Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
—Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor
1. Don't confuse joy or elation with happiness.
The one is a short-time high, the other is a long-term inner peace.
2. Cultivate friendships.
Spend quality time with friends and relatives, and be open about your thoughts and feelings. Aristotle (384-322BC) famously said that no one would choose to live without friends. According to Aristotle, friendship protects prosperity, is a refuge in poverty and misfortune, keeps the young from error, assists the elderly, deepens thought, and reinforces action—amongst many other benefits. At the same time, avoid being needy and relying upon others for your happiness.
3. Apply moderation, even to good things.
Epicurus of Samos (341-270BC), who flourished not long after Aristotle died, founded a school of philosophy that convened at his home and garden in Athens and that dedicated itself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason and the application of rational principles. According to Epicurus, reason teaches that pleasure is good and that pain is bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate measures of good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, rather than the absence of pain and tranquillity of mind that Epicurus actually intended. Indeed, Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain.
4. Don't worry too much about the future.
Epicurus argued that anxiety is the greatest obstruction to happiness. To attain a state of perfect mental tranquillity or ataraxia, a person needs to avoid anxiety, which he can do by learning to trust in the future. After all, today is the tomorrow that you worried about yesterday.
5. Live more in the present and pay attention to what's around you.
There are, it seems to me, three principal scales of time, the present moment, the future of a human life-time, and the eternal. The problem with modern man is not so much that he situates himself in the future of a human life-time, since he fears death far too much to do that, but rather that he does not situate himself in any of these three scales of time. Instead, he is forever stuck somewhere in-between, worrying about this evening, tomorrow morning, next week, next Christmas, in five years’ time. As a result, he has neither the joy of the present moment, nor the perspective of a human life-time, nor the immortality of the eternal.
6. Do more of whatever it is you like doing.
Do more of the things that you enjoy doing, particularly those things that involve something creative or productive or sociable and provide some sense of connection or accomplishment. For example, if you like wine, take a course in wine tasting, go on a vineyard tour, or start your own wine club. If you enjoy writing, start a blog or write a short story or poem.
To see heaven in a wildflower...
7. Be content with little.
After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes the Cynic (412-323BC) moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. He proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’.
8. Don't worry about what people think.
Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ Diogenes used to stroll about in broad daylight with a lamp. Whenever curious people asked him what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’ Much to his chagrin, all he ever found were rascals and scoundrels. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble. Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society.
9. Forget a bit about yourself.
A number of Eastern philosophies hold that the ego is something of an illusion. For example, in Buddhist thought, anatta or anatman refers to the concept of the ‘not-self’, which is composed of five skandhas or elements, namely, body, sensation, perception, will, and consciousness. These five skandhas are in a constant state of change, but they create for the not-self the illusion of continuity, that is, the illusion of the self. For this reason, if a person consciously tries to become aware of his self, he only ever becomes aware of such and such feeling, such and such perception, or such and such thought, but never of his actual self. The Buddha taught that the source of all ignorance and unhappiness is none other than the failure to recognize the illusion of the self.
10. Sleep well and pay attention to your dreams.
Don't neglect sleep. Even a single good night's sleep can have a noticeable effect on your mood. If you don't sleep enough, you won't be able to finish your dreams, which is a shame because they can do quite a lot for you.
11. Make happiness your goal in life.
In trying to think about what our purpose or meaning might be, a good place to start is with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which is named for or after Aristotle’s son Nicomachus. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tries to discover ‘the supreme good for man’, that is, the best way for man to lead his life and to give it purpose and meaning. For Aristotle, a thing is best understood by looking at its end, goal, or purpose (telos). For example, the goal of a knife is to cut, and it is by grasping this that one best understands what a knife is; the goal of medicine is good health, and it is by grasping this that one best understands what medicine is (or ideally should be). If one does this for some time, it soon becomes apparent that some goals are subordinate to other goals, which are themselves subordinate to yet other goals. For example, a medical student’s goal may be to qualify as a doctor, but this goal is subordinate to his goal to heal the sick, which is itself subordinate to his goal to earn a living by doing something useful. This could go on and on, but unless the medical student has a goal that is an end-in-itself, nothing that he does is actually worth doing. What, asks Aristotle, is this goal that is not a means to an end but an end-in-itself? This Supreme Good, says Aristotle, is nothing other happiness.
Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.
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