Does life owe you a good life?

Wilhelm Schmid and Arnold Retzer

brand eins: Mr. Schmid, Mr. Retzer, what is a good life?

Wilhelm Schmid: The good life is a life in which the disasters that inevitably occur at some point can be absorbed. That works better if I don't expect life to spare me catastrophes. If I expect a life free of pain, if something bad happens I cannot align it with my self-image and what I think is my life. Then you tend to quarrel. You begin to reproach life and blame other people for your own misfortune. That's never a good posture. A good life is one that is managed reasonably well. That is far from what many expect from a good life today, namely permanent happiness.

Arnold Retzer: I cannot answer the question of what a good life is, I have no idea. In my psychotherapeutic practice I have met patients for decades and am always amazed, sometimes even jealous, of the different ways people shape their lives. Given this diversity, I am skeptical if someone tries to tell me what a good life is. A norm is emerging again that puts pressure on the people who believe in it. Constantly balancing one's own life with an ambitious ideal seems to me a relatively safe way of not leading a good life. The difference between the actual state and the desired state makes one collapse under the terror of the ought. My question is more: How can I avoid unnecessary suffering? It helps to figure out how to make life difficult for yourself. I am observing a strange paradox. Many people develop great empathy for strangers, even for animals - be it for the dead Lady Di or for the polar bear Knut. At the same time, there is a lack of empathy with oneself. I have always considered the phrase "love your neighbor as yourself" to be a threat when I see how unkind and cruel many people treat themselves. Many ask about their wishes and goals, not their ideas of themselves about their suitability, in order to part with them if they are not good for them. My answer is more modest than Mr Schmid's. I don't believe in making a good life, I believe in avoiding a bad life.

Schmid: A bad life cannot be avoided all the time. People are strongly shaped by their nature, by their genes, over which they have no influence for the time being. They are shaped by their social environment. They cannot free themselves from these imprints at will. It is important to find the small gap in your own design options.

Retzer: We have to accept these limits of our autonomy, be it through genetics, be it through social influences, be it through illnesses. If we don't do that, for example if we believe irresponsible morons who promise us that cancer can be cured with "positive thinking", unnecessary suffering is programmed. It doesn't help to have illusions about your possibilities. Hope, optimism, positive thinking cannot remove the limits of our self-power. Avoiding a bad life means facing the facts, even if the fact may be that my life expectancy is only six months. That's what I call counter-litigation competence. The mourner has it, the depressed one does not. A major problem for the depressed is hope, even if that sounds a bit paradoxical. He has the hope that his wishes will still be fulfilled and always suffers anew from the fact that life refuses to fulfill this hope. The mourner, in contrast to the depressed, says goodbye, be it to a loved one or to his own failed hopes.

Mr Schmid, you write that happiness is overrated. Mr. Retzer, you demand that feelings such as fear, hopelessness or pessimism be valued more highly and that fun, self-confidence, happiness or optimism not be taken too seriously. Are you a masochist?

Schmid: I'm not a masochist, I'm a realist. When I meet people who are always in a good mood, it has something far removed from life. I'm afraid for people like that. They can only crash. You are not prepared for the dark side of life. Everyone is granted their luck. But life is not all about happy moments. It is a great mistake to believe that the art of living consists in making life easy for yourself. Art, including the art of living, is exhausting.

Retzer: I have nothing against luck. But when it becomes compulsory, it becomes problematic. Whenever optimism and a constant grin are expected, the fun stops. I watch people who live in a prison of compulsive good humor. It starts with children. When children experience despair, failure, or grief, it bothers many parents. So chemical help is given, in the harmless form with children's chocolate, in the less harmless form with medication. Or you send children to the therapist. This systematically prevents experiences that are necessary. For example, the experience that failure and despair are part of life - and the experience that you survive it. We learn through pain. Success, on the other hand, can make you stupid.

Can't failure also make us bitter and incapable of learning?

Retzer: We perceive life through the filter of our ideas. When our perception of ourselves is inconsistent with our actual life, when life vetoed, or when the shape we gave our life breaks, it opens up opportunities, even though it may be exhausting and painful. We have the opportunity to react to the failure of our ideas by modifying our ideas. It is a learning process. It is too pompous for me when people talk about a "conscious life". Perhaps it is enough to use the experience of failure. People who glorify success and do not admit failure suffer from failure poverty, they take the opportunity to learn from the veto of life. For me, this learning process is the art of living.

