On Frustration – because a better title eludes me


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I watched a series of YouTube videos featuring Alain de Botton’s documentary based on his book “The Consolations of Philosophy”. Anyone who, like me, is interested in those aspects of philosophy that help us live happier, fuller lives should watch these – he discusses a lot of interesting points. Each video is centred around a particular philosopher and his or her work, and each one deals with a particular topic. As an example, there’s one on Epicurus and his ideas regarding happiness and how to attain it. Another one, which I found very interesting, was focused on Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, and his thoughts on frustration.

I found this video intriguing because frustration is something I deal with on a daily basis, both my own and that of other people. Being a slow, pensive person, I tend to cause a lot of it. Seneca, apparently, was also dealing with quite a bit of frustration, working as the tutor of the emperor’s son, and frustration in that time and place was a dangerous thing. So it’s only natural that he ended up spending quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to prevent it. What he came up with is that frustration is caused by excessive optimism. It’s when we expect things to turn out well and they don’t that we get frustrated. Just think about it; imagine you have a friend who has a tendency to show up late to things. If you fully expect that said friend will arrive late to your party, and plan things accordingly, then you’ll be fine if he is late, and pleasantly surprised if he’s on time. However, if you don’t expect him to be late, but believe he’ll be on time on this occasion, and if you plan according to that, then you’ll be frustrated when he is late. We only ever become frustrated when things don’t work out the way we expect them to. Think back; can you remember a single occasion where you’ve genuinely said to yourself “oh, I’m sure this or that will happen, and if it does I’ll just have to deal with it in such and such a way” and then become frustrated when it did happen? Generally speaking, if we’re pessimistic about something from the start we’ll only find adversity mildly amusing. I, for one, think this is true. It’s that tried and true bit of advice; if your expectations are low you won’t be disappointed.

There is, however, one problem with this theory. Its conclusion is that we should adopt a more pessimistic attitude in order to avoid disappointment. We should be cynical, always expecting the worst. Many people believe that the opposite is better, that being optimistic is the best approach. I think a lot of people genuinely believe that if they’re positive and are sending out positive “vibes”, good things will come to them. Now, this might actually be the case. After all, if you wake up in the morning and convince yourself from the start that you’re going to have a good day, chances are it will be a good day. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, since you’ll get a kick of energy and will be more prepared to be active, and you’ll erect a sort of “bubble” of good-will and humour around yourself, dealing with problems more effectively. If you’re good at being optimistic, I think it’s possible to be quite content even on a fairly bad day. I recon it might even be possible to combat frustration with optimism. However, eventually you’ll hit a wall. Life has a way of keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground. If you’re pessimistic, on the other hand, you may be less happy in the short-term but you probably won’t be disappointed. It is, in many ways, an easier frame of mind to adopt and maintain than its opposite.

And yet, the idea that we’ll be more content if we’re cynical and pessimistic all the time seems counter intuitive, at least to me. It just doesn’t seem right. But maybe it’s not a question of being pessimistic. In fact, I don’t believe it is. What Seneca was saying was that we should always be prepared for the worst, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for the best. What he was advocating was realism, a simple acceptance of the fact that things really don’t always work out and that we’re bound to bump into problems from time to time. When we do, we should be prepared to say “ah well, that’s just the way of the world” and move on, rather than becoming angry and indignant. We should steep ourselves in reality, always ready to take the good with the bad. And when something goes wrong, we should try to take it philosophically. When the emperor ordered Seneca to kill himself, the man didn’t so much as complain. He took the knife, and then his life. Perhaps the perfect – if a tad lugubrious – illustration of what he was talking about.

On a side note, Alain de Botton has been criticized for popularising philosophy, over simplifying it to make it more accessible to “the masses”. To be frank, I’m not sure this is such a bad idea. I think philosophy has become a little too esoteric, a little too academic, and a little too lofty. Reading a philosophical text can be like trying to decipher some strange code. I believe it’s fully possible to express even the most complex philosophical theories in a simple manner. But I’ve only studied the subject for a while and can’t claim to be an expert. If you happen to have any thoughts on the matter, please share them!


