Garden-Variety Happiness

Epicurus had a simple recipe for happiness.

Posted Jun 23, 2019

J. Krueger
Schrebergarten in Berlin-Dahlem
Source: J. Krueger

"Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life." —Wittgenstein

Positive psychology used to be about happiness, or "subjective well-being," as some prefer to put it. Subjective well-being! Who, in good conscience, can get excited about such a thing? "Happiness" projects semantic vitality. Even "contentment" has a certain quiet appeal. But subjective well-being or the trigrammaton, "SWB"? C'mon! Ask yourself, "Am I happy?" and work with the answer. Ask yourself, “Am I subjectively well?” and see the loss you're at.

Why do some psychologists prefer to study and talk about SWB instead of happiness? I don’t really know, but we can speculate. One possibility is that SWB, particularly in its abbreviate form of a triad of capitalized letters, demands respect. Happiness is a term even children can use efficiently, but SWB is for grown-ups. Another possibility is that psychologists tried to define and measure happiness, failed, and then turned to SWB. If so, the prospects of such a move are dim, because we still don’t know where to place happiness in the world of SWB, and happiness is what we really care about. A third possibility is that researchers understand happiness very well, but they prefer a broader construct, perhaps thinking that such a construct predicts a greater variety of outcomes than does a narrow construct, which is a reasonable idea. If so, we can still talk about happiness, just in a more modest and circumscribed way.

A popular conceptualization of SWB comes from Ed Diener’s desk (1984; 2013) and is supported by decades of data toil. With evidence of heritability and predictive validity (e.g., of social, financial, and medical success), the concept of SWB must be taken seriously. Yet, neither evidence of heritability nor evidence of predictive validity means that SWB is a unitary concept. Diener himself describes SWB as a composite of three elements: positive affect, (lack of) negative affect, and life satisfaction. The intercorrelations among these three elements are positive and low, thus psychometrically satisfying the wish to treat them at the same time as distinctive and as reflective of the same latent construct. Conceptually, however, one may note that positive and negative affect are, well, about affect, and life satisfaction is a matter of attitude and judgment with many diverse sources of input, among which the awareness of one’s positive and negative affects is one.

So where is happiness in this? After all this work to establish SWB as a construct, Diener (2013) moves back and forth between SWB and happiness in the same text, giving the impression that SWB is happiness and that happiness is SWB. Perhaps he means to convey that SWB is happiness "properly understood." Diener’s project seems to measure what is subjective objectively. Kahneman (1999) more boldly talks about “objective happiness,” which he defines as “the average of utility over a period of time” (p. 3), where utility is the subjectively reported positivity or negativity of the affective or hedonic experience at a particular moment in time. “A dense record of the quality of experience” (p. 3) is objective happiness integrated over time. By this definition, the happiest life has the most positive integral over the duration of a lifetime. This sounds like Diener’s SWB, but without the judgmental element of life satisfaction, which Kahneman places into a separate psychological category, that of the remembering self—as opposed to the experiencing self. Wittgenstein’s last words are poignant, because they illustrate Kahneman’s argument that the experiencing and the remembering self can disagree. Like Diener, Kahneman’s approach is objective only in terms of information aggregation; the resulting measurement still uses subjective experience and reports as input. The person whose happiness is being assessed remains in charge and is respected.     

This essay began with the claim that “positive psychology used to be about happiness.” Arguably, there has been a shift. Seligman (2011), a founding figure of positive psychology (see Krueger, 2012, for a review), wants to expand the concept of well-being to include positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment, thereby placing it in the tradition of the objective-list theories that some philosophers favor to capture the notion of the good life (Rice, 2013). This sort of list approach, due to its scope, is designed to yield an overall evaluation of a person’s life, preferably not until the person has died, for a living person still has the opportunity to disprove even the best impression. Some philosophers prefer a usage in which "happiness" refers to an all-around good life, or a virtuous life, as a philosophically schooled observer—list in hand—might conceive it. Perhaps this is what Wittgenstein meant, and his emotional unhappiness be damned. As for Plato, Meno introduced the list theory to the discussion of virtue and had Socrates rebut him.

