The story of king midas

The legendary story of king Midas demonstrates the challenges human beings face in the pursuit of an unexamined form of happiness. 

Urfan Ul Hassan
November 2022

The Touch of Midas 

King Midas was known for his immense wealth and influence. The king, however, did not find himself satisfied; even the life of a king became boring. He therefore prayed to the god of ecstasy Dionysus, to grant him higher powers. The king wanted a stronger reputation; he had to be known for something other than wealth. He concluded that supernatural powers would give him the appropriate reputation. 

Midas wanted the power to turn objects into gold; all objects that came into physical contact with the king were to be turned into gold on the spot. Dionysus heard the call and commanded the universe to give the king this ability. Overnight, Midas became notorious all over the world. The Touch of Midas – the king who transformed flowers into gold. 

In his ecstasy, the king demonstrated his new abilities to the population. Those in the population who had their valueless things turned into gold were more than satisfied with the king. The ecstasy did not last long; Midas understood that this ability, despite seeming to be a gift, was actually a deep curse. This became apparent as he observed that his food also turned into gold.

A king that was starving. The ordeal depressed Midas. Lost in his frustration, the king sought comfort from his family. He hugged his daughter, but the daughter instantly turned into a statue of gold. Midas understood that he had killed his daughter and thus grief overtook him. The population and those closest to him began keeping their distance from the king. They sought out the king only when they needed more gold.

Midas eventually became merely an instrument that others exploited; he no longer felt recognized for his personality, knowledge, or who he really was. Midas was left with infinite material wealth and attention but had lost what really mattered to him as a human being.

A story for today 

The story of King Midas provides valuable wisdom one could apply in one's own life. The story can serve as a metaphor; We can interpret the king as a representative of ourselves when we allow emotion to dominate reason. History teaches us that what seems good and rewarding in the short term can in reality be curses in the long term. Reflect on your own projects; can your desires really be hidden curses?

The search for happiness

Mankind has encountered recurring problems throughout history. Among these is the search for happiness. The pursuit of riches, wealth and attention comes from the assumption that such things will lead to happiness. This assumption is natural and easy for humans to have; the assumptions surrounding happiness are therefore also difficult to challenge. To begin with, it is important to philosophize on whether these things truly bring the happiness a human being seeks.

Social media influences assumptions and core beliefs

All people have core beliefs – these are assumptions one has about oneself, others, the world and the future. These fundamental assumptions come from experiences and observations. The assumptions may be influenced by childhood, and/or by specific positive or negative traumatic experiences. People rarely reflect on what assumptions they actually have, but these are of crucial importance for how one thinks, interprets and acts in the world. Assumptions can be reprogrammed through changed thinking and behavior.

Content on social media influences users' assumptions about themselves, others, and the world. Evolution has programmed humans to be highly suggestable by the social life around them. The need to belong and conformity are powerful psychological forces that make humans easily influenceable. This is especially true for those who haven’t identified their own values. By observing the content on social media, the user can develop unconscious negative assumptions about the world.

The negative assumptions about the world are not challenged, but rather confirmed through observations on social media. For example, who gets the most likes on social media? What kind of content gets the most attention? Who has the most followers and the most likes? Who appears happiest? Through exposure to social media, one can develop misunderstood assumptions and definitions of happiness.

People who have become convinced that they must meet certain criteria to be successful may perceive psychologists, philosophers and therapists as naive; many may feel that there is a lack of recognition that wealth, status, and appearance play an important role in the world. However, human evolutionary instincts overestimate the importance of these qualities.

Recall the story of King Midas, and reflect on the consequences of material success; in the long term, how will individuals who receive attention only for their appearance, or for their material wealth, experience themselves? What consequences will such individuals eventually have to confront?

During life's journey, human beings with a strong focus on building material wealth will end up lonely; they will experience that the human being within them has been forgotten - forgotten by themselves and by others. This is a slow process that one does not discover until the years have passed, and time has flown away.

I would argue that mankind has a higher purpose in life.

Physical appearance and looks – the search for acceptance from others

Interestingly, most people are forgiving of others’ physical appearance. This is because all human beings subconsciously truly want a world where physical appearance is not important. In today’s age, people work toward low body fat percentage and muscle hypertrophy, all in the hopes of being accepted by others. Such an intention behind exercise will, over time, lead to a low self-image, beginning narcissism, and a lack of moderation. Training should be interpreted as one of many processes in personal development, and not as a tool intended to create acceptance from others. The intention behind exercise should be to strengthen health, develop skills and discover one's potential. A good alternative is to change the focus on being the prettiest possible, to being relatively strong and healthy. Aesthetics come naturally if you are healthy.