6 responses »

  1. I do agree with you that people get frustrated when things do not happen according to their expectations. I personally believe, people tend to plan their future in a very massive way and they often forget our future is unpredictable. Planning our future and adjusting our lives according to what we only think might happen, ruins the beauty and the surprise of the unknown, what future most definitely is. I also believe people are afraid of the unknown and they would rather plan their future and get disappointed if it doesn’t turn out for the best, than let life bring them whatever it has in store for them. Moreover, the frustration caused by disappointment takes away what might be a new, beautiful and inspiring experience. After being disappointed, people are too focused on being frustrated rather than look at this whole new experience from different perspectives. I believe, every experience is sacred and hold the possible truth of enlightenment that we seek throughout life. It’s just the matter of how we comprehend this new situation, of how we look at it. If we only look from one point of view, we might miss a lot more than we think there is for us to see.
    Optimism is a fairly good way of approaching frustration, in my opinion. To me optimism is a sort of hope, always hoping for the best, not giving up on life even when it slaps you twice as hard as it would, if you were more pessimistic. It makes life worth living, it makes it special in its own way.
    As you said, life has its way of keeping our feet on the ground, but that doesn’t mean we are always to stay on the ground. Sometimes we should take our head all the way to the clouds and find some new perspective, create new ways of dealing with what’s happening to us. If people were to be more pessimistic, so that they would not suffer as much as they would, if they were optimistic, they could never experience other emotions, such as love, happiness or joy fully, with all their heart and mind, because they would be always prepared for the worst case scenario and they wouldn’t allow them-selves to fully give in their emotions. Well, that’s what I think.

    • Once again, you’ve come up with some great insights! I definitely agree with what you’re saying about the potential dangers of fully embracing Seneca’s approach to “anger-management”, and it is one of the slight problems with Stoicism (probably why we sometimes associate the word “stoic” with the repression of emotions today). But optimism, as said, has a danger all of its own (we can become too optimistic). I think we could probably put the two attitudes on a sort of sliding scale, with optimism at one end and pessimism at the other. In the middle, you would have realism, which is possibly the best approach.
      One thing though; Seneca, like all stoics, would’ve been of the opinion that it was possible to fully feel all those emotions you were talking about, but then use reason to dampen them so you could maintain your “cool”.
      You’re right in saying that optimism is a kind of hope, but then some people (not necessarily me – I’m undecided) would say that it’s more a case of false hope, since sometimes the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty, it’s just plain empty.
      I certainly think it would be wonderful if we could learn to keep calm when bad things happen, and then embrace the fullness of our joy when things go well, but the question is whether that’s possible.
      Thank you for commenting, I always enjoy reading what you have to say 🙂

      • Yes, indeed. I find the possibility of balance between pessimism and optimism very rare, if not almost impossible. To me realism is the perfect point where one can make, let say good decisions, as he is not being influenced by neither pessimism nor optimism, but it also appears to me to be the less emotional point on the whole scale. People are under the influence of their emotions all the time and they act according to them. Every situation triggers some sort of interference, which preponderates this scale you mentioned before to one or the other side. If people were to be in the area of realism, they should be completely emotionless, so they wouldn’t be affected by neither pessimism nor optimism.
        Yes, reason might do the job, but not every person is strong enough to supress their emotions, especially if these emotions are very strong. But if they were to supress their emotions, this would cause only more frustration and stress. Maybe they wouldn’t show it, but inside they would be torn and confused. I personally don’t like suppressing my emotions and my feelings. You may control your actions and not do what your feelings are telling you to do, but you can’t change your emotions using reason, according to me of course.
        Yes, as I said before, in my opinion we are always under the influence of our emotions. Keeping calm in certain situations is very hard if not almost impossible for some people. Under such outbursts one should let everything out in the beginning, but still not jump to fast conclusions and radical changes. Maybe one should take some time to see this whole situation from different perspectives and then decide what to do about it. But as you said, the big question is whether this is possible. I personally believe this is very hard.
        It’s always my pleasure to discuss such topics with someone like you, as I find them all very interesting. I will try to comment your posts more often in the future. 🙂

      • Not jumping to fast conclusions was one of Seneca’s big points – he thought time was the best way to manage passionate emotions like anger. Human emotion is definitely a very big and complicated topic, but you’ve got some good thoughts going here! Please do comment – blogging without comments feels very much like a one-sided conversation 🙂

  2. I believe time is the best way of managing every emotional outburst. I think people need somebody else, a friend maybe, who keeps them away from jumping to fast conclusions and kind of buys them time to process everything. Yes, human emotions are a very large and complicated topic to discuss, as there are so many things one needs to consider and also because there are 8 billion people, each and every one special in its own way, living of Earth. I can’t promise you much, but I’ll try to make your blogging a little less one-sided and maybe more interesting 🙂

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