The Surest Way Out of Misery | Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer is infamous for his pessimistic outlook on life. He saw life on Earth as a cosmic disaster and felt that the universe would have been a better place without it. Human existence, as a whole, he compared to a prison sentence. And he also claimed that our lives are not inherently enjoyable but miserable, as our pain vastly outweighs our pleasure. 

Like any other species, humans are motivated by a universal force called will, or will-to-live, which usually dictates our behavior, as most of us are utterly and unknowingly enslaved by it. Hence, according to Schopenhauer, the vast majority of people set themselves up for a lot of pain, pursuing the wrong things.

By and large, we tend to make poor life choices because the will-to-live controls us, and we lack the strength and intelligence to operate otherwise. We usually chase worldly pleasures, like playing card games, entertaining friends, or otherwise exciting activities that relieve us from the pain of boredom.

But despite the blackness of his worldview, Schopenhauer also comes up with solutions to make life endurable on this terrible, desolate rock infested by continual suffering. In his work Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit (in English: Aphorisms on the Wisdom of Life), he presents his ideas on how we can live our lives in such a way that we prevent misery as much as possible.

This video explores his view on the wrong ways of living our lives and their consequences, but also on the surest path to a not so miserable and, God forbid, possibly even enjoyable existence.

Arthur Schopenhauer presents us with a fundamental division between three aspects that decide our fate. The first one he mentions is ‘what someone is,’ the second one, ‘what someone has,’ and the last one, ‘how someone stands in the estimation of others.’ Each of them has its upsides and downsides. But Schopenhauer concludes nevertheless that ‘what someone is’ predominantly decides the quality of one’s well-being. And thus, within our personality, in the broadest sense of the word, hides the key to making life less miserable. 

However, it’s essential to explore the other two aspects, even if it’s just to remind ourselves where not to put our money. Also, it may drastically alter how we view things like possessions and status and reconsider the value we give them. Aren’t we wasting our time pursuing what Marcus Aurelius called the “clacking of tongues?” meaning the audience’s approval? And what’s the proper role of money in our lives? We begin our exploration with the aspect: ‘what someone has.’

What someone has

If the 19th-century philosopher Schopenhauer would witness today’s mass consumerism diseased culture, he would probably shake his head at us in disapproval. Schopenhauer was well aware of the human tendency to accumulate material possessions and financial resources as a means to purchase them: people buy stuff because they think this makes them happy. 

But following Schopenhauer’s fundamental beliefs on the nature of happiness, the accumulation of property is a human way of reducing pain, the latter being the positive force that has come to an end by the purchase or gain. In the context of consumerism, the positive force (or pain) manifests as boredom and a sense of lack, as opposed to the negative force, which is simply the quenching of one’s thirst. So, happiness is merely the ending of a painful desire. And often this temporary ceasing of suffering can be incredibly short-lived, or not even take place at all.

According to Schopenhauer, this is because the extent to which people can fulfill their material desires drastically varies per person:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to define the limits which reason should impose on the desire for wealth; for there is no absolute or definite amount of wealth which will satisfy a man. The amount is always relative, that is to say, just so much as will maintain the proportion between what he wants and what he gets; for to measure a man’s happiness only by what he gets, and not also by what he expects to get, is as futile as to try and express a fraction which shall have a numerator but no denominator. 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.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, Chapter III. — Property, or what a man has

How much do we need to feel content? And what does the obtained object require to be maintained? Moreover, when wealth forms the basis of contentment, we subject ourselves to the law of diminishing returns. What elated us in the past may leave us unsatisfied in the present. And so, we need more and more to maintain our baseline happiness and not to fall prey to the agony of boredom. Unfortunately, looking at the current condition of society, boredom is becoming more and more prevalent, despite the exponentially growing availability of entertainment and stuff to buy. The modern human seems to be increasingly jaded. And to relieve himself from the pain of overindulgence, he keeps chasing the very thing that caused it in the first place.

According to Schopenhauer, however, evil is not in money itself but in how we treat money. He describes that some people earn a lot of money but spend it quickly and fall back into poverty. And that other people succeed in maintaining their capital and even increase it but are nevertheless dissatisfied. One lives in ongoing poverty, as he doesn’t have the skills to escape, which produces pain. Another is wealthy from birth but never stimulated to fight for his place in society or develop valuable skills. Life delivers him, wrote Schopenhauer: “up to the other extreme of human suffering, boredom, which is such martyrdom to him, that he would have been better off if poverty had given him something to do.” End quote. 

Schopenhauer argues that the best use for money is that it makes one independent, allows one to live comfortably without having to work, and functions as a bulwark against evils and misfortunes. So, we could say that he advocated for financial independence so we are masters over our time, but don’t fall into boredom.

How someone stands in the estimation of others

Most people probably regard other people’s opinions as significant in deciding how they live their lives. But aside from it being a natural tendency, Schopenhauer finds it hard to explain why people continually rejoice in the approval of others, like cats inevitably purring when someone pets them. He sees this tendency as a weakness, as it’s pretty evident that other people’s opinions in themselves are unimportant to our happiness.

