How To Live A Happy Life Series
* Part 0 - Introduction
* Part 1 - History of the 3 Greeks
* Part 2 - Remembered Self (The Ingredients of Happiness)
* Part 3 - Experienced Self
Note: This series of posts can largely be read independent from one another, but it may be of benefit to read them in sequence.

How to live a happy life (part 1) — History of the 3 Greeks

The question of how to be “happy” or live a happy life has been a question plaguing humans since time immemorial. Throughout most of animal history, animals would use their immediate environment as a guide to their behaviour — they would live their life completely immersed in each moment, responding to threats of danger and seeking food to keep themselves alive long enough to replicate their genes. But at an unbeknown point, later humans developed enough sentience and freedom to begin to ask how they could be better. They began to ask what should i do with my time, with my attention, and with this finite amount of time that i’m endowed?


I have spent an upsetting amount of time studying and reflecting on answers to these questions, from various fields, time periods, and people. This series will attempt to elucidate what was learnt. This first post will focus on the ancient Greeks, as I don’t believe any account of happiness would be complete without covering them in some basic detail.

To begin (with the basics), it is worth noting the main schools of ancient thought on the questions1. The three most influential schools of thought on the subject were Epicureanism, Cyrenaicism, and Stoicism. I am aware that there are other schools of thought which are classified as ancient but equally as influential, such as Buddhism. I am limiting myself to the Ancient Greeks here, as I will discuss Buddhism and others which are worth noting in their own sections at later points.

I am aware that only listing according to how influential they are is an appeal to majority fallacy of sorts — but I am not arguing for their legitimacy, I am merely displaying them to induct unfamiliar readers with what is most popular, for the sake meeting the minimum requirements of being a comprehensive essay series. In simple terms — this essay series would appear ignorant without discussing them. Discussing them also gives shapes to the ensuing chapters.

The ancient Greeks had a bit to say on this question, but unfortunately, their answers are quite crude and fall short on a few points.

I am going to do my best to exclude details of the founding figures lives and principles which are not overtly relevant to answering the questions set out. To give one such example of a type of point I could repeatedly make (but wont) is that Epicurus (discussed below) was the founder of a famous ‘Garden’ — a kind of Ashram, where he was the guru. The fact that he occupied a position of high prestige in a hierarchy like this could have had an influence on his well-being. But he never discusses it, and is likely unaware of it. I will not discuss such obvious confounds. Instead, I will focus merely on what they have attempted to communicate as principles to embody. So, what are the relevant principles that Epicurus emphasised?

* Confounds are factors which we are not aware of, that could have an effect.

Epicureanism* is the school of thought that friendship along with the satisfaction of “basal desires” (required for survival) are the only requisites for living the happiest life possible. The school was founded on the writings of the individual Epicurus. In his view, we have a small amount of needs — to sleep, to eat, to drink, to avoid physical pains, and to socialise, and once you remove the pain that comes with these you have reached what he calls an ataraxic state — freedom from discomfort. The pleasure taken at the removal of basic pains is what he calls static pleasures, and could also include other basic pains such as defecation, scratching, etc. Once all present pains have been removed and you have reached ataraxia, this would be the peak of pleasure. Epicurus wrote his views in large part as a reaction to the Cyrenaics, which emphasised sensory pleasures.

Epicurus is labelled as a Hedonist — an important term that gives shape to this series of essays. A hedonist believes that the attainment of pleasure and the removal of pain are the only way to live a good life. There are many forms and nuances that hedonism can take, as will be discussed in the following chapter, but note for now that he declares “pleasure is the goal of living”. Popular culture commonly takes hedonism to mean decadent hedonism — which is more related to the indulgence of Cyrenaicism as you will see.

“The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles.” -Epicurus
* All of my information directed here about Epicureanism is derived from his two most prominent writings: Letter to Menoceceus, and Leading Doctrines, along with the two secondary sources David E Cooper (1998) Epicurus’ two letters in Oxford Ethics: The Classic Readings, and Abbreviations used in text by Sharples on The Stoics.

Cyrenaicism is a school of thought lead by Aristippus. Cyrenaicism is conceptually one level farther than Epicureanism, because it considers mental pleasures and pains. But Aristippus considers that mental pleasures and pains are essentially of low value, and that sensory pleasures are of more importance due to them being more intense (as they are visceral) and easier/more certain of being acquired than far off ones which most people spend their time pursuing. Aristippus thus believed that happiness consisted in gorging oneself with as many physical pleasures as one could — sex, eating, drinking, and doing so in maximum quantity. These pleasures are what I will call pleasures of the senses. These writings are understandable once placed in context — written at a time of war and short life expectancy. Cyrenaicism is the typical view of hedonism that most people associate the pursuit of pleasure with, and why the term has a negative connotation. But note that this is only one form of hedonism, or more aptly called positive hedonism (as per the addition of pleasures) as opposed to negative hedonism (as per the removal of pains, such as in Epicureanism).

