical category, a social virtue. In the past we had things like the protestant ethic or victorian class consciousness. The Jeffersonian “pursuit of happiness” was a vague formulation, but whatever he really meant by it, it was different by what we mean by it today. Gore Vidal thought that Jefferson meant by pursuit of happiness that: “government will leave each citizen alone, to develop as best he can in a tranquil climate, to achieve whatever it is that his heart desires, with a minimum of distress to the other pursuers of happiness.”

  • CC says:

    Yes he’s completely right.

    When we are able to observe and recognize that throughout our lives, we are driven by something altogether more powerful than the “pursuit of happiness”, we are one step closer to true healing (acceptance). Before that moment, our shadows are screaming to get our conscious attention, for “recognition” and “integration(acceptance)”.

  • Jose Recalde Villalobos says:

    Well, if that is not what we want , then something else is still the objective of our actions. That objective can be then described as happiness if it is a happier state than the misconceivedly desired one, if indeed it happened that its achievement wouldn’t make us happier.

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