I am often accused of being happy.
“You’re the most consistently happy person I know,” commented one friend on a smiling winter photo of me.
“Depression usually follows a layoff … but you’re special,” said another when the magazine I had worked at for 7 years folded.
I am incredibly, ridiculously, genuinely happy, even through tough times.
It’s not that I don’t struggle, nor that I am never sad, nor that bad things don’t happen to me. I do and I am and they do. With a passion for fiction writing, I’ve worked a day job to pay the rent and written in the evenings all my life, I have a tough time making a relationship work (because I’m always working?), and I fight a mountain of fear of putting myself out there on a daily basis.
But I have something that allows me to deal gracefully and hold onto my smile even when it seems like things are the worst they can be. I have a sound foundation that undergirds my sense of self.
I have something that helps me live well: the right philosophy.
The Importance of Ideas
Most people think of philosophy as a bunch of silliness — Ivory Tower academics trying to figure out if their hands are real, debates about what we talk about when we talk about words, or a fuzzy Eastern spirituality that equates to giving up your possessions and om-ing your way to inner peace.
But the real definition of philosophy is: a system of ideas. And you have one, whether you know it or not.
You hold ideas about everything, even if you’ve never thought about what they are before. Maybe you got them from your parents. Maybe you got them from the culture at large. Maybe you got them from a book you read as a kid.
You have ideas about questions like: What kind of things exist in the world and how do they act? Are they real or an illusion? Are they the way they are or can you wish them different?
Are you in control of your own life or is it determined? Is this life all you get or are there rewards waiting for you in an afterlife?
Is it possible for you to succeed or is the universe against you? Is your mind capable of understanding the world or are you at the mercy of larger forces outside your control?
The ideas you hold about questions like these influence the choices you make, as well as what kind of emotions you have. What you think is the starting point for what you do and what you feel.
Your ideas drive your life. Thoughts become action.
So, what ideas do I hold that allow me to be so happy?
I’m an Objectivist.
How Objectivism Makes Me Happier
Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand. It’s a system of interconnected ideas, but there are three fundamental ones that Objectivism holds that make a big difference to being happy:
1. You have free will.
There is no white-bearded dude in the sky deciding what happens to you. There’s no such thing as fate. It’s up to you how your life goes. Boss making you miserable? Get a new job. City you live in crowded and dirty? Move. Fighting constantly with your boyfriend? Learn to communicate better (or break up with him).
If you believe somebody or something else is in charge, all you can do is sit around and brood, complain, or hope. (Pray.)
When you know you have free will, you know you made the choices that got you where you are now and that you can make the choices that will get you out. You’re the captain of your life.
2. It is possible to succeed, in a basic metaphysical sense.
Whether or not you believe, on a fundamental level, that it is possible for you to succeed is dependent not only on how you feel about yourself in a personal sense, but also on the ideas you hold about the nature of reality and the nature of man.
What is the universe like? Does it act in predictable ways?
If it’s unpredictable and unknowable, how will you make plans? Anything could happen at any time. How will you set long-term goals? If reality is chaos and man is helpless, you’re paralyzed.
But happiness requires committing to long-term, grand-scale projects that push you to the limit of what you can handle. Your mind needs meaningful challenge to survive and thrive.
Objectivism holds that reality is what it is, that entities act in predictable ways, and that man’s mind, by the use of reason, is capable of understanding what is. As such, it is metaphysically possible for man to succeed at gaining values.
3. Selfishness is a virtue.
Selfishness has come to be associated with unthinking, uncaring abuse of others—using them to get whatever you want in the moment without regard for their thoughts or feelings.
But the true definition of selfishness is: concern with one’s own interests.
Altruism, by contrast, demands that you give up anything that matters to you. You must do nothing for yourself, for it is evil, not because of the action you took, but because you did it for you and not someone else.
But how can you work toward your happiness if you don’t even believe it’s right for you to pursue it? If you believe you should give up the things that matter most to you instead of taking steps toward them, happiness will remain forever outside your grasp. You will have given it away.
When I was 17, I read Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, and it changed everything for me. It gave me something of the utmost importance: certainty—the certainty that it is right for me to pursue my passion, that I don’t have to live my life for others, that I can trade with them for mutual benefit in my relationships instead of sacrificing the very things that would make me happiest. This has helped me to act toward getting and keeping the things that matter to me without shame or guilt, in a conscious, decisive way.
Of course, being an Objectivist isn’t all there is to being happy. But it has made it possible for me to feel confident and positive about working toward my own happiness, and that’s the first step.
Looking for a place to start? Try The Fountainhead.
Yaron Brook, the director of the Ayn Rand Institute, interview with Dave Rubin (he did a great job explaining Objectivism in a way that’s easy to understand for someone who’s not familiar with it and from a perspective that is immediately interesting because it addresses common objections)