An Epicurean Guide to Happiness

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Whenever we speak of happiness, there is always a conflict in our minds. On one side are the short-term pleasures that we run after that we sometimes call happiness (e.g. ‘This is the happiest day of my life!’). On the other side is the peaceful, long-lasting state of serenity that we yearn for, which we also call happiness (e.g. ‘I want to be happy.’ ‘Are you truly happy?’).

The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, spent an awful lot of time thinking about these very things, and he’s generally known to be a materialist. He lent his name to a form of life called Epicureanism, in which pleasure is held to be the highest goal of life. Indeed, Epicurus himself said once: ‘Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.’

It’s easy at first glance to dismiss Epicurus as just another hedonist caught in pleasure’s trap. But as we dig a little deeper into his writings, a slightly different man emerges. By pleasure, he says, what he means is ‘the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul.’ So instead of viewing pleasure as a positive thing to chase and possess, Epicurus asks us to free ourselves of worry and physical pain, so that we may achieve a state of calm and neutrality, which he calls ataraxia, or ‘free from worry’. Buddha called it ’emptiness’.

Necessary and Unnecessary Desires

The first distinction we must make is that between necessary and unnecessary desires, he says. Necessary desires are those that compel us to be free of physical and mental pain, where unnecessary desires cause further pain even after they’re satisfied. All desires of the flesh and of the material world are of the latter sort; though they give us momentary pleasure, they lock us into the pain-pleasure cycle, where we run after more and more pleasure which causes us more and more pain.

Pleasurable pains and painful pleasures

The second distinction is between the different kinds of pleasures and pains. Some ‘pleasures’ result in long-lasting pain, like drinking or taking drugs, whereas some pains – like failure, heartbreak and envy – could lead to resilience, empathy and self-awareness, which are all highly pleasurable states. Epicurus advises us not to judge a pleasure or a pain from what it does to your body right now, but from what it does your mind and character in the long run. Suffering and sadness may make us feel bad today, but we may be better off enduring them if they make us happier beings overall.

Friends, Freedom and Philosophy – the ingredients for happiness

As we may expect of a philosopher, he claims that a life of questioning and debating the deeper questions of life with like-minded people to be the happiest one. In fact, as Alain De Botton presents in the video below, the three things that man needs to be happy, according to Epicurus, are freedom, friends, and solitude in which to reflect. No matter how much you have in terms of material possessions, he says that unless you have these three, it is impossible to be happy. And if you have these three, you will have need for nothing else.

What is your definition of ‘happiness’? When are you at your happiest? Do you have a set of requirements to be happy? Be sure to leave a comment and tell me.

Image Courtesy: MACB Art

Reference: Pursuit of Happiness

Comments

  1. Pleasure leads to pain, pain leads to pleasure. It’s a cycle, as you said. Both are important, because they pretend to give meaning to the non-existent meaning of our life.

    Destination Infinity

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  2. Света Григорьева says:

    Happiness, – it is impossible loveless. A man can not be happy not loving.

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    • Hi, welcome to the blog. Thanks for your comment. I agree, love is necessary for happiness. But is it sufficient? What do you think?

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    • Cbeta…Chinese Confucians believe that if you get rid of all the pains and anxiety of life, you will be left with empathy and wisdom (wisdom of knowing difference between pains and pleasures…evil and good). Thus, if you follow Epicurean teachings, then you would have love for everyone around you and happiness as well. In the Matrix movie, Neo is given the choice between the red and blue pills, with inferences to Lewis Carrol’s Alice series. What most don’t pick up on is that in a previous Lewis Carrol book the main character is given a choice between a red pill, which allows the person “to love everyone else” or the the blue pill, where “everyone loves him.” Thus, we have the choice of being compassionate (having empathy for everyone else) or being selfish (feeding the ego). Clearly, Epicurus would agree with Buddha that selfish desires and the ego lead us to pain and grief. While getting rid of these things would lead us to love and happiness.

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      • Interesting post, David. I didn’t know that the red/blue pill of the Matrix was taken out of a Lewis Carrol book. Do you happen to know the name of the book? It sounds like something I should look up.

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  3. Knowing the nature of necessary and unnecessary desires, painful pleasures, pleasurable pains and choosing the right ones need the wisdom of Philosophy, freedom to choose and the right friends to enable and encourage that pursuit. OK? As a quick summary?…

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  4. Gokul Kolipaka says:

    Hi Sharath

    A well written article on happiness.

    Would like to say a lot, but in person when we meet.

    All the best

    Best wishes

    Gokul

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  5. Will be sharing some of your blogs with the Society of Epicurus 🙂

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Trackbacks

  1. […] ‘Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness’. I’ve already posted pieces on Seneca and Epicurus based on these videos, dealing with anger and happiness respectively. Today we’ll discuss […]

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