Why Freedom & Choice Don't Bring Happiness

Freedom is merely a means to an end. That's the paradox of freedom and happiness.

This post first appeared on RoxineKee.com.

‘What you need,' the Savage went on, 'is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.'
—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Freedom doesn't mean we feel happy all the time or that we can do whatever we want each day. Instead, freedom is in being able to thoughtfully choose to which problems or pain we give our attention.

As Goethe said, a quest for freedom above all else "hopelessly enslaves". Unbridled freedom in itself–particularly a desire to be rid of problems caused by ourselves or by others–does not bring happiness.

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, fetuses are preconditioned with a certain levels of talent for specific skills and in effect, are predestined for particular professions. Once they're adults, they are then assigned to simple or complex careers, based on their programming. Huxley's population do the work for which they were born, their jobs perfectly matching their skills and capabilities, and are given as much or as little autonomy as they are designed to desire.

Thus, the people in that utopia—or dystopia, your choice!—are happy.

We don't have the simplicity of preconditioning. For better or for worse, we need to develop self-knowledge and self-awareness, figure out which skills we can do better than most, and list out what we want and don't want in a career.

While I was still in university and doing co-op, I knew then that there would never be a perfect, problem-free job. But I didn't really know what a satisfying job meant to me. 

As I jumped from one corporation to another, I was always unsatisfied. I was always wary, constantly painfully aware, that regardless of how perfect a job looked on the outside, there would always be something down the road that would make me hate it and want to quit. 

I didn't know that that was normal, that the secret to happiness in any job was to accept the inevitability of problems and act accordingly. And I wish I knew then that my job satisfaction was fully in my control. 

Instead of thinking about perks, I wish I thought about investing attention into every nuance of my job each and every day.

Instead of thinking about what would excite me, I wish I welcomed the challenge of solving new problems.

Instead of complaining about the boring nature of the jobs, I wish I obsessed about gaining valuable skills, even if it was manipulating spreadsheets (the bane of every summer corporate intern, ever).

Choosing to pay attention to a boring project is the path of most resistance, to say the least.

Choosing to raise my hand for project I'd never tackled before and being faced with the possibility of failure is terrifying.

Choosing to develop skills, instead of complaining with everybody else takes self-assured determination.

Freedom is merely a means to an end. That's the paradox of freedom and happiness.

What bring ultimate enjoyment and satisfaction isn't in having all the choices in the world at our fingertips. But it is found in using our freedom in order to choose the pursuits and people for which we are willing to sacrifice.

Even if they make us feel unhappy in the short term.

'... All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.’

'But I like the inconveniences.'

'We don’t,’ said the Controller. 'We prefer to do things comfortably.’

'But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.'

"In fact,' said Mustapha Mond, 'you're claiming the right to be unhappy.'

'All right, then,' said the Savage defiantly, "I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.'

'Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live i constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.'

There was a long silence.

'I claim them all,' said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. 'You're welcome,’ he said.

—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World