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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