Observations on the path to contentment

In my previous post ‘the other side of negativity’, we touched on negativity and how to understand its true nature. Here we shed light on embracing the roots of optimism and satisfaction. Social sciences are not just useful to understand the society, but can also provide invaluable guidance on how to know ourselves and live a satisfied life.

I have always personally struggled with stoic philosophers and their ideas; they seem on first impression, very pessimistic and self-defeating. They say that hope is the root of all anxiety; but if we do not have hope, we will not do anything. It is only the anticipation of something beneficial that moves us to think and take action. How can then we shun hope and still perform?

On a closer look, the stoics have more truth hidden in their words than meets the eye. The answer lies in removing illusions from our hopes, and not hopes altogether; we are to efficiently remove all illusions we have about hope and happiness. Our situation is compared to going from one country to another feeling lost and without any homeland. But when we visit so many countries, this allows us first-hand experience of being able to go deep into our psyche as well as that of others. This makes us realize that despite wide cultural differences, deep down, we have a lot of characteristics in common. It is that depth that fortifies us and we are able to see the all is connected instead of spending whole life as a disconnected wanderer.

Same is the case with our hopes; we pick up one hope only to be disappointed and then another hope and again disappointed and so on. We focus on quantity of hopes and repeated disappointments make us bitter; we say that we have tried everything but we still cannot be happy!  We have been broad enough to visit every country of hope but have we gone deep enough?

Our focus should be on the quality of our hopes; quantity of hopes is something we like to increase just so that we feel we have lots of options and will never be lonely without options. What is difficult indeed is to come face to face with our cosmic isolation and prefer quality of hopes over quantity of hopes. And that requires facing some shocks.

Seneca quoteTake a deep breath and be calm. Now imagine your worst fears; what are your worst fears? How would you like if they transform into reality? Feels terrible? The truth is we suffer more in our imagination then in reality (Seneca). Yes, we might have to encounter our worst fears, but ‘we are stronger than we think we are’ (Marcus Aurelius). ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger’ by Nietzsche has to be understood in context of these eternal hopes highlighted by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Both the stoics and Buddha will tell you that pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. A docile risk-free life never reveals how strong we are. Since modern life pretty much allows us to be fundamentally docile and unduly risk averse, we never get to experience how strong we actually are. Those who have actually experienced tragedies and survived, will know exactly what is meant here.

Quantitatively, as you can see from above, the hopes are not much. There is no list of top 100 hopes to live for. There are very few, but they are meant to be extremely solid and unwavering; this is part of what Buddha meant when he said that a wise one is an island whom no storm can flood. In the storm, there will be no advantage of having countless trees if they still have hollow roots, only few with solid and deep roots will survive and thrive.

Nietzsche observes that there is a dire need for us to be bold, commanding and seeing eye-to-eye to our challenges; but this does not mean we go to war, or oppress others or become arrogant, aggressive, dominating and self-obsessed; very far from it. Our bold life-affirming attitude has to go inwards into knowing and conquering our own selves;  who conquers oneself is superior to one who conquers thousands in battle. This is a golden maxim of Buddha and it also resonates heavily in western stoic philosophy.

We have to say ‘yes’ to our life; this is the ‘amor-fati’(love of life) of Nietzsche where we should accept life for what it is, given our few but solid hopes and our recognition that pain is inevitable but we can control the suffering we feel through our handling of the situations. So here too, we shun the stereotype that being negative and sad is only for the weak. No one can be sunshine happiness all the time; allow yourself to feel sad when you do feel sad without fear of being looked down upon by others. At the same time, allow yourself to be happy when you feel happy; unconditional acceptance of life keeps the intensity of pain at the same levels, but dramatically minimizes our suffering.

There is the general consensus in our generation that if happiness is just a state of mind, then try living without money. This has to be effectively answered too (state of mind vs material possessions; idealism vs materialism –  which is a major theme in sociology). Marcus Aurelius is correct to note that we need very little material items to live a fulfilled life; the earth is rich and can provide for everyone as Charlie Chaplin says in movie The Great Dictator. Mahatma Gandhi says the same thing when he notes that the earth can provide all for their needs, but not for their greed; we have to recognize the importance of being modest and moderate in our desires. This is what Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology notes that the society has a constraining effect on our desires, which are otherwise limitless. And as early as the 19th century, he was worried that greed was increasingly becoming institutionalized which will bring ruin for the happiness of humanity. But since greed is insatiable, we are trying to reach the goal that cannot be possibly achieved.

