Epicurus’ advice for leading a happy life was tailored to the situation of his time. Are his recommendations still of use today? Below we will try to answer that question by comparing Epicurus’ counsel with conditions for happiness observed in present day society. For that purpose we use the large body of empirical research on life satisfaction in western nations in the second half of the 20th century and inspect how well these data fit Epicurus’ recommendations for a happy life. Epicurus’ concept of happiness is compatible with the definition of happiness that is used in empirical studies, that is, ‘subjective enjoyment of life-as-a-whole’.
Back away from society?
Epicurus tried to shelter his followers from the Hellenistic world of his times in which the old securities were gone. He started a mini-society––the Garden––and many of his followers lived in similar communes. The organization of the Garden was hierarchical and Epicurus was the only one who was awarded the title ‘wise man’. He strove to create a secure and comfortable atmosphere through friendship. The association between members of the Garden was freer than was usual in other schools, and members did not have to give up their private properties (Jones, 1989, pp. 20–21). Epicurus recognized that happiness is enhanced in social conditions that provide security and allow most autonomy/freedom (Veenhoven, 2002, p. 21).
Although living in the Garden provided a relatively safe, protected life with a full stomach, it is another thing to say that isolating yourself in such a commune is a wise idea. Living in a hierarchical community limits the freedom of choice for its members, for important choices in life are already taken on the basis of the philosophical doctrine of the commune. An example is that active political involvement in the outside world is strongly discouraged. The commune therefore does not encourage the members to make their own choices in life, which appears to be crucial aspects of the multiple-choice societies that enhance happiness (Veenhoven, 1999). To follow a path in life that is prescribed by a leader of a commune, implies that the individual members do not give an autonomous evaluation of all aspects of their own living conditions. Instead, the commune makes important choices for them to assure harmony within the commune. If all individuals would think for themselves and pursue their own ideas of happiness, heterogeneity, disagreement and conflict would result and the concept of the ideal, hierarchical community is threatened. This is what Crombag and Van Dun (1997) call an ‘utopic paradox’. Happiness is the positive evaluation of one’s life as a whole, but living in a commune makes it impossible to make this evaluation autonomous. The members cannot decide for themselves what is best for them. One problem with this position is that it did not allow Epicurus to pay proper attention to personality differences. For example, it is easy to imagine that somebody high on sensation-seeking who likes to live on the edge will not be happy with the tranquility that Epicurus envisioned in his Garden. So living conditions in the Garden may have been favourable and Epicurus an enlightened ruler, but the resulting happiness of the members lacked an essential ingredient: the individualistic evaluation of living conditions and the freedom of choice that is based on these individual preferences.
Avoid public life
Epicurus felt that politics and public life only involve needless mental stress and should be avoided. Participation in the social life of the Garden was a substitute for involvement in society at large. The consequence was that people became more dependent on community life. With modern data in mind we must conclude that Epicurus’ philosophy regarding one’s position in society, limited the options for his followers in an unwarranted way. To be engaged in public life will certainly cause some problems, but the net effect on happiness appears to be positive. In present day society at least, we see a strong correlation between happiness and social involvement.3 Happiness is typically higher among employed people (WDH section E 2), among people who go out often (WDH section L 3) and among members of voluntary associations (WDH section S 7). The withdrawal from the many is not the optimal choice for the majority of people.
Renounce fame and wealth
The desire for fame, status and wealth is unnecessary and unnatural according to Epicurus. He stated that you had to free yourself from the prison of general education and politics (Epicurus, 1994, p. 58). The findings gathered in the WDH show that happiness correlates positively with social rank (WDH section S 9), education (WDH section E 2), occupation (WDH section O 1), and social participation (WDH sections S 6–8). Again, Epicurus’ concern with avoiding sources of possible pain leads him to reject an important source of happiness.
An interesting aspect is Epicurus’ position on income. Epicurus is right for modern readers that income (I 9) does not contribute much to happiness (Epicurus, 1994, p. 67), and modern people value happiness far above wealth (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). But it is questionable if Epicurus was also right for his contemporaries. Income is a powerful predictor of happiness in developing countries (Veenhoven, 2002). One can only speculate about the significance of income in classical Greece, but it would not be a great surprise if more income would be of importance in those days in which economic development was not comparable to that of modern industrial nations.
Focus on friends
‘Friendship dances around the world announcing to all of us that we must wake up to blessedness’ (Epicurus, 1994, p. 52).
