Intro to Month 7 – Learning the Art of Pleasure via Epicureanism

Epicurus’ Garden – Cartoon Style Via: http://simplyknowledge.com/psychology/epicurus#.VQxEchDF95A

I started skateboarding in eighth grade. There was no purpose to it. It just looked like fun. So I bought a skateboard (or rather, got my parents to buy me a skateboard). I taught myself to ride it without wiping out. I then learned to Ollie, which is the first “trick” you learn and is the basis of almost all other tricks. I then learned a few other tricks. After that, I made friends with some of my classmates who liked to skate.

For the next few years, I would look forward to the weekends when I could hang out with my friends and skate and learn new tricks and avoid getting caught by the cops who would kick us out of our favorite skate spots.

There was no purpose to it. It was simply…fun. Though I did occasionally fantasize about getting sponsored and going pro, I did not harbor any real ambitions regarding skateboarding. I enjoyed it for its own sake.

I stopped skateboarding in high school when I started running track and cross-country. Those activities, along with homework, a part time job, and a focus on getting into college, took up a good percentage of my time. I started developing ambitions (the primary one was to become a Navy SEAL) and many of my thoughts centered around how I could achieve those ambitions. Oh, and girls. I was also ambitious in trying to attract cute girls

Over time there were fewer and fewer activities that I did simply because they were fun and enjoyable. Even activities that I do enjoy often become corrupted by secondary ambitions. For example, if I go to a party where there will be a mix of people I know and don’t know, the idea of networking pops into mind. Or, on the negative side, if I’m eating something delicious, I will enjoy it for a little while before I wonder if this is really helping me shed my growing love handles.

I believe this is a growing problem in modernity. We live in probably one of the most pleasant times in history and yet our skill at enjoying it seems to be decreasing. The market offers tons of products and experiences to make our lives more pleasant, but they only provide temporary boosts of happiness. Plus, they cost money.

For this next month, I’d like to learn how to enjoy life, and to do that, I’m going to rely on the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Enter Epicurus: Advocate for Pleasure

Epicurus was a 3rd century Greek philosopher whose philosopher centered on attaining ataraxia – peace and freedom from fear, and aponia – the absence of pain. He developed a school in the garden of his home, appropriately called “The Garden,” where the following was inscribed on the gate:

Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.

Epicurus was fundamentally, a hedonist, someone who believes pleasure is the highest good.

I think hedonists get a bad rap. Though my experiments have been focused on cultivating decidedly non-hedonist virtues (compassion, humility, etc), I fully acknowledge that becoming a saint does not mean we should deny ourselves all joy in life!

Modern, Western culture places great emphasis on hedonism. However, the reason I want to explore an ancient hedonist philosophy, particularly Epicureanism, is because I believe we are bad at being hedonists.

For example, being an “Epicurean” in the modern context generally means that you are a believer in enjoying the “finer things in life.” These finer things in life typically include gourmet food, chic hotel rooms, and expensive vacations. Even if we can’t afford those things, we aspire to be able to afford them.

However, Epicurus was fundamentally a minimalist! In the Tetrapharmakos, Epicurus outlines a four-verse remedy to living a good and happy life:

Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure

The good things in life are easy to attain regardless of one’s wealth (basic shelter, friends, etc.) and so long as you minimize unnecessary desires (affluence, luxury, etc.), you can be happy.

In the spirit of Epicurus’ maxim, I’ve decided to make some lifestyle changes (or rather, enhancements) for the next 30 days.

Restricting my diet

Over the past several months, I’ve gained weight. Mostly from eating delicious, delicious carbs. Though satisfying for a short period of time, I usually feel sluggish and gross.

So, I’ve decided to limit my diet to the following:

  • Breakfast – Scrambled eggs
  • Lunch – Nothing, I generally skip lunch
  • Dinner – Rotisserie chicken, salad, and an apple

I was considering doing something like replacing all meals with some sort meal replacement shake, but I figured I could attain the same goal of reducing junk and variety in my diet while eating normal foods.

I’m going to try to adhere to this the best I can, however, I will make an exception to this rule if I am out at a social event.

