Half Ponies Hedonistic Headaches: The CMC and the Paradox of Happiness



So, I’m sure by now we’re all quite familiar with the Cutie Mark Crusaders. This group made up of Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo have been together since the season one episode “Call of the Cutie”. United in their status as “blank flanks”, the main goal of the group is to work together in an attempt to find their special talent so they can all gain their cutie marks. This is usually done by shouting “CUTIE MARK CRUSADER INSERT PROFESSION NAME HERE YAY!” and then running off to do whatever it is they just shouted about.  So far, however, they’ve pretty much had no success outside of the occasional moments like their showcase for the Equestria Games.

The question is, then, why is it that they have yet to get their cutie marks? As much as we might tease them for following Rainbow Dash’s advice to try “as many things as possible as quickly as possible”, it’s honestly not that inherently bad of an idea. If you’re not sure what it is that you want to do with your life or what you’re good at, taking the time go out and try new things and experiences is probably a good thing, especially for children where play and exploration is a big part of their learning process.

I think one possible way to think about this problem of theirs is to argue that, in a sense, the Cutie Mark Crusaders how found themselves running head first into a variation of what is known as “the Paradox of Happiness.”

The Paradox of Happiness

While discussed in some form or another since Aristotle, the paradox of happiness was first formalized by utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick in his book The Methods of Ethics. Citation is in the description due to length, but in it Sidgwick writes:

“… that the principle of Egoistic Hedonism, when applied with a due knowledge of the laws of human nature, is practically self-limiting; i.e. that a rational method of attaining the end at which it aims requires that we should to some extent put it out of sight and not directly aim at it.”*

In other words, the paradox of happiness is the claim that more often than not achieving happiness is something that cannot be achieved directly but only indirectly as a side effect of doing other things. Attempting to aim at it directly is most likely an exercise in frustration and futility.

So how does this apply to the Cutie Mark Crusader’s situation?

Well, as you might recall, I stated that quite often the CMC will begin any experience by shouting out what it is that they are going to do. . Immediately after the experience is finished, they’ll check their flanks in order to see if whether or not they have gotten their cutie mark. Furthermore, we know that they are rather impatient, having learned several times already about the importance of patience and not trying to hard only to immediately get right back to crusadering, much to the frustration of the Mane 6.

Overall then, we can get a sense that the main motivation behind any of their actions is getting their cutie marks. In other words it is their direct goal in a large majority of their actions. But if the paradox of happiness is correct, and I’m currently not to argue that it does not at least have some truth, then attempting to get Cutie Marks by directly aiming for them is not the best method.

There are several reasons I can think of for why this may be the case. First off, by focusing directly on getting Cutie Marks as the goal, the CMC throw themselves into every task with an extreme level of enthusiasm that may not be appropriate to the task and cause them to mess up.

Second, while having a wide variety of experiences is good, going through them at such a rapid pace with hopes of immediate results kind of negates the effects. The CMC usually acts in a “Did I get it? No? Let’s move on!” manner, which doesn’t really allow for the time for reflection and processing of an experience that, at least I’ve argued in my past writings on Cutie Marks, is necessary for getting one.

Now that I think about it, out of the Mane 6, only Fluttershy and Pinkie could really be said to be anyway close to that instantaneous realization that the Cutie Mark Crusaders are going for. Twilight had been studying magic for ages before going to audition for Celestia’s School, Rarity had already been sowing prior to school play, Rainbow Dash already obviously enjoyed racing and flying, and AJ had her time in Manehattan to really determine if life on the farm was suited for her. But even Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie’s realizations weren’t that immediate, since those realizations did come right after a lifetime of either not feeling like she fit in with the society she was born with or a lifetime of sadness, respectively. So even then it seems immediacy is not an element of getting a cutie mark.

Whether it’s these reasons, or maybe other ones I didn’t think of, it seems that putting all their focus on getting their Cutie Mark is feeding right into the paradox of happiness and is therefore, ironically, sabotaging their efforts at getting one.

So what are they to do? Fortunately, Sidgwick, the Mane 6, and ironically the CMC themselves have the answer.


Now remember that I stated that Sidgwick was a utilitarian philosopher. For anyone whose followed me long enough, you probably know what that means. But for you new people, utilitarianism is an ethical system that is pretty much centered around the maximization of happiness. So admitting that directly aiming at happiness has the effect of hindering the gaining of happiness, the paradox of happiness seems a bit of the blow.

Fortunately, the answer to the paradox is built right into it; if directly aiming at happiness is the problem, then just don’t directly aim at it. It seems kind of too simple, but that is honestly how pretty much every utilitarian answers the charge, citing that while philosophically it’s a problem, in practical, everyday life people are pretty good at letting their original goals slide to the side while doing something else, often to the point of accidentally confusing the ends with the means**. So while we can have “Happiness” as the end goal, there’s no real harm being done if we encourage people to do things for the sake of other things. Hence why in utilitarianism “happiness” is more of an evaluate principle that is used for justification of secondary principles or virtues, such as benevolence, justice, courage, honesty, etc. that actually guide our actions.

