Schopenhauer on Happiness

Schopenhauer on Happiness

Happiness consists in a frequent repetition of pleasure.

The Essays of Arthur Schopenhauer: the Wisdom of Life comprise Schopenhauer’s reflections on “how to lead a happy existence” — one which “would be decidedly preferable to non-existence; implying that we should cling to it for its own sake, and not merely from the fear of death.”

Paradoxically, he begins by conceding that his own philosophical system, laid out in The World as Will and Representation, denies that such an existence could possibly exist. For to live is to strive endlessly in order to satisfy an insatiable will to life. Being insatiable, humans are by nature bound to be always unsatisfied, and even in achieving our goals we only create an empty space in which the ever-present will to life is plagued by boredom.

Nevertheless he continues, but not without remarking that “in elaborating the scheme of a happy existence, I have had to make a complete surrender of the higher metaphysical and ethical standpoint to which my own theories lead; and everything I shall say here will to some extent rest upon a compromise; in so far, that is, as I take the common standpoint of every day, and embrace the error which is at the bottom of it.”

Division of the human lot

Schopenhauer divides the human lot into three distinct classes:

  1. What a person is: personality, health, temperament, intelligence, moral character etc.
  2. What a person has: property and wealth.
  3. How a person stands in the estimation of others: the opinions people hold about them.

Personality, or What a Person Is.

The first and most essential element in our life’s happiness is what we are,—our personality, if for no other reason than that it is a constant factor coming into play under all circumstances.

According to Schopenhauer, personality is by far the most important contributor to a person’s happiness, since it “accompanies him always and everywhere, and gives its colour to all his experiences.”

He reinforces this idea multiple times throughout the essay. “Every man is pent up within the limits of his own consciousness” he says, and thus “even with perfectly similar surroundings every one lives in a world of his own.” Continuing, “the life of every man is stamped with the same character throughout, however much his external circumstances may alter.” Again, “no one can get beyond his own individuality.”

Schopenhauer thinks it wise to recognise the character of our own personality and to live accordingly: “the only thing that stands in our power to achieve, is to make the most advantageous use possible of the personal qualities we possess, and accordingly to follow such pursuits only as will call them into play.” Also, “pleasure always involves the use of one’s own powers, and happiness consists in a frequent repetition of pleasure.”

In elaborating which personal qualities are most beneficial to a person’s happiness, he says “a noble nature, a capable head, a joyful temperament, bright spirits, a well-constituted, perfectly sound physique, in a word, mens sana in corpore sano, are the first and most important elements in happiness.”

Of these qualities, he sees a cheerful temperament as the greatest: “of all these, the one which makes us the most directly happy is a genial flow of good spirits; for this excellent quality is its own immediate reward. The man who is cheerful and merry has always a good reason for being so,—the fact, namely, that he is so.”

That is the highest blessing for beings like us, whose existence is but an infinitesimal moment between two eternities. To secure and promote this feeling of cheerfulness should be the supreme aim of all our endeavours after happiness.

To promote this feeling of cheerfulness, he describes good health and thus daily exercise as the most important factor: “it is certain that nothing contributes so little to cheerfulness as riches, or so much, as health,” and later “good health is by far the most important element in human happiness.” The importance of health “may be seen by comparing the influence which the same external circumstances or events have upon us when we are well and strong with the effects which they have when we are depressed and troubled with ill-health.”

Schopenhauer then goes on to describe boredom as a major impediment to happiness, and calls a wealthy mind the best remedy for it. Boredom is born out of the lack of anything to strive after in spite of the insatiable will to life which always requires such striving, and is innate in all human beings. He says “the original purpose of those forces with which nature has endowed man is to enable him to struggle against the difficulties which beset him on all sides. But if this struggle comes to an end, his unemployed forces become a burden to him.” Therefore,

The two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom.

In combating boredom, he says “nothing is so good a protection against such misery as inward wealth, the wealth of the mind, because the greater it grows, the less room it leaves for boredom. The inexhaustible activity of thought!” This is particularly important in old age, when all other sources of happiness dry up, and only what a person has in themselves remains.

According to Schopenhauer, people often “run to trivialities” in order to appease the boredom that accompanies leisure, whereas wise people will seek out such leisure since it gives them room to pursue their own intellectual interests. Similarly, he writes “the more a man has in himself, the less he will want from other people,—the less, indeed, other people can be to him. This is why a high degree of intellect tends to make a man unsocial.” On the other hand, the fool seeks pastime and society as soon as he finds leisure, “avoiding nothing so much as himself,” for “the fool in fine raiment groans under the burden of his miserable personality.” “As a rule,” he writes, “it will be found that a man is sociable just in the degree in which he is intellectually poor and generally vulgar.”

Speaking of a high degree of intellect, he says “the happiest destiny on earth is to have the rare gift of a rich individuality, and, more especially to be possessed of a good endowment of intellect.” Of such a person, he writes “what external promptings he wants come from the works of nature, and from the contemplation of human affairs and the achievements of the great of all ages and countries.”

Property, or What a Person Has.

Discontent springs from a constant endeavour to increase the amount of our claims, when we are powerless to increase the amount which will satisfy them.

Schopenhauer recognises the value of wealth insofar as it allows one to be at leisure, free from the need to strive after what is needed for survival, and thus allows a person to concentrate on the more important factor in human happiness: personality, or what a person is. He puts it thus: “external circumstances must be favourable enough to allow a man to be master of his life and happiness.”

