“Midlife” by Kieran Setiya

Is that all there is?

  • Mill: “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not a s a means, but as itself an ideal end.
  • Rule # 1 preventing midlife crisis: care about something other than yourself. If nothing matters to you but your own well-being, nothing much will make you happy.
  • Instrumental value: the value something has a means to an end, like the value of making money or visiting the dentist.
    • The paradox of altruism is that if nothing is important but that which has an effect on others, everything is instrumental; value is perpetually deferred and ends in nonsense since nobody can do anything of value unless it positively affects others, but that continues until there are no people left.
    • W.H. Auden: “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.”
  • Activities of practical virtue – fighting wars, engaging in politics, working for social reform – are sustained by struggle and privation. Their worth depends on the existence of problems, difficulties, needs, which these activities aim to solve. In an ideal world, there would be no use for them. That is why it would be insane to make enemies of friends in order to create the opportunity for courage in battle.
    • All these values are called into question because it would be better to have a world where such actions were unnecessary
    • Aristotle’s answer is contemplation. “Final without qualification. Desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.” You would want to contemplate in any type of world. It is non-instrumental.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer: “Work, worry, toil, and trouble are indeed the lot of almost all men their whole life long. ANd yet if every desire were satisfied as soon as it arose how would men occupy their lives, how would they pass the time.” Life can’t only be ameliorative.
  • Existential activities – art, swimming, whatever – may respond to difficulties in life, but each can be “a source of inward joy” unconnected with struggle and imperfection; a perennial ground of happiness when “the greater evils of life shall have been removed.”

Missing Out

  • The value of knowledge and the value of friendship are incommensurable, and while you may be justified in choosing the latter here, the greater value does not subsume the lesser. The desire that explains why you want to hear the lecture will not be met at the birthday party. It lingers, unsatisfied, in your heart. (Commensurable values, otoh, are measured on a single scale aka money)
  • To wish for a life without loss is to wish for a profound impoverishment in the world or in your capacity to engage with it, a drastic limiting of horizons. There is something to be said for this. In a reflexive instance of incommensurability, it makes sense to be conflicted about incommensurability itself, which is in one way bad. But it would be perverse to prefer, on balance, the diminishment required to repair the harm.
  • There is consolation in the fact that missing out is an inexorable side effect of the richness of human life. It reflects something wonderful: that there is so much to love and that it is so capacious that one history could not encompass it all. Even immortality would not suffice: your bio must have a determinate sha[pe that differed from other eternities you could have lived. You still miss out.
  • I may regret regret, desire that no desire go unfulfilled, I cannot in the end prefer to have desires that could be fully met. The sense of loss is real; but is something to concede, not wish away. Embrace your losses as fair payment for the surplus of being alive.
  • Nora Ephron: Anything you think is wrong with your body at 35 you will be nostalgic for at 45.
  • If you were to be assigned an outcome, you would prefer A to B and B to C. Now suppose that having options is important, as Paul believes: the existence of alternatives has final value, in addition to the value of the alternatives themselves. It follows that having B and C as options is better than just getting B, with no alternative. That sounds fine. What is odd is that, if A is only slightly better than B, and there is value in having options, it could make sense to prefer a choice between B and C than just getting A. The value of the choice is the value of B, which you will choose, plus to value of having options; if this value is greater than the difference between A and B, considered alone, having the choice of B and C is better than just getting A. But this is absurd!
    • “What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”
    • If I do not regret the way my life has gone, what is the appeal of having alternatives, as I once did? Why wish for options that I would not take?
    • Tell yourself this: while there are reasons to change one’s life – frustrating jobs, trash marriages, etc. – the appeal of change itself can be deceptive. Because there is value in having options, you will miss having them: an argument for nostalgia. But the value is easy to overrate. It is silly to think that having options could make up for reaching outcomes you would not prefer, considered alone. Think twice before you wreck your home. is it the space inside you hate, or the fact that it has walls?
  • My younger self was sheltered, somehow, from the ache of unsatisfied desire. At midlife, we are exposed.
    • An obvious change is that my losses were once future; now they are present or past. What were then lives I would not live are ones I am not living and never did.
    • There is a fundamental difference between knowing that I will miss out on something good and knowing what, knowing that I won’t achieve all my ambitions and knowing which. 
  • “Researchers concluded that being forced to confront trade-offs in making decisions makes people unhappy and indecisive.”
    • No wonder we are reluctant to make decisions, anticipating discontent no matter how we choose
  • What connects nostalgia with missing gout is not that there was a time when we could have everything, but that there was a time before we had to commit ourselves and thus confront our losses.
  • the major disadvantage of not knowing what you will not do: not knowing what you will.
  • Meghan Daum: “Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so made back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase from the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have tailwinds wither. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize for aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.
  • You cannot be saved from missing out except by an appalling diminution of the world or your response to it; and that the value of having options is too limited to justify throwing your life away.


