The Joyful Life: Thoughts on Suicide, Altruism, and the Paradigmal Quelling of Existential Angst
By David Metcalfe
April 17, 2018
Socrates once said, “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for.”
I have been very blessed to be able to improve myself with the writings of some of the great thinkers who have already worked through the problems that I continue to face in my life. There are so many pieces of writing that have been incredibly impactful to me in going from having incredible disdain for my existence to having a general affection towards it. I don’t believe that I am the only person who suffers from existential angst, and it is from my ever-growing empathy towards others that I feel I should share how I have cured it, and continue to find good ways of working through it.
“The Conquest of Happiness” by Bertrand Russell was quite possibly the most profound book I have ever read. Not because it’s necessarily better than other types of self-help books, but because I have never found anyone who relates to me as well as him. And he is a Nobel Prize winning author, social activist, mathematician, professor, and philosopher who I very much aspire to be like.
“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu was a wonderful book to happen upon. Through reading it, I gained an incredible new appreciation for Buddhism and eastern philosophy. What I was especially surprised to find was that Bertrand Russell, very much a western philosopher, had come to very similar conclusions about joy as the eastern philosophers. Desmond Tutu provides a very practical, humanitarian approach to thought, which comes out in very interesting ways throughout his dialogue with the Dalai Lama.
Joy is not exclusive to a certain religious group, despite what religions will often claim. That’s why I am happy to provide insights from an atheist, a Buddhist, and a Christian (Bertrand Russell, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu, respectively). I myself am a Mormon, and I hope that my personal religious perspective is also able to be expressed in a way that will help give you a more holistic understanding of how joy can be thought about and achieved.
I believe that sincere, lasting joy is available to every person. I believe it is the primary goal of life on earth to guarantee the opportunity for all people to pursue happiness as they see fit, and I would like to devote at least part of my life to studying joy for my own sake, and sharing any insights I find along the way with others who might benefit from it.
The 3 Types of Mental Sickness
There are three kinds of mental sickness that completely sane, mentally competent people can suffer from:
The first is a biological deficiency in the brain. This occurs when certain neurons aren’t firing correctly, or certain chemical pathways don’t fulfill their intended function, and so forth. It results in some kind of chemical imbalance where certain important chemicals, like dopamine or serotonin, are not able to get to where they need to in order to provide the individual with the proper emotions and corresponding thought processes that would develop from them. These people can suffer depression or anxiety even when everything in their life is fine, and they are thinking totally rationally. This type can be cured through the use of medication, as administered by a psychiatrist.
The second is from irrational thought processes. This is when someone’s life is fine, and there are no threats or danger in any way, but the person holds very negative beliefs not consistent with proper reason. For example, they might be terrified of going to their high school reunion, because they were hoping to be a millionaire by this time, and have not done so, and thus will be ridiculed for it. Of course, there is no rational reason to believe that your old classmates would ask you how much money you have, and then ridicule you when they find out it is less than millions. But people’s internal insecurities (like the need for approval) can come out in very peculiar external ways. This is most often treated through cognitive behavioral therapy, as administered by a psychologist.
The third is what is called “existential angst”. It is a feeling of deep anxiety or dread about the human condition or the state of the world in general. It goes beyond basic psychology and into broader questions like, “do I matter?”, “what is my purpose in life?”, “does anyone care about me?”, etc. This can ultimately manifest itself in all kinds of ways, some very disturbing and others totally harmless. Many serial killers (most notably mass shooters) are known to have talked about their place in history, or achieving some kind of greater significance in life through their misdeeds. However, these people are also insane, at least in a practical sense, and constitute such a minority of people who suffer from existential angst that I don’t wish to associate the condition with them.
The vast majority of people, and the ones I would like to associate with existential angst, are those who manifest it into things like religious devotion, career achievement, financial acquisition, and family legacy. Basically, these troubling thoughts about the fact that they are going to die and that they are not really significant in the grand scheme of things is helped when they are told by their religious text that “God loves them”, become the CEO of a large company, make millions of dollars, or become the patriarch of a large, successful family that will always hold their remembrance in high esteem long after they are dead. When this existential angst is controlled and expressed in a healthy fashion which we find personally meaningful, it is, of course, not a sickness. The sickness is when this drive becomes excessive, and is not satisfied by anything. This can be seen when a religious person becomes incapable of conversing about anything other than religion, when a person spends all of their time at work and neglects their family and friends, when a person is outrageously happy when their stock goes up and outrageously depressed when their stock goes down, or when a parent forces their children to be successful, and freaks out when they don’t live up to expectations.
