I’ve been reading a book I recommend to all of you: The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton. This book is, in one, a Western philosophy refresher course and self-help book, outlining a guide for living as dictated to us by 6 great philosophers. One of my favourite chapters examines the life and philosophy of Greek philosopher Epicurus and distills the lessons he shared with us about finding true happiness and fulfillment in our lives, while still living modestly.
Epicurus was a 3rd century B.C. Greek philosopher who believed, in a nutshell, that pleasure was the source of all good. While the word “epicurean” is now often associated with indulgence, a life of wealth and, even, gluttony, Epicurus’ view on pleasure was a more moderate one and involved simplicity, frugality and non-materialism. I find his advice and philosophy extremely useful in today’s consumer-driven society. It’s easy to assume that materialism can bring us the things we need but, as my Ayurvedic professor Matthew Remski once wrote on his blog, “we are rarely sold what we need.” Here is Epicurus’ recipe for happiness:
1) Loosen a dependence on materialism: Epicurus assures us that, while luxuries can bring us pleasure, our dependence on them will bring us suffering. A wool cardigan might keep us just as warm as a cashmere one (or to use more modern terms, a non brand-name down parka can keep you just as warm as a $700 Canada Goose one), but, if we accustom ourselves to feeling the warmth and softness of a cashmere cardigan, we will surely suffer if this unnecessary luxury is ever taken from us. Epicurus cautions against a love for material luxuries. While they can bring us happiness in moderation, if we become reliant on them, we will only suffer in the end.
2) Prioritize friendship: According to Epicurus, friendship is the greatest wealth of all. Even Alain de Botton, in his book, stresses that, as humans our need for close personal relationships is immense. When other people know and see us, they give us a reason for living, they ensure our existence and provide us with acceptance and validation. For Epicurus, friendship provides the greatest sense of security and safety; it provides us with support and assistance and a sense of belonging. In our society it is often difficult to form genuine, lasting friendships. Most of our social interactions are based around superficiality and social anxieties. We all know intuitively that we can’t be happy and fulfilled unless we love and are loved. The marketing industry knows this too. A great exercise is to observe a capitivating TV, magazine or newspaper ad and try to discern how the ad is selling us “friendship” in the form of a product or service.
This connection is obvious when it comes to ads such as this one:
And not as obvious when it comes to these kinds of ads, unless we consider that, in our society, we often believe sexuality and attractiveness to be important ingredients for deserving companionship:
3) Focus on simplicity for happiness: Epicurus assures us that “what is good is easy to get”. He categorizes needs and wants into three categories: what is both natural and necessary, what is natural and unnecessary and what is both unnatural and unnecessary.
Natural and necessary things include: love, food, good health, safety and shelter. Once these needs are met, we are free from suffering and have attained all we will ever need for achieving true happiness.
Natural and unnecessary things include wants and luxuries, or material goods, that make our lives easier and can provide us pleasure in moderation: nice cars, gourmet food and drink, electronics and the latest fashions, for example. These things are nice in moderation, says Epicurus, but creating a dependence on their existence in our lives increases our risk for unhappiness.
Finally, our society has learned to value and respect the items that fall into the third category of unnatural and unnecessary things, which include fame, excessive wealth and power. Epicurus assures us that, by dedicating ourselves to a life that values these things, we will only ever be faced with pain and unhappiness. According to what we often read in the tabloids about the lives of the celebrities in our culture, I think he may have had a point!
4) Use thought to improve your mental and emotional state: Epicurus suggested that, in order to attain happiness, everyone should study philosophy. He didn’t just love philosophy for its academic value, but for its practical value as well. According to Epicurus, “philosophy brings about peace of both mind and body”. Some examples include using reasoning to appease our anxieties about the future and, even, death.
We find that this tip is extremely relevant in our modern society as psychologists study the effect of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) on adjusting our erroneous beliefs that lead to psychological and emotional suffering. When we suffer from anxiety or depression with regards to events in our lives, psychologists agree that using reason to challenge the beliefs that certain events trigger in us is crucial for controlling the state of our moods. For example, if I believe that, because I fail an exam, I am “stupid”, and this causes me to feel depressed, it will do me well to challenge the belief I am “stupid” by using my skills of reason. Are there any other factors that might have caused me to fail the test besides me being stupid? Have I done other things in my life, which may, in fact, act as examples of me being smart and not stupid? Epicurus and CBT stress the importance on developing rational thought for leading a happy, anxiety-free, fulfilled life.
5) Create a life of freedom and security: Being under the thumb of someone else was, according to Epicurus, an unhappy disaster waiting to happen. For this reason, he chose to live in a commune with a group of friends, where they grew their own food and didn’t have to work. Epicurus advises against seeking a public life, or a life that involves “harming others”, or risking being harmed oneself, for the sake of business. This tip is perhaps one of the more difficult ones to implement, because many of us are employed by, and therefore accountable to, other people. However, decreasing a reliance on money and material wealth and focusing on simple pleasures, will also lessen the importance our work has on our well-being. Emphasizing non-material joys, such as friendship and developing thought, can help lower our costs of living, since they tend to cost nothing. With less bills to pay, we might find it easier to change jobs or work less hours, thereby increasing our personal freedom and our personal happiness.
Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus (pdf). http://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10902-006-9036-z
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