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Searching for meaning but finding a Nietzsche

A Nietzschean Approach to Positive Psychology sounds like a method designed to send more people to the loony bin.  However, a forthcoming study in The Journal of Positive Psychology ends with the kind of call to action Nietzsche would write, if he were an academic.

Nietzsche believed that a person could only become great through suffering.  Not the kind of suffering where a child periodically misses play dates to practice violin but, “He shall be greatest who can be loneliest, the most concealed, the most deviant.”  Such a man, as we would expect, cared very little about happiness. The psychologists note, though less flamboyantly, that happiness exists in the present and it does not necessarily correlate with a meaningful life.  Rather, a “meaningful life” involves higher degrees of worry, stress, and sacrifice than a happy life and the authors conclude that “cultivating these people, despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.”

Consider though the meaning of “meaningful”- how does a life earn such a distinction?  Some would say its relative to the person, but that seems a bit intellectually lazy.  Just as we don’t accept that everyone who claims to be the President of the United States is President of the United States, we wouldn’t accept that everyone claiming to have a meaningful life does.

Raising children usually makes for another good candidate and seems like a reasonable choice as it often involves worry, stress, and sacrifice.  But, there again, lots of people have, had, or will have children.  It seems less meaningful to claim that so many have meaningful lives.  And if worry and stress elevate the sould then we need fewer people drinking coffee on their way to working on curing cancer and more people living on the street and/or dying of cancer.

Instead of assigning cosmological significance to suffering consider it a survival mechanism.  Humans will experience worry, stress, and happiness, whether times are god or bad, though the proportions likely vary. To carry on and to find sufficient motivation to propagate the species, believing in some greater benefit, like meaningfulness, can help.  The Bible is full of people suffering, all in expectation of some greater reward; unsurprisingly, Nietzsche found the Old Testament particularly riveting.

Remember that Nietzsche was a sickly, propertied German, possibly in love with, but unable to verbalize it, with his mentor.  Nietzsche wrote at a time when other German intellectuals argued the benefits of suffering and found ways to be the life of the party.  Schopenhauer considered himself a pessimist and, as Nietzsche repeatedly writes, “really– played the flute…a pessimist, one who denies…the world and plays the flute…is that really- a pessimist?”  Nietzsche believed that his own suffering pushed the human mind beyond previously constructed limits, going “beyond good and evil” to “rechristen our evil as what is best in us.”  He also found suicide a “powerful comfort,” which could perhaps be the new function of positive psychology: bringing people to the brink and balancing them there.

All Nietzsche quotations come from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Beyond Good and Evil.

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