Lessons in Practical Pessimism

This essay is about an experience I recently had and is annotated with six notes that we can learn from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

I recently boarded an airplane, after a two-week long vacation, at a London Heathrow terminal. Suffering from a vacation hangover, I was, needless to say, looking forward to a calm and relaxing trans-Atlantic flight home (if there is such a thing). At the very least, I was hoping that I would be able to read and nap in at least a somewhat quiet atmosphere. Oftentimes, however, our hopes don’t align with reality.

Low and behold, the experience I’m about to describe was one of those times. Less than five minutes after the plane went airborne I felt the back of my seat being kicked by a couple of squirmy young children seated behind me. Then, I heard the primal screams of not one, but two separate babies. Although this was not the first time I had been annoyed on an airplane, I still became immensely frustrated. Damn-it, why did it have to be this time?

I had recently read Arthur Schopenhauer’s book, Essays and Aphorisms, and this situation ultimately reminded me that my optimistic hopes, paradoxically, became the root cause of my anger and frustration. Had I been a pessimistic about my flight before boarding the airplane my frustrations at the ensuing situation may have escaped me. Perhaps at the end of the flight, I may may have cheerily noted that although the flight was not exactly pleasant, at least the airplane didn’t crash.[1]

Many people find Schopenhauer’s brand of pessimism repulsive (he’s arguably the most pessimistic philosopher of all-time), but I, however, think there is some wisdom buried beneath his seemingly disturbing and misanthropic philosophies. Carl Jung, describing Schopenhauer, once wrote: “Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe.”[2]

Admittedly, I’m not exactly known for my Pollyannaish tendencies; however, I’m probably more optimistic than most. Strangely, despite my somewhat optimistic bent, I’ve become fascinated over the past couple of years with the work of Schopenhauer, who once wrote, “Life is a sorry business, I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.”

Schopenhauer was born in 1788 in Danzig (Gdansk, Poland). His father was a wealthy merchant and his mother had a reputation as a socialite who reportedly was friends with the legendary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. After his father’s alleged suicide, Schopenhauer was left a fortune so large that he would never have to work. Whether this was a blessing or a curse is highly debatable, but it allowed Schopenhauer to enjoy the luxury of time, which is necessary to philosophize.

Schopenhauer, to put it mildly, was a disciplined individual. He supposedly wrote for three hours every morning, then played the flute for an hour, then ate a large lunch. He also walked for two hours a day (regardless of the weather), spent his afternoons reading, and his evenings at the opera or theater.

At the opera house and theater, he was often disgusted by the vast amounts of noise he perceived his fellow opera and theater patrons would make. To that point, he once wrote, “I have for a long time been of the opinion that quantity of noise anyone can comfortably endure is in inverse proportion to his mental powers.”  Schopenhauer was generally fond of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca; however, they clearly differed in opinion on how best to deal with uncontrollable noise from others.[3]

Here are a few other interesting tidbits about Schopenhauer:  He read Plato and Kant almost exclusively. He considered history of any kind unnecessary. And his desire for fame caused him to suffer from megalomaniac delusions — Go figure!

Without being too technical, there is one oversimplified idea surrounding Kantian metaphysics that must be understood in order to fully appreciate Schopenhauer, i.e., there are two worlds; the ‘real’ world (the thing in itself) and the ‘apparent’ world (the world of phenomena). In other words, appearance is not necessarily reality. Schopenhauer vehemently believed that many of his German contemporaries, namely Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, misunderstood Kant and he wrote them off as charlatans.

Schopenhauer coined the term the “will-to-life” (sometimes referred to simply as “Will”), which can be defined as an inherent drive, devoid of rationality or intellect, within human beings to stay alive and reproduce. There is a chapter in Alain de Botton’s book, The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he eloquently describes the nature of the “Will” and what it does to people. “The will-to-life led even committed depressives to fight for survival when they were threatened by a shipwreck or grave illness. It ensured that the most cerebral, career-minded individuals would be seduced by the sight of gurgling infants, or if they remained unmoved, that they were likely to conceive a child anyway, and love it fiercely on arrival. And it was the will-to-life that drove people to lose their reason over comely passengers encountered across the aisles of long-distance trains.”

What I think Schopenhauer was getting at is that we didn’t necessarily evolve to be happy, but rather to reproduce. In fact, we are hardwired with reproductive urges that are often detrimental to our happiness.[4] To paraphrase Mr. de Botton, love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the “Will’s” search for an ideal and genetically fit co-parent; happiness in the relationship, unless consciously focused on, bears no say in our animalistic sexual desires.  Alas, the fact that some people are able to experience happiness at all in a relationship is truly amazing.