Jung quote about lonelinessThe solution is then to make ourselves rich by making our wants few; when we see ourselves being neglected and other few popular people being given all the importance, we breed the illusory hope that if we will have a gang of friends to admire us, we will be happy too. This is not actually true; Carl Jung, the seminal psychologist notes profoundly that we will feel lonely even in a crowd if we are not able to share what is in our hearts.

Few friends of great mutual understanding and quality, doing work and study and career that you are actually passionate about (and not the society) and being moderate in what you expect from life is a cluster of tried and tested route to happiness. We do not need to become “50 shades of grey” or billionaire playboys in order to be happy; there is a difference between lower level pleasure and higher level satisfaction; that has to be taken into account; moderation avoids repression of too few and the excess of too many. But the logical justification for moderation is given by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics that virtues lies in the mean of two vices; like courage is between the vices of cowardice and brutality.

We should be able to own our happiness; it is no use of that happiness that is dependent on whimsical rumor mills. A key way to do this, aside from knowing yourself is to have control over the fruits of your labour as well as your action. The worst crimes in history were done under the guise of obligation, not rebellion (Milgram: The perils of obedience). ‘I was just doing my job’ is a very poor excuse but one used most frequently to cover crimes. This applies to all areas of labour including but not limited to scientists. Karl Marx notes profoundly that ‘alienation’ or disconnection occurs when we produce an object from our labour, but do not own it and when others use it for vile purposes. A case in point in Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was indeed a notable physicist, but his leading role in Manhattan project ultimately lead to nuclear explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The genius mind of Oppenheimer was used by others (politicians) to kill two cities packed with human population.Oppenheimer said later onwards to American president Harry S. Truman; ‘I feel I have blood on my hands’. After seeing the first experimental nuclear explosion of trinity, he quoted from the sacred Hindu book Bhagavad Gita “I am become death; the destroyer of worlds’. This is the glaring dissatisfaction that Oppenheimer felt due to alienation.

Epicurus fool quoteIt is time we take our destiny into our hands which means being aware of ourselves and owning our happiness by cutting all the false hopes and sticking onto a few, but nevertheless way superior-quality and durable hopes; to ensure there is no huge discrepancy between our attitudes and our actions, we should own our creativity, our labour; all this in a context of accepting life and its pain. This might not make us emperors, but help us to realize that greed of an emperor remains incomplete and unfilled, whereas needs of even a beggar might get fulfilled. As Epicurus says ‘the misfortune of the wise is better than the prosperity of the fool’.

Stay Blessed!

Danish is studying for the BSc Sociology in Pakistan. The BSc Sociology is not available to new students, however you can still study for a Diploma for Graduates in Sociology.

List of References

1. Seneca- Epsitulae Morales; Lucilium

2. Marcus Aurelius; Meditations

3. Karl Marx; various works

4. Nietzsche; Thus spoke Zarathustra

5. Buddha; Dhammapadda

6. Aristotle; Nicomachean Ethics

7. Milgram; perils of obedience

8. Chaplin; the Great dictator

9. Jung; Memories, dreams, reflections

10. Epicurus; Letter to Menoeceus

11. Gandhi;Quoted by Pyarelal Nayyar in Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase (Volume 10), page 552 (1958)

12. Durkheim; Kenneth Allan; Kenneth D. Allan (2 November 2005). Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World. Pine Forge Press. p. 129. ISBN 978-1-4129-0572-5.

13. Oppenheimer; Monk, Ray (2012). Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. New York; Toronto: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-50407-2.

More about our blogger

Syed Danish Ali is an actuarial analyst in a leading actuarial consultancy across Pakistan and the Middle East. Part of his job is to understand the mathematics behind insurance and convert them into useful financial numbers so that stakeholders appreciate the risks they undertake more adequately. Apart from giving professional actuarial papers, he is a final third year student of bachelors in sociology from University of London.

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