The Philosophy of Happiness

An ancient guide to finding contentment.

Adrian Drew
Nov 10, 2019 · 7 min read
Photo by Andre Furtado from Pexels

Happiness. It’s a term a lot of us take for granted in this modern age. A term that’s thrown around by advertisement companies and in conversation as though it means nothing. A term that’s often confused with pleasure, even though pleasure and happiness are two very different things.

Deep, long-lasting satisfaction is something that many of us only dream of. Happiness, we misinterpret, is an expensive car, loving spouse or high-paying promotion.

Yet even when in possession of those things, we find ourselves reverting back to the same question. What is happiness? What is happiness if not the things we think it to be? What is happiness if not money, status or desire?

We could spend decades asking these questions, but thankfully, we don’t need to. That’s already been done for us by ancient (and contemporary) philosophers — people that dedicated entire lifetimes to discovering the secrets of contentment and passed them on to us in written form.

To discern the true meaning of happiness, then, perhaps we should begin by looking at what they had to say.

Enjoying Life’s Pleasures

The first philosopher to spearhead global inquiries into the nature of happiness was a man named Democritus.

Democritus put forward the idea the happiness doesn’t result from good luck or positive external circumstances as many of us mistakenly assume, but rather it’s determined by our state of mind.

As he put it,

‘Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.’

And he’s right. It’s not about possessions, it’s about what’s inside. It’s about how we feel. Happiness, as is so often proclaimed, can only be found within.

But that isn’t exactly a practical solution to unhappiness. We can’t simply decide one day to find contentment deep inside of ourselves. For that reason, Plato and Socrates took those ideas a little further. They suggested that happiness may be the ‘secure enjoyment of what is good and beautiful.’

I like that definition. Let’s unpack it a little bit.

‘Secure enjoyment’ I take to mean pure, undistracted enjoyment. Wholehearted enjoyment. Not-being-lost-in-thought-but-acutally-enjoying-the-moment enjoyment.

Secure enjoyment of what is good and beautiful, then, might mean a mindful awareness of life’s simple pleasures — drinking a warm cup of coffee and actually enjoying it rather than thinking about the future or our busy to-do list or scrolling through Twitter.

That, I believe, is an essential component of happiness. Mindful awareness of life’s simple pleasures. As Thich Nhat Hanh put it,

‘The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.’

Perhaps, then, the first key to happiness is to start focusing on this moment. To practice being truly mindful in everything we do. To securely enjoy what is good and beautiful.


Is Pleasure the Same as Happiness?

If you’re unaware of hedonism, it’s a simple philosophy to grasp. It is, essentially, the pursuit of pleasure as the only intrinsic good — as the only thing that really matters.

Kraut describes happiness as

‘The belief that one is getting the important things one wants, as well as certain pleasant affects that normally go along with this belief.’

The idea behind it is that pursuing pleasure in our every action is the key to making us happy. But is that really the case? I beg to differ.

See, pleasure and happiness aren’t quite the same things. Ask yourself this. Which would lead to more happiness: eating ten slices of cake every single day, or having a body that you’re truly happy with?

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing for most of us it’s the latter.

Short-term pleasure doesn’t usually correlate with long-term happiness. Junk food might taste great at the moment, but will we be happy when we’re chronically ill and overweight? I don’t think so.

It follows, therefore, that instead of seeking to satisfy our cravings and urges as soon as they arise, we should think about what we really want. We might find more pleasure in pausing to ask ourselves which course of action will lead to the most happiness, and then following that path instead of mindlessly opting for hedonism.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t follow Plato and Socrates’s advice. It’s still important that we enjoy each moment and the pleasures we experience, but we should also ensure that our decisions align with our long-term goals and wishes.

Pleasure and happiness aren’t synonymous. Long-term fulfilment often requires more than succumbing to impulsive desires, since deep down, what we truly want is often different from what we think we want in each fleeting moment.


The Keys to Happiness

If happiness isn’t short-term pleasure, then what actually is it?

