Become happier through subtraction


For my first week of my Epicurean month, I successfully avoided watching TV (with the exception of Sunday, where I caught up on Homeland and Newsroom).

Instead of watching hours of whatever is on, I’ve done the following:

  • Read books, drank mint tea, and listened to Christmas music
  • Caught up on a few work/project related items
  • Went on a nice date with the girlfriend
  • Went to a friend’s party
  • Went to trivia night with another group of friends

Best of all, I haven’t gotten a single TV headache, the headaches you get after watching several hours of delightful but forgettable episodes of Top Chef and Seinfeld.

My evenings have become much more pleasant as a result of doing one thing: subtracting TV.

Though other activities have naturally replaced my TV watching time, the most important step was to remove a source of displeasure.

The trick thing is that watching TV seems pleasurable. And it is…for the first 30 minutes. That moment when you can just plop down on the couch and forget about your day and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine feels wonderful. But then thirty minutes becomes 3 hours and you feel gross.

The Epicureans were well aware that much joy and pleasure could be attained not by acquiring things or experiences or status, but by subtracting things that cause misery.

For example, the purpose of knowledge, according to Epicureans, is to achieve ataraxiafreedom from irrational fears and anxieties of all sorts— in brief, peace of mind.

This was a big deal in Epicurus’ day as the political and social environment in Greece was tumultuous. In addition, people had a real fear of the gods, believing them to be actively involved in their fates.

Epicurus wanted to use the acquisition of knowledge as a way to free people from these harmful and irrational thoughts. In this way, performing a positive action (acquiring knowledge) is a way to remove, or subtract, painful beliefs.

More fundamentally, however, Epicurus believed that true pleasure is really the elimination of pain.

The quantitative limit of pleasure is the elimination of all feelings of pain. Wherever the pleasurable state exists, there is neither bodily pain nor mental pain nor both together, so long as the state continues. – Epicurus (Vatican Sayings)

Though it seems obvious, modernity seems to emphasize not elimination of pain, but the positive pursuit of pleasure. We think nice restaurants, luxury vacations, new iPads, and more prestigious jobs will make us happier; TV commercials and advertisements are more than willing to encourage this delusion.

Those things can be fun, but they are often difficult to attain, and the joy ultimately fades.

But if we take a moment to think about what things we should stop doing, which is much easier to do, we can identify many harmful activities and habits that cause pain and if stopped, would improve our quality of life.

An acquaintance of mine quit his job earlier this year. The job was the source of much his misery. Simply by not working there, he became significantly happier.

Though I’m not an advocate of quitting your job as the first option to explore when you’re experiencing job-related suffering, the point is that it was the subtractive element of quitting that improved his life, not the addition of a new and better job or more stuff.

To be Epicurean in the truest sense, we should try to remove our own sources of suffering before we try to add sources of joy.