Schopenhauer happy?

Today in Happiness we tackle Schopenhauer, who always seems to hover around our discussions. We kicked off the semester with his potentially disillusioning (but also potentially liberating?) disavowal of the whole subject.

“What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. 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.”

And yet, we noted him last time explicitly identifying health as a condition of happiness. So, he throws not a total disavowal but at least a big dash of cold water into every smiling face. 

Likewise, his statement that “man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” The intended implication may be that health and happiness alike are a matter of luck, not design. The inevitable rejoinder, from happy people everywhere, must be Branch Rickey’s: sometimes, at least, luck is the residue of design. Get happy.

 Carl Jung’s “process of individuation,” I’ll bet, hits philosophers and philosophy majors earlier than most and before forty, for sure. Isn’t that why we take courses like this, to get to the bottom of our “true individuality” and “pay more attention to our own sensibility”-even if only to challenge and replace it with a corrected view?

Goethe suggested that sensibility, character, and taste are less affected by externals than by the sheer spontaneous surge of “personal being” that defines “a child of Earth’s chief happiness,” but that’s not Schopenhauer’s (or the Buddha’s) view. Or is it?

Frederic Lenoir says Schopenhauer “took up Goethe’s idea and went even further… our nature predisposes us to be happy or unhappy.” But Will is not personal for him. How we respond to the hypothesis of implacable impersonal Will might be. 
Plato long ago distinguished grouches (duskolos) from more cheerful types (eukolos). But as some self-avowed grouches insist, whether the glass is happily half-full depends on what’s in it.

Schopenhauer’s “curious contradiction” suggests we can be determinists and at the same time be happier, mostly by acknowledging Will and then not choosing not to feed it. Lenoir says that’s not what he means by changing our inner lives. “We can be happier… by modifying our view of things, our thoughts and beliefs.” We can “will what we will,” then? But can we confirm that we can? Is it better if we can’t?

Sonja Lyubomirsky says 40% of happiness “stems from personal efforts,” a vague-enough statement to entertain if not entirely to understand. I’m hoping that won’t be conclusively disconfirmed, 40% sounds good even if it implies a slight tilt to genetic predisposition that we probably shouldn’t call determinism and certainly shouldn’t call fatalism.

“No one will be happy if tormented by the thought of someone else who is happier,” said Seneca before surrendering his own happy pursuit to the madness of the tormentor Nero.

Flaubert said “everyone takes his enjoyment in his own way and for himself alone.” Some do, but there are altruists among us who aren’t in it for themselves alone. The egocentric view may reassure hyper-egoists, but I hope the rest of us find it beside the point. 

Do we all have a peculiarly personal “deeper nature”? If you find the “atmosphere that suits” you best, have you found something deep? Must atmospheres be deep, to conduce to happiness? Or just, as the pluralists say, wide enough, at least, to accommodate the varieties of happy experience? 

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