Epicurus’s Happiness Hack

I think Epicurus is the most misunderstood of all philosophers. The pleasure principle propounded by him is largely misinterpreted and the wrong ideas have fuelled an entire generation of ‘Carpe Diem’ and ‘Wine, Dine & Be Merry- for there is no tomorrow’ generation.

I want to make this post super simple and so I am simply going to list down the key takeaways from his philosophy of how to live a happy and fulfilling life.

1. Seek necessary pleasures, shun unnecessary pleasures: Epicurus makes an important distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. Necessary desires are those which are necessary for survival, health and fitness of the body-mind-sense complex. These include the desire to be free of pain, the desire to have a family, friends, nourishing food, a place to comfortably rest, have an engaging occupation that pays decently and the desire for inner tranquillity and harmony in life.

Unnecessary desire is that whose fulfilment comes with a lot of exertion and which we can very well do without. ‘Beyond a certain point, we can’t extend pleasure; we can only vary it’, writes one of my favourite writers Eric Weiner. A swankier car, the latest fitness watch, a larger TV, a new job, a new pair of shoes, those extra set of muscles: they don’t come without exertion yet they only give you slightly different variants of the same pleasure you otherwise enjoyed and so it’s worth asking the question, ‘is it really necessary?’.

2. Seek Ataraxia, not pleasure: Only when we are in pain do we feel the need to seek pleasure, a need which inevitably only produces greater pain. In order to get rid of this pain-pleasure-pain cycle, we need to cultivate a mindset in which there is no pain. Thus the aim is not the positive pursuit of pleasure. The aim is rather the attaining of a neutral state which is best described as “peace of mind” or ‘Shanti’ of the Vedanta or “emptiness,” the Buddhists refer to it. The Greek word Epicurus uses for this state is ataraxia, which literally means “freedom from worry.” It’s a state when you feel rested, fresh, active and sensitive. And when pleasure comes, welcome it wholeheartedly while it lasts. Consciously stay away from the hedonic treadmill where all of life is spent for the next dopamine kick.

3. Cultivate the wisdom to understand when pain is necessary: We need the wisdom to see which pleasures are really pleasurable, and which pains are necessary to produce pleasure. Some pleasures lead to greater pain, like getting drunk on alcohol or high on drugs, or smoking your lungs out and so the wise person will shun behaviours that threaten his or her health and long term pleasure capacity. On the other hand, certain pains, like sadness can lead to an appreciation for life or exercise, which can lead to a healthy body-mind which are highly pleasurable states. We should not, therefore, get rid of all negative emotions but only those that lead to unnecessary pains. This, by the way, is also one of the main conclusions that positive psychologist Ed Diener outlines in his latest research on the empirical basis of happiness.

4. Lasting happiness is found within:

The philosopher is the happiest of all people, for he chooses the stable pleasures of knowledge over the temporary and volatile pleasures of the body. Epicurus goes on to say that if one practices these precepts, he will become a “god among men,” for he will have achieved an immortal state even whilst in a mortal body.

The secret to happiness lies in reducing our dependence on external things. This keeps us from the anxiety to obtain them, the insecurity of keeping them and the disappointment of losing them.

5. Happiness flourishes when exercised with like-minded people:

Friendship is a necessary ingredient that sweetness the deal of happiness that life has to offer us. For one who has tasted it once, it is the necessary ingredient. Friends are needed, not a company in getting wasted on weekends but rather as sparring partners for your accumulated wisdom.

Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.

Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 27

The quality of friends you gather is a reflection of your knowledge and wisdom.

“Exercise yourself in these precepts day and night both by yourself and with one who is like minded; then never, either in waking or in one’s dreams will you be disturbed, but will live as a god among men. For man loses all semblance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.”

Epicurus

So, those are five Happiness Hacks of Epicurus that I wished to share on this blog for a while now and am happy to finally do it. Let me know what you think of this.

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