The Four Part Cure for Happiness

People are seeking happiness. The solution has been written for millennia.

Posted Dec 22, 2010

Many people spend their lives in a search for happiness. Happiness is the ultimate goal of life. This idea is as old as time itself; well, perhaps not that old, but it does date back to the time of ancient greek philosophers.

Two of philosophy's greatest thinkers, Aristotle and Epicurus, were from two distinct schools of thought. Despite the difference, both were proponents of happiness as the meaning of life. The following quote from Aristotle demonstrates how strongly he believed this: "Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence." Epicurus wrote a short piece describing how to attain happiness; he called it Tetrapharmakos, which means the "Four Part Cure."

Epicurus wrote:
Don't fear god.
Don't worry about death.
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.

This may sound a bit outdated and daunting. Analyzing these words suggest they can be applied in today's society. Further analysis indicates the suggestions follow both Eastern philosophical thought and current psychological thought.

We begin analysis with the first suggestion: Don't fear God. There are many people who believe in the fear of God as well as the punishment that might follow His judgment. After all, it is necessary to keep people in line. It is common to hear "He's a God fearing man." This statement implies that this individual follows the rules and doesn't do evil. Some hold strongly to these beliefs, but it doesn't appear necessary.

First, many believe in a benevolent God. A benevolent God does not need to be feared. This is a God of love and forgiveness. This God cares for all creation. If one holds this view, the first suggestion is accomplished; there is no need to fear God or His retribution.

The intended meaning of what Epicurus wrote poses another alternative interpretation. Epicurus was an atheist. He believed that the stories of gods were meant to be models for human existence, because these gods lived in utopia and bliss (ultimate happiness). As for Epicurus not fearing God: this implies that there is nothing to fear: gods aren't interested in us and they simply served as role models.

A third alternative interpretation lies in the philosophy of Eastern culture. In most Eastern belief systems there is no need to fear a higher power. In Taoism there is no governing ruler that imposes judgment. This belief system promotes respect for others and nature. In Buddhism, another Eastern Philosophy, there is no judging deity. This system promotes love and compassion. These religions, without a judging god, indicate there is not a need to fear a god. One can be loving, caring and nurturing, and perhaps even a spiritual, individual without fearing any god.

The second suggestion encourages us not to worry about death. As an existential therapist I often help clients face their fear of death and utilize the idea of death to create a more fulfilling life. There are many quotes that make the point regarding the futility of worrying about death:

"To himself, everyone is immortal; he may know that he is going to die, but he can never know that he is dead." (Samuel Butler)

And in the words of Epicurus: "Death means nothing to us...when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist."

Another quote makes a point about the futility of worry: "Worry is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere." (Erma Bombeck)

When one considers these quotes it makes no sense to worry about death: worrying accomplishes nothing; death is inevitable; and once dead you will not know the difference. If you hold the belief that your consciousness will exist after death, than you likely hold the belief in either reincarnation or life after death. In either of these scenarios there is no pain for the loss of your previous life. If you believe in reincarnation then it stands to reason you are currently reincarnated. Are you grieving your past life? If you believe in life after death and entrance to heaven, you believe in eternal bliss.

This brings us to the third suggestion: When Epicurus states that what is good is easy to get, he is stating what many people continue to deny: money and things do not bring happiness. Studies indicate that money (beyond that required for food and shelter) and possessions have no significant positive correlation to happiness. Other studies indicate that some of the poorest countries in the world rate higher in happiness than the United States. Yet many in Western culture continue to believe money is what it will take to achieve happiness. It seems Epicurus, like philosophers who followed, knew desire is the root of all suffering.

The forth and final part of the cure refers to pain and suffering being transient. Everything in life ebbs and flows if allowed to do so naturally. Pain comes and goes, and everything that is unpleasant passes. This is the natural order. Understandably this is not always the case: chronic pain exists, as do chronic mental health disorders. The chronicity of these disorders does not mean there is no hope. Understanding pain or illness, understanding triggers, and the things that have helped relieve it in the past, all can work to ease and even alleviate the pain. In fact, when one suffers with chronic pain, temporary relief can bring euphoria. No one is more grateful for a pain-free day as is one who suffers regularly. Epicurus wanted to make the point that suffering is temporary, and if you understand that, whatever suffering you might experience is more tolerable.

Epicurus, and other ancient Greek philosophers understood that happiness is a matter of perception. Becoming happy is simple: Understand you have a great deal of control over whether you are happy or not. Stop worrying unnecessarily (and most worry is unnecessary) and grasp that what matters is readily at hand and easy to attain. You can be happy. The art is in applying the suggestions that have proven effective for millennia.