– What Makes People Happy in Life
According to an Unknown Philosopher –
Émile Chartier, commonly know as Alain, was a French philosopher who lived in the early 20th century.
He was underappreciated when he was alive and still is now that he is no longer living. Very few universities outside of the Francophonic world even mention him, let alone study him in detail. As a result, only one of his works has been translated into English.
That being said, he certainly had a big influence on contemporary philosophy. He was a philosophy teacher at the École Normale Supérieure, a private high school in France, where he taught philosophy to big names like Simone Weil and Raymond Aron.
He was a specialist on Cartesian, Spinozist and Kantian philosophy. We can see this in his “Propos,” short essays that he published regularly in the local newspapers. In these short works, two-pagers at most, he talked about a variety of topics, but what he was most concerned about was the question of the good life.
What makes people happy in life? How can one be happy? How can we not succumb to our passions? How can we exercise control over our body? Inspired by the three thinkers mentioned above, Alain took a systematic approach to these questions. During this process, he developed a polished pattern that we still study today.
In this blog post, you’ll read about Alain’s views on happiness. His approach is rational and systematic but surprisingly intuitive. If you’ve studied any of the Stoics, you will definitely recognize the influence they had on his perspective.
An essential term Alain uses to talk about happiness is “humeur”. Humeur means everything that comes to mind when you think of emotions, mood, and feelings. As such, bad humeur and good humeur are self-explanatory.
The former is associated with any negative emotions, the latter with positive emotions. It’s important to remember that humeur is a constant state. We cannot escape it; we are always feeling something along the spectrum of bad to good humeur.
Another characteristic of humeur is its contagiousness.
Imagine a scene in a restaurant. You open the door, immediately you throw a bad look at the waiter.
As a consequence, the waiter fumbles a bottle of wine, ruins a lady’s dress, and then takes out his anger on the cook.
In the meantime, the whole mood in the restaurant is ruined. It may happen that one of the customers ends up beating his wife that same evening, or the harassed cook decides to finally put an end to his misery.
This might be an extreme example, but that’s how Alain tried to illustrate his point. Humeur can become like a poison that infects every single thing it touches. Once humeur starts spreading, it can’t be stopped. That’s why it’s very important that we are watchful around the source. If we cause a bad wave, it’ll result in a massive, downward spiral that will soak everyone with bad humeur.
However, the opposite is true for a positive wave. When we cause this type of humeur, it can make the sun shine again, make the birds sing, and bring worldwide peace. Okay, I may have gone a bit over the top, but you get the point.
So, be kind. Smile to others on the street and say hello. Help others who are in need or even when they aren’t. Your good humeur can be what makes people happy in life. Be a careful coachman, Alain said. Prevent a big collision from happening with a small flick of the hand that will make your horses go the other way. Throw a kind look at the waiter.
To Alain, the way to achieve happiness isn’t through success or money. It’s not through a healthy family or the achievement of your dreams. Alain thinks external forces are only a roadblock to happiness as they are the sources of passion.
The classic interpretation of passion consists of feelings, emotions, anything connected with the body. These days, we see it as a master that leads us in life: “Follow your heart.” What we have to realize, however, is that this modern view of passion is always connected to something material which, when taken away, will mean unhappiness.
Passion ruins our humeur by infiltrating our mind.
Sadness, for example. When we’re sad, we start thinking about the reasons why we are sad. Then, we are reminded of the reason, or realize that we are sad for no reason. Either way, we become even sadder or we get mad because of our overthinking. Down the spiral goes.
Preventing this from happening, according to Alain, isn’t actually very hard. He simply states: “Take a walk.” For him, exercise and physical work cure overthinking.
This is why he condemns most philosophers because all they do is sit inside amongst a massive number of books. Alain didn’t want to be this kind of philosopher; he did gymnastics regularly and routinely took long walks.
Contemporary scientists often like to grade happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Everyone has an individual preset range that they can never escape. Say, you are somewhere between 3 to 7, and Frank from across the street has something between a 6 and a 10. Frank will, on average, default to a happiness of 8, and you will default to an average of 5.
Maybe on your wedding day, the scale of your happiness will go up; when you lose your mother, it’ll go down – but it will always default back to 5. Alain wouldn’t agree with this at all. Alain looks at happiness as something binary.
You’re either happy, or you’re not. And the way to be happy is simple:
First, make sure your passions don’t get to you. Secondly, be in a good mood. And finally, be the source of positive waves. By maintaining these three core principles, we can achieve a constant state of “feel good” that Alain would call happiness.
Question about this article: Did this article provoke any thoughts about finding happiness, or about unhappiness in your life?
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