Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness?

Alain de Botton is a Swiss/British writer, philosopher, television presenter and entrepreneur, living in the United Kingdom. In the following video series, Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness  de Botton features six influential thinkers by exploring their ideas about the pursuit of the good life:

Episode 1: Socrates on Self-Confidence

Why do so many people go along with the crowd and fail to stand up for what they truly believe? Partly because they are too easily swayed by other people’s opinions and partly because they don’t know when to have confidence in their own.

Episode 2: Epicurus on Happiness

British philosopher Alain De Botton discusses the personal implications of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270BCE) who was no epicurean glutton or wanton consumerist,but an advocate of “friends, freedom and thought” as the path to happiness.

Episodes 3-6 can be viewed below: 

Episode 3: Seneca on Anger

Roman philosopher Lucious Annaeus Seneca (4BCE-65CE), the most famous and popular philosopher of his day, took the subject of anger seriously enough to dedicate a whole book to the subject. Seneca refused to see anger as an irrational outburst over which we have no control. Instead he saw it as a philosophical problem and amenable to treatment by philosophical argument. He thought anger arose from certain rationally held ideas about the world, and the problem with these ideas is that they are far too optimistic. Certain things are a predictable feature of life, and to get angry about them is to have unrealistic expectations.

Episode 4: Montaigne on Self-Esteem

This episode looks at the problem of self-esteem from the perspective of Michel de Montaigne (16th Century), the French philosopher who singled out three main reasons for feeling bad about oneself – sexual inadequecy, failure to live up to social norms, and intellectual inferiority – and then offered practical solutions for overcoming them.

Episode 5: Schopenhauer on Love

De Botton surveys the 19th Century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) who believed that love was the most important thing in life because of its powerful impulse towards ‘the will-to-life’.

Episode 6: Nietzsche on Hardship

De Botton explores Friedrich Nietzsche‘s (1844-1900) dictum that any worthwhile achievements in life come from the experience of overcoming hardship. For him, any existence that is too comfortable is worthless, as are the twin refugees of drink or religion.

12 responses to “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness?

  1. Pingback: If A is best friends with B and C, will B and C get along too? | Curious Monkey 247·

  2. This post begs the question, in light of the stated theme of this website: ‘why happiness?’ And is there such a thing as a realist and authentic happiness?

    • I’m a bit wary of “authentic” talk as people are feeling something like happiness or they are not, the question (I think) is are such fleeting feeling states in the broader/long-term interests of the person and all that they care about or have they been short-changed, the old bread and circuses perhaps but also some of the many ‘built-in’ cognitive traps/dissonances. My lay analysands often complain that they feel worse not better during and after our sessions and I have to explain that this is how bad it feels to be aware of the fuller implications of their lives and yet I can see (and often they can feel if not understand) how being attuned in these ways greatly reduces the kind of anxious (losing my mind/way) feeling that a buddhist might associate as suffering (vs pain) and is like what Foucault was aiming for in his idea of fearless-speech, which may not win the day/cause but even in such a loss is better than the cost of not taking a stand (see the discussion of being-resolute in the dreydegger movie you just posted but with the difference that Bert&co tend to miss the deeper contingency at play, as Rorty pointed out to Bert and Spinosa).

      • I guess by authentic I mean something more than a passing state of pleasure-happiness. The Buddha is said to have taught that all life is inherently about suffering. If this is true then can happiness actually be accomplished, even as something like contentment? Is it better to be well-adapted rather than “happy”, or is it better to be “happy” in an ignorant-blissful sort of way than be adapted. Can happiness be a constant state or are we destined to darker emotions?

        I wonder if our vocabulary and concurrent modulations/cognitions of emotion and states of consciousness need to be revamped, in the sense that perhaps ‘happiness’ is a poor way on feeling and understanding in the world. Maybe there are states and structures (what I’d rather call orientations) to be developed that are more sophisticated and approirate to our life conditions that mere “happiness” or sadness or melancholy? Emergent contingencies?

        The issue, for me, which is almost secondary to the notion of personal happiness, is what we might call the politics of happiness: where there is a kind of blissful-ignorance that leads to the sort of supposed happiness found among wealthy elites who isolate/buffer themselves from the misery of the rest of humankind with creature comforts and useless accumulations of money and objects. If the owner of a mine is personally happy while spewing toxins downstream into the water supply of an aboriginal community that is a problem.

    • part of the existentialist concern with nihilism has to do with coming to terms with the limits of our response-abilities, as critterly-human-beings, and coming to terms with what exceeds our grasp.

      • …and of coming to terms with ‘limits’ of all sorts i suppose… what scares us most it the proposition that we really are all too human, and not the special pets of gods nor gods ourselves.

    • I think there is much to be developed in thinking about ways to uncouple our understandings of ‘quality of life’ with economic growth and consumerist modes of subsistence. Contentment and meaningful ways of being in the world were not invented by consumer-capitalism. And I think many people understand that a good life does not hinge on “economic prosperity” and commodity accumulation, but such are the systems we often have to live within: selling our labor for blocks of holidays and increasing opportunities for momentary access to the various mind-numbing spectacle-simulacra. (cf. the I Want Your Soul music video above)

      Current socioeconomic systems are geared towards extraction and the reorganization of matter, energy and existential sentiments, as well as keeping the machines going and capital flowing, and so have built-in defense (thru entertainment and ego-gratifying multi-media) against the possibility of humans’ cognizing the various crises in ways that might challenge the systems, even though most of us feel those tensions at a level below ideology.

      Also the human denial of death is thus amplified in these circumstances by machinic systems into all sorts of culturally promoted resistances to finitude and acknowledging the effects of the devouring entropic nature of consumer economics. This has now been rolled into what I have been calling The Icarus Complex: a hyper-modernist longing for all sorts of techno-transcendence – from iphones to imax to Second Life to nanotechnology to life extension to the religion of The Singularity. Human ego amplified by advanced technology.

      In this sense, then, I wonder if using philosophy as “a guide to happiness” is just another technical scheme to ward off finitude/death and the darkness following from the breakdown of transcendentalist belief?

      Episode 6 touches a bit on this but still…

      • I think that it is the struggle with being mortal (more about the limits of our powers, and how our desires/imaginations vastly outstrip them, and not a fear of death per say) that is the true/actual testing, and yes all too much of the ongoing philosophizing/theorizing hasn’t yet absorbed (and given our cognitive-biases may not be capable of even registering, so it’s not a matter of literally denying) just how limited we are in the face of greater worldly powers and how limited we are in our capacities for reorganizing. Forget the old pipe-dreams/blue-prints of epic heroism and engineering and come to terms with the tragic aspects of our all too human natures. Can we even make our way to the hard work of mourning let alone making new standards/ways of living that are more in scale/tune with our response-abilities? Can we help people (and each other) to pay fine-tuned attention to the actual goings on around them, to know what it means to be a human-being in the anthropocene like they know the smell of turned milk?

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