In Canada and United States there has also developed an unhealthy obsession with romantic relationships. This is a recent development over the last 50 years. It is an enticing ideal to focus one’s self into. “Find your true love, and you will be happy forever!” has become a common belief among many young people. When someone is in a romantic relationship, and finds themselves not constantly in a state of bliss, the logical conclusion, based on this idea, is that you must not have found your true love, and should therefore break up with them. The goal of romance has now become proving yourself worthy to bear the entire burden of ensuring another person’s happiness. Divorce rates have skyrocketed, many suicides have been linked to romantic failures, and infidelity is more common than fidelity. Many people join Tinder, not to find an actual relationship, but to feel the satisfaction of being romantically desired. This romantic success=happiness obsession is a terrible disease that has infected society, and the symptoms will only increase in severity as time moves on. The problem, of course, is not the prospect that one might become happier through a romantic relationship, but that the entirety of one’s happiness is dependent on it, and that the failure of a relationship is the failure of one’s life. This is a type of existential angst, because the belief is that the human condition consists solely of romance. Since it is a wrong belief, it will never end up fulfilling one’s happiness, thus putting the person into a state of constant unfulfillment, with small detours from it that they can only get from novel infatuation.
Why Therapy Couldn’t Help Me
It is this third type (existential angst) that I have often suffered from. It became very bad in the beginning of 2017, after I fell in love with a young lady, and believed that she was my sole source of happiness. I was disenchanted by religion, my friends and family, and career. As previously mentioned, we need healthy expressions to quell our existential angst, and I had none other than the relationship I had with this girl. And being someone who thinks very intensely and deeply about things, it is very bad if it all gets directed towards one person. It becomes an obsession that no person can ever be expected to live up to. Of course, when she no longer wanted to see or talk to me, I had nothing in life that mattered to me anymore. I went insane, and wondered if it would be better to die than to live such a meaningless and desperate existence.
I met with a psychologist at Augustana University in February. She was a nice enough lady, and was maybe 45 years old. She had a PhD in counseling psychology from a prestigious university, and had been counseling professionally for nearly 15 years. I remember sitting down in her office and explaining my situation to her. The first two sessions she just listened and asked questions. I knew she was waiting to make her diagnosis, and I gave her all the potential content she would need to do so. At our third meeting, I wanted to see what she thought. I wanted to get medication or do cognitive behavioral therapy, because I believed that I must be suffering from one of the first two, as they were the only types of mental sickness I knew of at the time. She explained to me that there was nothing wrong with the way my brain was functioning, and my thoughts were entirely rational. I could tell she was somewhat perplexed by my situation.
The advice she gave me was centered around learning to accept rejection and be more mindful of my surroundings. Like, literally, if I was feeling depressed or anxious, she wanted me to breathe slowly and look around at various objects in the room. She believed the reason I felt so terrible from being rejected by the girl I liked was that I simply didn’t have the necessary coping mechanisms for it. After a few sessions of this, I became very frustrated with it, and pleaded for her to understand that there was something bigger going on. I said something like this,
“No, this isn’t it. We’ve already determined that I’m sane and mentally competent, and I agree with that. However, it’s not that I need to be more mindful or more accepting of rejection. You’re thinking too small. My problem is that I hate everyone and find everything to be entirely meaningless. If I heard that an asteroid was about to hit the earth and kill everyone, I wouldn’t care. I have no desire to have meaningful relationships with anyone, because I think that humans are terrible. They are selfish, greedy, lustful, and there is no goodness to be found in any of them. The only hint of goodness that any of them might appear to have is just sanctimonious narcissism masquerading as moral virtue.
Everything we do is stupid. Capitalism is just a way for lucky people to inflict injustice on unlucky people. People are being killed constantly for no good reason. Do you know how many people died from preventable diseases while I’ve been sitting here chatting with you? Or starvation? Or stupid wars initiated by evil, power hungry dictators? And if this isn’t bad enough, how disgusting is it that no one seems to care? After work today, you’re going to drive home to your expensive house, eat supper, and watch television with your family, and you’re not going to give a shit about anyone outside of your tiny, little world. But let’s say you did give a shit. Let’s say you quit your counseling practice and became the next Mother Teresa. The fact is, Mother Teresa lived and died, and the world has more problems now than when she was born. She may as well have been selfish like the rest of us, because no one would know the difference in the grand scheme of things.
