Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness (2000)

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A self-help guide which applies the teachings of philosophers to dealing with life's everyday problems.

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Alain de Botton ...
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A self-help guide which applies the teachings of philosophers to dealing with life's everyday problems.

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Potentially Instrumental.
22 June 2012 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

Alain de Botton, a balding young Englishman, thoroughly educated and cosmopolitan, is your host and he takes you on a kind of journey through selected corners of European philosophy in an attempt to find nuggets of wisdom that will help you overcome your hang ups. There are six episodes.

1. Socrates on Self Confidence.

2. Epicurus on Happiness.

3. Seneca on Anger.

4. Montaigne on Self Esteem.

5. Schopenhauer on Love.

6. Nietzsche on Hardship.

De Botton takes us on a tour of places where these light thinkers lived and shows us around, but it's not a survey course in the history of philosophy. De Botton is interested in finding out if these people had anything to say to us, miserable wretches that we are. Never mind metaphysics -- what do I do NOW, Ma?

Does it work? Is there anything still useful in their output? Maybe. I suppose it depends on the individual and, of course, to some extent on what the philosophers actually had to say about issues of current concern. Some certainly work better than others. I'll give an example of one that seems to work and one that doesn't.

Nietzsche's message to today's viewers can be summarized in the phrase, "Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger." In other words, how to overcome hardship? Get used to it. Well, it evidently worked for G. Gordon Liddy, who was fond of using the quote, but psychologists have come up with mixed results. (Full disclosure: I am a psychologist.) A difficult and humiliating initiation rite leads to greater solidarity in the group, which is generally good, although it depends on the group's goal. That's why, "Once a Marine, always a Marine." Nobody ever says, "Once a Coast Guardsman, always a Coast Guardsman." On the other hand, combat may not kill you but it may induce post-traumatic stress disorder, which is very real, take my word for it. The treatment, stress, can be worse than the disease of weakness.

Okay, one that did work, for me at least -- Seneca on anger. Why do we get angry? Because we expect too much, that's why. Lower your expectations and you won't be disappointed and therefore you won't be angry. The scientific literature generally supports this, although people with low expectations usually have all sorts of associated problems that extend way beyond just getting angry. I tried it myself, with the stock market. Each morning before logging into my account, I make an estimate of how much I've lost or how little I've gained. I always try to be very conservative. And actually it appears to have helped, at least in this limited area. Anger was never a problem but I find I'm less often disappointed and more often cheered when I check my balances. I'm tempted to see just how far this governance of attitude can be taken. Maybe I should just assume that the very act of my purchasing a stock is the kiss of death. Then, no matter how much I lose, as long as the company doesn't go bankrupt, my expectations are more than met. How about if I assume that when I wake up tomorrow I'll find that I died during the night? How can you lose?

My advice is to check this out. Nothing much is going to help you if you have a clinical-level illness, but if you're subject to everyday hassles and find them more annoying than they should be, a constant irritation, why not try it? These guys should know. Socrates had an abundance of self esteem. He lectured his executioners from his death bed.


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