Australian Fine Artist

A Guide to Happiness
by Alain de Botton

As we have recently been articulating and identifying personal artistic philosophy, we looked at videos in view to applying them to artistic practice.

Consider the following whilst taking in the information from each of the following philosophers:

a. Is it important to be a happy artist? If so, why?

b. How do the individual philosophers inform on how we live our lives?

The basis behind these is the premiss that it is important to understand yourself as an artist 


Born in Athens in 469BCE Socrates came from a well respected but not wealthy family. His father was a sculptor and Socrates early life included a good education and following his father in this for a while. He also served in the army and was well respected for his bravery and service. Somewhere in his mid years Socrates took on the role of phosphor that we know him for today. Cicero stated that Socrates brought philosophy from Olympus to mankind. He walked about the streets and spoke in the meeting place of Athens to discuss and listen.

From Socrates we can ask many questions that are just as important today as when he asked them. As artists, we should ask whether we should follow others, why we would do so and if we should think about our actions and tendencies to be “part of the group” and not want to stand more alone in many respects. Do we follow others because we automatically think they must know more than us, that they have certain answers or solutions that we need or is it that we just feel “safe and accepted” within the group?

What does it feel like to be in the minority? (in ideas, thoughts, lifestyle etc)

Even with facts starting you in the face, you can doubt yourself if you are in the minority. (see examples of employees disagreeing with the rest of a department and/or management)

Socrates idea was that of not being struck dumb by powerful people or those in authority but keeping our own thoughts and ideas (a mind of our own).

Socrates asked people “why”, especially those in power or with money. “Why are you rich?”, “why do you succeed or win?” when others do not. He found that many could not really answer him. They were not sure why or how they succeeded or gained wealth.

Find the truth, he asked, don’t accept lazy assumptions about anything. Ask the hard questions if you need to. “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?” “What is Justice?”

He wanted people to scrutinise  who and what they are. Work out what you really think and live by it – you can stand out from the crowd.

Socrates is credited as having come up with his “Socratic method of thought” (which has never been absolutely proven but is attributed to him) which is basically as follows:

Look around for statements of common sense.

Look for an exception.

If found, the statement must be in error or inaccurate.

Realise this nuance is possible.

Keep looking for an exception.

In doing more research about Socrates I have found another five methods attributed to him  as a guide to a happy life. They were so interesting I am including them here as well.

  • Live into your vision
    “Be as you wish to seem.” ~Socrates
  •  Know your limitations
    “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” ~Socrates
  • Expand your horizons
    “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel” ~Socrates
  • Whatever you have is enough
    “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have” ~Socrates
  • Define what you want
    “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms” ~Socrates

At the end of the day, the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people that we will become…

“Wisdom begins in wonder.” ~Socrates

Socrates encourages us to ask ourselves about the unexamined life. He is credited as saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. We on the other hand tend to listen to others’ opinions, whether they are well thought out or not. Because of these things Socrates found it hard to support democracy, as the views of the many to him, were not necessarily correct or the right path to follow – or indeed logical. There is a difference between having a differing opinion and being wrong.

There are views amongst historians that the “Greek Experiment” as it has been called, showed that certain aspects of democracy proved to have failed in the “Golden” age of Athens. Holding up many of Socrates’ ideas on the matter.

Socrates was eventually condemned to death for not only many of his views  (supposedly corrupting the youth of Athens) but also his lack of worship for the traditional gods of the city. We remember him as a global philosopher who has left us with questions and ideas that are as relevant today as they were in his time. Most importantly, that we should have the self confidence to have our own thoughts and opinions, and be able to stand out from a crowd and not merely a follower.

Epicurus – The Philosophy of Happiness

Epicurus was raised in Samos and was born around 341 BCE. He studied philosophy and spent part of his life in Athens. The word epicurean (relating to fine food and wine) has been derived from his name but is not in reality an accurate reflection on his philosophy.

For Epicurus, the questions were “why do we need anyone to tell us how to be happy?” “Is it just money or wealth?”

Material things are not always the things we need. The need to shop and collect things is not always the answer. Even in his day, people thought that if they had more nice things they would be happier, but as we often find out today, they also did. The things are just things, and after the rust of obtaining them, the temporary “happiness” goes away.

What is happiness according to Epicurus?

Friends – based on regular and often interaction. Don’t eat alone, share your time.

Freedom – be self sufficient away from being hamstrung by debt and financial obligations.

