Two Philosophies on Happiness

And how to use them to find long-lasting contentment

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

I recently read a really nice piece entitled ‘The Three Pillars of Happiness’, written using references to Epicurus who was born in 341 BC.

Even though he lived almost 2,500 years ago, the questions he answered are still somehow incredibly relevant today. He believed that philosophy was a way to attain a happy and tranquil life, something that is still a goal for most of us.

This idea of ataraxia, a state of complete calm and freedom from distress, is something many of us search for even today.

Even for me, when asked what I desire most out of life, it is a sense of meaning and calm. The belief that we aren’t living in one long rat race where we do the same things, live slightly edited versions of the same lives, not affecting those around us in any meaningful way and then eventually turning to dust.

As Roy T. Bennett writes, we should

“Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone’s life. Be the light that helps others see; it is what gives life its deepest significance.”

So where do we start?

The Challenges of Living

We are constantly faced with challenges throughout the day and the way we deal with these depends upon how we view the world.

For many of us, expressing gratitude is something we do only on Instagram, quoting authors and poets about how incredible it is to be alive. However, when it comes down to the day-to-day, we’re all in the same boat complaining about the traffic, trying to one-up our neighbors and finding ways to have our voice heard the loudest.

Although we definitely don’t face the same obstacles that someone born in 341 BC might, I believe that we are still in this confusing state of flux.

Many of us want to learn how to be mindful and find meaning in life, yet are distracted by our own natural tendencies. I find this in myself quite often. Though in theory, I believe in each person’s right to live as they please, it’s very easy to get caught up in the web of negative thinking and judgments.

Sometimes, I find myself vocalizing a judgment of someone I could easily refute on my own, simply to make conversation or vent out frustration.

I feel like we’re trying so hard to be something, we forget about how we really feel.

What’s Your Pleasure?

Philosophers throughout history have had very different ideas about happiness and how to attain it. The Epicureans, for example, believed that pleasure was the highest good, and broke this down into two kinds of pleasure.

  • Kinetic pleasures are more physical and are done to satisfy a desire, remove pain or are simply acts that feel good — like receiving a massage.
  • Katastemic pleasures are the higher of the two and come from the absence of something versus the presence of it. The absence of pain, the feeling of calm, not being hungry or thirsty — this is what they believed was katastemic pleasure. It’s actually the pleasure of simply being, without having done anything to achieve this.

Is it possible that all our doing and thinking is preventing us from achieving the simple state of just being happy?

“Pleasure is the first good. It is the beginning of every choice and every aversion. It is the absence of pain in the body and of troubles in the soul.” — Epicurus

The Stoics

On the other hand, you have Stoicism. The Stoics believed that the highest goal was not pleasure or ataraxia, but to live in accordance with nature.

This can mean different things to different people, but in essence, living in accordance with nature means to be truly mindful of each moment. Our desires may push and pull us in different directions, but happiness can only ever be found right where we are.

Most importantly, Stoics stand by the fact that the only things you can truly control are your perceptions and actions — essentially, your own state of mind. Everything else is out of our control, and therefore isn’t worth worrying about.

In the words of Seneca,

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.”
“The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” Seneca

Bringing it All Together

By looking at a combination of these two schools of thought, we can start to see more clearly how to achieve a state of internal calm.

I often feel that it is my very nature that pushes me away from my own personal goals of kindness, positivity, and compassion, which only means that I need to grow stronger in my mental resilience.

We have grown up in an age of consumerism, which has taught us since our childhood that there are particular things that will make us happy. Candy for a crying baby, a new outfit for a teenager or a new car for someone else are all, so we are taught to believe, essential ingredients of contentment.

There are so many people in the world for whom even a morsel of food is hard to come by, and countless stories of the poorest of the poor sharing that mere morsel with a stranger — and feeling happy in doing so.

The fact that we are healthy and able to learn and think should, surely, make us happier than we are. And yet, we’re endlessly being tempted by other, quicker forms of satisfaction all around.

By considering that it is the absence of pain that could lead to happiness, I think we can all consider ourselves very, very lucky.