I’m about to ask you a question people have devoted their lives to answering. People still do, and still (mostly) fail. Here it is:
What makes you happy?
(Really the question is what makes people happy, but you count as people [hopefully].)
So what makes you happy? Is it money, fame, movies, or precious metal? Is it none of the above? Usually, it’s something along those lines. Until a few days ago, I would have gone with an infinity pool (they’re just relaxing, don’t judge). Then again, until a few days ago, I didn’t know about the philosophy of Epicurus.
Yet again, the ancient bearded guys with heads made out of stone take the win, and now, I’m going to explain why a guy that ate bread and olives for all of his meals was probably the happiest person alive.
Epicurus devoted his life to the ultimate question (what makes you happy? Don’t tell me you’ve already forgotten). He thought that pleasure was the ultimate good, and even opened a school to teach kids in Athens about it!
My first question when I heard this was why? Sure, pleasure is good, but is an infinity pool(or insert whatever makes you happy here) really the best thing ever?
Enter Epicurean philosophy here. According to him, I was thinking about pleasure all wrong! There are 3 major mistakes people make when thinking about pleasure. I made one major oops!, but I’ll share all 3 anyway.
The first major mistake is people thinking that pleasure is all about romantic relationships. Epicurus’ world wasn’t that different from ours when it comes to relationships, and he saw so many unhappy couples, he decided that that was in no way pleasurable. For your modern-day statistic, about 50% of marriages have a chance to end happily (the ones that don’t divorce). It’s entirely possible that you could not divorce and still have an unhappy marriage because divorce is complicated. With that said, Epicurus noted that spending time with friends was so much better than couples spending time together. Friends were much more genuine and unpossessive, and in general just better (but if you have toxic friends, it might be time to start cutting them out). Epicurus actually bought a giant house and moved in with his friends, just because happiness!
Major mistake number two was wanting money. (It gets its own major mistake, that’s how big it is.) Most people that want money overlook the gigantic sacrifices that it requires, like long hours, spending time away from family (or not having a family at all), and the jealousy of other people having more money/cool stuff. Take Jeff Bezos as an example. He’s the richest man on the planet (according to Forbes), recently divorced his wife, and probably works longer hours than anyone else in his position ever would. (Plus, he’s backing Blue Origin, and I don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s not beating SpaceX.)
The third (and final, yay!) major mistake was being obsessed with luxury, like houses or mansions, and nice views, like cliffs and infinity pools (yes, they’re right up there with the Swiss Alps and Mount Everest in my book). Epicurus asked, “Does luxury make people calm?” The answer is no, it doesn’t. Looking out at your cool infinity pool does not make you calm. Instead of getting a calm view of the outside, try being calm inside your mind. Meditation, reflection, reading, and all of that fun stuff is what really gets you to inner calm and happiness.
But what really is pleasure? Isn’t that subjective, varying with each person? Maybe Epicurus thinks the occasional slice of cheese is pleasure, and I think infinity pools make me happy?
The answer to that second question is yes and no. Pleasure is technically subjective. Epicurus actually groups pleasure into 3 main categories.
- Needs — natural desires, and needed (e.g. food, water, etc.)
- Wants — natural desires, but unneeded (e.g. wanting delicious food instead of plain food)
- Empty — unnatural and unneeded desires (e.g. Bezos-level wealth, fame)
Epicurus argues that needs are the only thing you need for happiness, and empty desires only lead to depression and sadness. Let’s break this down.
Needs - Natural and Necessary
These are things you 100% need to stay alive. Of course having these leads to happiness, especially when you’re running on empty (like me right now), hence bread and olives. These desires are easy and natural to fulfill (so don’t miss out on your basic needs and die.)
Wants - Natural and Unnecessary
These are like upgraded versions of needs. Instead of bread and olives, it’s fish and chips, filet mignon, and whatever else you see on Masterchef (Canada or otherwise). It’s okay to have these, but not for every meal. Since Epicurus wanted to max out his happiness, he substituted a slice of cheese for chocolate cake. These desires require the same amount of effort to fulfill as your needs (or more), but they don’t increase happiness by as much.
Empty - Unnatural and Unnecessary
This is where things go really bad. Empty desires will literally consume you like an 8 oz. steak. They aren’t innate to humans, but they are limitless, which means you could spend your entire life chasing after them and never be happy or fulfilled. This includes things like money and fame. These desires actually generate more pain and discomfort than happiness (which is a long way of saying don’t do it)!
When you appreciate the natural and necessary, you realize how little you need to be happy.
It’s fitting that with the death of this article comes Epicurus’ philosophy on death. He believed that with death comes an end to both pleasure and pain. Therefore, fear of death is irrational, as in death, there is no awareness.
“Death is nothing to us. When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not. All sensation and consciousness ends with death and therefore in death there is neither pleasure nor pain. The fear of death arises from the belief that in death, there is awareness.”
3 kinds of desires: Needs, wants, and empty desires. You only really need needs (hence the name), wants are okay every once in a while, and empty desires like infinity pools end up giving you more pain and discomfort than pleasure.
Mistakes associated with thinking about pleasure: Pleasure is not romantic relationships (which are a coin toss away from ending in divorce), Bezos-level money, or infinity pool-level luxury/nice views from your mansion. Those ventures just end in jealousy, resentment, long hours wasted/spent getting money that you don’t really need, and ultimately sadness and a lack of inner harmony. Instead, go for friendship, your basic needs, and inner calm through things like meditation and self-reflection.
Death: Ultimately people’s greatest fear for no reason at all. When you’re dead, you have no awareness of pleasure or pain (unless I’m offending religious beliefs here). Therefore, you don’t have anything to fear from death.
I’ll ask one last time, what makes you happy?