The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus can make you happier. This is a bold claim, but it is quite justified in my view. How, then, can an ancient Greek man who lived around 300 B.C.E. enhance your life today for the better? The American founding father Thomas Jefferson, among other famous figures, found it worked for him. Maybe it’ll work for you too.
I’ll give a brief overview of Epicurus’ amazing philosophy of happiness, in modern language, and hopefully show that it is every bit as fresh and relevant today as it was back then.
First of all, what is happiness? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about being super-rich, having the best house, the best car, the best gadgets, the best job, or the best-looking body. Rather, natural happiness is that sustained state which effortlessly arises when the mind is free from disturbance and the body is free from feelings of pain. In short, it comes from having a healthy mind in a healthy body – which are both tightly interconnected. The mind and body are one.
The hallmark of a healthy mind is a sustained state of imperturbability – that is, a robust sense of inner peace derived from mental strength and fortitude, unshakable by whatever life may throw at you. This sense of unshakable mental bliss can be cultivated by practising various mental exercises.
One important exercise is to identify your desires and wants, and identify your basic human needs. Survival is the bedrock of your life, so your survival needs (food, water, shelter, and so forth) come first. As well as your survival needs, important needs to aim to satisfy to achieve a deeper happiness include positive friendships, freedom and protection from too much trouble, and being able to think clearly.
The desire for these things are both natural, and necessary to move towards happiness. Other desires, such as the desire for luxury, wealth, expensive food, sexual fulfilment, and so forth, are also natural, but these are not strictly necessary for that deeper form of happiness. If you can get these things, great – but watch out, you may need to moderate these desires so they don’t rob you of your deeper inner joy. If these things elude you, no need to stress – it’s far more important to obtain that natural form of happiness by satisfying your basic human needs – particularly, good friends, enough freedom and security, and the ability to think clearly.
As far as money is concerned, then, you really only need enough to survive and satisfy these primal human needs in order to obtain lasting happiness. You can be relatively rich or poor – it makes little difference either way. The real goods to be obtained relatively cheaply, although having wealth and enjoying luxury is also an option, but not something to be overly stressed over. As Alain de Botton put it, happiness may be difficult to obtain — the obstacles are not primarily financial.
Some other desires are negative, not natural and not necessary for happiness, and are due to false opinions about what makes you happy. Pursuing these tends to make you less happy, not more. These include the desire to one-up people for its own sake and come out on top, to control people through having power over them as a substitute for having your own inner joy, and to be widely admired or famous for its own sake. Think of all the rich celebrities today whose lives are anything but content – is that really something to aim for, or to be envious of? To these, we could add addictive desires for drugs (including the legal ones, such as tobacco or alcohol), “keeping up with the Joneses”, and a desire to seek happiness in romantic love as a substitute for being happy with yourself. These desires are based on delusions about happiness, false beliefs, and can be eradicated with a bit of self-discipline — by thinking clearly about what you really want and need and how life works.
To obtain such happiness, it’s important to develop various strengths of character, and to strive to overcome weaknesses of character which rob you of your happiness in life.
The most important trait to cultivate, is prudence. Prudence means the ability to see ahead, to take the long-term rather than a short-term focus, and to use clear thinking to work out what’s in your genuine best interests. It does not mean being overly cautious, or avoiding taking healthy risks, but rather working out what is best for you in the long term. Cultivating prudence frees you from fear of the future, allowing you to be more happy and content in the here and now. It also has economic and financial advantages, being one of the primary traits of the financially successful. Prudence is the opposite of stupidity or folly.
Out of prudence comes the necessity to cultivate other strengths of character. Self-control is important, in order to regulate the desires as mentioned earlier, and is the opposite of giving in to self-destructive desires which rob you of your long-term happiness. Courage is also vitally important, as a way to cultivate an imperturbable, robustly peaceful mind and make one fearless in the face of life’s troubles. Finally, living with a measure of justice is important, to avoid the fear of being caught doing something condemned and having the wrath of others come down on you.
