Chapter 16: Effort and Resignation

Happiness does not descend upon us effortlessly, as a consequence of fortunate accident - the author chose to call this book "The Conquest of Happiness" to reflect that quite some effort is required, on an ongoing basis, to attain it.

Most people are not born into wealth, nor come easily by the quality of being good-natured. Most must struggle to some degree for survival, and have uneasy passions that make them unhappy with whatever their lot happens to be.

The struggle required to achieve happiness may be both inward and outward - the inward he considers to be resignation, and the outward to be effort. There is quite some argument in favor of one approach over the other.

The path of effort maintains that an unhappy state is natural, and that man must work to achieve things in his environment that will make him happy. (EN: In essence, this is the concept of "free will" in which man is in control of his destiny and is responsible, capable of controlling circumstances and responsible for their outcomes)

This is evident in the materialism, particularly in Western countries, by which man applies himself to increase his income and purchase happiness. But there are also non-monetary pleasures which must also be earned by effort: to earn the respect of others, to develop skills, to appreciate the arts, to raise and protect a family, and numerous other things that grant happiness are achieved by applying effort to the world outside the self.

The argument against effort suggests that it is never-ending and provides only brief satisfaction. A man who has achieved or attained something feels euphoric for a little while, and may lapse into contentment, but eventually becomes bored and dissatisfied even in his improved state, and is motivated by this irritation to apply effort to gaining more. Was there ever a man who felt that his wealth and power were enough? No matter how much he has gained, man seems to grow discontent and seek even more.

The path of resignation maintains that a happy state is natural, and that man falls into unhappiness by his own delusion. (EN: By contrast, this is the concept of "determinism" in which man is in at the mercy of fate, circumstances are beyond his control, and he must learn to accept what happens in spite of his actions.)

By this perspective, the wise man will not waste time and emotion struggling against the inevitable, and his effort is merely to accept things such as they are. Unhappiness is caused by getting a fury over every little thing that goes wrong, and even in the pursuit of really important things it is unwise to get deeply involved emotionally as things will turn out as they will regardless how you choose to feel about them.

As such, resignation does not encourage any outward effort, but a great deal of inward effort to develop a psychology and philosophy of tolerance, and the struggle to accept whatever may come even when it is not aligned with one's personal desires.

This is very common in religions, as man is taught to accept the will of the gods, or whatever substitutes for them, and accept a humble role, being grateful for fortune and tolerance of misfortune because all things are controlled by supernatural forces beyond our knowledge or power to influence.

Acceptance may stem from one of two sorts: despair or unconquerable hope. Despair results in feeling defeated and unimportant in the grand scheme of things, whereas hope provides the notion that fortune will favor the believer, even if it does not do so at all times and in all ways or the degree to which he might (foolishly) desire. Both are forms of faith - which generally correspond to whether the individual feels the forces that move the world favor him (hope) or are indifferent or even hostile to his interests (despair).

The argument against resignation is that it saps those who adopt it of the motivation to take what action they can to avoid tragedy and improve their lot. Cultures that are resigned to resignation often suffer terrible tragedies that are seen as having been avoidable had they only taken action, and to make little progress or improvement in any material way. Consider the eastern countries such as China and India, where many live in miserable conditions and even a minor disaster causes the death of tens of thousands - and even routine conditions involve a short lifespan and high infant mortality.

Effort and resignation are witnessed to some degree in every culture. In the west, effort is generally favored, but there are instances in which resignation is adopted (the institute of marriage); and in the east, where resignation is favored, men still take action daily (they farm). And in truth, men choose one path or the other for various aspects of their lives - choosing to apply effort to accomplish some things and choosing to be resigned to others. Even one who insists on effort in all things hasn't the time or resources and must accept the outcome of some, and even one who is resigned to acceptance cannot place his entire existence in the hands of fate but applies effort to tend to his most basic needs.

In all, western culture seems to advocate effort as the better path, but it can be taken to extremes. Consider the self-inflicted stress of a man who becomes furious should the trains be running a little late, or his dinner is badly cooked, or the weather be inclement, or if he drops his hat in the mud, or if his shoelace breaks.

It is very easy to find excuses to become upset and angry, and swear vengeance upon a world for such trivial concerns. The irritation of worry and fret are unprofitable in situations in which things do not go as we wished - and then there is the matter of reasonable desires, as those who set their sights on the impossible will inevitably be defeated. A man who emancipates himself from the tyranny of small worries will find his life much more cheerful - much of what upset him about people, things, and circumstances will now seem merely amusing.

And reason will, or should, be a guide to sorting out the things worth worrying about from those that are not. To recognize that the outcome of an unfortunate event is entirely unimportant helps focus our energies where they are needed. To recognize where things our beyond our control helps focuses on what is controllable.

A man must be resigned to accept the weather, the seasons, and the like - but more importantly, he must also be resigned to accept that other people are often beyond his control or influence and will do as they may. A great deal of misery is inflicted on self and others by the man who feels the desire to control other men - they will not heed him, and will be irritated by his attempts at manipulation.

A healthy ego is to be cultivated to sort out what can or cannot be controlled, and refrain from the melodrama of considering oneself constantly to be the central figure of the universe - the hero of a tragedy or a clown in a comedy. If one must play a part on the world's stage, it is important to consider a repertoire of roles as to avoid monotony.

Many active people seem to be of the opinion that the slightest grain of resignation, or the faintest gleam of humor, will utterly destroy the energy and determination that is necessary to success. These people are mistaken, and deceived themselves as to the importance of a great many trivial things, not the least of which is themselves. The greater number of fools are those who are too serious about silly matters than too silly about serious matters. Nothing is more fatiguing nor, in the long run, more exasperating than the daily effort to believe things which daily become more incredible.

Given our limited faculties and resources, consider adopting the notion that "it is better to do nothing than to do harm" and recognize that the path to success is in doing what is useful, but the other half consists in recognizing what is useless or counterproductive and avoiding it. A little time spent in reflection, discovering and sorting out the facts, is not time wasted but time saved from pursuing needless and counterproductive activity.