Stoicism is the third form of hedonism — another negative hedonism. The Stoics wanted to live a life of peace and quiet, similar to the Epicureans. The idea is that the addition of any sensory pains or necessary sensory pleasures would disrupt their mental tranquillity. But Epicureanism has little theory developed in way of mental pains like the Stoics do, and the Stoic form of Ataraxia includes mental pleasures or pains, and thereby becomes more encompassing if one considers mental pains such as desire, boredom, hatred, guilt, or any of the other multitude of negative mental states or emotions. To counterpoint — take an ataraxic state in Epicureanism: all physical pains have been removed, but now the subject is theoretically existing in a state of boredom. Would it make sense to say that a whole life lived in boredom but with the absence of pain is a happy life? Ofcourse not. But it wasn’t completely commonsense for the Greeks to think of the mind as producing pains back then, usually only the environment. So the Stoics have the added advantage of realising that our mind itself may be a source of pleasure or pain, and this is aptly emphasised in the quote —

“We are not troubled by things but the opinion which we have of things.” — Epicetus

Though all three schools fall short on one glaring point, which is obvious to anybody living in the 21st century: pleasure is not happiness, and pain is not unhappiness. The reason this is so is mostly to do with duration. If you are eating an enjoyable meal and experiencing pleasure, you may say you are happy, but that is merely a report of your current experience. If you said this and then lived the rest of your life in pain, it would be queer to state that you lived a happy life. Does that then make happiness about the quantity of pleasures and pains, such that a life with more pleasure than pain is a happier life? If you include mental pleasures and mental pains, some figures such as the psychological hedonist Fred Feldman would argue so (but he calls them attitudinal pleasures and pains rather than mental — because they are attitudes you have about the world.) To what extent you need pleasure or the absence of pain in this theory os ambiguous, but what is obvious, is that pleasure is positive and pain is negative (as an evaluation), and although they may or may not make you happy or unhappy, I can agree with this: The first premise of hedonism is that pleasure is positive and pain is negative; the more pleasure you experience the better, the less pain the worse. And this is what all three schools have in common despite their shortcomings, they are evaluations of pleasure and pain. To demonstrate the positivity or negativity of a stimuli, all that is required is to do is to compare them side by side and choose which is more preferable.

This is where the first basic divide is made between pleasure and pain. “Propositional Attitudes” (attitudinal evaluations as per Feldman) are always entailed by Physical Pleasures like eating and Physical Pains like being inflicted with a wound — that’s what make their physical sensations Pleasurable or Painful. It is only because an attitude is taken about a sensation of pleasure or pain. BUT, propositional attitudes of pleasure and pain need not necessarily entail a physical sensation — it may be about a set of events in the past (via memory) or the future (via mental forecasting), or even about a set of events perceived in the present — such as the pleasure taken at the perception of an artwork (which as a stimuli has a neutral state on us experiencing sensory pleasures or sensory pains). Thus, all physical pleasures and physical pains are based in the present but not all attitudinal pleasures and attitudinal pains are (called mental pleasures and mental pains henceforth) — they may be of the past or the future. This opens up a whole new avenue of pleasures such as masochism, social pleasures, romantic pleasures, of accomplishment, recognition, service, fame. This opening of pandoras box of pleasure and pain which is the mind is what I will call pleasures of the mind.

The second premise of hedonism is that pleasure is the only intrinsic value, rendering a life without pleasure worthless. One may hold values such as knowledge of value, but consider a life full of knowledge without mental pleasure or pain — it is neutral, it’s not preferable over anything (preference is essentially what value is!) In comparison, consider a life full of pleasure without knowledge. By using this dialectical reasoning, any additional value trait with the absence of pleasure can be seen lesspreferable than pleasure.

In summary:

(1) Pleasures and pains can be split into pleasures of the senses, and pleasures of the mind.

(2) The Epicureans believed that removing pains of the senses equalled happiness.

(3) The Cyrenaics believed that adding pleasures of the senses equalled happiness.

(4) The Stoics believed that removing pains of the mind equalled happiness.

Note: I know you’re thinking, “who believed adding pleasures of the mind equals happiness?” — the answer is in some later posts.

(5) Although it’s up for debate which view is correct, what all three views had in common is their view in hedonism.

(6) The first premise of hedonism is that pleasure is positive and pain is negative; the more pleasure you experience the better, the less pain the worse.

(7) The second premise of hedonism is that pleasure is the only intrinsic value, rendering a life without pleasure worthless.

(8) The intuitive critique to hedonism is it’s most obvious shortcoming: pleasure is not happiness, and pain is not unhappiness (arguably).

Which leads us into our next series of posts.

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