What advice would Schopenhauer offer up young people today? Perhaps the following: “Much would have been gained if through timely advice and instruction young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.” Unfortunately, in our culture of praise and mandatory positive thinking, many of us don’t hear this message.[5]

Schopenhauer was also an unknowing behavioral economist. He understood that, “…as a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we expected.” In other words, positive experiences don’t make us as happy as we think they will and negative experiences make us more miserable than we thought they would.[6]

Thinking back, the reason, I think, that I was frustrated on that airplane is that I was under the foolishly naive belief that travel plans never go awry. I had hoped for one thing and was disappointed. Perhaps Schopenhauer could have consoled me, after-all, he once wrote: “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.” Had I expected something far worse than being jolted back and forth in my seat and cries of babies, I may in fact have been pleasantly surprised at the otherwise unfortunate situation life presented to me.

Schopenhauer recognized that life is teeming with unavoidable frustration that causes us to needlessly suffer.  This suffering, however, can be eradicated by looking at the world through a certain philosophical lens.  I like to think of this concept as “Schopenhauer’s practical pessimism”.

Pessimistic thinkers, contrary to popular belief, are often strangely and paradoxically the most uplifting. If we believe that we exist to be happy we are likely to encounter a lifetime of frustrations that cause deep unhappiness.  Happiness, whatever little we may experience, is merely an added side benefit of this thing we call life and we should be thankful for that.

Take a lesson from Arthur Schopenhauer: be a practical pessimist. You might just find that you live in a better world then you initially thought. And this, assuredly, is a pleasant surprise.

Notes:

[1] Practice ‘negative visualization’, a psychological technique used by Stoic philosophers, which involves contemplating (not dwelling) on negative events. Using negative visualization can create unexpected happiness when the worst doesn’t occur.

[2] Understand the difference between positive and normative ideas and you will likely be alleviated from unnecessary suffering due to overly optimistic hopes. In other words, seeing the world for how it is, rather than how it ought to be, is a great way to avoid unrealistic expectations about existence and happiness.

[3] Understand that there are some things we can fully control, some things we can’t control at all, and some things we have some control over. Both Schopenhauer and the Stoics remind us that worrying about things you have no control over is utterly pointless, but failing to act on the things you can actual exert some control over is foolish too.

[4] Realize that despite the ineffable flaws in human nature, we at least have the ability to reason, which can help us fight our self-destructive behaviors. Find personal ways to avoid these self-destructive behaviors that stem from our insatiable desires.

[5] Recognize that it’s OK to be unhappy sometimes. Allowing yourself to be unhappy is, paradoxically, a key to happiness in the long term. Sometimes life flat out sucks. Don’t worry, this means you are normal. It’s our inflated expectations of thinking that we deserve to be happy all the time that cause us much suffering.

[6] Chose your speed wisely. We spend our lives walking or running on what is called the hedonic treadmill. This means that as we make more money (or gain more of something) our expectations and desires rise in tandem with the increase in our monetary wealth. The unfortunate side effect is that we eventually recalibrate to our old level of happiness and thus experience no permanent gain in happiness. Humans are also loss averse, which means that we experience more pain from losing things we already have than we do pleasure from gaining things we don’t have. There is no way to escape the hedonic treadmill, but you can control which speed you choose to set it at.

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5 Comments on “Lessons in Practical Pessimism”

  1. Tanya says:

    The limited knowledge I have about Schopenhauer comes from reading “The Schopenhauer Cure”. I had recently given up my Xian faith and had actually lost the optimistic view that I normally held about things in general. On top of which I suffer from clinical depression so you could say that I was able to easily relate to the man. I did find, however, that if you cherry-pick his ideas and aphorisms the pessimism that comes through is almost comedic – kind of like the SNL character Debbie Downer – and at times I even found myself thinking “man, lighten up!” Overall though I think he makes a lot of sense for the reasons you mention in your post. 

    In terms of happiness, I recently read an article about the chemicals associated with being happy. There are four of them. They are all released in response to different stimuli and these processes have evolved for the benefit and survival of our species. Therefore from a biological and evolutionary point of view it is impossible to be “happy” all the time and like you said, people who expect to be so are setting themselves up for enormous disappointment. So we definitely do not exist to be happy but rather we are able to exist because of our ability to be happy. I will try to find that article and send it to you. I found it really interesting. 

  2. Tanya says:

    Xian is my short form for “Christian” – it’s become somewhat of a habit to write it that way now. ;-) Sorry for the confusion.

    Here’s the article: 

    http://theschooloflife.typepad.com/the_school_of_life/2011/09/happiness-is-just-a-neurochemical-spurt.html

  3. Greg Linster says:

    @the I have not read Viktor Frankl, but his book Man’s Search for Meaning is on my list.  Also, I have heard that The World As Will and Idea is incredibly difficult to understand.  I’d recommend checking out Essays and Aphorisms if you’re interested in Schopenhauer.

    Anyway, I hadn’t really connected the idea of the “Will” to that piece on ribbonfarm, but I can see where you draw the connection.  I think Schopenhauer would agree with my statement in that piece about the teleological implications of evolution, i.e., there are none.


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