Schmid: I see it similarly, we become more mature through experience, and experiences are to a large extent also bad experiences. Mr. Retzer speaks of children, that's a good keyword. A naive concept of happiness fails in the family. Family and children make you happy. But that is not a one-dimensional all-round feel-good happiness without conflicts. Anyone who expects this is quickly overwhelmed and disappointed. We need to understand that there are opposites to a fulfilled life - there is joy and anger, there is happiness and pain. Only when I accept these opposites and when they are in balance can I be happy in the family.

Mr. Retzer, one of your theses is that avoiding painful experiences blocks necessary learning processes. Can you explain this with an example?

Retzer: It is well known that modern warfare also consists of letting soldiers go into battle optimistically and in good spirits. Chemical support helps. During the Second World War, pervitin, a methamphetamine, got Wehrmacht soldiers in the mood. In the second Gulf War, 97 percent of US bomber pilots doped themselves with D-amphetamine. But how do you get out of the war optimistically and in a good mood? We know from the traumatized soldiers that this is not always the case. In the meantime, the US military, among others, is working on forgetting. Propranolol, a beta blocker, should - taken within six hours of a traumatic event - ensure that the experience is forgotten. New studies show that the drug prevents access to content from fear memory. You could say a nice thing, also from a clinical point of view. Into the war in a good mood and out of it again in a good mood, and under the pressure of pain and terrible experiences, nobody has to ask the question of whether wars are sensible and justifiable at all.

Schmid: I am confident that there will be interesting side effects when using these drugs. Whatever people do to escape their trauma, they will not succeed.

Do you observe social pressures that expect the individual to be happy, or at least to pretend to be happy?

Retzer: You could say that. In ancient times, luck was Fortuna, and Fortuna is the goddess of chance and fate. In the modern age we are called upon to make our own happiness: "Everyone is the smith of his own happiness". The right to pursue happiness has become a duty. The production of help literature is a thriving industry. We are surrounded by it, obediently buying advice on happiness, trying to implement it, eating right, sleeping properly, dreaming properly and, of course, thinking positively. After that we are still not happy, but we feel guilty because after all, we are responsible for our own happiness.

Schmid: We can do a lot to ensure that we feel good from time to time. I feel good when I have a cup of espresso in the morning. But I also oppose the idea that this can be increased at will, following the pattern: If you do even more for wellness and health and well-being, your life will only consist of happiness. That is the lucky lie. I don't know anyone who is always happy. But I know a lot of people who are unhappy with precisely this pressure. Incidentally, the glut of happiness guides is a relatively new development, at least in Germany. In the mid-1990s you could not score points with the topic on the book market or at lectures. The search for luck has been booming since around the mid-noughties. >

If you enter "luck" as the keyword for books on Amazon, you get more than 25,000 results. Allegedly about every tenth book sold in Germany is devoted to the search for meaning, help in life, the path to happiness or esotericism. Is that a phenomenon of decadence?

Schmid: I don't believe in decadence. But there seems to be a forgetting of the existential in rich societies. And existence also has its bad sides. As a rule, people do not gain deep insights if they eat well and drink good wine with it. We are more likely to gain deep insights when something goes terribly wrong in our life, a relationship, a work situation, maybe even an entire life plan. In such crises we are forced to rethink. Of course, no one should wish for such crises. But all experience shows that they cannot be prevented anyway. So you have to learn to use them to break new ground. I consider it nonsense to want to switch off this chance.

How did the happiness advisor industry boom?

Schmid: I suspect that the collapse of the great ideologies after 1989 played a role in this. Not only did socialism collapse back then, but also capitalism's promise to work towards the greatest possible happiness for as many people as possible thanks to technology, innovation and an efficient economy. That was a horizon of meaning. With the end of the systemic competition, capitalism only drew meaning from itself, capitalism for the sake of capitalism. Forsaken by the great ideologies, people have understood that they must now take care of themselves.

What is so bad about it?

