Now before you get carried away picturing hedonistic orgies, I should clarify what he meant by pleasure. Although Epicurus and his followers were rumored to live a profligate lifestyle, and still today the word epicure suggests indulgent eating, drinking and merriment, in fact Epicurus advised the opposite of abandoning yourself to pleasures of the flesh.
Instead, like Socrates, he believed that rationally analyzing our initial pleasure-seeking impulses would reveal them to be false paths to happiness.
His own analysis of a pleasurable life yielded three essentials:
- Friendship – who you eat with, matters more than what’s on your plate
- Freedom – ‘from the prison of everyday affairs and politics’
- Thought – because rational thinking keeps pointless anxiety at bay.
His lifestyle expressed his philosophy, with a simple commune-like home and meals of water and vegetables and, for a treat, a ‘pot of cheese’.
Epicurus believed you could be happy with friends, freedom and thought, even without wealth; but wealth without the big three couldn’t make you happy.
Happiness strategies inspired by Epicurus
Friendship: Friends contribute to our sense of identity, support us in trouble and help celebrate good times. Many people think success without love would be empty, yet neglect to nurture their friendships or think proactively about who they value as friends. Making friendship a life priority can help protect the precious attachments that contribute so much to our happiness.
Freedom: It’s hard to avoid pressure and expectations when running the rate race. But we can choose to sacrifice some modern conveniences for greater freedom. We can work shorter hours, live somewhere less salubrious, forego the latest gadgets, make a simpler life for ourselves. We may give up status or money but gain a freer, more independent, happier life.
Thought: It takes effort and courage to question conventional wisdom and cultural expectations. But doing the hard thinking about what brings us happiness can finally put us in touch with genuine sources of joy, rather than the things we think should bring us joy. The obvious pleasures are rarely the heartfelt, lasting ones.
Wealth: Having money can bring many wonderful things and can certainly contribute to happiness. It’s what else we have – or don’t have – in our lives that can make all the difference to how happy our money makes us.
Epicurus’s ideas about happiness are surprising – both encouraging us to pursue pleasure but also warning us to think long and hard about what that pleasure means. Nurturing friendship, freeing ourselves from some of the shackles of life and thinking critically about life and happiness can help us find a happier way to live.
*To learn more about Epicurus you might like to read The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton.