Four Meditations on Happiness

Four Meditations on Happiness

by Michael Hampe


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In this original and thought-provoking book, philosopher Michael Hampe sets out to help us understand happiness. The right and proper path to a happy life is a topic that has been debated for millennia. There are many theories, from those of ancient philosophy to those of modern neuroscience, but can any one of them ultimately tell us how the objective of a perfectly fulfilled life might be achieved? By telling the story of two friends—the unhappy philosopher Stanley Low and the happy gardener Gabriel Kolk—alongside a presentation of four essays that examine prominent and very plausible theories of happiness, Michael Hampe illustrates that there is no easy answer to our search for unadulterated bliss. This is an erudite and illuminating investigation into one of mankind's most elusive quests, one that allows us to reconsider what it means to be happy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857894038
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 01/01/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael Hampe studied philosophy, psychology and literature in Cambridge and Heidelberg, and is a professor of philosophy at ETH Zürich.

Read an Excerpt

Four Meditations on Happiness

By Michael Hampe, Jamie Bulloch

Grove Atlantic Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Michael Hampe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85789-405-2


The Calenberg Prize

The giant sloth

'Nobody gets out of here alive' – apparently the phrase had been sprayed on a wall in Hamburg. I heard this on the radio while having breakfast one rainy Monday morning. It was after I'd made the trip from Hanover to Pattensen to go to the Calenberg Academy for the first time in eighteen months. I had the feeling that I'd already come across this line – 'Nobody gets out of here alive' – in a newspaper advert for an action movie about inmates on death row trying to break out from a high-security American prison; in the end the heroes do indeed get out alive. But as a slogan sprayed on a wall in a city, I found it remarkably astute. Not warlike as in the advert for the film, but wise in an amusing way. Because to all intents and purposes this graffiti – if you allow a very broad interpretation of the word 'here' – is always correct. Although for a while we do get from A to B on the earth's surface, nobody gets out of this world alive.

As it is bound to come to an end for all of us – and probably dismally – we may wonder why we invest so much time and effort in changing and supposedly improving our so-called 'circumstances'. Perhaps our desire for change and improvement is merely an attempt to rid ourselves of the anxiety created by the (at least unconscious) realization expressed publicly in this graffiti. At the heart of our quest to make everything better might be the idea that we could perhaps avoid death, too, if only we tried hard enough to improve our circumstances. Maybe the realization that death is unavoidable seldom finds its way into our 'emotional centre', or whatever you wish to call the thing that makes us act in such and such a way when there's no time to think and weigh things up.

The need for change, however, varies in importance throughout our lives. Small children often want everything to be repeated. For example, they want the story that was read to them yesterday read to them again today. But with the onset of puberty – if not before – it's a different matter. It certainly was in my case. Not long after school, in my second semester at university, I suddenly became terribly depressed at the thought that my life would keep going on in the same way. I couldn't stand my home town, Stony Brook, any more and I'd hoped that everything would be different in Boston. Many people labour under the illusion that their life could be put 'in order' if they were only able to move it to the 'right place'. But wherever we go we're still saddled with our problems in that place and we have to cope with our own selves on a permanent basis. In my youth I, too, laboured under the illusion of the magical effects of changing location. But once in Boston I had to adopt a very strict daily and weekly rhythm to overcome the chaos and loneliness that marked the start of my studies there. I'd thought that if I made it to Boston from Stony Brook then everything would change. When I got there, however, I immediately plummeted into a nothingness.

I could only slow down this descent by regulating exactly what I did when. I drew up a timetable into which I inserted not only my lectures, seminars and sports activities, but also my reading and sleeping times, and even the times when I would go to the cinema or sleep. All detailed with the precision of half-hour slots. I regulated everything. After living this regulated life for two semesters I was struck by the horrific thought that everybody might be filling the emptiness of their lives with timetables like mine. 'There's no way this can be right. There's no way it can go on like this,' I thought as I sat in the wasteland that was my student bedroom. I decided to change life (not merely my personal one) and swapped subjects, although not just as a result of my brainwave. I changed from veterinary medicine to philosophy, from the goal of curing animals to curing humans. My new objective turned out to be an overestimation of the possibilities offered up by the academic discipline known as 'philosophy'.

Some of my fellow male students were well aware of the desolation of campus life, others less so, but it affected them all in some way or another. They would combat it with sex and the problems of communication associated with sex, or to put it more accurately: with a succession of girlfriends. Besides the illusion of the right place, young people also harbour the illusion of the right person you need to find in order to spend this life with them. In some people this illusion results in a persistent changing of places and partners; in others resignation because they cannot put up with anywhere or anyone for long. Although later I, too, got married, I'd long given up believing in the power of sexual and geographical circumstances to bring meaning and happiness to life.

