In 1826, John Stuart Mill had an existential crisis.
He fell into a deep depression and contemplated suicide for a year.
Mill was only 20 years old.
What made his existential malaise so perplexing was that since the day he’d been born, his entire life had been designed to generate the utmost happiness.
Mill’s father was a utilitarian. In fact, his father’s good friend, Jeremy Bentham, was the father of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a branch of ethics that aims to maximize the happiness and well-being of all individuals. “The greatest good for the greatest number of people” is a catchphrase commonly used to encapsulate the philosophy.
When John Stuart Mill was born, his father created a life plan for him based on the ideas of utilitarianism. The goal was to engineer the happiest child that would go on to increase the happiness of humanity.
John Stuart Mill was going to be a utilitarian ubermensch. Talk about parental pressure.
For a time, it seemed like Mill’s father would succeed with his project. John Stuart Mill was a child prodigy. By age eight, he was reading and writing in Latin and Greek, doing algebra, writing treatises on Plato, and composing poetry.
All the while, he was taught and encouraged to find ways to better not only himself, but the lot of humanity. Young John Stuart Mill aimed to reform institutions to bring more freedom and happiness to as many people as possible. He advocated for women’s suffrage, ending slavery and racism, and alleviating poverty. His entire identity was wrapped up in the idea of being a moral reformer.
In his autobiography, Mill described how his ambitious goal to make the world a better place animated his life:
My conception of my own happiness was entirely identified with this object. The personal sympathies I wished for were those of fellow laborers in this enterprise. I endeavored to pick up as many flowers as I could by the way; but as a serious and permanent personal satisfaction to rest upon, my whole reliance was placed on this; and I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed, through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making . . . This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence.
But then, in 1826, Mill fell into his deep, deep funk.
It started gradually.
If you’ve ever been in a rut, you can likely identify with how Mill felt:
I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent.
What began as a general sense of listlessness turned into a full-blown existential crisis when Mill found himself thinking through a penetrating question:
Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
Mill had supposed that if he accomplished his goals of advancing the social issues he believed in, he would find happiness. But he realized that even if he attained all his aims, he still wouldn’t be happy.
He was bumping up against one of life’s great paradoxes: the more you make happiness your primary goal, the less likely you are to achieve happiness.
This led to a fundamental and lasting change in Mill’s thinking:
I now thought that this end [happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness . . . Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.
Once Mill realized making happiness his primary goal in life wouldn’t make him happy and could actually just be making