Of course this obviously isn’t what the Mane 6, particularly Applejack and Twilight, have been telling the CMC, but there is a similar sentiment in their responses to the CMC’s constant wonderings about when they are going to get their cutie marks. Repeatedly,  the CMC have been told to stop obsessing over their cutie marks and instead to embrace patience and to try and not force the issue, enjoy the experience of self-discovery, and to focus on what they can already due. These lessons were particularly focused on in the episodes “Call of the Cutie” and “Show Stoppers” but were present in other episodes. For example:

-Patience/Avoid Forcing the Issue:

AJ: These things happen when these things are supposed to happen. Trying to rush ‘em just drives you crazy. (Call of the Cutie)

Zecora: Your frustration is well understood, but one must be patient for all things good. (Cutie Pox)

Scootaloo: And instead of forcing ourselves to do something that’s not meant for us… (Show Stoppers)

Don’t Try Too Hard:

Sweetie Belle: Well, maybe we were trying too hard. (Show Stoppers)

Focus on What You’re Good At:

Twilight Sparkle: Girls, I think you’re going about this the wrong way. Instead of trying to do things in areas you’re not familiar with, why not try doing things in areas that you already like? (Show Stoppers)

Twilight Sparkle: My little ponies! You’re missing the point. Think about the things you already enjoy doing. Think about what you’re already good at. (Show Stoppers)

Apple Bloom: We each should be embracing our true talent! (Show Stoppers)

Thrill of Self-Discovery

Twilight Sparkle: Oh no, Apple Bloom. A cutie mark is something a pony has to discover for herself.

Twilight Sparkle: They still get to experience the thrill of discovering who they are, and what they’re meant to be.

Meh, this is probably more than enough to get the point across. So while not appealing to utilitarianism or anything at all, Twilight and Applejack are trying to appeal to the girls that trying to rush into getting a Cutie Mark directly isn’t the appropriate method. They aren’t discouraging their going out and having experiences because, hey, that’s part of the thrill of self-discovery and all. But they are suggesting that instead of focusing on simply getting their cutie marks, which is what is encouraging them to just keep throwing themselves at experiences and hoping something sticks, they focus on just letting it come in its natural course and reflect on what it is that they already like. In short, achieving a cutie mark is not about just doing stuff because you think you can get a cutie mark in it and just hope it happens, but instead it’s the side effect of the process of exploration and self-reflection about what it is that your good at.

So what are the chances that shifting methods would prove more successful for the CMC? Well, honestly, probably pretty good because even as their busy throwing themselves at things, they’ve inadvertently stumbled onto their unique talents when they start doing things without the direct goal of getting a cutie mark. They’re, of course, so focused on getting it that they just don’t simply pay attention to that.

The best occurrence of this was in the episode “Show Stoppers”. At several points we are directly shown how talented each of the CMC are:

-Applebloom is responsible for the successful reconstruction of the clubhouse.
-Scootaloo pulls of some sweet scooter tricks.
-Sweetie Belle comes up with the Cutie Mark Crusader’s theme song.

At no point were any of these expression of talent done with the direct goal of getting their cutie marks. In fact, when the goal of getting a cutie mark is introduced due to the decision to join the talent show, they change around roles and, well (image should be link to video of the song).

Interestingly enough though, during the episode the CMC do help each other and again express their unique talents, but simply never catch onto it because they are completely focused on “I’m going to get my cutie mark in X!”.


The paradox of happiness is the idea that if you want to achieve happiness, directly attempting to get it is probably going to end in failure. If you want to succeed, one has to aim at it indirectly by simply doing things that just happen to bring happiness as a secondary effect.

The Cutie Mark Crusader’s, in their quest for cutie marks, have inadvertently hit this paradox by placing the attainment of cutie marks as their main goal. With this set so firmly as their end, they become overenthusiastic and fail to take the time to process and evaluate their experiences and to reflect on what they already love to do, as suggested by several characters but particularly Twilight and Applejack. Ironically, it is when they aren’t focused on getting a cutie mark are they able to best express what their special talent is, but their obsession over getting one has ironically made them blind to it. Instead, they focus on whatever it is they have declared themselves to be as “CUTIE MARK CRUSADER INSERT PROFESSSION HERE YAY!”.

Maybe someday they’ll make the connection and get their marks. Till then, I shall be joining Rainbow Dash’s reaction to it all.


*Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics: Book II, Chapter III, Section II

**If you’re interested, John Stuart Mill has an interesting discussion about the process of how the means to an end can often become mistaken as an end in of itself in Chapter IV of Utilitarianism. He specifically uses the example of how the act of getting money as a means for happiness (as in you use it to buy other things) can morph into loving money for its own sake and therefore become greed.

1 Comment

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One response to “Half Ponies Hedonistic Headaches: The CMC and the Paradox of Happiness

  1. Pingback: Half Ponies Hedonistic Headaches: The CMC and the Paradox of Happiness | MLP Analysis

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