Philosophers on Happiness

This weekend I was lucky enough to carve out some time to watch a few documentaries. In my twenties it surely wasn’t “cool” to spend a Saturday evening watching informational videos, but I am content to be in a place where “cool” no longer matters. In other words, I am officially my parents. In an effort to elevate peace and happiness for 2015, I thought I would share insights from some very influential philosophers and maybe even inspire you to embrace them into your own life. Socrates is perhaps the most well-known of all the great thinkers. He was a guy that walked the streets asking people the great questions that made them examine their lives. To do this now may raise a few eyebrows, but should it? When exactly did we stop questioning life? Or accepting common sense at face value? Socrates was on a mission to keep the general public from becoming “sheep”. A man many of us would argue we could use today. To learn from Socrates, question everything, including common sense. If we look back into the not so distant history, smoking was not only cool but beneficial to our health, and women couldn’t vote. Epicurus was not as well-known, and his books may not have been as widely read, but his philosophies on happiness are still valuable today. He believed there were 3 things needed to achieve this.

First were friends. He bought a home on a hill larger than anything he would ever need, and asked his closest friends to join him. They rose in the morning together and discussed the politics of the day. They drank wine in the evening and revelled in each other’s company. Friends are the key to life! We are the company we keep.

Freedom. Eventually Epicurus wanted to be out from under the town’s thumb. So, him and his friends moved away and started what would be known today as a commune and lived out their lives completely self-sufficient. Surely this is a hot topic today with the economy, and not only relying on the banks to hopefully help to shelter our families, but educational loans that in debt us, credit card interest which enslaves us, and mortgages which are incredibly profitable to the lenders. It’s nearly impossible to live without credit, or an identity within the governments eyes. A sometimes very stressful life.

Examine your Life. I find there are too many of us trotting through life thinking only about getting to the next pay check or even to retirement. The Buddha had said “It is better to travel well than to arrive” and finding pleasure in the journey should be the goal, not just the goal to be happy “someday”. There is an opportunity for bliss in every moment, joy in every step. Become wise to our patterns and habits can help to steer us onto our paths, instead of potentially following someone else’s.

Look at advertising and you will see the subliminal messages in the slogans and imagery swaying you to believe that purchasing a product will give you these things. Epicurus put up a wall outside the market proclaiming that true happiness cannot be purchased here. After my first Black Friday in the US, it is clear that the advertising industry has used the Epicurean principles so successfully people will go to crazy lengths to find it.

Seneca wrote extensively on overcoming anger to become happier. He believed anger was the most frenzied and hideous of emotions. He studied people from different social classes and came to a surprising conclusion. The wealthier the individual the angrier they seemed to be! He realized that the things that make us the angriest are the things that take us by surprise. The more money a person had, the more they believed they were immune to “surprises”, and became increasingly irate when the situations arose. Even today, you can see the patrons in a fine dining restaurant picking at any imperfections with increasing annoyance. Seneca had some advice on dealing with anger.

Become more Pessimistic. Every day when you get into your car, there is a good chance you may get cut off, or get into a traffic jam. Yet we get are so surprised when they happen. When you start expecting drivers to be bad, the bus to be occasionally late, and your boss to give you unrealistic demands, you might just notice that living in the world realistically keeps the anger at a controllable decibel.

Lower your expectations. Next time you are at the airport notice the differences between the First Class Line up versus the Coach customers. Doing a fair amount of travel myself, (all coach by the way), there is a noticeable difference in expected perfection by the Premium ticket holders, and inevitable disappointment throughout the flight.

Conforming your expectations to the world rather than expecting the world to conform to your expectations is the key to controlling and overcoming anger. Crucial in finding our way to Happiness. Montaigne was fascinated by one’s Self Esteem. He saw our inadequacies in three areas which seemed to be the most peculiar.

The Body. Unlike animals, we spend so much time obsessing over how we should look, how much we should weigh, our hair color, clothes and the list goes on. He suggests we learn to accept our bodies with grace and a little humour. Montaigne although wealthy, wrote books about his mundane life filled with bowel movements and masturbation. He spared no minute detail to point out that we are really all the same. All classes could relate to him on a personal level, and he was very popular in his day.

Becoming Judgemental. This was thinly guised way of propping oneself up to Montaigne. He saw the gossips and the ones so eager to point out another’s perceived flaw as a crutch in making one’s own ego larger. He felt there was a certain arrogance that came with people who thought they were the last word on what’s right in society.

Intellectual Inadequacy. Montaigne felt one could be wise with humility. Understanding the difference between wisdom versus knowledge is key here. Accepting even the greatest scholars have limitations, and knowing the far bigger dangers of becoming intellectually arrogant. Nietzsche talked at length about hardship. He wished illness to his friends and loss to his family. He hoped for these low times in the lives of the ones he cared for most, as this is the only way to get to true happiness. Difficulty is normal, and should be expected. Only through suffering can we reap the greatest joys. He likens our lives to becoming gardeners, who start with dark situations and through are perseverance can we cultivate the most beautiful of gardens. Every hardship is an opportunity to grow, to become aware our ourselves on a very deep level and nurture our true self, rather than the demanding ego in our heads.

On a personal note I have seen this first hand. Only through losing my first husband and childhood best friend, have I to have been able to see how deep sorrow can grow into an unbridled gratefulness and willingness to enjoy every last moment in life, because it is short, and if we don’t open our eyes to it, we just might miss it!

Bringing us the Schopenhauer, who was one of the very few philosophers to touch on love. He felt that love above all was the most important thing, because it alone propagates the species to reproduce. On this more scientific note, he also believed our attractions to our mates are based on cancelling out our own features to create balance in our offspring. If you are short, you may be attracted to someone tall. If you are completely logical all the time, you may fancy a mate who brings the inner child out of you. If this is true, than the next time you are rejected, think of it more as an imbalance of personalities/traits, rather than taking it too personally. Well, maybe still keep the evening of ice cream and romance movies, but in the sugar induced hangover the next morning, brush it off as nothing more that a biologically predetermined mis-match.

Have a couple of hours to spend? Watch the full documentary