I’m currently back in my hometown for the holidays (this was written over the Christmas break period) and I admit I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit in terms of my Epicurean goals. I’ve cheated a little bit on my diet, I haven’t exercised for 3 or 4 days, and I watched TV with my family. Since I’m spending a few weeks here, I’ll get back into the routine but the first few days have not been good to my new regime.
Saturday night, I drank. Too much in fact, I was shit-faced. Awkwardly, it was at my parents’ home and I was pretty much the only one who was drinking.
I woke up in the middle of the night, vomited, and spend all day Sunday in a very uncomfortable hangover.
Per usual, in the midst of my hangover, I vowed to give up drinking forever (this vow, of course, is always short-lived).
Would Epicurus have approved of my behavior?
In weighing the short term benefits of drinking, the pleasant feeling of drunkenness, and the later consequences (the hangover), the downsides far surpass the upside.
It’s interesting to note that Epicurus himself did not drink. Even though “Epicures” are today, synonymous with food and wine connoisseurs, Epicurus advocated a simple life that sought mainly to avoid displeasure rather than seeking positive pleasures.
The book The Art of Happiness lays out the scenario that I just had the misfortune of experiencing first hand:
A convivial drinker who loves martinis may consume ten or more at a party and stay on his feet. Is this act moral by Epicurus’ standards? We have to take into account not only the short-term effects (our friend enjoys himself hugely for two hours) but all the consequences. If he suffers no ill effects during the night or the next morning, the act is wholly pleasurable and therefore wholly moral; otherwise it is probably immoral, depending on the intensity of his hangover. (It was this sort of example that gave Epicureanism a “black eye.” Epicurus himself would have frowned on it, since he disapproved, on principle, of sensuality, raw pleasure, and overindulgence. Nevertheless it is characteristic of “epicures” in every age and is certainly pertinent to modern living.)
This sort of pleasure calculus may seem obvious, but one of the major takeaways for my first few weeks of Epicurean living is that we don’t consciously perform this pleasure calculus on our day-to-day habits and routines.
For example, I enjoy watching TV in the evenings, at least during the time I am watching it. However, prior to starting my Epicurean month, I didn’t think about the habit. I just did it. Only occasionally would I think “hmm, maybe there are better uses for my time.”
Once I started thinking about whether or not watching TV was pleasurable overall, I realized that at the level I was consuming it, it was not.
Sitting there for hours and hours gives me headaches and I feel gross. More importantly, it deprives me of time I could spend doing other pleasurable activities, ones that have very few consequences.
Or let’s take diet for example. Unlike with my TV watching, I think about my diet quite a bit, usually in a guilty sense. I would think “Ugh, I shouldn’t eat this delicious bowl of pasta or pizza or cookies” and then eat it anyway and feel gross and then think about starting my diet (my diet always starts next Monday by the way).
So I am conscious to some level about the suffering my poor diet brings me, but I am not conducting the Epicurean pleasure calculus to the detail required.
Since I started limiting my diet to eggs, rotisserie chicken, and salad, I noticed that most of my cravings for junk are not cravings for junk at all, rather, it is just general hunger. Once I am filled on chicken and salad, I don’t crave junk food.
I would venture to say that most of us go about making our pleasure and pain calculations in a “drunken” way. Our analysis is unsophisticated and heavily weighted in favor of immediate gratification. When I drank, my mind could only think of the immediate pleasure I would gain from continuing to drink, and not of the consequences.
A true Epicurean however, would ask the following:
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 is essentially telling us we should be mindful hedonists. We should increase our awareness of what brings us pleasure and what brings us pain. As we gain knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work in terms of pleasure, we can change our behavior accordingly.
Over these past few weeks by embracing Epicurean analysis and experimenting with a few different lifestyle changes, I’ve been able to observe what I truly enjoy doing, and what causes displeasure.
So the takeaway for these first few weeks are: be a mindful hedonist, not a drunk one.