Updated: Oct 14, 2020
With this first of four posts concerning the major themes in Arthur Schopenhauer’s The Wisdom of Life, we will learn what the great German metaphysician taught about the construction of one’s own happiness. This might seem odd coming from a Pessimist who believed the fundamental error of humanity was the belief that we exist in order to be happy, but as Schopenhauer devoted much study to the sources of our unhappiness, he came to some brilliant insights on the cultivation of its antithesis.
Consumerism Falls Short
Advertising promises that if we drink this beer or buy that car, our days will be filled with fellowship and joy. We are taught to look for happiness outside ourselves, a trap which Schopenhauer warns strongly against:
“What a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what a man has.”
The empty promises of consumerism are most apparent in the fact that we are still buying things. If our acquisitions brought us the fulfillment they promised, we would not continue on acquiring. We’d be able to rest, our desires satiated. But we can’t do this. We humans have an uncanny ability to grow tired of the familiar, soon finding boredom where these treasures once brought joy.
“For what a man is in himself, what accompanies him when he is alone, what no one can give or take away, is obviously more essential to him than everything he has in the way of possessions..”
We are our constant companion, and though some favored trinket will occupy our attention for mere moments, we bring ourselves into every experience. The happiness of external pleasures is short-lived and does not truly touch us in our depths.What we are determines the quality of our experience far more than that which is experienced.
Ultimately, our happiness is contingent upon our ability to be happy.
Schopenhauer quotes Metrodorus, a student of Epicurus, to stress this truth:
“The happiness we receive from ourselves is greater than that which we obtain from our surroundings.”
The world is one of momentary fluidity. If we are to bind our well-being to external experiences which are at their very nature impermanent, we are tasked to constantly be chasing our happiness.
A Thought Experiment
We each face difficulties throughout our daily lives, many of which are beyond our control. Consider driving to work and getting a flat tire. There you are on the side of the highway, late for work. This is not what we had planned for our morning, we think. Even in imagination, we can feel the stress of such an event.
Now, envision the exact same experience, but replace your self with the Dalai Lama. Beyond the humor of imagining the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion on the side of I-295 with a tire iron, we can very quickly see in our mind’s eye that the mood has changed. What seemed stressful to us appears comical when presented to him. Why?
We perceive such a man as in possession of an unshakable equanimity. External circumstance seems trivial relative to a man of his depths. He is free from the vicissitudes of life because of who he has crafted himself to be.
With a simple thought experiment, we see that the same situation results in far different experiences depending upon what a man is.
Call To Action
We all seek happiness, but we do so inefficiently. We attempt to arrange our outer worlds to modulate inner experience. If we simply reverse our efforts, crafting ourselves rather than the world, we will find outer experience parallels our inward progression. This is why we must invest in ourselves, using various daily activities as means of spiritual training rather than ends in themselves.
When we focus on what we are becoming more so than what we are doing, we are investing in that which most determines our happiness, ourselves. This is the bulwark against unnecessary suffering. As Schopenhauer reminds us,
“In the end every one stands alone, and the important thing is who it is that stands alone.”
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