Using Epicurean Philosophy for Finding Happiness

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There have been many insights gained through history, by both philosophers and psychologists alike, regarding the notion of happiness. One of the great minds to focus on the concept of happiness was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived between 341 BC and 270 BC.

Epicurus was in agreement with other philosophers about happiness being our ultimate human pursuit, but he suggested something very different than others had proposed in terms of how that might look in our decision making and behaviors.

Many philosophers suggested that experiencing pleasure and happiness meant allowing yourself to indulge and enjoy things to excess. Epicurus, on the other hand, suggested that pleasure was found in simple living.

Epicurean Sources of Happiness
Illustration by Jessica Olah, Verywell

The Epicurean Lifestyle

To experience tranquility, Epicurus suggested that we could seek knowledge of how the world works and limit our desires. For him, the pleasure was to be obtained through things such as:

  • Knowledge
  • Friendship
  • Community
  • Living a virtuous life
  • Living a temperate life
  • Moderation in all things
  • Abstaining from bodily desires

The term temperate, as in living a temperate life, means a mild or modest style. So, although he suggested we are motivated to seek pleasure, Epicurus had a much different idea of what that looked like in daily living.

Epicurus' perspective and teaching has been referred to as "serene hedonism."

The term hedonism in philosophy refers to the notion that pleasure is the most important pursuit of mankind and the source of all that is good. People who are considered hedonists are those who make it their life's work to experience maximum pleasure. Their decision making and behaviors are all motivated by the desire to experience pleasure.

Epicurus' Beliefs

Epicurus held thoughts on pleasure, desires, lifestyle, and more when it came to achieving happiness.

Happiness

There are three states Epicurus considered to constitute happiness.

Factors for Happiness

  1. Tranquility
  2. Freedom from fear (ataraxia)
  3. Absence of bodily pain (aponia)

It is this combination of factors that would, ultimately, allow people to experience happiness at the highest level. Although it may seem impossible to attain or sustain, there are people who follow epicurean beliefs and seek to experience this level of happiness in their lives.

There is one factor that Epicurus suggested has the power to destroy pleasure, which is anxiety about our future. Although he suggested this has more to do with not fearing gods or death, the idea that we would be fearful about anything in our future was considered an obstacle to our experience of pleasure, tranquility, and happiness.

Pleasure and Pain

Epicurus identified two types of pleasure—moving and static—and described two areas of pleasure and pain—physical and mental.

Moving pleasure refers to actively being in the process of satisfying a desire. An example of this could be eating food when you feel hungry. In those moments we are taking action toward our intended goal of pleasure.

The other type of pleasure, static pleasure, refers to the experience we have once our desire is met. To use the example of eating food when we are hungry, the static pleasure would be what we are feeling once we have eaten. The satisfaction of feeling full, and no longer being in need (hungry), would be a static pleasure.

Epicurus suggested that static pleasures are the preferred form of pleasure.

Physical pleasures and pains, he suggested, had to do with the present. Mental pleasures and pains had to do with the past and future.

Examples of this could include positive memories of past events or experiences that bring us feelings of joy or pleasure or, conversely, unpleasant memories of our past that bring us pain. When looking to the future we can feel hopeful or fearful, experiencing either pleasure or pain about what is to come.

Desires

Epicurus identified three types of desires:

  • Natural and necessary desires: Examples of this could include things like food and shelter. These things are easier to satisfy and hard or impossible to eliminate from our lives.
  • Natural and non-necessary desires: This refers to things like gourmet foods and luxury goods. They represent things that are harder to satisfy and likely to end up causing us pain as a result of unfulfilled desires. Epicurus suggested that it is best to minimize, or eliminate altogether, this type of desire in order to seek tranquility.
  • Vain and empty desires: Examples include things like power, status, wealth, or fame. These are difficult things to obtain or achieve and less likely to satisfy. He argues that, because there is no limit to these desires, they could never fully satisfy or bring pleasure. Therefore, we are not motivated to fulfill these desires in order to help ourselves achieve greater happiness and pleasure.

Friendship

Epicurus emphasized the importance of friendship. In fact, he suggested that friendship was one of the greatest means of obtaining pleasure.

Epicurus believed that connection with friends offered a sense of safety, whereas lack of connection can lead to isolation, despair, and peril.

Although our modern culture tends to emphasize the idea of individualistic living, where being self-contained and not reliant on others may be perceived as a strength, Epicureans believe that strength is found in connection and friendship with others.

Courage was a highly regarded virtue for Epicurus as well. With regard to friendship, he even suggested that one should be courageous enough to lay down his life for his friends.

The Unhappiness Cure

Epicurus created what is referred to as a four-part cure for unhappiness. The term "tetrapharmakos" means four-part cure or four-part remedy. This term originally meant a medical antidote or healing concoction to be taken as a cure for illness.