An Analysed Life – Step back and take time to think about your life.

So your level of happiness will be just enough of the three things above.

Why aren’t we happy?

We are continually told that we need more to make us happy. More things, more money etc etc. Buy this thing and it will make you happy.

How do you get out of this way of thinking?

Diogenes erected a wall in his village with recipes for happiness covering it from one end to the other, so that anyone could come and read them on a regular basis. These ideas based on Epicurus were meant to help people live a happy life. The thinking was that if you were reminded on a regular basis with positive affirmations, they would help cancel out the negative ones. We need regular positive feedback and input to help us battle all the negative stuff that comes our way each day.

Living in a consumer society as we do today, means these ideas are more important than ever. We need to know that not all our solutions come in a financial manner. We need to realise what really does make us happy.

Seneca – On Anger

Seneca was a Roman philosopher, born in Spain around 1BCE and educated in Rome. He lived in a time of great political upheaval and as he was tutor to the soon to become emperor Nero, we was directly effected.

Rome was a violent society in every part, but none more than the top where cruelty and horrific treatment of humans was a regular occurrence. Seneca saw anger and hatred in action at the extreme, but still saw them as emotions that we could control.

Seneca saw anger as a result of a commonly healed belief about the world. He said we are always looking for the right thing (or perfection). “Why are you surprised that people make mistakes?” he asked. The richer and more important the person, the less room they gave people to make mistakes.

It was his view that if we adjusted our views of the world, and realised that frustrations are part of it and bound to happen, things will NOT always turn out our way, the less angry we would be.Sometimes it is best to just go with the flow and understand that there are things that we just can’t change or fix.

So whatever life throws at us, how do we stay unflappable?

Unexpected problems and stress create anger the most. Seneca’s solution  – be prepared. Meditate on what may go wrong and be prepared. Fortune favours the prepared mind.

“We over estimate our ability to change or control circumstances”, he said.

Seneca had to live by his own philosophy in this regard as he fell out of favour with Nero who, thinking he was conspiring against him, commended that he take his own life. There was not escape, so with a “such is life”  attitude, he calmly complied. He, in his life, wrote poetry, and there is much written about his thoughts on Stoicism. His plays reflect his thoughts on excessive emotion and anger in particular and he was also interested in psychology and ethics. There is a lot to be read about his ideas and I especially like his thoughts on the interrelatedness of everyone person and thing in the universe.

Schopenhauer – On Love

Born in 1788 in Germany, Schopenhauer was among the first to contend that at its core, the universe is not a rational place. It was his thinking that in the irrational and strife-ridden world we should strive for a life of tranquillity via artistic, moral and ascetic forms of awareness. Concerning love, he thought the pursuit of it worthwhile but had doubt about it’s ability to supply us with happiness.

Schopenhauer was well off, not unattractive and well educated but never married. he had a few relationships over the years and fathered one child, but ended up splitting up with every woman he was involved with. With that in mind what can he possibly tell us about love?

Schopenhauer says that love can be obsessive, taking us over and should not be taken lightly, especially when it goes away.

He came up with a theory that love was based on what he called “the will to life” – the need to reproduce. He saw that in nature animals paired off in order to keep the species alive and speculated that the impulse for humans was not that different.

So why do choose the people we do? Do they fulfil deep needs or balance out our lives? (Ying-Yang) Is biology stronger than reason? Are we compelled to find someone to love?

When people leave us, is it because they have a biological imperative to find a better mate for offspring or other reasons? … and how do we recover from such rejection?

Are love and happiness mutually exclusive or not? Can you be in love and still not happy? Can you be happy and not in love or feeling loved?

Personal Comment

I feel I now have enough experience in love and life to make a personal comment here. I have been happy and loved and unhappy and still knew I was and am loved. I have also been happy and not in a relationship and unhappy and not in one. The state of mind of being happy or content, I found had to come mostly from within me. I had to find a place and a life that I was content and happy in, no matter what the external influences were.

Being loved, either by family, a friend or mentor became a bonus but not an imperative to my happiness.

Soon after I got to this place, I found a partner for life without even looking. It seems that when I got my act together, everything else fell into place. I became ready for the person who would be a good partner for me. The happier I am in my own mind and in what I choose to do as an artist, the happier my partner is as well, the happier he is with his choices of career and lifestyle, the happier I am. With mutual respect and support and lots of communication, happiness and love seem to coexist. We are not always “happy” and some days we love each other more than others, that’s just life and being human. The big picture though is that we choose to be together, we overall, love each other, we are best friends and we respect each other. More importantly, other people’s opinions do not count and we are united against anyone who would try to get in between us.

