“Blu” Mural in Berlin (PC: Pascal Poggi)

You don’t need much to be happy.

Lessons from Epicurus on our pleasures, friends, and wants

Nobody wakes up thinking “Wow today sucks and I want it to suck more! I can’t wait to have a huge fight with my girlfriend, get laid off from my job, and lose all my money in a housing crash today.”

Almost all of us live our lives with the goal of living a What “good” means in terms of the best way to live your life will differ between who you ask, but most of us have a vague idea of the fact that we should define our own happiness. The thing is that few of us rarely actually do so.

Determining what happiness means for us is usually a job so many people subconsciously surrender to society or their family to instill in them. When in this position, being asked “what does happiness mean to you?” can be a deadly warning that your conversation is heading into “intimidating deep talk” territory.

Many of us at some point bought into this standard capitalistic model of happiness, and many of us live by it:

This is a lifestyle that we can agree is what’s generally perceived to be comfortable and “good”. It’s a pretty low risk, comfortable path and if it’s what you want, all the power to you to live by it.

The problems come up when this path gets imposed on people by those around them; when your happiness is defined by the people around you. A very materialistic and consumer way of living makes the assumption that once you’ve bought something, happiness will come and stay as a constant state.

Chasing desire endlessly doesn’t make you happy

For most of us buying things doesn’t bring happiness alone. Once we’ve got our hands on that “something”, we enjoy it very briefly and then turn our eyes to the next thing.

Chasing desires from one want to the next is almost like a dog who chases their tail non-stop:

If she was to ever somehow catch her own tail, it’s not like she would never want anything ever again and that her life would be super amazing afterwards! Likely within an hour, she’ll want to see her owner and run around in the backyard of her owner’s house.

Likewise, when dealing with wants that are entirely materialistic we ourselves become dogs chasing a morphing tail- one month that tail is a new Canada Goose jacket, the next it’s a new Mercedes.

If we go back to the conventional idea of a good life with the nice-paying job, the kids and the house, we can break it down into a few core emotions and key experiences that the lifestyle is trying to achieve:

  • Spending time with and investing your emotional energy into people you care about and love
  • A sense of (financial) security that’s free from worry and anxiety
  • A comfortable way to go about doing in your retired years, which means long-awaited freedom with your time.

What’s confusing here is that things aren’t outlined like this when our families tell us to follow this path. It’s laid out like at the beginning of this piece- in a sequence of events that require hours of emotional and mental energy in that high-paying job to potentially save up for that house.

It turns out that a nice benefit of being human is that you can have a higher level of self-awareness and have these kinds of realizations about your happiness. When combining your knowledge with more self-awareness, you can go on to change parts of your life and define happiness for yourself in your own unique fashion!

Lessons from Epicurus

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 341BC — 270BC. Even way back then at this time were people moved by the question: “what is happiness, and how do I live my life happily?”

Statue of Epicurus

Epicurus argued that instead of pursuing wherever our wants lead us and living life desiring one thing to the next, that we have all the ingredients for a really happy life in front of us, right here, right now!

He argued that life is to be enjoyed through the simplest things, with the core belief that when it comes to how to live a happy life: taking pleasure in the simple things of life > Endlessly pursuing pleasure.

Epicurus fundamentally believed that we as people lived our lives to seek pleasure. However not all pleasures are created equal- he further went down to break types of desire into 3 main categories:

  1. Natural, essential pleasures: Food, water, shelter, human interaction
  2. Natural, non-essential pleasures: Sex, ego, pride
  3. Unnatural, non-essential pleasures: Power, money, influence

Through Epicurus’ eyes, our “comfortable” consumerist lifestyle is really focused on pursuing the unnatural, non-essential pleasures which are the hardest to achieve. These desires aren’t innate to us he’d argue, but have been instilled in us by seeing and hearing other people marvel at such things.

NOTE: This is not an attack on capitalism or our economic systems, it’s an attempt to frame what people desire to do with their money in a more insightful manner.

Enjoy the simple things in life, and live happier

We have an idea of how Epicurus would have broken down the materialistic cycle of consumption and desire that many people live by. But that doesn’t clearly tell us how to live happier .

Epicurus believed that the most memorable experiences you will likely have are through satisfying the natural, essential pleasures and being around those you love. This is likely why many people find happiness in money when it makes them feel more financially secure, but happiness fades as things become more focus on excess consuming.

From my interpretation of Epicurus’ teachings, to live a life of meaningful pleasure there’s three easy action items you can take:

  • Have intense gratefulness for the fact that you (probably) have all your fundamental needs fulfilled, living in a developed nation.
  • Focus on spending more meaningful time with the people you care about, and the people you love.
  • Realize that if it isn’t for financial leverage to help people or for financial security, excess money won’t get you extremely far in the “feeling fulfilled with your life” department

Being more mindful of your desire doesn’t have to mean traveling to the mountains and practicing complete celibacy while relinquishing all desire. It can start by just being more grateful for your situation and looking at what you want more mindfully, making sure that it’s what you want for yourself.

Final Thoughts + Key Takeaways

I try to take a more pragmatic approach to extract actionable steps that we can take to implement the thoughts of these great thinkers into our daily lives. Ultimately when it comes to building a better state for pleasure in our life, I think we can 3 main takeaways from Epicurus:

  1. Pleasures increase in emotional cost the more unnatural and superficial they get. Why not choose the simplistic “low hanging fruit” wants and choose to live a more satisfying life?
  2. Spend more time with people you care about and make your time spent with them meaningfully. Remember that the people you love won’t be around forever!
  3. Separate the voice of others and your own as to what you think living well means. Be the CEO of your own life: dictate your happiness by your terms.

I hope you find these points valuable, and that you live your life fulfilled with those you love and with a solid understanding of how you define your own happiness.

Sources

  1. Philosophize This (Podcast) on Epicurus:
  2. Youtube video describing the fundamentals of Epicurian philosophy:
  3. Video on Epicurus’ views on “Living the Good life”
  4. The School of Life on Epicuruianism

Undergraduate builder & researcher @UofT in the crossroads of computer science, immunology, and genetic engineering.