Arthur Schopenhauer’s recipe for life in a tough world.
“Life is a business that does not cover the costs.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
The world is full of suffering. Wars, pestilence, and other humans make the planet a horrible place to live.
Happiness is an illusion, a mere fleeting instant in a life of despair. This is the premise behind the thought of Arthur Schopenhauer, history’s most pessimistic philosopher.
Yet, amid this doom and gloom description of the current state of affairs, Schopenhauer does leave a glimmer of hope. There is a way to live that can minimize pain and render a life satisfactory. However, to attain this wisdom, you need to understand the primary drivers of your own existence.
You are driven by a will to live
Schopenhauer posited that human existence, the existence of all living things actually, is driven by a will to live. This manifests itself in an impulsive instinctive striving of the individual.
This idea greatly influenced Charles Darwin, who quoted the German philosopher’s words in his book “The Descent of Man”. The British naturalist based his theory of evolution on one sweeping premise.
He proposed that the basic drive of all living things is to survive, at least long enough to reproduce. This mechanism that spurs the action of all living things is the will. It stems from the profound internal desire to exist, but manifests itself in many different ways.
This will to live lies deep in the subconscious, and from there shapes human behavior. Schopenhauer’s ideas influenced Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power, by which he meant humanity’s need to control and to overcome.
Striving means you are never satisfied
While for Nietzsche the concept had a positive sense, for Schopenhauer the will to live was a negative force. It was behind all the bad things that humans did in the world.
It was also the cause of the fact that a person is never satisfied. They are always striving for something, and when they achieve it, that momentary moment of bliss is replaced by more painful striving.
No amount of striving or even achievement can satisfy a person’s insatiable will. That is why, according to Schopenhauer, happiness can never be permanent. It can only happen in very fleeting moments, interspersing long periods of dissatisfaction.
This fundamental nature of the world was what made Arthur Schopenhauer a pessimist.
Life swings between pain and boredom
“The two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer is famous for his quip that life is like a pendulum, permanently swinging between two states: pain and boredom. This constant back and forth is what characterizes human existence.
With this definition, he doesn’t leave too much room for a positive happiness to exist. Instead, Schopenhauer argues for a negative happiness. Influenced by the ancient Greeks, for him happiness was just an absence of pain.
The idea behind this is quite simple. For example, take the happiness that a person feels when they get a new job. Schopenhauer would argue that it is not the joy of getting a job that you feel.
Instead, it is a sense of relief of not having to worry about how you are going to put food on the table. It is also the fact of being freed from the stressful process of looking for a job in the first place.
However, according to Schopenhauer, escaping from pain often leads you to experience the other side, boredom. In this way, your life ping pongs between two bad states, never arriving in a constant happy state.
“Needy surroundings and poverty produce pain; while, if a man is more than well off, he is bored. Accordingly, while the lower classes are engaged in a ceaseless struggle with need, in other words, with pain, the upper carry on a constant and often desperate battle with boredom.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
This is consistent with the negativity bias that humans are wired for. Schopenhauer saw that humans tend to focus on the parts where they have problems, instead of the whole context.
“We do not feel the health of our entire body but only the small place where the shoe pinches.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
There is a way to arrive at a satisfactory state of existence
“For our improvement we need a mirror.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
Schopenhauer was greatly influenced by Hindu and Buddhist thought, reading the “Upanishads” and various Buddhist works available to him. He was inspired by the way of life of Indian ascetics, and believed that this was the best way to escape the diktat of the will.
However, this manner of living was not for most people. The great German pessimist described several other routes to escape from suffering, and live a life that is satisfactory.
For Schopenhauer, knowing the true nature of the world was a required prerequisite for being able to at least derive some satisfaction. An understanding of how the world works, with all its suffering, was what he tried to achieve in his first major work “The World as Will and Representation”.
His other major work titled “Parerga and Paralipmena” was a sort of self-help book showing how to live in such a world. Arranged in 31 short chapters, this publication was what made the philosopher known to a wider audience.
For Schopenhauer one way to at least temporarily escape from the negativity bias inherent in human nature is to turn things around and practice gratitude.
“Our cognition of satisfaction and pleasure is only indirect, when we remember the sufferings and privations that preceded them and ceased when they appeared.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
Remember, the world owes us nothing. Suffering is the natural state of the universe. Zero-sum games, like the eternal struggles between zebras and lions on the plains of the Serengeti, are part of the basic structure of the world.
That is why you always have to feel grateful for the good things that you have in your life. Often, you only realize the positive things in your life when you lose them.
Schopenhauer was a believer in minimalism. Wanting what you do not have is at the basis of the mental suffering that you have in life. The way to diminish this anguish is to want less.
If you minimize your desires and concentrate on things that you can control, you also lessen the pain you feel. This allows you to experience more moments of this negative happiness that Schopenhauer believed was all humans could get.
Contemplate beauty to experience joy
For Schopenhauer, the key to living in a horrible world was to live in the moment. While as a pessimist, he didn’t see the possibility of too many occasions for experiencing pure joy, there were some.
The few times you will experience real unfiltered joy is when you unhook from the powers of the will. This can happen when you contemplate a work of art, the beauty of nature, or learn about the world.
In those instants, your brain goes beyond its basic instincts, and blends with its surroundings. This is when you are no longer bound as a slave to your master, the will, but are truly free.
“What might otherwise be called the finer part of life, its purest joy, just because it lifts us out of real existence and transforms us into disinterested spectators of it, is pure knowledge which remains foreign to all willing, pleasure in the beautiful, genuine delight in art.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
There have been a few moments in my life that I have been able to experience what Schopenhauer describes. Catching these rare, life transforming episodes is one of the reasons why I started climbing mountains.
When I read the parts by Schopenhauer about purest joy, my mind immediately raced back to the times I stood on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Blanc, and other peaks. Even on less strenuous hikes, looking at the valleys and the nature below, these self-transcending emotions come into existence.
This is something hard to describe in words. It is a thing you have to experience for yourself in order to understand. In those instants, I really did feel like I escaped the world and its problems. I was finally one with my surroundings.
How to apply
You don’t have to fully subscribe to Schopenhauer’s worldview in order to benefit from his insights. While the world might be a place full of suffering, even as a pessimist, you can achieve a life that is satisfactory.
The way to do that is to want less.
“We must set limits to our wishes, curb our desires, moderate our anger.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
Remember to feel gratitude for what you have. Above all, try to learn about the world, and maximize your moments of appreciation of aesthetic beauty. In order to do this, visit a museum with works of art, go hiking in nature, or do things which will help you wonder.
When you experience pure beauty, you also get to feel moments of pure joy. It is for these small moments that we live for.
“Pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.“ - Arthur Schopenhauer
This story was originally published on “Medium” here.