In fact, nothing goes on for ever, not even a precisely planned day; everything comes to an end some time, for the individual, for all of us as individuals – as that graffiti on the wall makes clear – and, if the scientists are right, for us as a species as well.

As I was sitting on the train from Hanover to Pattensen on the day in question, staring out of the window at the rain falling onto the brown fields, I remembered that on one of my recent visits to see my daughter and her mother in Zurich we'd gone to the university's zoological museum. There it had occurred to me that my daughter's life would be over, too, one day. As this thought unfurled in my mind she was standing beside a stuffed giant sloth in the entrance hall of the museum. At first I had told her it was a giant groundhog; she had corrected me. She gazed at the reproduction of this large mammal from the Pleistocene era while I tried to imagine the almost endless chain of individual creatures that had already died and were yet to die, and the chain of already extinct species, together with those that were yet to die out. The Calenberg Prize question had just recently been set and, with this in mind, I asked myself, 'Why should we actually try to improve something? And for whom? What sense is there in striving for perfection, given the seemingly endless chain of disappearing individuals and species?'

And yet life is not about the perfection of an artefact, about creating an existential masterpiece. The fact that we get hungry again, that each meal is merely a temporary satiation of our imperfect state – imperfect because we are hungry – and that no meal satisfies us, makes us permanently full, hasn't ever prevented anyone from cooking good food or even eating in the first place. So neither should the fact that we die and die out – i.e., no life can represent the ultimate and eternal perfection – prevent anyone from improving, not to say perfecting their own lives. A good or fair life, even a finite one, is surely better than a bad or unfair life, particularly for those who have lived it. Isn't that almost a conceptual truth? After all, a delicious and filling meal is still a good meal, even if we get hungry again afterwards.

'So what is the sting of mortality, which supposedly makes all our efforts seem pointless, other than an existential sentimentality about finitude and mortality?' I thought, standing beside my daughter and the Zurich giant sloth. 'Of course,' I reflected, 'Beckett's image of us as frogs (or was it crabs?) being cooked to death in a slowly heating pot – which, unlike a sudden slaughter, nobody gets into a fuss about – this image has its aesthetic charm.

'But does it give us insight?' I wondered in front of the stuffed bullfrogs. 'Do we not feel sorry,' I thought as I caught sight of the preserved prairie dog, 'for the comedian Bill Murray in Groundhog Day when he fails in his attempt to kill himself, to put an end to the perpetual recurrence of the same day, which means for him there is no way out of the never-ending continuity of his Groundhog Day existence?

'We mustn't see mortality as just a threat,' I concluded back then. Nothing would be gained or perfected if our existence went on for ever, no matter whether it were eternal in a linear sense or an ever- recurring loop, as in Groundhog Day.

Looking from a higher consciousness with Krishna

So taking a more positive view, from a distance, one might accept Goethe's dictum 'Die and become' or, like Nietzsche and Bataille, approve of the 'wastefulness' of nature, which produces so much only to let it perish again, I pondered on my way to Pattensen. After all, the most terrible things vanish from life's stage as well. By doing this, however, you aestheticize existence, turning it into a drama which can supposedly be watched from the outside. But the fact is that we all have to play along with life; we cannot be mere onlookers. Even if we were among the most horrible and least desirable human specimens ever to have wreaked havoc on this earth, we'd still hardly be able to affirm our own disappearance from the perspective of participants. In truth, we have no external perspective on the conclusion of our existence. Thus the aestheticization of existence is not only an act of cynicism towards what we are looking at, but also a self-deception in which we identify with our immortal godhead who observes mortals as if they were players upon a stage, a self-deception which we will probably realize as such in the moment of our death, if not before.

The suggestion that we should view our life and death – as well as those of our nearest and dearest – from the outside, from a so-called 'higher consciousness', and see ourselves as acting out a role, seems to have first been suggested by the Indian god Krishna to Arunja in the Bhagavad-gita. But in the twenty-first century we find this heroic-aesthetic ideal faintly vulgar. Even me, an old humanities scholar, cannot believe wholeheartedly in a Krishna or any other deity on a so-called higher level of consciousness.

