Serenity Isn’t Supernaturalism or Emotionalism

Q: In your article, ‘Feeling Good is Not the Purpose of Life,’ you said that serenity is the preeminent goal of the human experience. Yet previously (in 2005) you had written the following: “Thanks to Ayn Rand, I came to appreciate that happiness — defined by her as a state of noncontradictory joy — is not merely important, but the only purpose for living. All principles, ideas and actions must serve this purpose.” Isn’t happiness, not serenity, the ultimate purpose of life?

A: In my article, I wrote that ‘feeling good’ is not the preeminent goal of human experience. I didn’t reject happiness. The author of this question implies that ‘feeling good’ and happiness are one and the same; but I maintain that they’re not. A drug addict might claim he ‘feels good’ when he abuses drugs, and he may feel good, for the duration of the high. An overeater certainly feels good while the food is going down, but he feels much worse later — when he’s full, and while he contemplates a growing waistline. Politicians and their constituents ‘feel good’ when spending trillions of dollars of other people’s money, but they don’t feel so good when the currency collapses and there’s no value left in that stolen money in a declining economy.

Philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand’s definition of happiness is ‘noncontradictory joy.’ ‘Noncontradictory’ implies logical, objective, and sustainable. The ‘joy’ of the addict, the thief or the short-range neurotic is not logical. In fact, it’s contradictory because it ultimately brings frustration if not ruin.

It’s true that many people assume, as this questioner apparently does, that feeling good and happiness are the same thing. But they’re not. Given this widespread and false assumption, it’s no wonder people look to therapy, pills and Oprah-esque ‘spiritualists’ to ‘make them feel good,’ since this is what they assume happiness to be. The problem? There is no happiness without logic, reason and objectivity. This is why I like Ayn Rand’s definition of happiness so much; it’s a rare one, in that respect. Happiness isn’t merely a feeling. It’s an experience proven by the test of time, and it’s upheld by the facts of one’s life. Happiness is personal, but it’s also objective. It’s not only momentary, it’s also long-range.

In my article, I did not say (or imply) that the purpose of life is serenity rather than happiness. I stated that the overriding goal of psychotherapy is achievement of a state of serenity. I’m arguing that a state of serenity is necessary for sustainable happiness. I’m talking about the context of going to a psychotherapist, or attempting to improve one’s mental health. I’m objecting to the idea that one goes to a therapist to be ‘made to feel good’ rather than to learn how to think better.

Serenity is a crucial component of happiness. I cannot imagine a happy person who isn’t serene. Serenity is an emotional byproduct of behaviorally practiced and psychologically internalized rationality.

I have noticed that serene people don’t merely have confidence in their own capacity for reason, but for reason itself. In order to feel, ‘I’m capable,’ you must have confidence in your mind’s capacity to think and know the world around you. Such a confidence in yourself presupposes a confidence in your method.

People who lack this serenity are perpetually petrified. And with good reason. It’s an objective fact, as Ayn Rand asserted in her book ‘Atlas Shrugged’ and elsewhere, that reason is man’s only means of survival. Survival includes many things, including coping. If a human cannot cope, he cannot expect to think clearly and do what’s required to make his life livable. A state of serenity can only be achieved through the frequent, consistent and confident use of reason throughout one’s life. This includes not only career, but romantic and family life as well.

Don’t be confused or put off by the fact that many supernaturalists use the word ‘serenity’ in defense of what they’re trying to pull off. You will never achieve serenity when you go against your nature. Supernaturalism is a tragic and escapist error, not the way man builds bridges, spaceships, and skyscrapers or cures illnesses. Your nature requires that you think, observe facts, and draw rational and noncontradictory conclusions throughout your life. The more you do this, the better off you’ll be — although it must be done consistently to work, not only when ‘convenient.’

Anyone who asserts, ‘Serenity is not the purpose of life; happiness is,’ is missing the point and getting sidetracked. Of course happiness is the purpose of life. But how is one to be happy? And when considering mental health practices such as psychotherapy, what’s the right and wrong way to go about them? A therapist doesn’t simply peach to a psychotherapy client, ‘Pursue happiness.’ That’s implicit in the act of seeking out a therapist. The question is: How?