Followers of Epicurus, known as epicureans, suggest it is a formula for overcoming unpleasant feelings such as fear, anxiety, or despair.

4-Part Unhappiness Cure

  • God is nothing to fear
  • Death is nothing to worry about
  • It is easy to acquire the good things in life
  • It is easy to endure the terrible things

Epicurus does not suggest that pain is completely avoidable. However, he does suggest that pain can be endured and we can even strive to experience happiness while in emotional or physical pain.

Epicurus stated, "Meditate on these day and night, and the ones related to them, both alone and with someone like yourself, and you will never be badly disturbed, whether awake or dreaming."

He emphasizes focusing on these statements in order to challenge fears, reframe thoughts, and gain a new perspective in order to continue seeking happiness and tranquility. Epicurus also stated to do this meditation with like-minded people.

Applications to Modern Living

Life is uncertain and we cannot, ultimately, avoid pain or vulnerability. We will encounter pain and vulnerability as part of our human experience. Living positively and seeking to maintain a sense of peace, happiness, and tranquility can still be a driving desire as we go through our life experiences.

In an effort to live more positively, we can incorporate Epicurean beliefs into our way of life and our personal decision making. Of the ideas described and outlined by Epicurus in his time, a common through is personal choice. We cannot always avoid pain and feelings of fear but, possibly, he suggests that we can choose to (or choose not to) stay in pain and fear.

This may mean that we declutter our living environment of items, rid ourselves of expectation, stop attaching happiness to things like status, wealth, or fame, and reframe our limiting beliefs.

Minimalism

What some people may have referred to as tranquil and temperate living back then may be more recognized in modern times as minimalism. Minimalism suggests that by living with less, we can experience greater peace and freedom.

As Epicurus suggested, freedom from unnecessary things allows greater freedom of fear, freedom from worry, freedom from depression or regret, and freedom from expectations.

As described by minimalists Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, "Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life's excess in favor of focusing on what is important—ao you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom." As Epicurus proposed, an element of happiness is "ataraxia," which means freedom from fear or worry. He suggests that to be happy we must turn away from external things.

Minimalist living offers an example of what an Epicurean lifestyle might look like in our modern times.

Reframing Thoughts

When someone asks us, "What does happiness look like?" we may easily come up with an image in mind of financial resources, a certain appearance, particular items such as a car or home, vacations, time with friends or family, a specific career, etc.

As we go through life we are gaining an understanding of our world by making observations and placing meaning to what we are observing. Part of our image of happiness becomes related to items, people, and circumstances—external things that can change at any moment, bring us pain, or leave us longing for more.

To embrace an Epicurean approach to living, we would need to not only declutter our physical space but also address what happens in our minds by challenging existing beliefs about happiness, what it means to be happy, and how we seek to attain happiness through our decision making and behaviors.

Find and Focus on Positivity

Take into consideration some of the following tips for living more positively, as written by Steve Mueller, author and founder of the motivation site Planet of Success:

  • Discover positivity in negative situations
  • Rid your life of sources of negativity
  • Practice gratitude
  • Cultivate a positive environment
  • Have a positive posture
  • Make use of positive affirmations
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation
  • Slow things down
  • Confront negative thoughts
  • Learn to deal with criticism
  • Keep a positivity journal

There are a variety of ways to begin practicing a more optimistic, hopeful way of thinking and being. As you consider your own sources of happiness, your own values, and your given strengths to help you fulfill your desires and needs, you may find unique ways to express positivity in your life.

Keep a Balanced Perspective

As you take inventory of your personal beliefs about happiness and how these compare to Epicurean beliefs about happiness, it might be interesting to reflect on some the ideas and quotes that are often associated with Epicurus. You may have heard or read these before but they can certainly spark personal reflection on living a balanced life:

  • "Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you do not have; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for."
  • "He who is not satisfied with a little is satisfied with nothing."
  • "Of all the means to insure happiness through the whole life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends."
  • "You don't develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity."
  • "We must, therefore, pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent we do everything to possess it."
  • "Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance."

A Word From Verywell

It might seem a bit unrealistic to think that we could ever be constantly happy given the challenges and adventures that life can throw our way. However, we can make a point to seek pleasure and comfort, particularly when faced with challenges.

Find sources of information and inspiration that speak to you, your beliefs, your desires, and your purpose. Allow yourself an opportunity to discover what happiness is to you and how to go about achieving that in your life. Take time to examine what you can be doing differently in your life on a daily basis that will allow you to experience greater happiness and freedom. Find something that works for you, whether you use Epicurus' ideas for finding happiness or find a different strategy.

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Article Sources

  • Konstan, David. EpicurusThe Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

  • Kováč L. The biology of happiness. Chasing pleasure and human destiny. EMBO Rep. 2012;13(4):297-302. DOI: 10.1038/embor.2012.26

  • The Pursuit of Happiness. Epicurus.