For, given the facts of our existence in the twenty-first century, what is there to make me proclaim 'die and become' à la Goethe or Nietzsche? After all, we no longer go into battle against Achilles in chariots, but twist our ankle when we run for the bus, slip on the deposits left by the neighbours' dachshund, then get run over by a tram. If we imagine that in animal factories around the world at any one moment, thousands of pigs are blinking at the light from neon tubes operated by automatic timers, creatures who until they are made into sausages spend only a few, probably less than pleasant months of life being fattened in concrete bunkers, the question soon arises as to what sort of becoming and dying should be affirmed here. Should we see such events from a so-called cosmic perspective as part of an extravagant drama? It is probably true to say that the affirmation of the supposedly heroic drama of becoming and dying has always needed the willingness and artistic capacity to heroicize reality as well as deny the banality of living and dying.


'If you think about it seriously, only incurable narcissists could possibly want to live for ever,' I said to myself as I made my way from Pattensen Station to the Academy beneath my umbrella, which was being pelted by heavy drops of rain. But I also know that my own profession, that of academic – just like those of artists, politicians and industrial managers – is full of individuals concerned, sadly, only with themselves. Their inability to love prevents them from being loved themselves; this in turn creates inside them an unquenchable thirst for recognition.

But these sick narcissists striving for eternal distinction and those who forever feel aggrieved – are they not merely exhibiting something which secretly torments all human beings? Would we admire their success otherwise? Does not the fact of death poison the pursuit of eternity and perfection from the very beginning and for all of us in a way which cannot help but make our existence seem miserable, forcing us to seek compensation in constant recognition and the immortality of fame? Is death not a sort of punishment meted out to us whatever we do with our lives?

Up until a certain age no child knows or believes that death exists. The first time they are confronted with death it is a shock. Is our quest for unending recognition and unending fame actually an expression of the wish for immortality, for a return to the modus vivendi in which we once existed as children? Is it not perhaps an illness in the sense of a deviation from healthy normality? This obsession with eternal status in the world is perhaps no more than the honest expression of what all people basically want always (even if mostly in secret): perfection, endlessness, and the constant attention of everybody else. Maybe the consciousness of death cuts such a deep wound in us all that it can only be patched up again with the religious illusion of eternal life or the pursuit of unending recognition. And the more people lose the religious belief in eternal life, the more they have to strive, almost frantically, for unending recognition.

Sometimes the attempts at perfection in my world remind me of the exercises performed by Buddhist monks in Tibet, India or somewhere else on Earth, who will spend days creating a complex pattern with brightly coloured sand on a sky-blue background. In the centre of this pattern is the wheel of time or Mount Kailash, which in some mythologies of the northern Indian–Tibet region represents the centre of the world. Soon after finishing their sand picture, or mandala, the monk tries to imagine the pattern in meditation – or does actually imagine it – before the Dalai Lama destroys the mandala in the so-called Kalachakra initiation. As I once saw in a Werner Herzog documentary, this involves wiping at the colourful lines of sand until they blur into a grey nothingness. The pile of sand is then shovelled into a silver-and-gold vessel. The vessel is carried to a river and the Dalai Lama tips the grey sand, which once had formed an unbelievably complex pattern, into the water.

This is an exercise in transience, the purpose of which I do not understand. Perhaps I don't understand it because I am not versed in the meditation they perform; neither the meditation of emptiness nor the imagining of a complex pattern with symbols for over 720 deities after the meditation of emptiness. Why should consciousness be exercised thus for transience, in view of the fact that transience exists whether we're aware of it or not? Does it make any difference whether our lives pass with or without an awareness of transience? This question asks what the sense of philosophizing is, if philosophizing means learning about death. But after decades of philosophy I still had to ask myself: exercises in mortality – why? Maybe Buddhists train for a better reincarnation. But if you don't believe in that sort of thing – a spiritual career spanning a number of existences – why bother training for it? Don't we train only when, after being provisional, things become serious and final, rather than when something simply stops which we feel is neither wholly provisional nor wholly serious and final? Are we not continually producing complex patterns of thinking and feeling which are then wiped out, not by ourselves or the Dalai Lama, but by an accident of some sort or a fatal illness?


It was not an obsession with recognition that led me into philosophy. I hoped that engaging with philosophy would bring me clarity and reason, allow me to reach an understanding with myself and lead a happy life – a philosophical existence conversing with like-minded people. Back then I was convinced that the academic study of philosophy would enable me to learn how to lead my life. But that didn't happen.


Excerpted from Four Meditations on Happiness by Michael Hampe, Jamie Bulloch. Copyright © 2009 Michael Hampe. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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Table of Contents


1 The Calenberg Prize,
2 Scientific and technological progress as a means to eliminate unhappiness,
3 The happiness of peace of mind,
4 Happiness is impossible, but the truth is beautiful,
5 Intensity and security as requirements of happy experiences,
6 Polyphony,

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