Philosophy and happiness

Achieving Happiness Through Philosophy

How can philosophy make you happy?

How best to live your life, or relieve suffering of the mind, is a recurring theme in the works of many of the great philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Mill.

Have you ever wondered how best to live your life and how to find true happiness? You may not yet have found the answer. But why try to re-invent the wheel? Some philosophers over the last two and a half thousand years have applied a great deal of careful and systematic thinking to understanding how best to live your life.

Philosophy can help you understand how best to live your life, and how others live theirs.

Philosophy is defined by some as 'love of wisdom'. It uses reason and argument to gain knowledge of the world we live in. Knowledge can be acquired in many ways, including through education. As Aristotle said, "Education is the best provision for the journey to old age." As we use doctors to solve physical problems, we should use philosophers when our soul is unwell.1

"Just as medicine confers no benefit if it does not drive away physical illness, so philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind."2

The latter part of Socrates' life was taken up up by him trying to impart his ethical views into the lives of the citizens of Athens. Plato described how he analysed the different elements of the human mind and concluded that its well-being, full development and happiness are achieved by behaving ethically.

Kirkegaard considered how it was possible to live an ethical life, but concluded that the solely ethical life was a non-starter. There is more to life than just ethical behavior; but equally, life without an ethical dimension is also a non-starter. Kirkegaard considered that life must also consist of an aesthetic (hedonistic?) element, and ultimately a religious element too.

Plato himself reached a similar conclusion. Although rather puritan in his approach to the aesthetic side of human behavior, he believed that life should be lived ethically; and he also believed in the existance of god.

Epicurus was said to have lived a promiscuous or hedonistic lifestyle to the full, before realizing the error of his ways. In fact, he lent his name to the 'epicurian' lifestyle. However, he eventually realised that it was not possible to achieve enduring happiness without living a virtuous, ethical lifestyle.

On the other hand, there were some philosophers who, despite having brilliant intellects, found happiness an anathema. Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Machiavelli all wrote little about the achievement of happiness; but maybe it was because each had their own good reasons.

Happiness an anathema

Schopenhauer was perhaps the greatest pessimist in the history of philosophy; Heidegger lived in Germany during the Nazi era, and he even embraced Nazism at the outset; Nietzsche was plagued by illness until he died insane, and Machiavelli seemed to believe that ethical behavior didn't bring much benefit.

Machiavelli believed more in unscrupulous ruthless cunning than honesty and integrity. However, his interests were in the world of political leadership, and he argued that excessively merciful leadership would do more harm to a community through disorder than cruel leadership that maintains order through fear. He may well have been right in the world he lived in, but it is still possible to be a leader with strength, fortitude and the ability to act quickly and decisively, and at the same time behave ethically. Take Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela for example.

The great philosophers guide us towards not only answering the question of how to live a morally and ethically good life, but also a great deal more in understanding the nature of reality, and other issues necessary to understand the world in which we live.

The view of Socrates was that the goal of philosophy is to seek truth and to live justly. Some 2500 years later, contemporary philosopher, O'Hear, states concisely the only way real enduring happiness can be achieved.

"There cannot be true self-esteem without self-worth, and self-worth has to be earned. Nor is there real happiness outside of a life well lived, of which happiness is the by-product."3

Boosts to your self-esteem achieved by self-aggrandisement, the denigration of others, shopping or drugs are only transient. Trying to insulate yourself from lifes' challenges through filling your time with distractions such as junk television programmes or drinking alcohol to excess will only serve to lower your self-esteem further over time. This behavior, using 'quick fixes' to boost your ego, is described by Kierkegaard as aesthetic.

In contrast, being honest with yourself and others, facing up to the challenges of life, both physical and emotional, and overcoming them, builds character, self-belief, self-esteem and self-worth; with which comes the much sought after by-product of happiness. This behavior is described by Kierkegaard as ethical. And an ethical person is still capable of aesthetic enjoyment. Aristotle wrote:

"I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self."

For more information about the great philosophers and their views on narcissism and happiness, read Finding Happiness.

1 De Botton, Alain, (2000), The Consolations of Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, p. 55.
2 Epicurus, in De Botton, Alain, (2000), The Consolations of Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, p. 55.
3 O'Hear, Anthony (2006), Plato's Children: the State We Are In, Gibson Square, London, p. 225.