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How to Want Fulfilling Things
Living better often comes down to cultivating better desires.
From the Ages
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” —John Stuart Mill
“Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.” —C.S. Lewis
Source: The Abolition of Man
“Virtue ethicists have long held that cultivating appropriate emotional attitudes is a key part of learning to live well and act virtuously.” —Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko
Source: The Good Life Method
In the time since my book was published last November, I’ve turned my attention to trying to spur actual, local change. It is one thing to imagine what a better world might look like, quite another to navigate the trials, errors, and creative adaptations necessary to move a stubborn world despite its current momentum.
My first step was to launch a high-school men’s group, The Order of Arete, dedicated to exploring the deeper questions of life, primarily what it means to live well. We are a group dedicated to living by a higher code. As such, it is invitation only. I took a month to talk to teachers and coaches so I could identify and reach out to the right candidates. In late January, we held our first meeting, where I passed out manuals and explained my vision and expectations.
Since then, every Monday and Thursday at 6 am, I lead a group of impressive 16 and 17-year-old young men as we jump into a 3-minute cold plunge and then discuss a reading. I’ve found, at the expense of my ego, that the conversations get really good when I restrain my desire to jump on my soapbox and, instead, lean into Socratic questioning.
Last Thursday, I asked them whether it was possible to be happy even if you had not cultivated the virtues we’ve discussed like courage, fortitude, self-mastery, and wisdom. The majority said that they thought that some people could be happy while mindlessly pursuing superficial gratifications. They mentioned friends who blew off school and did nothing but play video games and who seemed quite happy. I then asked whether they themselves would be happy under these circumstances, to which they gave a resounding “no.” So what’s the difference between you and these peers of yours? Why is the life of impulse good enough for others but not for them?
After a reflective silence, one wisely posited that you could only be happy without striving for virtues if you had never experienced the deeper sense of pleasure that came from committing to a deeper life. After you’d had certain experiences, realizations, and connections, an immature, hedonistic existence was no longer palatable. And even if they could, they insisted, they would not want to become ignorant of the duties and challenges that came along with their convictions. They had cultivated a taste for more meaningful living and were now incapable of finding happiness by more superficial means.
Many people notice a similar phenomenon with their health. They spend years eating, drinking, and avoiding movement with little regard for their bodies. But something triggers a change and they start building better habits. It is usually one thing that leads to the next. They begin exercising, which makes them want to support the work they are doing by eating nutritious meals. As they dig into this world, they are soon exposed to the merits of better sleep, better breathing, and many other ideas that they apply over time, infusing them with even more vitality.
When these people do allow themselves cheat meals and reprieves from their new habits, they’re almost always shocked by how bad they feel. Invariably, you hear them saying things like, “Is this how I always used to feel?” or “How did I used to drink like that all the time?” Part of this could be that they have lost their tolerance for sugar and alcohol, but, for the most part, they are recognizing how bad they had gotten used to feeling all the time. Going forward, they still enjoy the fun of going out for pizza, but can’t imagine returning to their old ways—when pizza was just a meal like any other.
Unfortunately, most people never get to this point. Having never been exposed to healthy habits and having never developed a love for physical activities, they aren’t able to dig deep enough into their lifestyle change to cultivate the necessary change in desires.
This process is similar to the acquisition of any skill. I’m learning guitar. This skill, which was interesting in day one and two, quickly became frustrating over the course of the next weeks and months. I found myself repeatedly googling things like, “Is it normal to struggle when making transitions between guitar chords?” Turns out it is. Only very recently (after over three months of practice) I have begun to notice some significant strides. I’m beginning to be able to make something resembling music and it has grown addictive. I now can’t imagine quitting, though I would have loved to just a month ago. Having persisted through some early struggles I now have a taste for guitar that, I expect, will keep me playing for years to come. The same is true of skateboarding, skiing, or most rewarding endeavors. You have to do the thing long enough to develop a love for it.
As Notre Dame philosophy professors Meghan Sullivan and Paul Blaschko note in today’s quote, virtue ethicists think it is essential to develop our tastes for good living. In this way, we not only build our capacity to live more meaningful lives, but we also drastically expand the good we can do in the world.
So what does this look like? I like to view virtues like the Greeks did, as particular human excellences which propel you towards realizing your potential—towards self-actualization. A great way into this is to commit to any craft. For example, my son has been learning to ride his bicycle. I’m amazed at the virtues he’s had to cultivate to finally find success: persistence, patience, courage, self-awareness, and more. He had a breakthrough last night and rather than wanting to quit, something clicked and he would have ridden all night If I let him.
Another way to traini virtue is to explore transformative experiences, particularly with groups who value the virtues you aspire to. For example, most people recognize that their relationship to technology has grown dysfunctional. We are junkies for distraction, information, and entertainment who can’t wonder about tomorrow’s weather without being swept into an unintentional Instragram scroll. To cultivate a taste for more balanced living, Justin and I, along with many IHD members, have committed to a 30-day Digital Declutter this April. It has been insightful, but I’m shocked to find that it isn’t nearly as hard as I expected. In fact, I think I’m starting to like it.
Thank you for reading today! If you are still interested in jumping on the challenge (a hair late is no reason to miss out) and would like to learn more, here is a video explanation and another amazing article from Andrew Sullivan where he explains his own experience overcoming what he calls an epidemic of “Distraction Sickness.”
Have a great week and, as always, life is too short to be normal!