I am absolutely enamored by Alain de Button (I have written about him before) and wouldn’t you know it, I am also enamored with the concept of happiness. Weird right? Which is why I was so happy to stumble upon a six part video series by de Button titled A Guide to Happiness which is based on his book The Consolations of Philosophy. So this past Saturday I snuggled into bed with my lap top, some tea, and a box of tissues (because I was fighting off a cold you see. Achoooo!) and devoured all six in one go. Each is fairly short (under 30 min) and each I found to be incredibly insightful and thought-provoking. AND, lucky you, they are all available on them there internets!
I have posted them below with a little blurb of their contents and my thoughts so you can pick and choose which may seem more appealing to you. However, and I am sure I don’t really need to say this, I personally would recommend watching them all and then giving the ideas some mulling over in your head. Maybe some of these ideas you may find as illuminating as I have.
#1 – Socrates on Self Confidence
Good ol’ Socrates! If you have ever even stepped a foot near a Philosophy 101 class you most likely have some idea of who this man was. I was always a fan of many of his views and this first installment of the series was definitely one of my favorites. It asks such questions as why do we tend to blindly believe what people in power say? Is democracy really the best form of government? And what makes a good argument? Socrates believed that very few of us actually ever questioned our beliefs and views and therefore often tend to believe in things without ever really building a foundation of logic for them. You may be familiar with his famous idea that “an unexamined life is not worth living”. I agree. I also agree with his position that we all have the capacity, and therefore the duty to be an examiner of our own lives and to use this exercise to create logic and confidence in our beliefs.
#2 – Epicurus on Happiness
Epicurus believed it takes three things to be happy: friends, freedom, and an analyzed life. de Button ties Epicurean ideas to consumerism of past and present to show us that we are not very good at knowing what makes us happy, but that with the proper awareness we can better maneuver obstacles on our search.
# 3 – Seneca on Anger
One of the more challenging installments of the series to my own views, this episode explores Seneca’s idea that the main reason we become angry and frustrated is that we simply expect too much and are potentially too optimistic. We tend to have an over exaggerated sense of what we can control and therefore get upset when things that are actually beyond our control do not go according to our wishes. I agree with his ideas on some levels and while I do agree that being psychologically prepared for the worst may act as a buffer for when something terrible occurs, I worry that the fine line between being prepared and being a habitual pessimist would be a difficult one to navigate.
However, I particularly enjoyed Seneca’s idea of the goddess Fortune that rules our lives. In one hand she carries a cornucopia symbolizing gifts and blessings, while in the other she holds a rudder, an instrument that holds great power in shifting our destinies. To keep this goddess in mind is perhaps the way to maintain our composure when we experience irrational anger or frustration because something we never could control does not go as expected.
#4 Montaigne on Self-Esteem
The most down to earth of the philosophers throughout history, Montaigne’s Essays are personal and descriptive writings about his life. He believed that we all have such insecurities because we tend to have role models that leave no room for the ordinary. We idolize others and then feel inadequate when we compare ourselves to them. In particular, Montaigne believed, we experience three main inadequacies: that of our physical bodies, that of feeling judged by others, and that of our intellectual capacities. This episode details how Montaigne believed we can resolve all three issues. I especially appreciated the lighthearted nature of this one which I think came both from Montaigne’s writings and de Button’s appreciative affection for this wise man.
I don’t want to give away all of Montaigne’s pearls of wisdom, but perhaps just one won’t spoil it all for you. We tend to regard those we admire as perhaps some clandestine beings much better than us, however, Montaigne reminds us “Kings and philosophers shit. So do ladies.” and “Even on the highest throne we are still seated upon our arses.” There you have it.
#5 Schopenhauer on Love
What do you think about the idea that we only fall in love with someone because of a biological drive called the “will to life” which basically blindsides us with all sorts of gooey mushy emotions in order to fool us into propagating the species? Sounds somewhat dismal, however, if we believe in Schopenhauer’s ideas, we can also find great freedom from our false expectations which can only serve to make us bitter. I am still on the fence about this one but it reminded me a lot of a book I once read called A Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck (I wrote about it here) which presented a very similar view.
#6 Nietzsche on Hardship
Nietzsche. I don’t know all his works as well I want to, but everything I do know about him I pretty much adore. I have weird soft spot in my heart for this man ever since a handful of philosophy, literature, and psychology classes in university culminated into me having a fairly serious existential crisis in my early 20s, through which he seemed to be the greatest voice of reason. Well him and Waiting for Godot by Beckett, but that is neither here nor there.
“That which does not kill me, makes me stronger” is the overall theme of this last episode of the series. Nietzsche’s belief that like gardeners we can take the most ugly and vile of objects (or feelings) and turn them into something beautiful is something I strongly believe in and something I try to impress on people when they are going through hardship. We will all experience hard times, loss, pain, failure, and it is our abilities to respond to these events that makes all the difference.
To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.
Still not sick of Alain de Button? Then watch this interview with Steve Paikin (another man I admire) about how atheists can, and should, draw lessons from religion. It’s a really good one, I can assure you.