Epicurus valued friendship above marital relationship. Note, however, that Epicurus may have had a higher opinion of marriage as it is in the modern age, because partner relationships nowadays are more often based on the friendship between equals.
The existing data suggest that marriage is more important than friendship for modern readers. The correlations between happiness and being married (M 2) tend to be stronger than the correlations between happiness and contacts with friends (F 6). Likewise, married women without a close friend were found to be happier than unmarried people with a close friend (Ventegodt, 1996, p. 170). One can conclude that Epicurus may have placed too much emphasis on generic friendship and at the expense of specific marital ties.
The data indicate that happiness is served by specificity in social bonding. Kamp Dush and Amato (2005) describe in a large sample of Americans under the age of 55, that on average married people are happier than cohabiting people, cohabiting people are happier than the ones that are steady dating, steady dating people are happier than multiple daters, and the multiple daters are happier than the non-daters. However, this does not mean that Epicurus is not right. His point is that the disadvantages of marriage are greater than the satisfactions. In modern terms this implies that it is too risky to be dependent on specific desires (a spouse), because of the pain that marital conflict, divorce or widowhood would bring. We have already seen that the married are happier than unmarried, so they can live with average marital conflict, but we should also weigh the yields of marriage against the costs of divorce and widowhood. We will do that in a paragraph below.
Epicurus regarded health of the body as one of the most important determinants of happiness, but he placed even more emphasis on the health of the soul. When the mind is free of disturbance then the pains of the body are endurable, and do not have to affect our happiness. We can learn to push back pains and discomfort through mental pleasures.
Epicurus’ remarks about this subject fit modern findings on the relationship between happiness and health. Health is strongly related to happiness, in particular self-rated health. ‘The impact of health on happiness depends for a great part on the individual’s perception of the situation’ (Diener et al., 1999, p. 287). This links up with the finding that happiness is more strongly related to mental health than to physical health (WDH Sections M 7 and P 6). Or, as Epicurus would have put it, a mind free of disturbance would not only enhance physical health, but would also help to deal with the hardships of sickness. We can still be happy when our physical condition is not good.
A detached stance to life
The above-mentioned findings give an impression of the strengths and the weaknesses for present day conditions of Epicurus’ advice. Still, it can be argued that this is not the essential part of his happiness advice. His central idea is that one should not seek happiness in specific living conditions, but that one should be able to achieve happiness regardless of external conditions. He stimulates internal coping. To evaluate this position, we will consider it in the light of modern psychology.
Happiness is the Chief Good in Epicurus’ philosophy, but it is important to note that he does not value positive affect all that much. Happiness is conceived as absence of pain, but even the pain is not that important, because he states that the severest pains are easy to endure. Epicurus’ hedonism has strong stoic or ascetic tendencies. Parducci (1995, pp. 17–18) comments: Epicurus’ ‘position was to establish an ascetic detachment from material conditions so as to minimize the pain of their loss. Although Epicurus claimed that a man could be happy even in a rack, it is not clear that he believed genuine happiness to be possible’.
The position of Epicurus is difficult to judge, because of the seeming inconsistency of his remarks that pleasure is the same as the absence of pain and the idea that pain is easy to bear. Our interpretation is that Epicurus placed pleasure and pain on a continuum and that a person can experience either positive or negative affect. However he also recognized that people reflect on their affective experience and that this meta-appraisal can make a difference. This interpretation makes it possible to highlight several strengths and weaknesses of his happiness advice.
Epicurus was probably wrong with his idea about the continuum of positive and negative affect. Pleasure and pain are registered independently from each other in our brains (e.g. Cacioppo & Gardner, 1999). Pain relief and the escape from expected pain leads to positive affect (e.g. Frijda, 1988; Lazarus, 1991), but continuous absence of pain does not necessarily lead to happy tranquillity, but can also be boring. Headey and Wearing (1992) describe the fact that a significant minority of people have low levels of psychological distress and are unhappy at the same time. Csikszentmihaly (1999) states that happiness results from optimal functioning that can be found between boredom and anxiety. These findings contradict Epicurus’ notion of happiness as mere absence of pain. Epicurus’ happiness advice does not cater for exhilarating aspects of a business man’s life that involves risks and losses but also makes one live to the full and be happy on balance. He also did not think of anhedonia, the inability to experience emotion, that is characteristic of people with a depressive disorder. This condition is often more difficult to bear than emotional pain itself. Happiness is definitely something other than the mere absence of all pain (Bergsma, 1995).