Nietzsche – On Hardship

Friedrich Nietzsche born 1844 in Germany, and wrote texts on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy and science. He left us with the question “what is truth?” and it was his thinking that reversals in life should be looked at like climbing a mountain. Something to be overcome not succumbed to. He said that anything worthwhile would always require effort.

In poor health for much of his life he wrote books that were largely unpublished and unread for many years and he died at an early age of only 56. During his mostly solitary life he wrote and thought about the amount of work needed to succeed. See the example of a ballet dancer. There is a huge amount of hours spent training and practising. The physical toll it takes on their feet and general health to maintain the weight and flexibility to perform, without even counting the understanding of the music and choreography is enormous.

Nietzsche’s basic message from this is not to give up when it gets hard and not to stop on your first failure (or for any further ones either – as they can happen at any time when you put your work out for display and discussion). Failure is horrible, but you can survive it. You can move on, you can learn from it. Take what looks awful and activate it to produce something positive or successful. (for example for me personally: from retrenchment from graphic design career can come a renewed career in fine art, which I always wanted from the beginning)

Life is a risky business, so take a chance, if you don’t try you will never know.

Nietzsche tells us that happiness doesn’t come from drowning your sorrows or trying to escape them. He had serious doubts about Christianity’s ability to guide people’s lives. He was also against alcohol because he saw it as a way of dulling pain and avoiding the necessary growth that can come from it. He used the phrase “religion of comfortableness” pinpointing those who are afraid to or unwilling to try. He thought that these things can be “crutches” that people use to avoid facing issues or growing through the hard times in life.

We have heard the phrase “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. This is a basis of Nietzsche’s thinking. Not everything pleasant is good for us, not everything painful is bad for us. Taking the journey and making the effort is.

Questions to the Class

Is it important for artists to be happy?
We overall, answered yes.

What is it to be happy?

      • Satisfaction 
      • Support
      • Freedom
      • Self Confidence
      • Self Understanding
      • Contentment
      • Friendship
      • Goals
      • Time
      • A Sense of Belonging

A final Statement:

Expectation = Upset
Possibility = Further Possibilities

Further Reading: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.”
Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans’ innate curiosity. His theories focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. Maslow use the terms Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem and Self-Actualization needs to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Personal Comment

I studied Phsychology and Philosophy for TOP year during the late 1970s. I admit to not really understanding why it was included in an art course until I got into the workforce and suddenly realised that I could empathise and understand my clients a lot better than many of my colleagues because of the training I had received in these subjects.

As I have matured (to put it nicely) these bits of learning have been a benefit and a curse in my self understanding and that of the office politics that goes on in business.

Not all managers like you being “in their head” to the point where who know exactly what they are up to. Clients on the other hand are often thrilled when they find that you can not only understand their needs but articulate them back to them and follow up with the goods. That is where the good understanding of yourself comes in as well.

When you know who you are and what your goal is, it is so much easier to create a physical artwork or whatever that is truly your own. It makes it easier to let anyone else know where you are going and why. It also helps you to be secure enough in yourself to continue doing it whether you are widely accepted with acclaim or not.

As for the hardship thing. I can understand that you can’t understand what light is until you see the dark. I have gone through a lot of dark for a lot of years, and also had moments of light. Sometimes “fate” or whatever it is comes along and puts you on another path in life, maybe the one you should have been on all along, or maybe it is just the right time for you right now. Mine came three years ago when my graphic design career nearly put me in the hospital with a nervous breakdown. I was suddenly made redundant before that could happen. I also have the  support of an amazing husband who helped me get in touch with the long neglected artist within. Just about everything from then on I have felt have been well thought out, talked over with him and followed as things fell into place.

At the Point Leo camp one morning as I was photographing the scenery for future references and singing away to my iPhone music, I had one of these rare and wonderful moments in life. “A Perfect Moment of Happiness” I was in the exact right place, doing the exact right thing at the right time and experienced total happiness and bliss.

We are still poor and struggling, I am still not a “known” or major award winning artist. We don’t have our own home, our cars are slowly falling to bits and I have recently had health problems that are slowing me down, so it is not “perfect” as many would call it. I think the happiness and all the other stuff is what you make it and in that moment, as I cried with overwhelming happiness, it was all perfect! Won’t it be great when I get to experience another one!


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