Further, let’s suppose that everyone had their basic needs met. In fact, I’ll grant that everyone is wealthy beyond belief. Do we really believe that the wealthy are happy, or find life meaningful? They are awful, pathetic, fragile humans just like the rest of us. Surrounding one’s self in a mansion and having more zeros in your bank account won’t save you or make people love you. And let’s suppose that the afterlife taught by the Christians is what makes life worth living. But that same heaven comes with a hell, and it would be the greatest of all evils if I had to suffer the belief that majority of the world’s population is currently, or on their way, to receiving eternal punishment, simply for not accepting some contrived concept of loving a deity of flesh who died for them.
So, what good can possibly come of this? All that is left is for us to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But what if eating and drinking is not enough to sustain merriment? I need more than food and drink; I need love. And any belief that I had in love went away with Jill rejecting me, my family treating me poorly, and my friends not really caring about me. I don’t claim to know everything about life, but from what I do know, I am convinced that there is nothing for me here.”
I finished talking, and an awkward silence fell over the room. She was writing down things in her book where she keeps track of what her patients say. She was writing quite a lot this time, and I thought she might offer some kind of grandiose, philosophical insight to help me. Instead, she explained to me that physical exercise is the simplest cure for depression. I explained to her that I already exercise 5 days a week. But then I realized she was avoiding my real issue, because she herself didn’t have an answer for it. And who could have an answer for it? I had raised these questions with friends, family, and even some of my professors, and none of them had a decent answer. I stopped asking people, because it just got depressing, and I had no interest in bringing others down with me.
It’s not that psychology is not a good field, and is incapable of helping people. It actually helps a lot of people who suffer from the first two types of sickness. However, it is not able to solve the third type (existential angst). This is the work of philosophy. I am an avid proponent of what I call the “philosophical therapist”. These often manifest themselves as spiritual gurus, pastors, and motivational speakers. Those can work for the layman, but I am too smart to be convinced by some smooth-talking sales pitch about a “relationship with Jesus Christ” or an “achieve financial success in 7 easy steps” or an “accept the will of the universe” idea to solving existential angst. I needed to be convinced that love exists, that there’s something that matters, and that people are good and valuable.
Although I had many criticisms of Christianity, and was not convinced that it could answer all of my problems even if it were true, I saw a lot of potential value in it. I had been offered a couple writing jobs at the end of university, and I decided to accept the one with a Christian organization in Colorado. I felt as though it would be a good forum for me to learn and discuss my existential angst with a group of people who cared about that sort of thing. The values the organization stood for and discussed were also very interesting to me. Basically, we would travel around the United States speaking to large groups of people and writing articles about media, ethics, culture, psychology, and religion.
And I certainly enjoyed that time. It was the best thing for me to do, and I’m not sure where I would be if I hadn’t done it. It taught me that I am capable of caring about people, that I can discuss philosophical things and frame it in an optimistic way that people find interesting, and that I am capable of being a professional journalist if I should choose to pursue that as a long-term career. I’m starting to realize it’s getting less and less likely that I will be able to see those people again. Time changes things a lot, and even if I did see them again, we would all be so different, it would almost be like meeting new people. The people they were, were very cool to spend six months with, and I look back on that time as the happiest I have ever been.
“We love you” and The Path To Joy
By December I had parted ways with the company in Colorado over a disagreement on how to write. They wanted me to write low grade, non-academic, simplistic garbage at a 6th grade level, but I had progressed beyond that. And that was fine, of course. What was most disappointing and scary, was that since this job was the difference between me hating my life and enjoying it, as soon as it was gone, and I was back in Edmonton, I knew I would return to the same despair I felt before.
While in Edmonton I went to many different bookstores, and at the Cole’s in South Common, I came across a random book by Bertrand Russell called “The Conquest of Happiness”. I only needed to read a couple paragraphs before knowing I absolutely needed to purchase this book. In the first few pages he had talked about how he suffered from existential angst most of his life, and that he had solved it primarily through the pursuit of knowledge, affection to others, and a sense of empathy towards those less fortunate. It spoke volumes to me, and set my thought in that direction.
