Jordan Peterson on the True Meaning of Life
If you become a better person then you start to be good for things, you know you can fix problems.
Q: Happiness. You talk a lot about it, should it be our life goal? If not, what should we be seeking?
Well, it shouldn’t be our life goal because there are times in your life when you’re not going to be happy, and then what are you going to do? Your goal is demolished, and there are going to be plenty of times in your life when you’re not happy. There might be years, and so it’s a shallow boat in a very rough ocean, and it’s based upon a mis-conceptualization.
Happiness is something that descends upon you. Everyone knows that, you know, it comes upon you suddenly. Then you should be grateful for it, because there’s plenty of suffering and if you happen to be happy, well wonderful! Enjoy it. Be grateful for it and maybe try to meditate on the reasons that it manifested itself, right, because it can come as a mystery, you know.
Q: You don’t necessarily know when you’re gonna be happy?
Something surprising happens and delights you, and you can analyze that, you can think, “Well, I’m doing something right. I’m in the right place right now. Maybe I can hang on to that. Maybe I can learn from that.” What you should be pursuing instead is, well, there’s two things: You should be pursuing who you could be. That’d be the first thing. It’s like, because you’re not who you could be and you know it, you have guilt and shame and regret, and you berate yourself for your lack of discipline and your procrastination and all your bad habits. You know perfectly well that you’re not who you could be and God only knows who you could be. So that’s how you should be. That’s what you should be striving for. Associated with that, you should be attempting to formulate some conception of the highest good that you can conceive of, that you can articulate, because why not aim for that? It’s like, your life is short and it’s troublesome. Perhaps you need to do something worthwhile with it. If so, then you should do the most worthwhile thing and you should figure out what that is for you. Part of that’s definitely going to be to develop your character as much as possible to dispense with those parts of you that are unworthy, and then maybe if you’re fortunate and you do that carefully, then happiness will descend upon you from time to time. That’s the best you’ve got, and then also perhaps during sorrowful times or worse, evil times, the fact that you’ve strengthened your character and that you’re aiming at the highest that you can conceptualize. That’ll give you the moral fortitude to endure without becoming corrupted during those times and to be someone who can be relied upon in a crisis.
One of the things I’ve told my audiences, and the young guys take to this a lot, is that you should be the strongest person at your father’s funeral. Right? Well, that’s something. Now the generational transition refers to all the people around you who are suffering because of their loss. They have someone to turn to who can illustrate by their behaviour, that the force of character is sufficient to move you beyond the catastrophe, and you need that. That’s a great thing, too. That’s a great thing to hypothesize as your aim, and happiness just evaporates as irrelevant in light of that sort of conceptualization. So when you are the strongest person at your father’s funeral, and have just buried your father, it strikes home.
Q: Should there be joy around that realization, not happiness?
Happiness, like the fizzy bubbles, and you know carbonated beverage. They tickle your tongue, but they go away. Is there a deeper joy? Well, there’s at least the sense that you’ve taken something that could be very much like hell, and made it far better than it could have been. There’s also the fact that you know if you deal with it if you’ve matured enough, let’s say, to deal with the catastrophe of loss and death. You can also be the rallying point for the remnants of your family and pull them together at a moment of crisis, and that’s a payoff to some degree.
I’ve seen this in families who’ve dealt with death properly. The remainder of the family pulls together, you know, they become more integrated and it’s not complete compensation for their loss, but it’s not nothing. It certainly beats the alternative where everyone’s ‘fraction eights’ because everyone’s too weak to cope with the catastrophe. Everything dissolves. So how do you actually become the strongest person at your father’s funeral? What are the steps and is it always about being mission driven? Well, the mission is the improvement of your character. The constant improvement of your character, and I think a lot of that’s done in dialogue with your conscience. It’s like, your conscience is always telling you. Socrates said this thousands of years ago. Your conscience is always telling you what you shouldn’t be doing and one of the things Socrates said was what discriminated him from the run-of-the-mill person, and why perhaps we still know of him so many thousands of years later was that when his conscious told him not to do something he didn’t do it. He stopped saying the things that he shouldn’t have been saying and he stopped doing the things he shouldn’t have been doing. That’s a start, you know, that that’s a discipline. I would say that’s the ability to follow a certain kind of intrinsic discipline, and maybe that’s merely the cessation of evil, and that’s not exactly the same as the pursuit of positive good. Let’s say you haven’t gone out there yet, but that’s a start.
You clear away the obstacles from your vision by ceasing to engage in those activities you know to be wrong, and then the world starts to lay itself out in more pristine form. Then maybe you can start to apprehend what would be positively good instead of merely not wrong. I mean, not wrong is a good start. The biblical corpus is structured in that way to some degree, at least from a Christian reading. The first rule is – follow the damn rules, right, get yourself together. There are some rules. Follow them and you discipline yourself, right? You make yourself a reasonably, morally respectable individual and so now you’re not blinded as much by your own proclivity for uselessness and malevolence, and then you can integrate all that you can integrate. All those rules is the beginning of the development of character, and then you can embody, you can embody the union of the rules. It’s something like that, and that’s that ultimate nobility and character like in the Christian corpus Christ is represented.