Headey and Wearing (1992, pp. 4–8) also notice that some people are happy despite the fact that they experience high levels of psychological distress. People often perceive life as both quite satisfying and quite stressful. This goes against Epicurus’ idea that happiness can be equated with absence of pain. Still, the combination of high distress with happiness can be reconciled with Epicurus’ philosophy, because of his idea that we can learn to tolerate pain.
The independence of positive and negative affect has two consequences for Epicurus’ position. His notion that avoiding pain is sufficient for establishing a good quality of life may be too conservative. The second consequence is that he neglected the role of positive affect. We start with a discussion of his ideas to avoid pain.
Avoid pain and greed
Epicurus’ idea that we should not want too much is a consequence of his tendency to avoid the risk of pain. Strong desires can make us miserable if we have to live without the objects of our desires. Epicurus’ idea not to indulge seems to be fruitful. Csikszentmihaly (1999) praises Epicurus because his philosophy encourages people to defer gratifications. Epicurus claimed that all pain was evil, but that we should not avoid pain, when this saves us more pain in the long run. The same is true for pleasures. All pleasures are good, but we should not indulge if the pleasures harm us in the long run.
Moderation in pleasures turns out to be successful in terms of happiness. Headey and Wearing (1992, pp. 92–93) show that such a pleasure-hunting lifestyle fails in the long run. The purely hedonistic way of life often means that people fail to maintain intimate relationships, whereas such relationships form a great source of happiness.
The question is whether Epicurus emphasized deferring gratifications too much. He favoured a serene life with the motto: “If a little is not enough for you, nothing is.” There are three ways to evaluate this position. The first is a discussion of the limits of willpower, the second focuses on the optimal level of openness to pleasurable experiences and the third is a discussion of the merits of modest aspirations. We start with willpower.
Can we restrain?
Self-regulation can be thought of as the internal resource that is used by the self to make decisions, respond actively, and exert self-control. Epicurus’ philosophy of the good life requires that one should not spontaneously indulge in pleasures, but always ask what the consequences are in the long run. If I will enjoy this excellent food, how big is the danger that I will get frustrated if I would have to do without it later? Following Epicurus seems to require a lot of self-regulation and it has become clear that willpower is a limited resource (e.g. Schmeichel & Baumeister, 2004).
How much enjoyment is too much?
This theoretical point can be explained by results from happiness research. Hedonism is the way of life in which pleasure plays an important role, and as we noted above, it is possible to take this position to the extreme. A drug addict whose life deteriorates in the hunt for another pleasurable shot can serve as an example in this respect. But does this mean that we should curtail our pleasures to the limit that is necessary for our survival? The question has not had a lot of attention in research, but Veenhoven (2003) presents data that suggest that a ‘heavy dose of pleasure’ does not limit happiness or longevity in the long run. Having sex frequently and valuing free time show a linear positive correlation with happiness, and the use of stimulants an inverted U-curve. Peterson, Park, and Seligman (2005) describe the fact that an orientation toward pleasure makes a (small) contribution to well-being, without harming the quest for meaning or engagement in life.
Perhaps these results indicate that we should use our resources for self-regulation especially if it comes to big issues in life, and we should not value pleasure over finding meaning and engagement. We waste our resources by focussing on minor points like limiting innocent pleasures.
Can we want too much?
Epicurus claims that high aspirations are a threat to happiness, because of the risk of ‘unnecessary’ frustration. Several modern psychologists agree, and lowering aspirations and expectations is a part of the program that Fordyce (1977, 1983) has developed to increase personal happiness. Yet empirical studies do not show that happy people want less than the unhappy. To the contrary, happy people set typically higher aspirations and expect more positive outcomes (WDH section L 7). This has several reasons: one is that wants keep us going and that fully functioning makes us feel happy. Wanting nothing often means doing nothing. Another reason is that happiness works as a go-signal and stimulates us to reach out and achieve things (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001).
The role of positive affect
Though there is certainly a point in moderation, Epicurus has overstated that case. Possibly he did so in his role as a teacher. Exaggerating the dangers of hedonism may be the best way to counter possible side effects. But the idea that Epicurus made a mistake for educational purposes does not seem to be the whole story. The way Epicurus thought about happiness as the opposite of pain, made him think too easily about positive affect. It was something that would happen to you more or less automatically if you were in the right frame of mind. He cognitively explained away the fears for the gods and death and added: ‘what is good is easy to get.’ This is why Epicurus advises readers to be too passive in their pursuit of happiness. Annas (1993, p. 198) puts it like this: ‘Epicurean happiness is bought at the price of adjusting the agent too thoroughly to the world, that is too passive a conception of human life.’ In contemporary life data suggest that happiness is better served with active involvement in society. We not only want a mind that is free of disturbance, but we also have the possibility to try to control the interaction with the environment so that we can change our (view of the) world so that it better suits our preferences.
