The Pursuit of Happiness is a Pointless Goal
Life is tragic, says the provocative Jordan Peterson, and we are all capable of turning into monsters. But this hasn’t stopped millions from watching his online lectures. Tim Lott meets him as he publishes 12 Rules for Life
By Tim Lott / The Guardian
It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy.
This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.
His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre.
I doubt it has the commercial appeal of The Secret (wish for something and it will come true) and it certainly strays markedly from the territory of How to Win Friends and Influence People. But then Peterson is in a different intellectual league from the authors of most such books. Camille Paglia estimates him to be “the most important Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan”.
Peterson has largely been in the news for his blazing, outspoken opposition to much of the far-left political agenda, which he characterises as totalitarian, intolerant and a growing threat to the primacy of the individual – which is his core value and, he asserts, the foundation of western culture.
I first came across Peterson not in any political context but as a teacher of story. His online videos contain extensive deconstructions of narratives and myths, both ancient and modern. I watched his videos on the psychological significance of biblical stories. Although I am a lifelong atheist, for the first time the Bible started to make symbolic sense to me. Peterson can take the most difficult ideas and make them entertaining. This may be why his YouTube videos have had 35m views. Even his biblical lectures have been watched 5m times – quite a figure for a theological analysis of the Old Testament. He is fast becoming the closest that academia has to a rock star.
“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”
Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back
Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you
Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 10 Be precise in your speech
Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
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