On Christmas day, I received a text saying, “Merry Christmas” from some Mormon missionaries. I figured I wouldn’t mind talking to them for a bit while I was between appointments, and I knew they were always desperate to find people to talk to, so I invited them to go for coffee with me. These two young ladies were two of the happiest people I had ever met. And I don’t mean the weird, manic happy that you see some people have. I mean an authentic, deep sense of fulfillment that they seemed to exhibit. I asked them about what makes them happy, why they think life is meaningful, what they think their purpose is, etc. They were not towering intellects, of course, but they had a very simple and contagious joy to them. What I was especially surprised to hear was their expressions of affection towards me without really even knowing me.
I remember when the one girl said, “David, we care about you, and we know that God loves you very much.” I kept my composure, maintaining a monotone voice and a blank look, but internally I felt something very significant from that. These missionaries do not date at all, so it had nothing to do with romantic love. They did not know me very well, so it wasn’t that I was especially great or fulfilled some kind of expectation they had for me. It was simply that I was a human being. These young women had been taught in their church to love people solely by virtue of their existence. Whether this church was actually true was another matter entirely, but at the very least, there was something profound about this type of unconditional love for their fellow humans that filled them with joy.
Throughout my investigations of various churches, there was no church that even came close to expressing the joy and love that the Mormons did. I cannot count the amount of times that church members have told me they love me, and shown it in practical ways. And how incredible of a concept is that?
One of the most profound things that Mormonism has done for me is given me the ability to feel loved, and to feel love for others. Joy and love are contagious, and it’s not something you can catch at university or the workplace very often. I really believe that I can walk into any Mormon church in the world and find people who will love me before they even know me. I don’t claim that Mormons are the only people who love others or are good at showing it, of course, and that alone is not a reason to believe in it. The point I want to make is that you need to find a community of people who love you unconditionally, and who you enjoy spending time with and feel affection toward.
The Happy Man: Finding Joy In a Sad and Meaningless World
I have talked at length about why there is good reason to be unhappy, and I think it was well encapsulated by my rant to the psychologist at Augustana. What I wish to talk about now is why there is good reason to be happy. To do so, I will be analyzing my favorite quotes from “The Conquest of Happiness” and “The Book of Joy” and hopefully provide some practical application along with them.
The Joy of Community
“Wherever you have friends, that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.” (Book of Joy)
As I mentioned in my case with the Mormons, it is extremely important to one’s existence to give and receive love. However, this love can be corrupted by lust, selfishness and ego.
Lust- When an attractive person of the opposite sex expresses affection toward you, you may be inclined to develop lustful thoughts toward them. But I can assure you, it will destroy whatever is meaningful about the affection and turn it into something creepy and malicious (unless it’s being expressed within a monogamous marriage relationship, of course).
Selfishness- You may also be inclined to want all the love for yourself and not want to reciprocate effectively. Hoarding affection only serves to destroy it. People will find you needy, desperate, and soon tire of loving you.
Ego- This is when you convince yourself that the reason people love you is because you are somehow superior to others. Someone messages you to ask you how your day is going, and you assume that they are asking because your days are so incredibly interesting that of course they would ask you. The problem is that you will always know deep down that you are not that amazing, and that if people only love you because you’re amazing, they will stop loving you if they find out you’re not that great. This creates a sense of fear. And like John says, “there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18).
And ultimately, when you are able to maintain a pure form of love, it never fails. Paul’s famous phrase to the Corinthians is as true today as it was then, that “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8)
The purpose of Paul writing this was so that the early church could develop a strong sense of community. Love is a foundation for community, and community is a foundation for joy in one’s life. But if these foundations are flawed, the structures on top will ultimately fail. I sincerely hope that each person is able to find community with a pure conception and practice of love.
The Joy of Selflessness
“The more time you spend thinking about yourself, the more suffering you will experience.” (Book of Joy)
This has been the most important thing for me to realize. My main problems were that I hated everyone, no one cared about me, and I didn’t care about anything. One might say, “well, David, if that’s what made you depressed, the opposite should make you happy, so you should just love everyone, find people who care about you, and find things to care about.” But that doesn’t actually work. The problem is that the very core of my thinking was wrong, because it was all centered around one person: myself.
