What I learned about pleasure and happiness from Epicurean philosophy

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I consider modern American culture to be fairly hedonist. Our measures for success are largely material. If you are able to live in a fancy house or apartment, take luxury vacations, and eat gourmet food, you are successful. The more pleasures you are able to attain, the more successful you are.

Though I am against hedonism as a primary philosophy, I don’t see anything wrong with injecting pleasure into your life. However, what I discovered is that modernity has made us ineffective hedonists. We need to do better.

Here’s what I learned from my Epicurean month:

Attaining pleasure is largely a matter of subtraction

Poverty, when measured by the goals that nature has set, is great wealth, whereas unlimited wealth is great poverty. – Epicurus

Two of the key practices of my Epicurean month were a) not watching TV 6 days out of the week and b) minimizing variety in my diet.

Though I was only successful in implementing these two practices for about half the month, during those two weeks, I enjoyed life significantly more.

Most of my evenings are spent watching TV, or at least, having the TV on while I browse the internet. During the weeks I did not watch TV, I read books, went on dates with my girlfriend, or just listened to music and drank tea. Even the headaches I get from looking at a screen for too long went away. It was fantastic!

The diet thing was far less “pleasurable” in the sense that I did not replace eating with another activity. However, I did notice that much of joy of eating comes from getting rid of hunger, not the deliciousness of the meal.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy deviating from the rotisserie chicken and salad diet, but once you get rid of your hunger, junk food or other delicious things don’t seem nearly as appealing.

The other side effect of minimizing my diet to protein and vegetables was weight loss, and less digestive issues. Again, this pleasure is subtractive. It’s pleasurable to not feel your waist band digging into your gut, and not having terrible stomach pains in the morning.

The great thing about this subtractive approach to pleasure is that it’s accessible to everyone. Not everyone can add pleasures to their life (gourmet food, luxury vacation, etc.), but every can subtract things that cause pain in their life.

Reason is a path to pleasure

We must put the following question to each of our desires: What will happen to me if the object of my desire is achieved? What will happen if it is not? – Epicurus

Epicurus was a great, rational thinker. He believed in the power of reason to bring us pleasure.

It’s strange to think that reason and logic can bring us pleasure, but what Epicurus emphasized in his teachings it that if you really paid attention to the things you do for pleasure and weigh the pros and cons of pursuing or not pursuing a course of action, you’ll find that most of the things you do on average do not bring you a net gain in pleasure.

For example, I generally enjoy procrastinating. There is a great feeling of joy when you are faced with an unpleasant task and decide to do it tomorrow. All of a sudden, a great burden is lifted off your soldiers.

However, when you think about it, the long-term effects of procrastination are much more unpleasant. The burden only grows bigger and bigger until you are unable to enjoy the “free time” you get by procrastinating.

If you extend this thinking to many of the things we do or don’t do, you’ll find that we actually don’t think that much about what really brings us pleasure. Thus, we often do thinks that we think are pleasurable, but in reality, are not.

Let’s take an example from the world of work and careers. If you’re ambitious, you may think that receiving a promotion and making more money will be pleasurable. You work hard to get a promotion, you get the raise, and after a few weeks, you feel less than happy than you did before.

If you paid attention to your actions and your emotions, you would realize perhaps the thing that brought you pleasure was not the new title or the additional income, it was the act of getting better at your job and the act of making progress towards a goal.

I recently paid off all my debt and it was a bit anti-climactic. I had a lot of fun seeing my balance go down each month, but once it finally hit zero, it felt a bit….meh.

Now, I’m excited about building up my emergency fund/FU money fund. I know that it’ll be enjoyable to see my bank account balance grow, but once I hit the concrete target of 12 months of living expenses, I’ll feel a bit “meh” again. However, I won’t be disappointed because I know to manage my expectations.

The key takeaway is that we must go about rationally assessing what will truly bring us pleasure, and live accordingly.

However, it’s not that simple

Reason does not always translate to behavior change

Even though my level of happiness improved when I stopped watching TV and stopped trying to eat a variety of foods, I still maintain my cable subscription and I still order pizza more than I should.

I mentioned that I only followed my no-TV and diet rules for two weeks out of my Epicurean month. This was because I went home for vacation and my family and friends were certainly not on the no-TV and rotisserie chicken lifestyle. I gave in to the social pressure to eat junk food and watch TV, and I paid the price for doing so.

Though this is obvious to some, knowing what you should do and actually doing it are very different things.

This Onion piece sums up the dilemma perfectly:

“The American populace needs to figure out what it wants to do and then get out there and, you know, do it,” the report read in part, adding that, hey, look, the nation’s gotta start somewhere, right? “Nearly half the country is currently sitting on the couch wondering if it’s ever going to happen for them, and further data suggests that, to be perfectly honest, it’s only gonna happen if they make it happen. See what we’re saying?”

“So…” the report continued, “up to you.”

Identifying the things that bring you pleasure and displeasure is an important step, but implementation is much more tricky.

There is a role for positive pleasures

We must laugh and philosophize and manage our households and look after our other affairs all at the same time, and never stop proclaiming the words of the true philosophy. -Epicurus

Subtracting displeasures from your life is critical, but there is also a role for positive pleasures.