  • It is the value of human life, crying out for affirmation, that silences the murmur of regret. You made a bad decision, but even though it has turned out as you feared – no sudden twists in the aftermath – you have reason to embrace the past. The reason has a name: it is the name of your son.
    • Of the lapses and adversities that lie in the history of my child’s conception, ones without which it would not have taken place, which do I accept as the price of her existence? These are aspects of the past that you cannot regret, even though you should have deplored them at the time.
  • If it is rational to be risk averse, to prefer good things you know to the uncertain prospect of better ones ($40 versus $100 on heads and $0 tails), it can be rational to prefer in retrospect decisions you should not have made.
  • “Do I wish it hadn’t happened?” Do not fantasize about the best-case. Remind yourself that the consequences were uncertain and that a second chance could turn out better or worse. Second, focus on the bird in hand. You know, more or less, how things worked out, and it is this specific past you are now comparing with a roll of the dice. So long as your actual life is good enough, and you are sufficiently risk averse, it is perfectly rational to be content with how things are, even though they could have been much better, and even though you still believe that they went wrong.
  • I know that if I had gone for medicine, my life would be as rich, and I believe its riches count for more than my actual life. But I do not know what they are. And what engages me, what grips my desires, shapes my preference, is not just better and worse, but all the distinctive, particular ways in which life has been good so far.
  • We live in details, not abstractions. If it is rational to respond more strongly to the facts that make something good, in all their specificity, than to the featureless, generic fact that something else is better, it is ration to be glad that I made a choice – to be a philosopher, not a doc – that I still believe is worse.
    • Do not weigh alternatives theoretically, but zoom in: let the specifics count against the grand cartoon of lives unlived. In doing so, you may find you cannot regret what you should have resisted at the time.
  • The more you know what you are missing, the more you learn what the alternatives would have been and what they would involve, the harder it becomes to let them go.

Something to look forward to

  • Parfit: You wake in a hospital knowing you had entered for a vital procedure but not remembering if it had happened yet. You may be the patient who already had a grueling 4hr procedure or the one with a 1hr session later today. Who do you wish to be?
    • Your answer probably reverses if it’s about pleasure (choosing the 1hr party later today vs. the 4hrs yesterday)
    • Shows we are strongly biased toward the future; “temporal neutrality” would militate against this bias and help make death symmetrical with pre-life
    • Also weirdness in the future bias: the week before you would have chosen the 1hr operation; once you wake up, you wish for the 4hr. The moment the future becomes the past, your answer changes. Future bias means making decisions you know for sure you will regret (at least w/in some window of time)
  • Where the urge for immortality is a function of wanting the bet for oneself, it is akin to wishing for a superpower: perfectly rational, but not a sensible ground for bitterness or grief. It is a form of avarice to suffer at the fact that your wish will not be granted.

Living in the present

  • These accomplishments matter to me, but each one is bittersweet: longed for, pursued, and ultimately, disappointingly, complete.
    • Whatever is wrong with the pursuit of goal after worthy goal, it will not be cured by prolonging that pursuit forever.
  • Suppose you do get what you want, your desire at last fulfilled. You should be delighted. Instead, you are aimless and depressed. Your pursuit is over and you have nothing to do. Life needs direction. You must have desires, aims, and projects that are as yet incomplete. And yet this, too, is fatal. For wanting what you do not have is suffering.
  • You want things or you don’t. If you don’t, you are aimless, and your life is empty. This is the abyss of boredom. Yet if you do have desires, they must b for outcomes so far unattained. But is painful to want what you do not have. In staving off boredom by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery.
    • Probably overstated. Wanting doesn’t have to be akin to suffering.
    • But it is true that the way you related to the activities that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and so expel them from your life. Your days are devoted to ending, one by one, the activities that give them meaning.
  • Telic: activities aimed at terminal states at which they are finished and exhausted.
  • Atelic: activities not aimed at termination. Fully realized in the present, not directed to a future in which they are archived in the past. You are not on your way to achieving a goal; you are already there. It is a process, not a project. In general, where a project gives meaning to your life, it is possible to find meaning in the process. The meaning is not used up or consumed; it is not invested in the future but redeemed in the present.
  • Getting married = telic. Loving in your relationship = atelic. You can certainly stop atelic, but you cannot complete them.
  • Richard Cusk: In his marriage the principle of progress was always at work, in acquiring houses, possessions, cars, the drive towards higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey; and it was inevitable that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really on the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love.
  • Count Vronsky: He soon felt that the realization of his longing gave him only one grain of the mountain of bliss he had anticipated. That realization showed him the eternal error men make by imagining that happiness consists in the gratification of their wishes.”