Schopenhauer on Happiness

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

With the 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.

Whether through the addition of pleasure or removal of pain, all our efforts are toward happiness. 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 our happiness outside ourselves which Schopenhauer warns strongly against:

“What a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what a man has.”

In regards to materialism, the empty promises of consumerism is most apparent in the fact that we are still buying things. 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. What we are determines our quality of experience far more than that which is experienced. The happiness of external pleasures is short-lived and does not truly touch us in our depths.

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.

Consider the daily difficulties we face, be them a flat-tire while driving or getting a stain on your shirt moments before leaving for work. Even in imagination we can feel the stress of these events.

Now, envision the exact same experience, but replace your self with the Dalai Lama.

Beyond the humor of imaging the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion on the side of 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 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.

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.

If our focus is on what we are becoming more so than what we are doing, we are investing in that which most determines our happiness, ourselves.

“In the end every one stands alone, and the important thing is who it is that stands alone.”


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