Happiness Made Simple

Introducing Epicurus in 1,000 words.

Posted Jan 09, 2021

J. Krueger
Sometimes it is good to just sit and leave the garbage behind.
Source: J. Krueger

Faulty thinking leads men astray. Lucretius, Book VI, p. 253

Serenity now! - Frank Costanza, fictional father failing to find happiness

To his credit, Marty Seligman challenged us – and the American Psychological Association – to also consider the happy end of the unhappy-to-happy spectrum (Krueger, 2012). This was in 1998, if memory serves, when Seligman was president of the association. The call for a positive (or happy) psychology is grounded in two (perhaps more) assumptions. One is that happiness is more than the absence of unhappiness, and the other is that happiness and unhappiness condition each other like light and darkness.

Theories, opinions, findings, and data abound. A dive into the internet will leave some feeling lost and others with a flash of conviction that they have found the answer. Either result is unfortunate. I have come to think that the best we can hope for is to find a few guideposts and heuristic ways of thinking. These crutches we can cultivate to stay engaged with the project. If you can do better – kudos!

Psychologists have reinvented many a wheel, and some look to the philosophical past to get a fix on things. I have had the good fortune to co-teach a course on happiness with a friend and colleague from the philosophy department. His lectures have introduced me to some of the philosophical underpinnings or contemporary thought, which psychologists mostly ignore or misrepresent.

The philosophers come in two main batches, the Ancient Greeks and the champions of the Enlightenment (there are others, of course, but these two batches are the peaks of a bi-modal distribution). I recognize the oversimplifications I am committing here – but let’s remember that this is a blog post. So – here’s a simplification: the Ancient Greeks were interested in states of mental serenity; the Enlighteners were interested in utility. The archetype of the former was Epicurus; of the latter it was J. S. Mill. Still, they had much in common, but Epicurus was less interested than Mill in a well-ordered society.

I have carried the flag for Epicurus in these pages (Krueger, 2019a, 2019b) and elsewhere (Krueger, 2020), arguing that his view of (human) nature is both humane and aligned with contemporary research findings. Bringing Epicurus to you, the reader, poses two specific challenges: to explain what he said, and to explain why he has been ignored, misunderstood, and reviled for two thousand years.

Let’s start with the second question and dispatch it promptly. In antiquity as well as during the Christian era, organized religion was the enemy of Epicurus. Epicurus held that notions of supernatural gods were not only silly but detrimental to happiness. Then and now, organized religion demands obedience and it moralizes human behavior. Both these endeavors are hostile to freedom and happiness. The most fatal blow against Epicurus was (and is) the false argument that he endorses unfettered pleasure-seeking. In the folk imagination, epicureanism became a synonym of dumb hedonism, that is, pleasure-seeking without any kind of prudential consideration. 

In fact, Epicurus’s project was to cultivate a prudential kind of hedonism, a way of life that maximizes pleasure and minimizes harm to the self and others. Epicurus was wary of ecstatic states because of their fragility and riskiness. Consider instead the two primary sources of pleasure in this book: time spent with friends and the savoring of simple and nutritious foods grown in one’s own garden. These are pleasures that are renewable every day; they are cheap, and they do not produce a needy ego. The happy mind, according to Epicurus, is imperturbable; it resembles the surface of the sea on a calm day. This is what he called ataraxia

I am tempted to say that this is all you need to know about Epicurus. The rest is commentary. But I will give you a little more. There are two main sources that tell us about Epicurus’s teaching. One is a letter he wrote to his friend Menoeceus; the other is a grand poem by the Roman writer Lucretius.

Lucretius’s De rerum natura (2008) introduces us to Epicurus’s natural philosophy, and it shows that Epicurus’s theory of happiness is not a stand-alone theory. Instead, it is an integral part of a larger worldview. This is an accomplishment contemporary research rarely achieves. Bread-and-butter psychologists settle for mini-theories and local effects. They may claim, for example, that ‘counting your blessings’ makes you feel better but fail to embed such a finding in an integrated theory of human nature (see Peeters et al., 2020, for a recent failure to show that blessing-counting works).

Epicurus’s theory echoes Heraclitus’s theory of flow and it even evokes Lao-Tzu’s Dao. There are no ‘things’ or Platonic forms, and there are no jealous and vengeful gods. To accept such ideas is ‘faulty reasoning’ and a recipe for despair. The first ingredient of happiness is freedom from such irrational beliefs; the second ingredient is tolerant friends and the fruits of the garden. Below is a selection of quotes from Rerum to whet your appetite. Ask yourself: are these the words of a corruptor of society?

“How many of us work hard to satisfy their ungrateful minds’ endless cravings for all the sweet things of life? No matter how much we have, are we ever satisfied?” Book III, p. 134

“It is nevertheless true that if one leads a proper life guided by reason, the greatest wealth a person can have is contentment with a modest portion. What does one need? Fame? Money? Power? Are these the secure basis for a life of quiet and comfort?” Book V, p. 234

“Is it not better to live life with a tranquil mind, surveying whatever one sees with a steady, clear-eyed acceptance? Our lives are hard enough and full of sufficient woes that we have no need to look up at icily distant stars, imagining powerful gods who have been the cause of our griefs.” Book V, p. 237

“For the costly and showy trifles, men wear themselves out, working too hard and believing that if only they could possess that wonderful thing – whatever it is – they would be content, not knowing that contentment always comes from within.” Book V, p. 248

“Epicurus . . . taught us how wealth, power, and honors, fame, and one’s children’s success do not assuage the heart’s anguish or give one comfort or freedom from complaint and lamentation. The flaw, he saw, was not in the dinner but in the pot itself, which embittered whatever it touched and corrupted whatever dainties might be placed within it.” Book VI, p. 251

It is time to give Epicurus another chance. Let's have some fun - within reason and in the spirit of freedom.

References

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. (2019a). Garden-variety happiness. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/201906/garden-variety-happiness

Krueger, J. I. (2019b). Frederick the happy. Psychology Today Online. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/one-among-many/201908/frederick-the-happy

Krueger, J. I. (2020). The rehabilitation of Epicurus. Review of ‘Epicurus and the pleasant life: A philosophy of nature’ by Haris Dimitriadis. American Journal of Psychology, 133, 126-129.

Lucretius (2008). De rerum natura. The nature of things. Translated by David R. Slavitt. University of California Press.

Peeters, M. C. W., van Steenbergen, E. F., & Ybema, J. F. (2020). Positive psychological micro-interventions to improve the work–family interface: Use your resources and count your blessings. Frontiers in Psychology. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00275/full