Let’s think about this psychologically as the perfect individual, right? Just think about that as the psychological representation, and that’s the person who’s taken a disciplinary structure in and integrated it into a personality that acts that out properly in the world. It’s not merely rule-bound either because you have to follow the rules, but you also have to be part of the process that generates new rules when it’s necessary. So you take that onto yourself as an additional responsibility. Now, that makes you more than a blind avatar of authority and stops you from being rigid. You know if you look at a medieval cathedral, one of the things you’ll see, for example, is a representation of the sky, the dome of the sky. Maybe you’ll see an imitation of Christ on them, on the peak of the dome, and think about that as a representation of the ideal individual. Speaking only psychologically, it’s like there’s something I’ve caused. What you’re aiming at is that perfection of yourself and that’ll keep you busy for your entire life, and it’ll do no harm, right? It’ll make you better, it’ll make your family better, it’ll make your community better, and it’ll give you something psychologically meaningful. So there’s all that! It helps you withstand suffering and disperse malevolence. It’s also extraordinarily practical because if you become a better person then you start to be good for things. You know you can fix problems. You can handle a funeral, you can handle a difficult situation, you know.
So it’s not only that it’s psychologically meaningful to pursue the highest of goals and the development of your character. It’s also the best possible thing that you can do practically, here and now, in the material world to make it less terrible than it might otherwise be. Your personal goals are always going to be aligned with the needs of society, the needs of humanity. Well, that’s a trick, you know, it’s optimally the answer. You can think about it like a musical score, you know, how there’s levels in a musical score where each instrument is doing its own thing. Each section is doing its own thing, but it’s all united into a single vision. The critics of the hierarchical structure are wrong, because the proper way to set up a hierarchy is so that your interests are aligned with those of your family. That’s hard. That requires a lot of negotiation and then you and your family have your interests aligned with those of your local community, right? So that all of those levels are reinforcing each other, and then those are united at a higher level, at a higher political structure and that that’s an equilibrium state, to use a phrase from the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget.
It’s a game that everyone wants to play and it’s working for everyone at the same time and so it isn’t based on oppression or dominance from the top down, and so I think that if you formulate your character properly and you put yourself together, you start also to realize that you’re not […] Look, if you get married to someone the ideas that you become one, right, and so it isn’t just your interest anymore or maybe it’s that your interest isn’t your interest without it also being someone else’s interest, right, it’s insufficiently formulated and you need that conflict with another person to tap you into proper shape. So what you’re aiming at is you, and the development of your character. But more than that, and then you do the same when you introduce children into that, you expand out that characterological capacity and then you can continue to expand that, and so optimally, yes, what serves you should be serving at every level and I believe that part of the reason that music has such an overwhelming effect on people is because that’s what it says it says. Look, everything can work in a multi-level harmony and then people listen to music and it produces a religious like experience in everyone. It transfixes them with the sense of intrinsic meaning. It’s really miraculous that it does that and the question is why, and I’ve puzzled over this for years. It seems to me that the reason is that in the musical piece everything has its proper place at every level, and so that speaks of heaven. That’s the right way to put it, which is why music is so often used in churches. It means that everyone’s interests are being taken into account, you know, and it’s obviously a utopian ideal, but it’s something that has to be constantly worked on. But people often have accused me of an individualistic bias in my moral reasoning. You know that. Well, you should get yourself together. You get yourself together so that you can get your family together, so you can get your community together so that you can get the world together. All of that at the same time.
There’s nothing selfish about that, except the responsibility, which is on you to start that and to bear that and to lift that and to act it out so it has nothing to do with chasing your short-term impulsive pleasure-seeking goals which is the real epiphany for me, because you know what you’re doing. The right thing for your personal growth, when it’s the same thing that society needs from you, is when your needs are in alignment with what society needs you to do for it. Then you’re doing the right thing, probably, for yourself. Well, that’s how it seems. I mean it seems then that you’ve found your niche right where you are. What you have to offer, you know.
I think of people as beasts of burden in some sense, like we’re built for a burden and we’re not happy without that burden. We want to find the one that suits us and that’s difficult. It’s part of the adventure of life. To seek out the burden that suits you, but when you have that then hopefully you’re operating in harmony with the requirements of those around you. The thing to me is that everything else pales in comparison with that. That’s why it says in the New Testament that you should stack up riches in heaven. It’s like there isn’t anything better than that, you know, you’re functioning well. Your family’s functioning well, you’re contributing to your community. What you’re doing is worthwhile, you know, you’re not tormented by your conscience. You’re aiming at something that the sacrifices that you have to make are that clearly justified, the sacrifices you have to make, maybe even the sacrifice of your life, because you’re in this like this is a mortal game. You’re in this with your whole life and you’d think that what that would mean, at least in part, is that you need to find a game to play that’s of sufficient grandeur and nobility so that perhaps even the fact that mortality is built into the structure now becomes justifiable. I mean, it’s a hell of an ambition, but it doesn’t seem to me to be something that’s impossible. I think you can live your life enough so that it justifies itself, despite its limitation. That’s the real question, Can you do that? I believe that you can and I believe that what that means is that the human spirit fundamentally triumphs over death. So that’s optimism, you know, in the midst of the sorrel and the malevolence. We have the capacity, we have the capacity to transcend that, then there isn’t anything more optimistic than that. There’s nothing in it that isn’t good, right? It’s good for you, it’s good for the people you love, it’s good for the broader society. It’s like, it’s good and that’ll take you through your times of travail. There isn’t anything else that will and then maybe on your deathbed you can think, “I justified my privilege, the terrible privilege of my existence, and maybe that’s good enough. It’s possible that that’s good enough.” You certainly don’t have anything better to do than that, as far as I can tell.
We’ve all gotta find our burden. Doctor Peterson, I appreciate your passion for this. It sinks through, and it’s music as you point it out. They describe the things we all struggle with day in and day out. Words to emotion that most of us can’t even touch. Thank you for being with us.