Schmid: Nothing, but that's exhausting. We are victims of our desire to be free. We want to be free from annoying attachments. For example, we want to be free from the parents deciding who the children will marry or what profession they have to pursue. This freedom was the goal of the Enlightenment, and it has its price. We must do without guidelines that tell us how to live. Religion, tradition, political ideologies are no longer binding, we have freed ourselves from them. For many people, this results in the need to find answers to the questions why am I actually here, what am I doing with my life? I understand very well the need that lies behind the demand for advice literature. I experienced that too. I only came up with the subject of the art of living because at a certain point in my life I no longer knew what to do. It took over a year, in which I could just as easily have reached for a razor blade. Many people can tell such stories. The trigger for this crisis was the basic modern experience that possibly nothing makes sense - why then still be alive? Such experiences are a feature of modernity. We have to take that seriously. If we want to live, we need meaning. It's one of the most valuable resources we know.

Retzer: I warn against the creation of a new standard that will again overwhelm us. After the happy life, it must now also be the meaningful life. If we can't give a job, a thing, a phase of life a lot of meaning, it seems to me that the thought that that's not bad either should not be reprehensible. The senseless can also be fun - a good meal, children's games, contemplation in front of a painting.

Schmid: None of this is pointless at the moment. Playing children move in a fullness of meaning that adults have lost and can only find again through awareness. It seems to me to be certain that we cannot live without meaning. It is clear that we don't have to constantly find everything meaningful. Of course, we can live well with moments of freedom from meaning, of nonsense, but not for a long time. And enjoying a good meal is anything but pointless. Moments of pleasure are moments of fullness of meaning, meaning also comes from sensuality.

Retzer: I imagine having to think about the meaning of a good fillet of beef is exhausting.

Mr. Schmid, you plead for "work on yourself". What are the limits of this self-optimization? Isn't it an illusion that you can make anything of yourself if you just want to?

Schmid: The art of living also means seeing the limits of one's own scope for action. That protects against illusions. Word has not yet got around that the art of living is not just about doing, but also about letting go. A mania for feasibility related to one's own self will of course fail. I would like to spare people such disappointments - for example by encouraging them in my books to also accept times of unhappiness.

Retzer: Second-hand experience is often of little use. You have to go through some disillusionment experiences yourself. For me, the art of living is more the ability to deal with what happens to you. It is about the development of resigned maturity. It bothers me that we always speak of happiness and unhappiness in a dichotomous way. As a result of this intensification, the huge area in between is lost, the little worries, the little sense of wellbeing, the banalities of everyday life that make up a large part of our lives. Great luck and great misfortune are states of emergency.

Schmid: I can't prove that statistically, but my impression is that a lot of people are unhappy every day. Most importantly, they don't know how to deal with this condition. I experienced this very clearly when I worked as a philosophical counselor in a hospital for more than ten years. Beyond therapy and medication, there is little help or literature for these phases of unhappiness. There is always only the request to think positively so that you can get out of this hole again. But being able to be unhappy is part of human existence.

Isn't the life-affirming optimism of your books reaching its limits in the face of your experience with the critically ill?

Schmid: The question is, on what basis I am life-affirming and optimistic - compulsively not allowing anything else or knowing that this is only one option. And another perfectly legitimate option is life-denying pessimism. I was always able to speak well to people in a desperate situation when I recognized their situation in principle. Despair to the point of not wanting to live anymore is also a possibility. There is no moral compulsion to affirm life. There are good reasons to say no.

Mr. Retzer, you are calling for the feeling of fear to be valued more highly - although people here in Germany are already considered particularly fearful.

Retzer: We don't live in a fearful society, we live in a fear-fighting society. There shouldn't be fear and unhappiness. It is estimated that one billion daily doses of antidepressants are prescribed in Germany every year. It takes something like stubbornness to disconnect from the common ideas that surround us and to allow feelings such as fear or despair to prevail against the compulsion to think positively.

Mr. Schmid, do you share Mr. Retzer's aversions to the promises of positive thinking?

Schmid: I wrote a chapter "Against positive thinking" in one of my books. With that I earned pretty aversions. Mr Retzer will probably also be familiar with such reactions.I had to learn that many people fervently believe in positive thinking like a religion. Anyone who says something, on the other hand, attracts aggression.