The Primacy of Existence and Happiness

Series: The Concept of Happiness

This series of articles on happiness is based on a specific view of the relationship of the mind and the world, which Ayn Rand called “the primacy of existence.” This is the idea that “the universe exists independent of consciousness (of any consciousness), that things are what they are, that they possess a specific nature, an identity.” (Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus The Man-Made”)

She introduced her view with the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

And then summed up her view as follows:

In regard to nature, “to accept what I cannot change” means to accept the metaphysically given; “to change what I can” means to strive to rearrange the given by acquiring knowledge —  as science and technology (e.g., medicine) are doing; “to know the difference” means to know that one cannot rebel against nature and, when no action is possible, one must accept nature serenely.


In regard to man, “to accept” does not mean to agree, and “to change” does not mean to force. What one must accept is the fact that the minds of other men are not in one’s power, as one’s own mind is not in theirs; one must accept their right to make their own choices, and one must agree or disagree, accept or reject, join or oppose them, as one’s mind dictates. The only means of “changing” men is the same as the means of “changing” nature: knowledge —  which, in regard to men, is to be used as a process of persuasion, when and if their minds are active; when they are not, one must leave them to the consequences of their own errors. “To know the difference” means that one must never accept man-made evils (there are no others) in silent resignation, one must never submit to them voluntarily — and even if one is imprisoned in some ghastly dictatorship’s jail, where no action is possible, serenity comes from the knowledge that one does not accept it. (Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus The Man-Made”)

I reread this article as I was preparing my talk on “Happiness” that gave rise to this series of articles. I was inspired to work out the details for a third case. Specifically, what does the primacy of existence mean for yourself?

In regard to yourself, “to accept” does not mean to settle, and “to change” does not mean to try to force your own mind. “To know the difference” means that you must learn exactly what is under your volitional control, exactly what actions are possible to you. Serenity comes from the certainty you are acting in your own rational self-interest.

This is the basis of enduring happiness — a happiness that has you satisfied with the past, focused on values in the present, and pursuing goals you believe you will achieve in the future.

Happiness about the past

In regard to your past, what you must accept is that what is done is done and cannot be undone, that the choices you face at present are fundamentally the product of your own past choices and actions, not other people’s.

The only means of changing the effects of these past choices is knowledge and present action.

Knowing the difference means that you must never accept your own apparent guilt or inefficacy in passive resignation. You can always work to understand your past mistakes and their causal consequences, and then use this knowledge to make your future happier. You thereby change your emotional response. You turn a painful incident into the origin of a poignant character-building experience, whose emotional residue is pride, not guilt.

Happiness in the present

In regard to your present, what you must accept is that you have the mental resources you have. Your knowledge, motivation, and skill, plus perhaps stored mistakes or distortions, are real and have real causal effects on your present mental state. You must accept that your thoughts and feelings are triggered from this database and are not under your direct volitional control; that every idea must be judged as true or false, good or bad, important or unimportant as part of a process of logical thinking.

But in addition, you have the power of volition — the power to change your mind, both directly and indirectly, with your choice. You have direct control over your attention, which includes the capacity to set a purpose, hold it in mind, ask questions, and judge answers, i.e., the operations of thinking. This selective attention gives you indirect control over how ideas in your mind will be stored, and thereby whether your knowledge, motivation, and skill will be organized by the true, the good, and the important, or distorted by the false, the bad, and the unimportant.

Knowing the difference between what you can and cannot change in the present means that you make your first priority at all times be to keep your mind functional, i.e., to stay in focus so you can identify and motivate the action that is in your rational self-interest.

Creating your future happiness

In regard to your future, what you must accept are the long-term consequences of your present action on the world and on yourself.

To change the future means to set or change your goals now.

To know the difference means that you never abandon a selfish value on the grounds of your own apparent weakness; that you only change course in the name of a value you decide is more important for your life, not because you are giving up.

The bottom line: when you fully embrace the primacy of existence with respect to yourself, you will be satisfied with your past, efficacious in the present, and eager for your future. This is what makes happiness your normal condition.

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