It is important to recognise that there is no “absolute” justice, but only practical agreements made in various times and places as a means to protect against harm for people. Recognising the relative nature of justice frees us from unnecessary anger which can spoil and poison the joy of life. This view of justice is based on the theory of the social contract, and it leads on to another important idea – a modified version of the famous Golden Rule.
The modified version is “neither harm nor be harmed” - not as some kind of commandment, but as a personal commitment to enhance your own joy of life. That is, preventing other people from harming you is every bit as important as avoiding harming other people, if you are to live well and justly. Letting other people harm or exploit you is every bit as unjust as harming another person. However, do not fall into the trap of expecting too much from others in terms of justice (they are only human), and remember that not everyone is your friend – friendship has to be cultivated with some degree of effort.
These four strengths of character – prudence, self-control, courage, and justice – are to be practised “instrumentally”, as means to the end of achieving personal happiness, and not to be held out as good in themselves when they don’t lead to happiness. Experience is the touchstone as to how far to take them. Other strengths of character are needed too – for example, being a good and trustworthy friend is vital to attaining good friends, one of the basic human needs, which is even considered an “immortal good” as it helps to overcome the fear of death.
It is important to reject false and unsubstantiated religious beliefs which rob you of inner peace. It helps to recognise that all human knowledge comes from experience and instinct. One such negative and destructive belief is the kind of God who gets angry and seeks to punish you in some kind of Hell for being “bad” – or of a “Karma” which does likewise. There is no evidence for any of this. If there is nothing after death, this is not a bad thing – it means no suffering after death, and no fear of punishment from supernatural forces, and no need to fear them.
You can help to overcome the fear of death by seeing it as a natural part of life – the atoms which make up your body come apart, and your body dissolves into the elements. There is no pain after death – and no evidence to suggest otherwise, and you are not there to witness it. You no longer exist. Being dead is no different to what it was like before you were born. There is no need to believe in any kind of afterlife to overcome the fear of death – after self-discipline, it is sufficient to overcome the longing for immortality, as another negative desire which can be rooted out of your mind.
Moreover, it’s important to cultivate the attitude that real happiness (through inner strength) can be achieved, in this lifetime – and it’s the most valuable thing you can possess, better than money or gold, better than sex. The flip side is that you can cultivate the mental fortitude to endure all pain and suffering (mental or physical) that life throws at you, when it cannot be avoided – and to wisely avoid sources of suffering and trauma when it can be avoided.
This, then, is a brief summary of Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness, presented in a way the modern reader can understand. For something from 300 B.C.E., it is remarkably modern and relevant today. If it resonates with you at all, I suggest putting it into practice, especially taking the bits you find most relevant and helpful to your own life – and you, too, can enhance your life and find a deeper and more lasting sense of happiness and inner joy and peace, as is your natural birthright.
This kind of happiness is the goal, but the highest good is life itself. Love of life and cultivating a zest for life is paramount. This way we can also answer that ancient riddle: What is the meaning of life? Life. Life itself. The goal and purpose is a pleasant life, to get as much enjoyment as possible out of life, to really appreciate life for the precious gift it is, enjoying life as much as possible while you are alive.
Carpe Diem, seize the day – as the poet Horace famously wrote – himself a follower of Epicurus. Following this approach to happiness, you can not only enjoy a more joyful and pleasant life, learning to live well for the rest of your life and learning to die well at the end of it. You can enjoy happiness in the moment, in the here and now, being freed from negative fears and cravings and breaking the chains which bind you to unhappiness – and enjoying the bliss of the moment, learning what life is really all about. Take what you will from it, you have nothing to lose but your chains to misery, and everything to gain – all the happiness, joy and bliss you crave can potentially be yours, if you would only train and focus your mind.
I can recommend trying it, and reading more about and applying Epicurus’ life-loving philosophy of joy, and whatever other approaches may help along the path. Put the ideas to the acid test of your real life experience. Be creative, create your own personal philosophy of life and take whatever really works for you. I recommend challenging yourself to achieve as much authentic joy as possible in the short life you have.