When you search ‘how to be’ on Google, the top result that comes up is “How to Be Happy”. For thousands of years since humans first examined the nature of happiness, we’ve all been trying to find the gold nugget, the piece of advice that will elevate us to a constant state of happiness.
Luckily, there’s a philosopher, who may not rival the reputation of Plato or Socrates, but aimed to understand happiness through a different approach: understanding pleasure and eliminating desire.
His name was Epicurus, and he spent his entire life asking, “What makes people happy?”. Most at the time were instead asking what made people good, but not Epicurus.
Who Was Epicurus?
Epicurus was the latest in a long line of bearded Greek philosophers (move aside, Plato and Socrates!), who was a student of Democritus and studied happiness and natural philosophy.
Epicurus aimed to understand the world around him, and form an explanation of how things work beyond it being God’s work. Epicurus thought that if he couldn’t understand the world rationally, then the rest of his philosophy, which focused on happiness, would be much less effective. Throughout the years Epicureans railed against any sort of magical or supernatural or fate driven account for some phenomena happening.
Pleasure and Happiness
Epicurus defined pleasure as the goal of life. He separated it into 2 key forms, both very different:
- Kinetic Pleasures: Actively in the process of needing to a desire, such as hunger. These were called pleasures of the body, and include things like eating a nice steak, or sleeping until 2PM on a Saturday morning (we’ve all done it).
- Static Pleasures: Achieving a state of tranquility after all pain is removed. These were called pleasures of the mind (katastematic pleasure), and usually revolve around certain mental processes, such as mediating, reliving a pleasant memory, or spending time with friends.
Epicurus also believed in how some pleasures may override tranquility. He wrote that kinetic pleasures wouldn’t solve all pains, and even once static pleasure, or the absence of pain is achieved, treating oneself to a kinetic pleasure, such as a new car or ice cream, will not increase their level of happiness beyond a short period of time (think of the hedonic treadmill).
For example, imagine you have a pair of $30 boots from Walmart or $400 boots from Nordstorm. Since both have achieved static pleasure (warmth), the difference in happiness is not much despite the 16x price difference.
Epicurus on Death
Pleasure revolves around the removal of physical pain, fear, or anxiety. Fear of death is one everybody has had, and one Epicurus studied. He said, “Death is nothing to us, for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.”
The state of death is not unpleasant, but maybe the process. When you leave the earth, you are a relic of the past; just atoms which slowly start to decompose. Because of this belief, Epicurus firmly thought that we did not need immortality to have a good life.
An analogy by Philosophize This really explains this belief:
“I was talking to a woman from France one time and she told me that Americans and French people see food in two completely different ways. In France, it’s about having just a couple bites of the most high quality, delicious, most excellently prepared food possible…and in America its about eating as much low-quality, overly salted fat filled stuff we can…we love to feel stuffed. Now obviously both are generalizations, but in the same way a wise person would want a couple bites of really high quality food as opposed to a mountain of french fries…Epicurus thinks that a wise person would want a couple bites of super high quality life…as opposed to an eternity of dissatisfaction.”
Epcurus’ School: The Garden
Like many philosophers before him (such as Plato), Epicurus founded a school, called the Garden, which aimed to answer questions around how one can achieve happiness. When people heard of Epicurus’ ideas of pleasure and happiness, they assumed the worst, that he was advocating for a life of gluttony and greed.
Contrary to what most thought, what the Garden advocated for was far different. Epicurus outlined 3 mistakes that most make when thinking about what happiness is.
- Relationships are Happiness: Most at the time believed that romantic relationships would bring the most happiness, but instead many brought anger, greed and jealousy, resulting in actions such as cheating. Epicurus instead believed that cultivating strong friendships would make us much happier. Remember how most people recall college to be some of their happiest moments? Maybe it was the independence, the strong bonds made while living away that made college full of happiness for many people. Some ways I’ve implemented this is by optimizing how I spend time with friends for building strong relationships. Spending time walking and talking, rather than watching a movie, is one example of a situation where one produces a far stronger bond than the latter.
- We need money to be happy: You’ve probably heard this thousands of times, but Epicurus believed that it was working in small groups, knowing you’re helping people and making a difference that brought happiness, not money. I’ve tried to do this by spending more time with people who are passionate about working on similar things in genomics and computer science, and want to make a dent on the world. Luckily, my time at The Knowledge Society has exposed me to a ton of kids my age doing this!
- Our obsession of luxury: We’ve all dreamed of having that nice car, that house with a beautiful view of the sea. But Epicurus thought that calmness was not found in a nice view, but within oneself. Training your mind, through spending time on your own, reflecting and meditating are far more stronger ways to develop calmness.
This experiment Epicurus tested with his friends, based on the beliefs above, was so successful that it inspired Epicurean communities. At one point there were nearly 400,000 of them across the world.
The real legacy that Epicurus left behind was not that humans aren’t good at making themselves happy. We think it’s money and luxury that bring happiness. Instead, reflect on the moments that gave you real satisfaction. It might just change how you live.
Thanks for taking the time to read through my thoughts on Epicurus! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to chat with me on Twitter. Or if you would like to learn about any new content I put out, subscribe to my monthly newsletter to see new projects, conferences I go to, and articles I put out!