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The Danaides by John William Waterhouse, 1903

Success may not be necessary to attain happiness. For many, the striving itself becomes a fulfilling and satisfying way of life.

Philosophers of happiness have often said that humanity’s eternally recurring and seemingly insatiable desires are a crushing burden and a debilitating problem. To live with an unsatisfied desire, the argument goes, makes one unhappy. Therefore, if one is to be content, expunging desires is of the utmost importance. This notion is the foundation of entire self-denying spiritual practices. Advocates of self-denial invoke the myth of Sisyphus, the king in ancient Greece who offended Zeus. As punishment, he was condemned to push a huge boulder to the top of a hill. However, the simple (but sweaty) game was rigged. Whenever the boulder neared the top of the hill, it rolled back down to the bottom. Some prefer the less strenuous, but equally frustrating Danaidean example. In Greek legend, the Danaides were daughters of the Egyptian prince, Danaus. After they had murdered their husbands, they were condemned in Hades to fill water jars with holes in the bottom.

The idea seems clear. Since desires are insatiable, it is impossible ever to reach one’s goal. Consequently, one can never find peace and contentment. In turn, this means one must either uproot desires or accept perpetual discontent.

This is a false belief.

The thing to keep in mind is this: some actions are intrinsically rewarding. (I will admit that rolling huge boulders to the tops of hills may not be one of these!) When engaged in such activities, the process or the journey can become a source of delight in itself, thus making it irrelevant whether one realizes one’s “goal.” Seen from this perspective, one’s “Sisyphean” task of pursuing a particular desire may lead one into a kind of alternate reality where conventional goal-driven thinking and values do not apply. Once established in that alternate reality, once the realization dawns that the task or the quest is rewarding in and of itself, then new possibilities transform one’s formerly goal-oriented thinking. Things ramify. Not only new ways of thinking, but also new ways of living take over from the old.

Creative people often find themselves in precisely this situation. At the onset, creators are usually like everyone else. They dream of being famous or successful in their chosen field. As time passes, their absorption in their projects grows deeper and more satisfying. At the same time, however, it becomes increasingly apparent how elusive is success in creative enterprises. There comes a critical moment when the creator realizes that, success or no success, they are not going to give up on their work. They make adjustments. It is no longer a matter of doing projects with the goal of achieving fame or making money. The work has become a way of life.

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