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The secret of career happiness? Stop being ‘pointlessly busy’

Unthinkable: Four great philosophers have life advice that’s still relevant today

Choosing what to do with one’s life can be overwhelming, and the responsibility weighs particularly heavily on the young.

“What we all want, of course, is all our best options left open as long as possible,” says Frank Bascome, the everyman American of Richard Ford’s series of novels, summarising a fear of commitment that no amount of career guidance cannot assuage.

Academics Ben and Jenna Storey, who are joint-authors of a new book on this very first-world anxiety, describe how “an exceptionally gifted” student of theirs once declared in class that what he dreaded most was “spending his chips”, or “investing all his carefully cultivated potential into any particular course of life, converting a hazy but infinitely promising ‘might be’ into a definite and limited ‘is’. His classmates fell silent at his confession, for he had given voice to the perplexity of their own hearts”, the Storeys write in Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.

The wife and husband team said they took a professor’s advice some years ago “do not publish a book before you’re 40” and the result of their patience is a carefully-crafted exploration of how to turn “pointless busyness into a pointed quest”.


The couple examines the issue through four thinkers from across three centuries: Michel de Montaigne, Blaise Pascal, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville. These may seem rather random figures – the youngest of them died 160 years ago – but there's a logic to their selection, as each mapped out a distinct route to happiness at a time when recognisably modern freedoms were emerging.

Montaigne would tell the school-leaver: don't stress too much about what you're going to do

Of the four, Montaigne is the most laid-back. He “would tell the school-leaver: don’t stress too much about what you’re going to do. The good life is about sampling a little bit from all the goods human life has to offer – friendship, reading, pleasure, travel, dancing, sleeping, gardening, and so on”, Ben explains.

“One of the interesting things you learn from reading Montaigne, though, is that the desire to be carefree is at bottom driven by anxiety – the anxiety to avoid being a fanatic. Montaigne was worried about the zealots who were tearing apart his country in the religious wars. It’s the spectre of fanaticism that makes the Montaignean option so compelling even now.”

‘Be serious’

Pascal is more of a grim realist – informed by Catholic faith. “Pascal looks at the Montaignean dabbler, and says: be serious,” says Jenna. “The life that aims to be carefree is too shallow to satisfy. The human soul and its longings are too vast not to be disappointed with what this world has to offer... And so we are often miserable but, strangely, that misery can be read as the sign of our greatness. For human beings seem to be the only beings in the universe to be aware of their own unhappiness.

“Being aware of our paradoxical nature makes us wonder if there is any answer to the human mystery, and sets us on the quest to find it. In Pascal’s view, the serious quest to find answers to the human problem necessarily leads to the search for God.”

Rousseau read both Pascal and Montaigne, “and takes a little from each”, Ben says. “Like Pascal, he thinks dabbling our way to happiness won’t work. But like Montaigne, he wants to find happiness in this life. So he explores several different options for living in this world with the kind of intensity and whole-heartedness he sees in Pascal.

“You could become heroically dedicated to your community, putting the common good ahead of your private interests. Or you could go in the opposite direction, dropping out of society and trying to return to a more natural and authentic existence. Rousseau’s legacy is double-edged, because he makes us long for both more intense community and more authentic individuality.”

Rousseau practised what he preached, fleeing from society in the search for personal integrity, like a high-flying executive who packs it all in for a simple life in the country.

Bourgeois duplicity

Rousseau’s romantic vision of how to achieve contentment remains influential “although we think not quite in the way he intended it to be”, says Jenna.

“Rousseau gives us a scathing critique of the bourgeois, and his own life’s work is an effort to present a series of whole-hearted alternatives to what he sees as bourgeois dividedness and duplicity.

“Lots of people today sympathise with his critique of bourgeois life, but few of us can escape the gravitational pull of middle-class habits and aspirations. So we end up working our white-collar jobs with a bohemian bad conscience – putting a veneer of daring and authenticity on a conventional modern life.

"Computer programmers dye their hair blue, soccer moms agitate for composting, busy executives do yoga at lunch time. I'm afraid that what Rousseau bequeathed us is a more intense dividedness: bourgeois-bohemianism, as [New York Times columnist] David Brooks put it years ago, rather than a genuine reorientation of our existence."

Tocqueville was less prescriptive than the other three. As a diplomat and historian, however, he brilliantly diagnosed the anxiety at the heart of the New World. “In the America he observed, more people than ever before were enjoying comfortable material existences. But he noted that these comfortable, middle-class people were ‘grave and almost sad, even in their pleasures’,” says Jenna.

Our quest to grasp a happiness composed of tangible pleasures leaves us forever haunted by the fear of missing out

“That’s because our mass society Montaigneanism – our quest to grasp a happiness composed of tangible pleasures and worldly accomplishments – leaves us forever haunted by the fear of missing out on some delight, some experience, that might have been the secret to a life well lived. And so we are ‘restless even in the midst of our prosperity’,” she says, quoting the French writer.

Hamilton’s restlessness

Reading of this early American restlessness, it's hard not to think of Alexander Hamilton, who died the year before Tocqueville was born. One of the founding fathers of the US, he is today immortalised in a record-breaking musical with its anthem to youthful ambition: "I am not throwin' away my shot."

Hamilton celebrates the opportunity that comes with modernity but does it also reveal a sense of insecurity at the heart of the American dream? The musical “expresses the sense of justice at the core of that dream: that we should be a society in which those who don’t throw away their shots can rise as high as their merits will take them,” Ben replies.

"Interestingly, however, the decade that gave us Hamilton also gave us books like William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep and Daniel Markovits's The Meritocracy Trap, which detail the miseries of late-stage meritocracy. It also brought a new intensity to the examination of the sins of America's past.

“We are no longer a fresh young country, a wide-open field of opportunity for scrappy, energetic strivers. We are a much older country, preoccupied with its past transgressions, in which the paths to success are well charted and crowded with contenders.

“Many of the young people we work with feel all this as a crushing burden. Our book seeks to put them in touch with thinkers like Pascal, who can help them think about how to deal with sins of the past that no human effort can wash away. It tries to help them see the difference between success and happiness, and the dispensability of many of life’s perks, which become burdensome when we let them seem necessary.

“It aims to help relieve them of their restless paralysis. And to see that happiness is not characterised by a life replete with achievements and their pleasures, but by a life spent engaged in the worthwhile if sometimes painful effort to say what is true and do what is good.”

Why We are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey is published by Princeton University Press