It’s not an easy question to answer, of course. If it were, we’d all have found it, and advertisement companies would be out of business. So what practices and principles should we implement in order to start feeling satisfied with our lives?

Greek philosopher Epicurus provided us with a number of different answers. There are three that are most relevant to the happiness equation.

1. Having True Friends

Epicurus suggested that true, meaningful friendships are essential to our happiness. Without friends, it becomes very difficult to feel satisfied with our day-to-day lives.

The issue, Epicurus pointed out, is that we often don’t see our friends enough. We don’t make as much time for them as we should. We allow life to get in the way and other commitments to take place of time we really should be spending with those we care about.

He also stated that not all friendships are equal. Some actually detract from our happiness. As Seneca put it, true friends should inspire us to become the best, happiest version of ourselves, and if they don’t, we shouldn’t bother with them.

More, he says that we shouldn’t waste time and effort on half-hearted friendships. Once somebody enters into our life, if we wish to be their friend, we should welcome them wholeheartedly.

As he puts it,

‘Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself… Regard him as loyal and you will make him loyal.’

These relationships will motivate us to lead better, happier lives.

2. Producing Work That We Love

A lot of us are motivated by one thing when it comes to our work: money. We put up with jobs that we hate, justifying our actions simply because they ‘pay well’.

The thing is, our work is going to comprise such a large proportion of our lives that, unless we enjoy it, we’re probably going to be miserable.

As Steve Jobs said,

‘Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle’

Epicurus believed that the key to satisfaction in our working lives really has nothing to do with money. Rather, the knowledge that we’re producing meaningful work — work that we love.

3. Living With Less

At any given moment, we’re usually being motivated by our desires. By pleasure. By happiness. We’re seeking to attain that which we don’t yet have in the hopes that it’ll bring us the satisfaction we so long for.

In reality, though, pursuing those desires only prevents us from being truly happy. Once we have them, we instantly start searching for the next thing, and then the next thing, and that cycle never ends.

Desire breeds desire, so to prevent it from ruling our lives, we must learn that happiness isn’t about pursuing our cravings or urges or wants. It’s about learning to feel satisfied with what we have already.

With that in mind, Epicurus was happy to take big cuts to his income and move into a modest home with all of his friends. In doing so, they gained more free time to spend doing things that they loved, and they were happy.

Together, they wrote, practiced pottery and cooked meals. Even in the absence of wealth and luxury, they were all far more content living this way. Living with less, but in exchange for so much more than material wealth.


The Takeaway

Most of us spend our entire lives chasing happiness. We think we’ll find it in money, in a promotion or in love. Really, though, those things will never bring us true happiness — only momentary pleasure that’ll fade before long.

To cultivate a genuine sense of satisfaction, perhaps what we need to do is follow the advice of the philosophers that preceded us. That is, to:

  1. Begin enjoying the beauty of each and every moment. To be wholly mindful of life’s pleasures, as Plato and Socrates suggested. To enjoy our morning coffee rather than thinking about the day ahead or moments that have passed.
  2. Cultivate genuine friendships, friendships with people that bring us up and inspire us to become better people.
  3. Spend our time on work that we love. If we dislike our job, no matter what other things we do to increase our happiness, it’ll always bring us down. It’s vital that we spend our days producing work that we find fulfilling and enjoyable.
  4. Learn to live with less. As Epicurus proved, happiness isn’t about money or status or any of those things. It is, quite simply, about spending time on things that we enjoy in the company of people that we love. That isn’t to say we should pursue mindless pleasure, but rather that we should learn that happiness isn’t dependent upon anything other than loving what we do and who we do it with.

Before You Leave

I run a daily newsletter The Daily Grind where I send out tips to creatives and entrepreneurs about success, wellbeing, goal-setting and honing their craft.

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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Adrian Drew

Written by

Inspiring others to live happier, one article at a time. Get in touch via adrian@mindcafe.co

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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