It can be easy to think that with all our fancy gadgets, research, and ‘progression’, we have little to learn from ancient philosophers.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many philosophies that came about centuries and even millennia ago remain relevant today.
You’ve probably read about Stoicism and how many have adopted its teachings, but you may not have heard of one we will cover today.
Epicurus was a philosopher who was born in 341 BCE on an Island near what is now Turkey.
Rather than being focused on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, Epicurus dedicated his studies to how we can live happy lives; something we all want, I am sure.
But can we learn anything from him?
We sure can.
As I see it, there are three major lessons for us all.
Let’s dive in.
1) Consider ‘happiness’ as the absence of pain
Being so long ago, we don’t know everything about Epicurus, but we know that he believed in pursuing pleasure.
When you read ‘ pleasure’, you were probably picturing munching down some Wagyu steak, drinking exquisite wine, or, well…other things.
But that’s not how Epicurus saw it.
As noted in, Epicureanism, he saw it as “the removal of all pain”, both mentally and physically.
That is, pleasure has less to do with eating a great steak than it has to with simply not starving.
It is not selling your business for millions of dollars after decades of sleepless nights and anxiety; it is avoiding the anxiety entirely.
This concept is pretty much the basis of the other lessons on this list.
Epicurus dives deeper, writing that:
“Not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. For if someone has these things and is confident of having them in the future, he might contend even with Zeus for happiness.”
So, in simple terms, being happy for Epicurus meant successfully avoiding the things in life that hurt and having the confidence that you will continue to avoid them in the future.
The physical aspect of this concept reminded me of the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, those that are necessary for survival.
The emotional aspect of this concept is much more complicated, however.
Basically, Epicurus says that to be happy, we shouldn’t be anxious, or worried, and we shouldn’t have wants that we can’t completely fulfill.
Sounds great, but how do we do that?
That’s where this next lesson comes in.
2) Quit pursuing insatiable desires
“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”
So, Epicureans believed that we should seek pleasure by eliminating pain.
But to avoid the pain of wanting and not having, we need to be extremely careful in the types of pleasures we seek to have.
Epicureans divided pleasures or desires into three main categories:
- Natural and necessary desires (Epicureans seek these)
Natural desires include a desire for food, drink, and shelter. These are necessary for happiness because they help us avoid physical pain and, in many cases, are needed to continue living.
Importantly, these are not desires we learn; they are ‘natural’. Even babies have them.
Possibly, more importantly, these desires are naturally limited. Our hunger is satiable, for example.
We should strive to fulfill these desires.
- Vain & empty desires (Epicureans eliminate these)
Vain and unnecessary desires are quite the opposite. We do not have these instinctively; they are learned.
These desires are also insatiable, with no natural limit. Such desires include fame, power, and wealth.
As noted by author Tim O’Keefe in his book “Epicureanism“, these desires are based on false opinions often spread by society.
Epicurus would advise eliminating these desires.
- Natural but not necessary desires. (Epicureans indulge in these if they come their way)
The final type are natural but not necessary. As you might have guessed, they fall between the other two types of desires.
Examples include a desire to eat luxury food or drink delicious wine. These are things that enhance the pleasure we get from necessary desires.
Epicureans would not see these as a greater pleasure, as all foods remove hunger. Instead, they might see it as a different type of pleasure.
Generally, Epicureans say that we should avoid pursuing these desires but that it is okay to indulge in them if they occasionally present themselves.
The lesson here is that to be happy, we don’t need and shouldn’t strive for the Mercedes, the penthouse, or excess wealth beyond what we need.
What should we do?
We should eliminate our wants for insatiable things.
We must look beyond what advertising tells us and forget about keeping up with the Joneses. We need to enjoy the simple things and take the nice-to-haves when they come our way.
Maybe Picasso was on the same page when he said, “I’d like to live as a poor man with lots of money.”
3) Friendships are key to being happy
“We do not so much need the help of our friends as the confidence of their help in need.”
Epicurus wrote passionately about the value of having good friends. He preached about being trustworthy and helping friends when they are in need.
Selfless? Not quite.
He saw friends as a means to provide safety and protection from physical pains (like hunger) that may occur.
But more importantly, he also viewed friendships as a way to be free of the worry of not having a support system to fall back on in times of trouble.
Is that selfish?
If it’s give and take, I suppose not. You might disagree.
There is no doubt, however, that relationships are essential. Modern studies, like the 85-Year Harvard Study I wrote about recently, prove it.
The study showed that good relationships are the best predictor of our happiness and physical health in our later years.
Interestingly, Robert Waldinger, the director of that Harvard study, said the following:
“Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”
Is it a coincidence that he also stressed being able to “count on” the other?
Maybe Epicurus had it figured out all those years ago.
The bottom line
Despite being an ancient philosopher, Epicurus has a lot to teach us regarding how we should perceive and, indeed, pursue happiness.
Unlike some philosophical concepts, much of his are approachable and applicable.
And, dare I say, they are at least as relevant today as when he came up with them.
As always, I hope you found this post valuable and enjoyable to read.
Until next time.