The Three Pillars of Happiness
What does it take to feel satisfied with our lives?
Teaching cheerfully until his painful death in 270 BC, Epicurus contributed enormously to the school of philosophy during his lifetime, his legacy surviving for thousands of years.
Epicurus lived in Athens with his closest friends and spent his days trying to solve the perennial puzzle that troubles us all: happiness. While most philosophers contemplated at length what it means to be good, Epicurus instead aimed to uncover the key principles of contentment.
Naturally, his early works attracted severe criticism from other scholars. Surrendering more intellectual pursuits in favour of searching for happiness, peers ridiculed Epicurus in the beginning, labelling him as a pleasure-hungry, pseudo-philosophical hedonist.
Rumours even circulated claiming that Epicurus would engorge himself with lavish ten-course feasts every evening, others insisting that he frequently partook in orgies with several women at a time.
Meanwhile, poor Epicurus lived modestly out in the countryside. His diet consisted of little more than bread, olives and an occasional slice of cheese as a treat whilst he studied happiness from his humble home and garden in Athens.
Teaching passionately until the very end of his life, Epicurus spent his days hashing out a wealth of thought-provoking material which would be quoted for many years after his death.
One of his most famous sayings summarises the core principle behind his teachings:
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
This is but one of Epicurus’s maxims for joy. He proposed that we all make three mistakes when searching for happiness, and it is the corresponding solutions to these mistakes that I’ll be discussing in this article.
1. Cultivate True Friendships
In contrast to the false stories attached to his name, Epicurus wasn’t interested in sex or romance. He argued that our obsession with romantic relationships is, in fact, the cause for a lot of misery.
Instead, Epicurus suggested that true, meaningful friendships are fundamental to our happiness.
Friendships are not marred by the same bitterness, jealousy and resentment that romantic relationships often are. Therefore, instead of searching tirelessly for lovers or sex, we should spend our time cultivating positive relationships with our friends.
The only issue with friendships, he stated, is that we just don’t see our friends enough. Life gets in the way, and often we neglect those dearest to us in favour of other pursuits.
In addition to this, many of us are reluctant to open ourselves fully to our friends because we fear that they can’t be trusted or that we’ll be met with rejection.
We may have many friends and acquaintances, but not all are held in equal regard where trust and openness are concerned.
While Epicurus didn’t explicitly discuss which characteristics denote true friendship, Stoic philosopher Seneca later revisited Epicurean philosophy and set out some guidelines detailing the criteria of positive and meaningful relationships.
Seneca held that true friends should inspire us to improve and become happier. They should have our best interests at heart.
Our best friends shouldn’t just reflect our interests but also our values. Cheaters, liars and fakes are all being driven by vices which, Seneca suggests, will only impact us negatively should we admit such people to our friendship. It is better to commit to friendships that uplift and enlighten us.
Seneca also advises that, when we ultimately decide that a person should be accepted into our lives, we should welcome them wholeheartedly and trust them fully.
As he writes in letters to his friend Lucilius,
‘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.’
Such relationships will enable us to lead better, more peaceful lives. That’s the first pillar of happiness.
2. Produce Meaningful Work
The next thing that many of us feel we need in order to be happy is wealth.
Though Epicurus’s ideas were formulated almost two-thousand years ago, today we are more motivated by money than ever before.
So much so, in fact, that the majority of us spend our entire lives working hard in the hopes that someday we will have enough money to buy an expensive house and retire early.
Our obsession with earning money wills us to work tirelessly, driving ourelves to exhaustion and causing us tremendous amounts of stress and unhappiness.
Epicurus argues that the key to satisfaction in our working lives isn’t earning a lot of money, but the knowledge that we’re producing meaningful work.
We all long to feel that we’re making a difference. Deep down, we don’t care about large sums or job titles, but the feeling that we’re playing our part in making the world a better place for other people.
In order to live happily, it’s critical that we love our work. After all, it’s this work that comprises a large chunk of our time. It only makes sense that we do the things we enjoy, and few things deliver as much joy as the knowledge that we’re helping others.
Instead of slaving from nine until five every day in a job that you hate, seek to discover how you can provide meaning and support others.
In the words of Charles Dickens,
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
3. Learn to Live Happily With Less
Lastly, Epicurus considered our fixation with desire.
We seek to fill gaps in our lives by chasing after our wills and drives, such as striving to earn more money, get in shape or find a romantic partner. We endlessly follow our desires in the hope that, by achieving them, we will finally feel happy.
But there’s a catch: pursuing these desires only delays the arrival of peace.
By chasing mindless pleasure, we’re missing the mark completely. Epicurus argues that our longing for luxury, status and pleasure conceal a deeper hunger for satisfaction.
In one of the earliest wellbeing experiments to date, Epicurus relinquished his pursuit of desire and instead made three fundamental changes in his life. He sought to measure how these changes affected both his and his followers’ levels of happiness.
- Surrounding himself with good people: We don’t need sex or wealth to feel happy — just our friends. It’s no good seeing them every now and then. Regularity of contact is crucial. Epicurus was so convinced that friendship was the key to happiness, in fact, that he purchased a large house in Athens and moved in with many of his dearest companions.
- Pursuing the work he loved: Epicurus and his friends took big pay cuts in exchange for free time to produce their own work. Living together, he and his friends wrote, practiced pottery and cooked. They lived happily together, prioritising meaning over wealth.
- Finding peace of mind: In their shared household, Epicurus and his friends spent their spare days seeking calm. They meditated, spent time alone reflecting and wrote in journals. These practices were hugely successful in helping them find peace of mind.
A Happiness Revolution
After following all three of these principles for some time, the Epicurean household became so happy with their lives that word spread like wildfire.
Neighbouring communities couldn’t believe the success of Epicurus’s commune. Epicurean schools began to open all over the Mediterranean, inspired to learn how to find contentment using the once-ridiculed philosopher’s practices.
The reach of Epicurean philosophy began to spread far beyond his commune. His influence was enormous, making vast contributions not only to philosophy, but to religion and politics, too.
Centuries later, Karl Marx would produce a Ph.D thesis about Epicurean philosophy. Communism is, after all, merely a misguided and failed version of Epicureanism.
Epicurus’s works are still quoted today, shaping the landscape of the modern world of self-improvement. His ideas hold more value now than ever.
At its core, Epicurean philosophy is founded upon one key principle. Happiness cannot be found in the material, but only by living modestly and meaningfully.
This practice can benefit every single one of our lives — even if only a little.
Epicurus sought to teach others how to live happily for one reason: nobody seemed to know how. Many of us are still puzzled by the problem of happiness.
We think we know that sex, money and luxury are the solutions to our misery — but they are not. These things only provide fleeting pleasure that fails to produce any long-lasting changes to our wellbeing.
Instead, Epicurus advises that we reflect on the moments that bring us true happiness. We should pay close attention to small, wonderful things that populate our daily lives and cultivate gratitude for all that we have, surrendering our desire for more.
We should make time to spend with friends and ensure that, as Seneca advocates, these friends help us to improve and grow. It is these friends that provide our lives with joy and meaning.
We should forego our strenuous jobs and long hours in favour of meaningful and inspiring work that serves to make the world a better place.
And lastly, we should seek peace of mind in our spare time. Through meditation and learning to live happily in the present moment, we will no longer crave luxury or wealth, content with what we have already.
Through exercising these practices, we may all learn to live happily — even if it means spending our days living out in the country, eating cheese and reading philosophy books with a couple of good friends down the hallway.