My goal here is to show that we can be happy on a relatively minimalist diet, particularly, one that excludes carbohydrates.

Luxurious food and drinks, in no way protect you from harm. Wealth beyond what is natural, is no more use than an overflowing container. Real value is not generated by theaters, and baths, perfumes or ointments, but by philosophy.

– Epicurus

Spend more time with friends

I’m fairly introverted and generally prefer to stay in and read or watch TV then going out somewhere with other people.

However, I usually have a much better time being with friends than staying home alone, most of the time anyway.

So, for my Epicurean month, I will make an attempt to be more social. I will actively attempt to set up drinks or dinner with people I would otherwise not see for extended periods of time..

To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.

Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship

– Epicurus

Reduce TV-watching

My typical evenings these days have consisted of watching TV, usually mindlessly. I almost always feel like crap afterwards.

So, I’ve decided to not watch any TV during the week, and limit all TV watching to Sunday evenings. Since I’m a little afraid to abandon Homeland and the Newsroom near the end of the season, I figured consolidating all my TV watching to a few hours one day per week would be a good compromise.

I’m also hoping that I will replace TV watching with a more beneficial activity, such as reading, socializing, or even sleeping.

Naturally, I did not find any good quotes from Epicurus about watching TV, but I feel that he would approve of reducing things that cause harm.

Exercise every day

I’ve been pretty inconsistent with my exercise over the last few months. Because it is generally uncomfortable in the short term, I don’t do it. However, part of adopting Epicureanism is that we must not give in to short-term gratifications at the expense of greater, long term satisfaction.

Of course, there is a wrong way to exercise as well. If exercise is pursued out of vanity (I’m guilty of this), then it will ultimately cause more unhappiness than happiness.

Thus, I’m setting a goal of exercising every day without detailing what type of exercise I should do or how much progress I should make. This way, I won’t feel guilty if I don’t increase my weight in deadlifts every week or get faster in my runs. It will simply be binary: I either exercise or I don’t.

Again, no Epicurus quote on exercise specifically but I’m sure he would approve.

What I expect from this experiment

I believe that I will come away from this experiment happier than when I started. In contrast to my previous experiments, I’m not making any dramatic changes to my routine, but that’s the point. The good things in life, according to Epicurus, are easy to attain. Thus, anyone could do what I propose to do and become happier. Anyone can simplify their diet, spend time with friends, not watch TV, and exercise.

Contrast this with the typical goals of an ambitious person: pursuing wealth and prestige, finding the “dream husband/wife,” taking fancy vacations and eating luxurious foods all the time. Those goals are difficult to achieve and are unlikely to make you happy in any sort of sustainable way.

Of course, if it turns out I am wrong and I not watching TV every day causes unending suffering, I make sure to tell you.

Note: I’m happy to report that there are some great modern blogs and resources that are in line with Epicurean minimalism.

  • Mr. Money Mustache – This is an early retirement blog focused on living the good life without acting like a typical American consumer.
  • The Minimalists – A blog written by two friends who realized that they weren’t happy pursuing stuff or status or wealth. They sold most of their positions and moved to a cabin in Montana and have begun teaching the philosophy of minimalism.
  • Dan Gilbert’s the Happiness Hypothesis – Dan Gilbert is a Harvard professor researching the things that actually make people happy. Lots of his findings are congruent with Epicurean teachings.
  • Magicub

    Great, I was afraid that hinduism had something against blogging or something

    • I wonder where “blogger” would fall on the caste hierarchy…

  • Sweet Libertine

    Just caught up on your blog- this month looks like it’s going to be pretty fun compared to ice baths and praying five times a day! Although there’s nothing wrong with the virtues of becoming more humble or more tranquil, it’s easy to forget that self-improvement can mean becoming a more fun person and appreciating the pleasures of life instead of merely just wanting to be more organized/more confident/any other quality we fetishize in American culture, etc. etc.

    • what do you mean? ice baths are completely fun! 😉

      But yes, I think we’re particularly bad at having fun. We turn it into hard work which of course, is no fun.