I am going to have some fun today, so if you are interested in less frivolous subjects affecting your immediate economic future, I suggest you read Saturday's post Government Spending And The Economy — A No-Win Situation.
I read some Schopenhauer about seven years ago, but those years are a blur now; my life had fallen apart. My interest in Arthur was rekindled recently when a reader (on another blog) explained why he thought I was the Schopenhauer of our times. And then political philosopher John Gray praised Schopenhauer in his book Straw Dogs, which I recently read.
However, I was prompted to write this post when I ran across an article called Schopenhauer’s Extreme Self-Help for Pessimists. I thought that article was very funny in a dark kind of way, but for those of you who yearn for something serious, I promise you this post does have a point, although some of you will think me extremely arrogant for making it. Let's take that potential criticism off the table right now. I am extremely arrogant, case closed
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was such an extreme pessimist that he thought we live in the worst of all possible worlds and happiness is an illusion. This is what makes it surprising that he wrote a best-selling book containing a self-help section. And yet he did. Although calling it self-help is somewhat misleading; the main aim of his advice was really reducing misery...
Schalkx and Bergsma, in an article  published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, argue that it is possible to evaluate Schopenhauer's advice by comparing it with modern psychological findings on life satisfaction.
To do this they first examine Schopenhauer's advice, which can be split into three parts. First are his general rules for life, second, how we should manage our relationship with ourselves and, third, how to manage our relationships with other...
The Journal of Happiness Studies. Oh, my! Schalkx and Bergsman believe they can evaluate Arthur Schopenhauer's advice. Perhaps you can start to see where this going. Let's start with Arthur's advice.
General rules for life
In short, the key to making life bearable for Schopenhauer was simply this: extremely low expectations.
Here I did Arthur one better. Actually, two better. About a decade ago, I was striving to have no expectations of life and other people. It was surprising how hard this was to achieve, for the Hope is buried very deep within us. Just as I was on the verge of achieving no expectations, I realized the situation was even worse than I thought—I would need to have negative expectations.
Happily, I now achieve this realistic state of mind on occasion. The advantages are obvious: 1) if other people exceed those negative expectations, I can be pleased; and 2) people sometimes do meet my negative expectations, for example in the outrageous comments they make on this blog. On the other hand, Paul Krugman always meets my expectations
We live, thought Schopenhauer, in the worst of all possible worlds, constantly on the brink of destruction. Our will, or our desires, are continually demanding things from the world that cannot always be satisfied. And so we are continually frustrated.
Even when our desires are satisfied it will only be brief. This satisfaction will then lead to an increase in our desires and, ultimately, to boredom when our desires are finally exhausted.
Life, then, is suffering (an idea well-known to Buddhists). The answer for Schopenhauer was not to seek happiness, but to try and get through life with the minimum of suffering. His goal was for a bearable life.
Happily, that is now my goal also—a minimum of suffering. Even then, I fail to achieve it most days.
This is all excellent advice. I still have trouble accepting misfortune for which I am not responsible.
Our relationship with ourselves
Here are some practical suggestions Schopenhauer put forward for managing ourselves:
- Live in the present, making it as painless as possible.
- Make good use of the only thing we can control, our own minds.
- Our personality is central to our level of happiness.
- Set limits everywhere: limits on anger, desires, wealth and power. Limitations lead to something like happiness.
- Accept misfortunes: only dwell on them if we're responsible.
- Seek out solitude, other people rob us of our identities.
- Keep busy.
My natural impulse is to treat others with kindness, but Arthur's observation is true in my experience as well. I've often seen others assume an obnoxious, unwarranted arrogance with me as a result of my kindness toward them, which then sometimes compels me to tell them what I actually think of their foolish, uninformed, corn-pone or crazy opinions about various things. Relations become strained after that
Our relationship with others
For Schopenhauer relationships with others are mainly sources of stress and hurt. As far as he was concerned true friendship is a near impossibility. As a result his advice is mostly aimed at protecting us from the inevitable damage other people will cause us:
- People are selfish: they are easily flattered and easily offended. Their opinions can be bought and sold for the right price. Because of this friendship is usually motivated by self-interest.
- Behaving with kindness towards others causes them to be arrogant: therefore other people must be treated with some disregard.
- Displaying your intelligence makes you incredibly unpopular: people don't like to be reminded of their inferiority.
- Truly exceptional people prefer to be on their own because ordinary people are annoying.
- Accept that the world is filled with fools, they cannot change and neither can you.
I'm trying. I don't always succeed.
But now things take a different turn, as the psychologists attempt to separate what Schopenhauer got right from what he got wrong.
What Schopenhauer got right
Nowadays, of course, psychological research tells us a lot more about the conditions of happiness in the modern world. So how does Schopenhauer's advice stack up? Schalkx and Bergsma (in press) argue that a couple of Schopenhauer's self-help principles do indeed stand the test of time.
I'll skip directly to what Arthur allegedly got wrong, making comments along the way. This list is not complete.
1. Don't seek status — Probably wrong.
Studies often find correlations between higher status and higher levels of happiness.
God damn! What if you seek status and do not achieve it? I guess you're pretty fucked then. This is also a rejection of Buddhism. If you seek status, and do achieve it, congratulations! — you are now a satisfied monkey in the Monkey Hierarchy. Good job! Let the suffering continue!
And seeking status means endless involvement with other people, which leads to Arthur's second piece of "bad" advice—
2. Avoid people — Definitely wrong.
Social bonds are highly correlated with happiness.
JFC! What if you find ordinary people annoying as Arthur and I do? The wretched fact is that we find (or found) them annoying because they are annoying. Wasn't it that hosebag Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote Hell is other people? Schopenhauer is turning over in his grave.
4. Avoid problems — Mostly wrong.
Setting goals and following our dreams both involve dealing with the world and overcoming problems.
Having very low expectations and avoiding trouble probably result in failing to achieve. Research finds that goal-setting and facing and overcoming problems are associated with happiness.
For once, I am speechless. Go ahead, follow your dreams. Go ahead, "overcome" some problems. Why don't you start with something easy? Like corrupt governance and social inequality in the United States? After you fix those, why don't you solve our global warming problem? Please do! After you fix that, you can tackle human-caused degradation of the oceans.
Make it so!
Now we get to the heart of the matter.
Does Schopenhauer's advice benefit the extreme pessimist?
As you'll have gathered, Schopenhauer was the kind of chap who always thought the glass was half-empty.
Modern psychology shows that pessimism has some negative consequences, for example having lower well-being and being seen in a negative light by others.
On the other hand optimists have all sorts of advantages, like faster recovery from negative events.
Rather than delay your gratification any longer, I will state the fundamental difficulty (and astonishing stupidity) of this nonsensical "evaluation" of Schopenhauer's advice.
Schopenhauer was writing the rules for people like him and me. I don't know why he bothered. There are very few people in the world like Schopenhauer and me. I guess he was keeping busy. Good advice!
These psychologists are defining the rules of happiness for ordinary people, people who Schopenhauer and I find annoying. As such, they do not and can not understand what Schopenhauer is talking about because these psychologists are also ordinary people who study ordinary people. As such, they are clueless.
Imagine the unwarranted, blind arrogance of saying that modern psychological research can tell us what Schopenhauer got right and what he got wrong. Jesus wept.
Ordinary (dumb or unconscious) people will never figure out what exceptional (smart or conscious) people are up to. I see that everyday.
That is the bottom line. And on that cheerful note, I will conclude this Sunday post.
Bonus Video — Engage! Make it so!