Once such true pleasure is spending time with loved ones. My good friend and former roommate stayed with me one weekend and I had a great time catching up and having philosophical conversations about our lives.

The combination of the subtractive and additive approach to pleasure is a powerful one. Subtracting displeasures often frees up time and energy for the important additive pleasure. Not watching TV or worrying about what you’re going to eat frees up time to spend time with friend and do other things like exercise.

By the way, true positive pleasures sometimes seem like displeasures. I made an effort to maintain an exercise routine over the month and while exercise is often painful while doing it, the immediate endorphin rush and long term benefits make it worth it. If I was in a particularly low mood, I would make myself go on a run and I would feel much better.

The converse is also true. Positive pleasures often turn out to be negative pleasures. Excessive drinking is one of them. Over my vacation I got shit-faced at home and paid the price of an all day hangover and embarrassment. Not worth it.

So, the moral is that you should definitely pursue positive pleasures, but only worthwhile ones.

Pleasure is a temporary antidote for cynicism

We must try to make the latter part of the journey better than the first, so long as we are en route; and when we reach the end, we must keep an even keel and remain cheerful. –   Epicurus

It’s hard to be cynical when you’re….well…happy! Cynicism and happiness are not opposites, but I believe cynicism correlates highly with depression. I found that during my happier moments during my Epicurean month, it was difficult to be depressed and difficult to be cynical. I felt optimistic about life and got that “everything is great” feeling.

This is important as I think it’s very easy to become cynical, jaded, and depressed living in a modern society. If you think your work is pointless, you have no major life goals you want to accomplish, and you feel other people are more like sheeple than thoughtful human beings, you’ll have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning.

My Epicurean month forced me to be deliberate about injecting pleasure (and eliminating displeasure) into routines. Spending time with friends, exercising, reading good books, and these things helped stop that incessant pessimism that is my constant companion.

Man can’t live by pleasure alone

Spiritual disorder cannot be resolved— or joy worthy of the name produced— by wealth however great, by popular acclaim and respect, or by anything that causes unrestrained desire. – Epicurus

Still, I think there’s a reason pleasure is only a temporary antidote for cynicism, and that is that living for pleasure alone is not particularly meaningful.

Yes, it’s good to read great books and hang out with friends and eat brunch and take long walks, but there doesn’t seem be a point to it.

I suppose that is the philosophical difference between say the Epicurean, hedonistic philosophy and an Abrahamic religion. Hedonism says pleasure is good for its own sake. Christianity says life and pleasure should be used as a means to become closer to God.

While I’m still not certain about the God thing, I find the goal of becoming close to God far more attractive than living simply for pleasure.

It’s true that Epicurus believed in gods, but he had a particular conception of the gods. The gods were detached from our world and disinterested in human affairs. The gods didn’t punish or reward, they simply existed, and they existed in a form that should be replicated by man. We shouldn’t live to please the gods, but we should live like the gods, in a state of ataraxia.

Of course, if you don’t believe in God, you could hardly be expected to believe in gods. And living for pleasure seems to be a poor substitute to living for gods or God.

Even if we could fill our days with pleasurable activities and remove unpleasurable activities, we would still have moments when we contemplate the nature of our existence and wonder if there is any point to it. Though an Epicurean lifestyle could help alleviate some of the anxiety of those questions, I don’t think it solves the problem.

Final Thoughts

My Epicurean experiment has shown me that we should be more deliberate about the way we pursue pleasure. Most people are bad at it. Our consumer culture doesn’t help and actively discourages us from doing the things that will truly bring joy to our lives.:

For most people leisure is stupor, and activity frenzy. – Epicurus

Instead of succumbing to the desire to go on shopping sprees and binge drink, we should rationally subtract the things that cause us displeasure (junk food, mindless TV watching, etc.), and add things that bring us pleasure (friendship, contemplation).

Though I’m skeptical a pleasure-centric life can sustain you spiritually, I do think it will give you enough breathing room to do some deeper thinking (and deeper living). Because pleasure can ward off cynicism, a truly Epicurean lifestyle can fend off the distraction of a self-destructive mindset and give you the mental energy to pursue a spiritually fulfilling life.

So learn to become an enlightened hedonist, a classical Epicurean, so that you can be merry and enjoy a life of virtue and contentment.

It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly , nobly , and justly, and conversely it is impossible to live sensibly, nobly, and justly without living pleasantly. A person who does not have a pleasant life is not living sensibly , nobly, and justly, and conversely the person who does not have these virtues cannot live pleasantly. – Epicurus

  • Kevin

    The idea that we are “bad at pleasure/leisure” is somewhat of a revelation. I can totally see it. Mr. Money Mustache is pretty outspoken on this as well but more toward material pleasures. I like the way you touched on that but also non-material stuff like watching TV and how we use vacation time (or perhaps don’t use in some cases). Kudos!

    • I think Mr. Money Mustaches overall leads a pretty excellent classical Epicurean lifestyle. It’s hard becoming good at spending time on things that are truly pleasurable. Mostly because they require some level of energy. Though I enjoy spending time with my friends, I do have to get more some inertia.