Fredrickson’s (1998, 2001) ‘broaden-and-build’ theory of positive affect gives a theoretical underpinning of this idea. Her first key position is that positive affect broadens the individual’s momentary mindset, and she urges one to play, explore and to integrate in social networks. These activities build the resources of the individual for they lead to the discovery of novel and creative ideas and stronger social bonds.
The importance of positive affect is underlined in several empirical studies and analyse. Positive affect stimulates health and longevity (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Pressman & Cohen, 2005), finding meaning in life (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006), taking advantage of unforeseen opportunities (Carver, 2003) and also leads to success. Positive affect promotes sociability and activity, altruism, liking of self and others, effective conflict resolution skills and perhaps original thinking (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). It is a serious omission that Epicurus neglects the constructive aspects of positive affect. Happiness is better served by a full life with pleasure, meaning and engagement (Peterson et al., 2005), than with an empty life that focuses primarily on avoiding pain.
There is one aspect of the ‘four basic truths’ that escapes the analysis in the paragraphs above. The statement that ‘what is terrible is easy to endure’ adds a dimension to Epicurus philosophy, that fits in with the spiritual tradition that places greater emphasis not on an emotional high, but on a state of peace, tranquillity and understanding (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Epicurus four-part cure has three remarks on coping with pain (fear of Gods, death and terrible pain) and all three boil down to the idea that it is not necessary to lose emotional equilibrium over these stressors. Above we have noted that Epicurus does not stimulate people enough to actively pursue happiness, but it is another matter when he offers wisdom in dealing with hardships.
The first thing to notice is that Epicurus’ advice focuses on the hardest parts of existence. Death, disease, terrible pain, the impossibility of changing the past and ill fate (the gods) are mentioned explicitly. These stressors have in common that they are unchangeable. Efforts to change the event itself will only yield frustration and desperation. Persons have to find a way to cope with this difficult psychological content. The direct approach to this is to try to change the frequency or intensity of these difficult thoughts and feelings. There are certainly occasions where this works. Abbe, Tkach, and Lyubomirsky (2003) claim that dispositionally happy persons use distraction successfully in dealing with problems. But sometimes the attempts to escape make things worse. For example, avoidance seems to be at the heart of several forms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders (Abueg, Follette, & Ruzek, 2001). The efforts to change one’s negative feelings can make them stronger (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002).
Coping with pain
How can we tell the difference between emotion regulation processes that reduce or increase the impact of negative experiences? There have been several attempts to understand this difference (e.g. Gross, 1998a, b). A useful distinction in this respect is the difference between suppression of negative emotional content and reappraisal of the situation. The first tactic increases negative emotion and decreases happiness. Reappraisal has the opposite results (Gross & John, 2003). Epicurus makes the right choice between the two. He reappraises fear of the gods and fear of death in a way as to suggest that they are no longer relevant for our emotional well-being, but he does not suppress these fears for he lets them take the centre stage in his philosophy. Another question is if Epicurus’ reappraisals are strong enough to make a meaningful difference for emotional reactions.
The idea that pain is easy to endure cannot simply be classified as a form of suppression or reappraisal. It is a second-order change, a change on the meta level (Hayes, 2001). The central idea behind Epicurus’ remarks seems to be that people can allow themselves to feel the pain for it is quite possible to endure it without being too much disturbed by it. This interpretation requires some goodwill and reading between the lines, but if it is correct, then it is reasonable to expect that reading Epicurus can make it easier to deal with the pain. Calm acceptance of mental content, as is encouraged by diverse schools of thought behind Buddhism, psychoanalytic free association and systematic desensitization, seems to be a helpful thing to do. Empirical evidence suggests that it helps in dealing with a wide range of psychological disorders (Hayes, Folette, & Linehan, 2004), physical pain and a variety of well-being outcomes (Kabat-Zinn, 2000). One of the positive aspects of acceptance is that it helps with the experience of negative psychological content, without a need to act or ruminate if the situation is unchangeable. This makes it possible to deal with hardship without making things worse by avoidance, negative thoughts about the self or counterproductive action. For example, accepting that you feel bad because you crave for alcohol, can actually prevent relapse to binge drinking. The paradox is that people can regain control over their lives if they discontinue their efforts to get a better grip.