“A man should be able to achieve happiness, provided that his passions and interests are directed outward, not inward. It should be our endeavor, therefore, both in education and in attempts to adjust ourselves to the world, to aim at avoiding self-centered passions and at acquiring those affections and interests which will prevent our thoughts from dwelling perpetually upon ourselves.” (Conquest of Happiness)
I cannot automatically love people, make people care about me, or care about things that don’t really matter to me. What I can do is project my thought outwards to others. One who only thinks about themselves cannot enjoy or appreciate anything for its true value. The selfish person who hears a beautiful song gets annoyed that the musician is getting all the praise instead of them. The selfish person who does a good deed only feels good if he gets a reward. But when you become unselfish, you begin to appreciate everything in its fullness. You hear a beautiful song and appreciate the melody, lyrics, and praise the talent of the musician. You do a good deed, and you feel a sense of sincere satisfaction to see the smiling face of the one you helped.
The Joy of Authentic Interests
“The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affections to many others.” (Conquest of Happiness)
Someone with passive interests that exist only to conform to the social group is not a very interesting person. Someone who actively pursues their own interests, and becomes an expert at them, is much more interesting. I remember one counselor at a summer camp who was talented at a great variety of things. He would lead singing, do backflips, go wake-boarding, make jokes, and converse easily on many topics. He didn’t need to make friends. Friends were just a natural result of being so talented and diversified.
But we can’t develop interests for the sake of being liked, because “the man who demands affection is not the one on whom it is bestowed.” These interests need to be authentic to who you are. And that’s how people become talented at things. You can’t teach a fish to climb a tree, or however the saying goes. Imagine if Wayne Gretzky had tried to play basketball, or the Beatles tried to be a gangster rap group. You are going to enjoy and be much better at things that you have a natural inclination and interest towards. Developing these interests into talents is a very important part of being joyful.
The Joy of Love For Humanity
“I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a better world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now.” (Book of Joy)
“Much depends on our attitude. If you are filled with negative judgement and anger, then you will feel separate from other people. You will feel lonely. But if you have an open heart and are filled with trust and friendship, even if you are physically alone, you will never feel lonely.” (Book of Joy)
We need to feel that humans matter, and that it is our duty to serve others with the gifts and resources we have. We need to create a general sense of love for our fellow person beyond just the people we personally know. It is like the Mormon missionaries who felt sincere affection for me at Starbucks in December. This love can be cultivated in many ways. In the Mormon church, we believe that we are all children of God, who are created in His image, and endowed with innate value. Every person you see is a beloved child of God, and we ought to love them in the same way that Jesus did when He died for their sins.
One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the very end of “The Conquest of Happiness”. Bertrand Russell says that,
“All unhappiness depends upon some kind of disintegration or lack of integration; there is disintegration within the self through lack of coordination between the conscious and the unconscious mind; there is lack of integration between the self and society, where the two are not knit together by the force of objective interests and affections. The happy man is the man who does not suffer from either of these failures of unity, whose personality is neither divided against itself nor pitted against the world. Such a man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”
It is through a profound sense of interconnectedness that we can understand that each person is worthy of dignity, respect, love, and ultimately joy. It is through fostering and developing an authentic sense of love for our fellow humans that we begin to feel a kind of joy we never thought possible.
“Joy is the reward, really, of seeking to give joy to others.” (Book of Joy)
And how wonderful of a world would that be if everyone cared first and foremost about providing joy to others?
I believe that re-birth is a central aspect to living a joyful life. We need to die to our selfish desires, and replace them with a sense of love for others. It is when we truly put others before ourselves that we are able to be rid of fear, envy, self-pity, and self-admiration, and become free from the terrible constraints of self-glorification as we work towards being truly selfless, compassionate, loving, and ultimately joyful people.
We often think we need so many things to be perfect in order to be happy, but that’s not really true. Most people simply need “food and shelter, health, love, successful work, and the respect of one’s own herd. To some people, parenthood is also essential.” (Conquest of Happiness)
The existential angst so many of us suffer from really has nothing to do with these basic things. It goes beyond simplicity and into very complicated philosophical concepts. But though the cause is very complicated, the solution is very simple. We simply need to develop authentic caring towards things outside of ourselves. This comes in the form of relationships, hobbies, career, and altruistic endeavors.
My life is sometimes difficult, but looking back I am always glad I continued on with it, and even when I have times of despair, I have the wisdom to look beyond myself, and know that even if I don’t enjoy my life, I can always help others enjoy theirs. This is the idea of “paradigmal quelling”; that we simply need to shift our paradigm from ourselves to others. Stop saying, “look how mean everyone is to me” and start saying, “look at all the opportunities I have to be kind to others.” It is from fostering this sense of altruism that I have come to find sincere and sustainable joy in my life, and I hope you are able to do the same.