"Ugly" and "pretty"?

In nature, humans are neither ugly nor pretty. Evolution is on your side by the virtue of your existence. Humans respond positively to symmetry in nature; symmetrical faces are often rated as more attractive than unsymmetrical. Attraction, however, is not as simple as symmetry. Attraction is a complex chemical process; humans even have the ability to pick up information about others’ nervous system through smell. In other words, attraction is beyond one's control. Human beings are born with different potentials; focusing on discovering and reaching these potentials is a sensible investment of time. Everything else often falls into place.

What does science say about happiness? A right direction, but not the ultimate answer
Studies from evolutionary psychology and social psychology, in summary, suggest that human happiness depends on these 3 principles:
  • Satisfying relationships with others.

  • State of Flow – e.g. working with what you are genuinely interested in.

  • Experiencing oneself as positive and helpful toward other human beings.

These 3 in combination create a good foundation for human "happiness"; some researchers even claim that this is the recipe for happiness. In my opinion, these are all reasonable goals to have, but one should not be satisfied with these goals; they do not create a coherent understanding of one’s existence in the universe. Thus, these goals alone limit us from discovering our true human potential.

Philosophy answers the question about happiness

Happiness has been defined by many great thinkers throughout history, but these definitions are often forgotten in everyday life. Many people assume that happiness has something to do with pleasure, but this isn't entirely true.

Socrates defined a human being as happy if that individual has his or her personality - character - soul - their self in development; thus, such individuals will be on the journey to create ultimate order within themselves. What does it mean to have your soul in order? Does one need money, physical looks, or status to create order in the soul? In Plato's book The Republic, Socrates proves that the soul can only come into order through living a virtuous life.

Virtues are defined as all good qualities in people – courage, patience, justice, moderation, temperance and the like – see Aristotle’s 12 Virtues. These qualities cannot be bought, but only be developed through intentional work towards them. Virtues do not necessarily bring pleasure immediately; in the short term, they will bring both pain and adversity. However, in the long run, they cause real success and fulfillment. Virtues can and must be exercised consistently and daily. Human beings will face challenges throughout their lives, such that the opportunity to be virtuous will always exist. Notice that virtues do not cost anything, and there are no shortcuts in developing them.

Nature — plants, animals, the solar system, stars and galaxies — is constantly moving toward a goal; human beings are also part of nature and ought to strive toward blossoming and reaching their potential. I agree with Aristotle and Socrates that the highest objective a human can aim for is to develop the soul. This potential can only be achieved if the self/soul is evolving. As physical exercise develops the body, virtuous thinking and virtuous behavior develops the soul.

This equates the man who lives in the slums and the man who lives in a palace; both individuals now have the same challenge - to develop virtues regardless of their circumstances. This may be even more difficult for the man living in the palace as he has greater temptations.

"Even in a palace you can live well" – Aurelius

The pursuit of living according to virtue is a greater challenge than the pursuit of material success. Thus, psychological stressors can also be thought of as opportunities to develop the soul. The development of the self and all the challenges on the journey are key to human happiness, or rather as Aristotle put it, human flourishing.

Superhuman; man is something to be overcome. 
What have you done to overcome him? —Nietzsche

Material wealth, physical looks, and status are all things that will disappear and that are never truly yours to keep. The soul and its development therefore have everything to say for an individual - if there is life after death, it is one’s soul that will traverse the afterlife. Personal development in itself is a sensible goal. It is a virtue to work hard towards one's long-term goals – this can be in fitness, work, or in the development of other skills.

Good finances, health, and genuine status come naturally as a result of personal development. One who strives for virtue will be grateful for whatever level of material wealth he or she ends up with. Gratitude can be used as an active tool for a happier life. The journey towards these goals will be a reward in itself – the skills one develops during this journey are the reward.

Real wealth thus lies in the soul; one's character, knowledge and competence – these are qualities that no one can take away from an individual. These qualities give back to oneself and others. Relationships based on these qualities will put the human within the human being in focus.

I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self. -Aristotle