If you think that this brief discussion points to a minefield, you are right. For millennia now, conceptions of the subjective and the objective, the emotional and the judgmental, are being bolloxed up. Socrates notwithstanding, I think there is no hope to discover what happiness really is. We have a variety of conceptions and measurement approaches, and we can only ask the measurements to do justice to the definitions of happiness proposed by those who use these measurements (Krueger, 2016). That is, we can only ask for coherence, but not the ultimate truth. And if we have a temperamental weakness for parsimony, for preferring simple approaches over complex ones, we can give a nod to Kahneman over Diener and Seligman.

Kahneman’s approach also has the advantage of allowing alignment with the simple and straightforward version of prudential hedonism proposed by Epicurus (Konstan, 2018). Epicurus taught that happiness is found in simple, necessary, and sustainable pleasures, such as eating simple and nourishing food, keeping company with well-meaning friends, and staying out of politics. Russell (1945), who gives Epicurus a fairly fair shake, is not above wryly remarking that "Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat" (p. 244). Russell notwithstanding, happiness as freedom from pain and from perturbations of the mind (e.g., anxieties) would seem to yield a very positive integral over a lifetime. Epicureanism, while popular during late antiquity, was misunderstood and maligned, particularly by the Stoics and the Christians, because it ignores certain duties Stoics and Christians care about, and because it does not endorse their metaphysical superstitions, especially the doctrine of the immortal soul. Nietzsche agreed with Epicurus on many points, this being one. "Where knowledge is concerned," he wrote in Daybreak, "perhaps the most useful conquest that has ever been made is the abandonment of the belief in the immortality of the soul." And not only Nietzsche! The talented Mr. Ricky Gervais [:)] summarized Epicurus' Naturalism beautifully when sitting down with Mr. Stephen Colbert. 'Life,' to paraphrase Ricky, 'is a brief holiday from the vast nothingness of not-being that lies before and after it. Enjoy it!' Though its detractors have always tried to paint Epicureanism as immoral, the surviving record is clear: Epicureanism does not advocate or practice excess, and it does not support egotism. It is time for positive psychology to take a closer look. 


Despite its naturalism, pragmatism, and level-headedness, Epicureanism does raise some questions. Here is one: Epicurus counseled against marriage, having children, and sex itself. He and his friends shunned politics and other community activities. They enjoyed each others' company and conversation. But then, what was left to talk about?

An unkind reception of Epicureanism notes the affinities to it we find in contemporary Germans' love of their Schrebergärten. A Schrebergarten is a small allotment at the fringe of a city or small town, and it is typically part of a whole 'colony' of allotments. Here, the German finds a refuge from civilizations and its various discontents. There is a small hut, or shack, or lean-to (a Laube), which is not to serve as a domicile or permanent residence, and may thus not exceed certain Prussian restrictions on size and comfort. There is a small grassy area for 'grilling' and leisure activities combining conviviality with sociability. The rest of the area is used for growing various foodstuffs from apples to zucchini. Wags note the 'Schrebergartenmentalität,' which echoes the classic criticism of Epicureanism, the withdrawal from society with an aspect of rustic ridiculousness. 

Who was Schreber?

When we see the word Schrebergarten, how can we not think of Freud's theory of paranoia, described in Der Fall Schreber (The Case of Schreber)? Daniel Paul Schreber, a jurist, was the son of the physician Moritz Schreber, after whom, in a convoluted sequence of events, the allotment gardens were named. So there is a roundabout connection between Schrebergärten and psychology. Alas, Freud, who never met Schreber the Younger, but only read his memoir, badly misjudged the case, and his theory of paranoia is remembered as of the most bizarre fruits of psychology. For a sane rehabilitation of Schreber, see Lothane, 1992.  


Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542–575.

Diener, E. (2013). The remarkable changes in the science of subjective well-being. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8, 663-666.

Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective happiness. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 3–25). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Konstan, D. (2018). Epicurus. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Krueger, J. I. (2012). Seligman’s flourish: The second coming. Review of ‘Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being’ by Martin. E. P. Seligman. American Journal of Psychology, 125. 121-124.

Krueger, J. I. (2016). The quest for happiness in 31 essays., kindle.

Lothane, Z. (1992). In defense of Schreber: Soul murder and psychiatry. New York: Routledge.

Rice, C. (2013). Defending the objective list theory of well-being, Ratio, 26, 196–211.

Russell, B. (1945). A history of western philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. New York: Free Press.