However, wealth in and of itself does not lead to happiness, for there can never be enough of it as we always expect more. When we amass wealth and property in times of good fortune, our expectations expand, and it is precisely this growth of expectations which delights us. However, “when the expansion is complete, the delight ceases; we have become accustomed to the increase in our claims, and consequently indifferent to the amount of wealth which satisfies them.”

A man never feels the loss of things which it never occurs to him to ask for; he is just as happy without them; whilst another, who may have a hundred times as much, feels miserable because he has not got the one thing he wants. In fact, here too, every man has an horizon of his own, and he will expect as much as he thinks it is possible for him to get. If an object within his horizon looks as though he could confidently reckon on getting it, he is happy; but if difficulties come in the way, he is miserable. What lies beyond his horizon has no effect at all upon him. So it is that the vast possessions of the rich do not agitate the poor, and conversely, that a wealthy man is not consoled by all his wealth for the failure of his hopes. Riches, one may say, are like sea-water; the more you drink the thirstier you become; and the same is true of fame.

Position, or a Person’s Place in the Estimation of Others.

We should add very much to our happiness by a timely recognition of the simple truth that every man’s chief and real existence is in his own skin, and not in other people’s opinions.

Schopenhauer warns that we should limit the effect we allow other people’s opinions to have on our happiness, otherwise “a man is the slave of what other people are pleased to think” and “a man is in a very bad way, who finds no source of happiness in the first two classes of blessings already treated of, but has to seek it in the third.”

“The sphere of what we are for other people is their consciousness, not ours,” he writes, and as such “can affect us only mediately and indirectly, so far, that is, as other people’s behaviour towards us is directed by it; and even then it ought to affect us only in so far as it can move us to modify what we are in and for ourselves.”

Worrying less over other people’s opinions is difficult because “the impulse in question is a natural and innate perversity of human nature.” Further, “the anxieties of all of us, our worries, vexations, bothers, troubles, uneasy apprehensions and strenuous efforts are due, in perhaps the large majority of instances, to what other people will say.”

Nevertheless, doing so results in “an addition to our piece of mind and cheerfulness” and allows us to present “a firmer and more confident front to the world, and generally behave with less embarrassment and restraint.”

We can do so be realising “how superficial and futile are most people’s thoughts, how narrow their ideas, how mean their sentiments, how perverse their opinions, and how much of error there is in most of them.” As such, “to lay great value upon what other people say is to pay them too much honour.”

Further, we should recognise that their opinions have little consequence or positive influence on our lives: “the truth is that the value we set upon the opinion of others, and our constant endeavour in respect of it, are each quite out of proportion to any result we may reasonably hope to attain.”

The only way of putting an end to this universal folly is to see clearly that it is a folly; and this may be done by recognising the fact that most of the opinions in men’s heads are apt to be false, perverse, erroneous and absurd, and so in themselves unworthy of attention; further, that other people’s opinions can have very little real and positive influence upon us in most of the circumstances and affairs of life.

Of pride, Schopenhauer says that it is generally thought of as something of a vice, “which is generally found fault with, and cried down,” but usually by those who have nothing on which to pride themselves. He advises instead that “anyone who possesses any kind of superiority or merit will do well to keep his eyes fixed on it if he does not want it to be entirely forgotten; for if a man is good-natured enough to ignore his own privileges, and hob-nob with the generality of other people, as if he were quite on their level, they will be sure to treat him, frankly and candidly, as one of themselves.”

He also says that “the cheapest sort of pride is national pride; for if a man is proud of his own nation, it argues that he has no qualities of his own of which he can be proud.”

Speaking of honour, Schopenhauer says that it has an indirect but very important role in our happiness. The kind of honour he describes is something akin to respect, which he calls civic honour — the kind of respect that does not have to be won, but only kept, as it is difficult to regain once lost. This kind of honour is important because “in all we do we need the help of others, and they, in their turn, must have confidence in us before they can have anything to do with us.” It is useful because “it is only in society that a man’s powers can be called into full activity,” and only if we remain an honourable person can we garner the help of society. Therefore, “all honour really rests upon a utilitarian basis.”

Another kind of honour Schopenhauer calls knightly honour, which existed prominently in his time. It is the kind of honour that can be degraded by an insult, rudeness, or a physical attack, and must be regained by reciprocating such vulgarity with at least as much force. He speaks about how this kind of honour isn’t found amongst the ancients, or in Asian civilisations, and that “its existence obviously dates from the time when people used their fists more than their heads.”

The proper response to such an attack is to ignore it as something of no importance. He quotes Socrates who, after being kicked, had surprised his friends with his tolerance, said “do you think that if an ass happened to kick me, I should resent it?”

One needn’t react to such an insult, says Schopenhauer, since “a man must himself have but a poor opinion of his own worth who hastens to prevent the utterance of an unfavourable opinion by giving his enemy a black eye. True appreciation of his own value will make a man really indifferent to insult.”

Fame, says Schopenhauer, is “exposed to all the chances of fate,” and as such is not to be sought after in the pursuit of happiness. Rather, “It is the possession of a great heart or a great head, and not the mere fame of it, which is worth having, and conducive to happiness. Not fame, but that which deserves to be famous, is what a man should hold in esteem.”

Other people’s heads are a wretched place to be the home of a man’s true happiness.