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Slavoj Zizek on happiness: 5 reasons why it’s not important

Well regarded by some and reviled by others, the modern-day philosopher Slavoj Žižek is certainly an interesting figure with equally interesting views.

Let’s take his stance on happiness, for example. He has said over and over that happiness is unethical or unnecessary.

You’d probably roll your eyes and think he’s just provoking us to get attention. After all, isn’t happiness the main purpose of life? Don’t we all deserve happiness? Does he just want the world to be miserable?

In this article, we will go over his words and try to see what he meant when he said that happiness is not necessary.

1) “We don’t know what we really want.”

In the midst of Žižek’s meandering statements, this assertion stands out as one of his constants, either at the beginning or at the end.

Another version of this statement is:

“We don’t really want what we think we desire.”

It sounds incredibly smug and insulting if you think about it. Behold! Look at this one guy who says you aren’t smart or aware enough to know your wants. But if you think about it, there is a sliver of truth to what he’s saying.

Sometimes, what we truly want is to capture or return to a certain feeling or state of being, to a state of innocence or freedom that we used to have. An abstract concept that can be so hard to grasp in full that we seek a more concrete object to project the desire onto.

You might not truly want that Louis Vuitton bag or Ferrari.

You probably just want the admiration you think you will feel if you get your hands on that expensive stuff.

You may not truly want your mistress. You just want to relive the days before you had kids and every day with your wife was a honeymoon.

So when you find yourself thinking “I want this, this makes me happy,” you may want to stop and ask yourself why—why do you think it does?

We’ll be surprised to know that many of the things we think we want are actually just temporary bandages on our past traumas and insecurities.

2) “What makes us happy is not to get what we want, but to dream about it.”

Here Žižek more or less highlights the famous carrot on a stick.

Ever had something you wanted for a very long time, only for you to feel underwhelmed the moment you got it in your hands? You’d say “That’s it?” and would pursue the next hit.

This is the reason that we feel excited when planning a holiday, sometimes more than the holiday itself.

This is the reason forbidden love may not be too satisfying when it’s no longer forbidden.

It can be because what you wanted was actually something else, as per the first point in this list. But it can also be that you had fixated too much on the object of your desire and ended up thinking it’ll make you happier than it actually will.

Or, just as easily, you have not thought of other things to strive for. This brings us back to the whole ‘carrot on a stick’ thing—keeping a starving donkey moving by holding a carrot just out of reach.

Think about how in casinos there’s always this promise of ‘scoring big’, so you keep throwing money into the slot machines, into poker, all with the hope of ending up with more money than you put in. Then you score big… but did you truly earn more than you lost? What else did it cost?

Žižek himself had words of his own, but suffice to say that the specific example he gave would piss off quite a few people.

His ultimate point is that happiness is something that serves you best kept at a distance, rather than something you take. A carrot on a stick motivating you to move forward with its promise.

This might sound bleak because, well, we’re entitled to our moments of happiness aren’t we? Why should we be miserable?

And true, you should probably let happiness be as it comes. What you should not do is to try and hold it down, to think that you can simply ‘get’ happiness.

Otherwise, you will not only stagnate, you will, ironically enough, lose happiness when you have nothing else to dream about.

3) “Happiness is for opportunists.”

Just as the second point has its ties to the first, this third point has ties to the second. In the second point, I brought up the concept of a “carrot on a stick”, and how the promise of happiness can keep you moving forward.

You know what this means?

If you want, you can dangle the promise of happiness in front of others! And by doing so, you can have others do your bidding.

And this, of course, means they can dangle the carrot in front of you!

Take a look at all those big fashion brands, promising beauty and admiration if you would simply buy their products.

And if you check gambling games in the app store, these games prey on the promise of giving you a chance to earn a rare treasure so long as you keep giving them money for more dice rolls.

These companies are promising you happiness, all for a fee!

If you think about it, if we strive for a meaningful life rather than a “happy” one, life would be so much better. People would probably consume less. But corporations don’t want that ever!

4) “The only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle.”

So remember when I said earlier that you will lose happiness when you have nothing else to dream about?

In the same vein, happiness and satisfaction pass through your fingers when there is no struggle, when every day in your life is a state of bliss.

When every day is perfect, you start losing sight of why that perfection should be ‘good’ and boredom sets in fast. We start to get immune, so to speak. So we want a higher dose of happiness.

If you’re struggling right now, you shouldn’t feel too bad. There’s something to be thankful for. We all need something to strive for, a fight or a struggle to bear, to continue to find satisfaction in life.

Some degree of suffering and pain is necessary to truly appreciate the good things in life, to find satisfaction in small victories.

If you’ve ever read a novel and there’s a fight between the good guy and the bad guy, you will of course want the good guy to win. Most of the time. But if the good guy keeps winning and… worse, doesn’t break a sweat, every victory becomes cheap. You start skipping pages because you know the good guy wins every single time.

But if you see your good guy suffering and losing, if you see that the good guy has flaws of their own that they are struggling with, the story will grip you and keep you in suspense.

Life is much in the same way.

This is pretty similar to what Viktor Frankl said about suffering and happiness.

Not that I’m saying you should go and pick a fight with someone on the streets and get yourself beat up, no. That’s obviously bad and unnecessary!

But know that you should appreciate the struggles you face in life, for they are what give your life meaning. And meaning has longer-lasting effects than happiness.

5) “If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid.”

This is just another, somewhat more provocative way of saying “Ignorance is bliss”, which is par for the course with Žižek.

Like it or not, he likes capturing his audience’s attention with a few words, chosen specifically to provoke an emotional reaction and have them asking more, setting aside the roar of the crowd who might be out there in the back yelling “I’m smart, but I’m happy!”

But there’s a grain of truth here.

People who are more self-aware, who know more and think more… they often end up more unhappy than those who don’t.

When you let others do the thinking for you, if you let others’ opinions dictate your own, and if you don’t bother trying to face yourself, then it’s like you’re stuck in heaven. Plus, you will gravitate towards people who reaffirm your own self-image and make you feel good and bask in “good vibes.”

While this makes life less painful, this isn’t a good way to live. Imagine if everyone would do the same thing!

Your mind will grow stale and stubborn. New information that may make you feel bad about yourself is discarded. And to someone watching from the outside,  you will indeed look stupid. But you will be happy indeed.

Meanwhile, if you bother to think for yourself, formulate your own opinions and face yourself, then more likely you will see just how flawed you are as a person. You will see just how bad the world has it, and how little other people seem to care.

You will find yourself facing a crowd of people who will reject your opinion for being different.

You will see that the world isn’t a pretty place, that humanity is doomed, and 1000 other awful things.

But this is good. Change comes from facing the ugly truth, from letting all of that frustration and unhappiness drive you and those like you into action.

Women’s rights would have not been a thing if those early revolutionaries decided to accept the status quo. Women might until now, not be unable to vote if they had simply agreed with the sentiment that women should “keep their business in the kitchen.” But they didn’t, and they wanted their voice heard.

So don’t be afraid to be unhappy, it’s how you get things done.

Discontent can be a good thing and it will lead to a more fulfilling life than just shielding yourself from pain.

While Slavoj Zizek has controversial views on Happiness, they’re actually quite sound.

Happiness shouldn’t be chased like it’s the ultimate purpose in life because it’s just a by-product.

It happens to you when you’re busy with life when you’re not worrying too much about whether you’re happy or not.

Written by Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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