If we take this reasoning one step further, we can link the concept of ‘enduring pain’ also with well-being outside the realm of clinical populations. Brown and Ryan (2003) investigated the effects of mindfulness, a concept that is closely related to acquiescence, but adds the dimensions of willingly taking in positive and negative psychological content. Mindfulness requires a more active and alert attitude than mere acceptance. Ryan and Brown (2003, p. 822) quote two different descriptions of mindfulness: ‘the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at successive moments of perception’ and ‘keepings one’s consciousness alive to the present reality’.
Being mindful correlates positively with life satisfaction, vitality, autonomy, competence and positive affect and negatively with negative affect, reported physical symptoms, depression, anxiety and impulsiveness. Experimental manipulation to enhance mindfulness also yielded positive results (Brown & Ryan, 2003).
Mindfulness skills are gaining attention from psychotherapists, because they can be of help for clients who have to overcome adversity. The Journal Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice devoted a special issue to mindfulness in 2003. Bear (2003) states:
The empirical literature on the effects of mindfulness training contains many methodological weaknesses, but it suggests that mindfulness interventions may lead to reductions in a variety of problematic conditions, including pain, stress, anxiety, depressive relapse, and disordered eating.
Mindfulness can be a positive factor in life and Epicurus seemed to have realized this in his ideas about enduring pain and living deliberately and prudently, without the need to act on the feelings of the moment. Epicurus’ philosophy is worthwhile in dealing with hardship and pain, although it requires some active interpretation of his texts to use them constructively. Paradoxically, Epicurus underestimated the tolerance people have for minor pains, for he advised them to shy away from involvement in society as a means of pain reduction, ignoring the fact that the positive experiences linked with involvement can offer enough compensation for the hassles.
The combination of acceptance with passivity and moderation in the hunt for pleasurable experiences also implies a danger. Scheier, Carver, and Bridges (2001) suggest that the line between stoic resignation and acceptance is not always clear and that the resignation has adverse consequences. Acceptance seems to be a healthy alternative, if it brings somebody to abandon goals that are no longer within reach and to engage in the pursuit of alternative goals that still are possible. If somebody with a deadly disease abandons all hope and accepts the inevitable, this seems to shorten the lifespan. A healthier alternative is if one decides what can still be done with the time left, for example spend more time with family. Acceptance is harmful when it implies stoic ‘goallessness’.
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Epicurus was a philosopher who was believed to be the one with all the answers to life. He encouraged the Ideal of Good Life, to live simple lives by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Epicurus views worries as unnecessary and unnatural desires. If these desires are avoided, he believes that all worries will be eliminated. Epicurus' metaphysical theory was based on Democritus's view of atoms. They were monists who believed all is matter, the soul is equivalent to the mind and comes apart at death. I feel that Epicurus' extravagance leads to pain, not pleasure; and, therefore, should be avoided. According to Epicurus, the purpose of life is happiness; and by happiness he means not that state of well being and…show more content…
If an old lady fell while crossing the street, it is only moral, as a bystander, to help her get to safety. This may cause long-lasting pain for the bystander because a car could hit him/her. We usually think of charity, compassion, humility, wisdom, honor, justice, and other virtues as morally good and pleasure as, at best, morally neutral, but for Epicurus, behavior in pursuit of pleasure assured an upright life. If everyone believed in Epicureanism, there would be no such thing as police, firemen, or EMS. Everyone would be worrying about himself or herself and would die. Another immoral pleasure according to Epicurus would be if the amount of pain outweighs the amount of pleasure. An example of this would be sexual intercourse (short-term pleasure) which could lead to pregnancy (long-term pain). Epicurus believed that the bad thoughts of death were said to be immoral because it causes pain (anxiety) rather than pleasure. The number one aspect of life Epicurus and his followers strive to avoid is, pain. Epicureans believe that if one avoids all pain, he is wise and will live worry free. He talks about the issue of death and how people feel anxiety when the thought crosses their minds. Epicurus believes that death is an empty belief, which is empty pain, and proves the outlook on death to be unrealistic. Before birth we were non-existent, Epicurus tells us to think of how much pain we felt during Pearl Harbor,