Yet, we continue worrying about the thoughts of our fellow humans, even if we don’t know them personally. But Schopenhauer admits that the human tendency to care about their reputation has its merits. Copious amounts of people keep walking in line because of their inclination to maintain good standing and honor.

We can see this phenomenon with a fictional race in the Star Trek series called the Klingons. Their idea of honor works like cement to keep a violent, intense people of warriors in check, as the way their kinsmen perceive them forms the essence of their identity. As Schopenhauer observed, honor can work as a substitute for morality. However, he also mentions that the effect of such reputation-driven mentalities will be detrimental to one’s peace of mind. Hence, Klingons are brave, strong, powerful, feared throughout the galaxy, but they also seem pretty unhappy, disturbed individuals by and large.

The content of people’s minds is, in most cases, pretty overrated. Schopenhauer mentions that people’s thoughts are futile, ideas are narrow, sentiments mean, opinions perverse, and mostly based on error. And thus, isn’t the most rational stance to people’s minds one of indifference?

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; and, consequently, that the actual conditions of our personal life,—health, temperament, capacity, income, wife, children, friends, home, are a hundred times more important for our happiness than what other people are pleased to think of us: otherwise we shall be miserable. And if people insist that honor is dearer than life itself, what they really mean is that existence and well-being are as nothing compared with other people’s opinions.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, Chapter IV.— Position, or a man’s place in the estimation of others 

What someone is

Who we are and, thus, how we see and experience the outside world, decides how we feel. It forms the lens through which we experience the world and the apparatus which processes the information our senses perceive. All of our possessions, wealth, and standing with others are subservient to how we position ourselves to these external circumstances. Some people have gained fortune and fame but are simultaneously more miserable than when they were poor and unknown. In such cases, what’s the actual value of wealth and fame? How someone is, determines the value. Or as Schopenhauer states:

(…) what a man is contributes much more to his happiness than what he has, or how he is regarded by others. What a man is, and so what he has in his own person, is always the chief thing to consider; for his individuality accompanies him always and everywhere, and gives its color to all his experiences. In every kind of enjoyment, for instance, the pleasure depends principally upon the man himself.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life, Chapter II. — Personality, or what a man is

Perhaps unexpectedly from the pessimistic philosopher, Schopenhauer praises a quality he calls “genial flow of good spirits.” He points to the human capacity of simply being happy and cheerful for no particular reason other than being so. Being happy for being happy has its own instant reward and, according to Schopenhauer, “can so completely replace the loss of every other blessing.”

Being able to do what fits our personality in terms of how we spend our time will smooth the way for contentment. For example, someone inclined to intellectual activities shouldn’t do menial work. And someone with the strength of Hercules probably shouldn’t go for a sedentary job. Also, according to Schopenhauer, physical and mental health is the most significant contributor to cheerfulness. If one feels good, mentally and physically, the most simple things become pleasurable, and no money nor fame will be required to put a smile on one’s face.

The surest way out of misery

Cheerfulness is the best antidote to misery. Money cannot buy it, nor can fame. And the more we pursue these external objects, the more we scare cheerfulness away. Chasing wealth and prominence just for the sake of these things is no way out of misery. We’ll not only feel stressed because of the chase; we fall prey to boredom as well, as many forms of pleasure leave us ultimately unfulfilled.

On the other hand, living in constant scarcity won’t help either, as we’ll spend our time working jobs we hate and have no time to do what we like. But if we manage our lives in ways that make us receptive to it, cheerfulness might knock on our door more often. And if that happens, Schopenhauer encourages us to throw the door wide open.

Schopenhauer states that the surest remedy not to be too unhappy is that one doesn’t desire to be very happy. Judging by his writings we could say that this remedy means finding contentment in things that are durable, widely available, pleasurable but not harmful. He subscribes to the idea that, essentially, we shouldn’t focus on gaining pleasure but on avoiding pain.

In the view of Schopenhauer, cheerfulness isn’t a ‘positive emotion,’ but rather a state of little pain that ensues independently from external circumstances. He goes deeper into this in the second part of his book, where he presents his fifty-three rules for life.

A life devoid of suffering would be ideal, but very difficult to reach, and only a few people try, like Buddhist monks. Hence, his rules are meant for the average person, whom he doesn’t advise to become an ascetic but to pursue his pleasures wisely, and necessarily sacrifice them to avoid pain.

Schopenhauer recommends so-called “higher” pleasures – the pleasures of sensibility – such as reading, meditation, philosophy, and a taste for poetry, music, or culture. Compared to many other ‘lower’ pleasures, we can relish those endlessly and generally without unhealthy consequences for the body and mind. Picking up a book, sitting in silence, listening to music, writing, studying ideas is generally safe and won’t require us to be rich and reputable. And the potential joy it brings is a priceless consolation in the midst of an existence characterized by pain.

Thank you for watching.