The Hellenistic period. Alexander the Great has just died, leaving behind a nation ripe for the taking. Now warlords and tyrants do battle, killing innocent civilians in the process, seeking to carve out an empire. The people live in fear, and comfort comes only in the embrace of philosophy.
Similar to these ancient denizens we now live in a society rife with despair and doubt. I believe we to can find solace in philosophical ideas.
My philosophical journey has spanned six months so far, but already I have found the lessons taught and truly internalized have made me happier and more stress-free. I hope to share with you some of the valuable snippets I have encountered.
Addressing the theoretical nature of philosophy
I think a major concern with the learning of philosophy is it’s perceived theoretical, and therefore impractical, nature. I disagree with this.
While some of the advice given by philosophers may be something you have encountered before, the true value lies in their deep exploration of it. By having an intimate understanding of something you internalize it, and start integrating it into your life and behavior.
Philosophers also practice many habits that seek to integrate this wisdom into their lives. Self-reflection through the means of meditation, journaling, or just being alone with your thoughts (while walking, commuting, or as the opportunity arises), is the best way to do this. Philosophers also made us of mantras, a brief statement that included their values and beliefs. They could repeat these and therefore keep it at the top of their heads, allowing them to better apply the knowledge.
Defining happiness and developing a framework
Many philosophers over the ages attempt to define what happiness is, and how we can actually achieve it. For how can we pursue happiness when we do not know what truly makes us happy, and what we are actually looking for. By having a better understanding of what happiness is we build up a framework for our search for this elusive state of being.
One thing I would like to highlight is the sharp distinguishment between happiness and pleasure. Pleasure is a short-term sensation/emotion, while happiness is a mindset, a way of living — a product of our perception. We can feel pleasure and still be miserable due to our craving for more pleasure.
Another valuable lesson I have learned is how important happiness actually is. Many people I believe see things such as wealth and success as goals in themselves, but do not realize that these are means to an end — happiness. Consistently depriving ourselves of happiness for the sake of these goals is therefore foolish and contradictory.
Our delusions bring us suffering
Pain does not mean suffering
The ancient Greeks believed in Fate as a transcendent force that ruled over all. However, they did not believe that it compromised free will. This is because the events have no inherent importance, other than how they influence our thoughts and actions. We can still choose how we react to these events, and therefore control our thoughts and actions, and therefore our happiness. The key is to liberate yourself from this inherent relationship in our minds between pain and suffering, or pleasure and happiness.
Severing happiness from pleasure
In our pursuit of happiness, we tend to believe it is achieved through pleasure. While this might be true in the short term, the constant pursuit of pleasure is impractical, and therefore our happiness cannot be maintained. So what brings us suffering, if not pain? Buddhism teaches that this is our craving — we crave for release from pain, and craving for the continuation of pleasure — this craving, our dissatisfaction, brings us suffering. It goes on to teach that craving is a product of our delusions, our expectations, and prejudices. We should seek to remove our delusions, and therefore see pain for what it really is — purely a sensation. Then we can pursue happiness, which is not an emotion, but a state of mind and a way of perceiving things.
We must find happiness internally. We cannot attach it to external, unpredictable events, as these bring only sporadic bursts of short-term happiness. This applies even to something momentous — such as winning the lottery. Our standards simply rise to meet our new lifestyle, and our happiness remains where it is (see the hedonic treadmill). So, we must work to find in within ourselves. It must be an internal pursuit, starting by being content with where you currently are. The first step for us is to severe pleasure from happiness in our minds.
Our expectations shape our reality
To achieve happiness then, we must attempt to change our expectations as these dictate how we feel about a sensation. If something exceeds our expectations we will be happy, and if it is worse, we are sad.
A stoic way of looking at this is to practice healthy pessimism. However a more realistic solution is calibrating our standards — they should be only slightly higher than our current performance, encouraging you to strive, but also realistic enough for you to be happy with your results.
Happiness is a way of life
A common thread here is that happiness is a way of life. We can cultivate and work towards it, not through the pursuit of pleasure, but the shifting of our mindset and perception of things — seeing things as they truly are.
What can you actually change?
Stoicism teaches us to distinguish between what we can and can’t influence. We can influence our own thoughts and actions, but not the events in our lives. Since it is our thoughts that dictate our happiness, this is the only thing we should worry about.
The lesson here is to realize, and seek to internalize, the lesson that there is no purpose in worrying about what has happened, or is going to happen, if we cannot influence it. The practice of daily journaling has helped me to incorporate this mindset into my life.
When something bad happens to us we tend to develop tunnel vision and focus only on the immediate consequences. Skepticism teaches that we should delay our judgment of something, and wait until the full consequences have unfolded. By keeping an open mind we see the opportunity in supposed tragedy, as well as change our expectations on the effects of something — if we believe it will bring us suffering, then it will.
Where to now
There are many ways to start learning philosophy. I personally have been following a podcast and have quite enjoyed the more digestible and lighter format. I recommend “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” and “Philosophize This!” for structured introductions to the topic, and “The Partially Examined Life” for a slightly more advanced podcast.
The next step is to practice self-reflection — through the practice of meditation, journaling, or just being alone with your thoughts, whether it be during a commute, exercise, or while you are out in nature.
I hope this article served to change your perception of happiness, and will set you on the path to internalizing these valuable lessons — pleasure is not happiness, our craving causes suffering, our expectations determine our reactions and most importantly, happiness is a choice, the way you choose to live your life.