Avoiding burnout: lessons learned from a 19th century philosopher




Mill’s first conclusion was that happiness is a side-effect, not a goal you can achieve directly, nor verify directly by rational self-interrogation. Whenever you ask yourself “can I prove that I’m happy?” the self-consciousness involved will make the answer be “no”. Instead of choosing happiness as your goal, you need to focus on some other thing you care about:

It’s worth noticing that Mill is suggesting focusing on something you actually care about. If you’re spending your time working on something that meaningless to you, you will probably have a harder time of it.


On the one hand, rational logical thought is immensely useful in understanding the world: “it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together”. But this ability to analyze also has its costs, since “the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings”. In particular, analysis “fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures”.

Why should this make you happy? You try to analyze it logically, and eventually conclude there is no reason it should—and now you’re no longer happy.


Mill’s second conclusion was that logical thought and analysis are not enough on their own. He still believed in the value of “intellectual culture”, but he also aimed to become a more balanced person by “the cultivation of the feelings”. And in particular, he learned the value of “poetry and art as instruments of human culture”.

Both nature and art cultivate the feelings, an additional and distinct way of being human beyond logical analysis: