The Choice Of Hercules: What is the Secret to Happiness? by

The Choice Of Hercules: What is the Secret to Happiness?

“Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world.” — Aristotle

If you ask anyone what they want most out of life, their answer will almost always return to one word: happiness. This can come in many shapes and forms, but underlying all of them are certain principles that separate true happiness from the mere illusion of it.

The problem is that many people don’t really know what will make them happy. They believe that true happiness is the ability to relax and only do the activities they enjoy.  But, will this make them truly happy?

Ancient philosophers pondered a great deal on the subject of happiness, looking at it from different angles, but the most powerful answers to this conundrum always involved something counter-intuitive. Challenges.

Many of their myths and legends exemplified this idea of struggle as the road to happiness.

Hercules Chose Virtue Over Vice

Hercules (Heracles in Greek) was one of the most famous mythical heroes, worshiped in Greece and Rome as the man who became a god.

His life was used as an example to teach moral lessons and ancient mythology contains many stories of his exploits, but in terms of the power of its message, one story stands above the rest. Namely, the Choice of Hercules.

According to the legend, as a young man, Hercules was walking along a path until he came to a crossroads. There is strong symbolism in this; as humans, at various periods of our lives, we also reach a point where we need to make a choice on which direction to take.

The young Hercules sat down and pondered whether he should go left or go right. In that instant, as he was deliberating on the choice in his head, two goddesses appeared.

The first one gave him a sweet-sounding offer. If Hercules went in her direction, he would live an easy life, full of luxury and pleasure. He would not have to lift a finger, and everything would be provided for him by others. It was a life of lavish leisure.

After the first lady spoke, the second one outlined her own proposal. What she said was totally different. She offered Hercules a life of struggle, where he would be tested by many hardships. It was to be a very long and arduous journey.  However, this journey would be full of honour and require virtue, hard work, and discipline to finish. Hercules would face adversity, and many obstacles, but could show courage, willpower, and determination in order to overcome them.

Hercules realised that anything that is really valuable has to be attained through hard work. This was also the road to pride and real happiness. For what you get easily, you never value, but what you struggle to earn, you treasure.

Hercules didn’t hesitate. He chose the second path. He chose the road of virtue, over that of vice.

Don’t Choose the Easy Road

“It is self-discipline, above all things, that causes pleasure.“ — Socrates

The moral of this allegory rings true in many ways. While many people in today’s world choose the easy road, that of instant gratification and never challenging themselves, it doesn’t provide them happiness at the end.

They end up always chasing cheap thrills and crave easily attained recognition. This leaves them feeling hollow and empty inside, and devoid of empathy for other people.

They don’t realise that the true road to happiness doesn’t lie in doing easy things, but in doing hard things — in having accomplishments to be proud of.

In a Ted Talk given at Rio de la Plata, behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely explained how overcoming challenges actually leads to true happiness.

He uses the example of mountain climbing in order to illustrate how this happens.

“If you think about mountain climbing as an example, it suggests all kinds of things,” says Ariely.

He then continues, “It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak. It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge. It suggests that there are all kinds of other things that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways.”

How to Find True Happiness

“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” — Zeno of Citium

The secret to true happiness is to do things. It is to do things that are hard, that challenge you, that give you a sense of accomplishment. In this way, you also take matters into your own hands.

The ancient Stoics used to say that you need to separate things that you can control, from the ones that you don’t.

You cannot control things like fame. It is dependent on other people. Throughout much of our life, day in and day out, the actions of other people affect how we feel. Our moods change based on what other people do, or think. The problem is that most people only care about themselves.

A lot of times, they will try to trip you up for no reason. They will tell you that you are ugly, stupid, or useless. That kills your mood. However, ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius reminded himself every morning of the way people are.

He accepted it, and it didn’t bother him.

Instead, he focused on doing other things. Things that depended on him, and things that were hard. He knew that doing so is the only way to attain real satisfaction.

For by doing things by yourself, you gain control over your life. Completing that assessment, going for a run, challenging yourself to improve your grade on an academic assessment or a fitness test, are things that no one can take away from you. They are your wins. You struggled to attain them, and you did at the end.

The victory was yours.

What do we want from life? Most people think that it is the first road, the one of partying and pleasure. The one that Hercules didn’t take.

However, those of us in the know, we hold the secret. We know that the real road to happiness is, in fact, the second one. The one that Hercules took.

What makes you truly happy?  What things make your son happy?  Have you had a conversation with him about the times that you have struggled and been proud of your achievements, or the times that he has struggled in the face of challenge to achieve his goals?

Adapted from: