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.
Original article first appeared here: http://sharathkomarraju.com/2014/07/10/an-epicurean-guide-to-happiness/