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Philosophy

How to be Happy

Arthur Schopenhauer is famous for his pessimistic philosophy. He believed the world was hell and that being on this world was just utter suffering, mostly inflicted by human beings who acted as the devils of this hell. He asked himself the question if it wouldn’t just be better to kill yourself. He also didn’t believe in free will as everything was determined by fate. Not a great way to view the world. Yet, he wrote quite a bit on how to be happy. He even gave the art of being happy a name: eudaimonology.

            So how does one become happy in this hellish world? Happiness doesn’t come from riches, sexual partners or professional achievements. According to Schopenhauer, happiness comes from the absence of pain. As he quotes Aristotle, the wise man does not pursue pleasure but the absence of pain. Pain is the condition we all find ourselves in. It is constantly lurking in this world. We cannot be happy while we’re in pain. No one is happy when they are in pain because their partner has died. Nor are we happy when we have been mistreated. We are constantly in such situations.

            The start is to acknowledge the painful and hellish situation we’re constantly in. And that we can actually remedy this. Instead of complaining about something else as the source of our suffering, we have to acknowledge that suffering happens within ourselves. Suffering is something that is subjectively determined. One thing might make me suffer, while it won’t suffer you. Someone might suffer because of the death of her parents, while someone else will be glad that they are gone.

Our suffering resides within ourselves. Once we acknowledge that, much of our suffering stops. By putting the suffering outside of you, you have something to complain about, which might give you some satisfaction but is disastrous in the long run, because then you can’t change this suffering. You can’t change how the world works, but you can change how you react to the world. We need to live, not how we want, but as we can, says Schopenhauer.

So, take responsibility for your suffering. We all suffer, how you deal with it is up to you. Instead of blaming the world, blame yourself for not taking up the burden of suffering. Try to alleviate your pain. Acknowledge your suffering and that of the world. As Schopenhauer says, a man who remains unmoved by the misfortune of existence shows that he knows how cruel the possible evils of the world can be. Taking responsibility for the alleviation of your suffering, is what Schopenhauer wants to achieve with his eudaimonology.

He proceeds to give 50 rules on how to be happy, some of which I have used here already. Some are just practical rules like focusing your vision or that you should listen to reason. Others are more philosophical in nature. What they all have in common is that they try to alleviate the suffering you will feel in this world.

Ultimately Schopenhauer opts for a stoic approach of apatheia meaning indifference. This is indifference to things beyond your control and because the world is subjugated by fate, everything is out of your control. This does not mean that you don’t have emotions, but rather that you can subject your emotions to reason and thus have the appropriate emotion at the appropriate time. When you are indifferent towards things, you won’t have pain anymore. Or rather, your pain will correspond with what is causing it. When you do this, you’ll be happy.

Much can be said for the art of being happy. Yet is it the case that the absence of pain is what makes us happy? I would disagree. Take for example studying to get a degree and let’s say for the sake of argument that you do it not for someone else but because you want to do so. Studying will take a lot of time and effort. While studying you’ll suffer when you try to learn that point that one philosopher made about that other one. It’s hard work getting a degree, as it should be. But isn’t it rather because of the suffering that it is meaningful that you have gotten that degree? You worked really hard for it and it was rewarded by the thing that you desire. It wasn’t the absence of pain that granted you happiness. Rather, it was the meaningfulness of your suffering which provided you with happiness. It’s because the suffering meant something that we feel happy about the result. That is why countless of people proceed to do things that inflict them pain in order to try and be happy. Staying in an oppressive relationship in the hope that it will all be worth it. Blowing yourself up in the hope that your suffering will be recognized by God.

Happiness is a by-product of meaning. You can’t just be happy all the time. If your goal is to be happy, you’re done for. Because times will come when you won’t be. Where even the future seems so unsure that you wonder if you’ll ever be happy again. If happiness is your goal at that moment, good luck. Meaning on the other hand, is something much more lasting and robust. Bad things will happen, the world is hell. But you can find peace in the fact that it means something. Of course, you first have to believe that things can have meaning, but that is a question for another discussion.

Schopenhauer saw a world of suffering and pain. He had no answer for how someone should act in such a world. His response was to alleviate your suffering by becoming indifferent towards it. This is not sustainable. You’ll never achieve the great apatheia, because pain will always be felt. This is the pessimism in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. He didn’t see a remedy for the pain. But a remedy was needed. Who would have thought a sickly German philosopher who had more suffering in his life than some of us could bare, named Nietzsche would be the one to introduce optimism in Schopenhauer’s philosophy? Sometimes it’s the people who have suffered the most that end up being the most optimistic of us all.

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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