The “Secret” Formula for Happiness: Not Desiring What is Undesirable

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the Courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

This brilliant prayer, originally written by the American theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr and curiously adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs, grants us both the most basic and the deepest formula for happiness. This prayer, in this respect, clarifies the most famous but the least understood statement of Leo Tolstoy:

If you want to be happy, be.

Leo Tolstoy

The brilliance of this prayer derives from the fact that it, as Tolstoy’s statement, shares the same philosophical insight into the sources of grief with Epictetus’ principal teaching: Desiring what is undesirable. According to Epictetus, for whom grief is an act of evil, suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable or from neglecting what is within our wills.

The tragedy of Stendhal, the famous author of Le Rouge et Le Noir, quintessentially represents our case. In his diary, we find his obsessive self-struggle, which had endured until his death without any success, on mastering himself. Stendhal’s stillbirth objective was being spontaneous or acting natural. In his diary, he wrote:

Say whatever comes into my head, to say it simply and without pretension; to avoid striving for an effect in conversation. [1]


Stendhal did not, however, understand that spontaneity is a kind of magic that can only be displayed unintentionally, thus by a sort of magician who does not understand his own magic. It a magic, indeed, that fades away at the very moment of the magician trying to be conscious of it. Thus, it is a true magic behind of which there is no trick at all. Therefore, Stendhal simply wasted his whole life in the pursuit of the unreachable, since every act to acquire spontaneity is self-destructive by being intentional and planned as opposed to the very nature of being spontaneous. Spontaneity is, indeed, a holy state of mind that resembles perfectly those of children. It seems to me, furthermore, that spontaneity is the prerequisite of happiness without which we cannot be said to live truly. (Don’t we, commonly, designate our childhoods as the most beautiful and happiest periods of our lives?)

Human mind, however, has developed certain mechanisms in the mysterious realm of subconsciousness to cope with grief. Elster, in this respect, wrote on Sour Grapes as the quintessence of those mechanisms with reference to a fable of La Fontaine:

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked, ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes. [2]

La Fontaine

La Fontaine’s Sour Grapes is, in fact, a universal mechanism of self-deception for survival and happiness and I believe that one can easily find an idiom in almost every language that exposes the given mechanism of sub-consciousness. Take Turkish, for instance: “The cat who cannot reach for the liver calls it filthy.” (“Kedi uzanamadıgı cigere mundar dermis.”) Note that if the metaphor of sour grapes represents the adaptive preference formation, “the forbidden fruit is sweat” or “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” (“A neighbor’s hen is as big as a goose” (“Komsunun tavugu komsuya kaz görünür”) in Turkish) represents its opposite, i.e. counter adaptive preference formation. In this second case, one does not satisfy or please with what s/he owns, not because s/he desires for the un-owned other for it is only un-owned, but because one believes that it is better then what s/he really owns. This is also counter adaptive preference formation; as when one reaches what s/he desires, s/he immediately dissatisfies of it and desires for the other that s/he thinks as the next step. Here, it’s never enough. The main logic of this mental statement is being in a constant restlessness to reach “the ultimate” rest. The presence of “the ultimate rest”, however, is only symbolic and under the nature of this mental state, it is just a means of motivation. Therefore, by constantly moving the target, and thus through “intentional” self-deception, sheer restlessness and its believed result, i.e. progress, are maintained.

The subconscious mechanism of sour grapes is self-deception for survival and happiness that operates in the individual level. Religion, I argue for both Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, is the counterpart of Sour Grapes in the societal level. With the ancient philosophy of religion, i.e. asceticism, the oppressed (in Marx’s terms) or the slave (in Nietzsche’s terms) gives up the present world by defaming it, as it is their true hell, and the world that s/he belongs to is the other world of the ultimate salvation. Religion is, therefore, the holy drug of the oppressed creature, “an illusion of happiness” (for Marx) or “an imaginary revenge” (for Nietzsche). When one criticizes religion, therefore, s/he criticizes the tears of the oppressed masses; hence religion is the desperate expression of their pain. I will continue this discussion in another article by comparing the philosophical perspectives of Marx and Nietzsche on religion. Let’s conclude by listening to Marx:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. [3]

Karl Marx

[1] John Elster, “Sour Grape: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 45.

[2] Ibid, p. 109.

[3] Karl Marx, “Introduction”, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843: (13.10.2012)

John Rae, The Fox and the Grapes (1918)

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