Author Oliver Burkeman wrote: “Few things feel more basic to my experience of adulthood than this vague sense that I’m falling behind.”
It takes a lot to sustain this Rube Goldberg machine you call a life. All the errands and duties can feel like a case study in entropy prevention. And they never seem to end. The clowns keep coming out of the clown car and you’re like Beaker from the Muppets putting out fires in the lab.
You can get to the point where you’re setting a bold new standard for joylessness. You haven’t had fun since VHS was a thing. But you still feel if you just work a little harder you can stave off the chaos…
Time to stage an epiphany: Do something that brings you pure unadulterated pleasure. All you have to do is enjoy it and feel good. You have my permission.
Yes, you could call it “self-care”. Ugh. That word. The fact that we had to come up with a fancy new word just to describe the simple act of enjoying yourself is very telling.
Take a second and say to yourself, “I do not need to accomplish everything or improve everything. Life is about pleasure and good god I am just going to relax and enjoy myself.”
And if you say that you’re actually being a good student of ancient Greek philosophy. (I’m just as stunned as you are.)
Epicurus felt life was about pleasure. It should be our North Star. He felt life should not be drudgery and boredom. (If a Greek philosopher did support drudgery and boredom, his name would probably be Mediocrates.) What’s the endgame to all the nonsense in life if we’re not enjoying ourselves? Epicurus would be very disappointed to hear that the question “Having fun yet?” is only said ironically.
You may be raising an eyebrow at me right now: I tried living for pleasure in my teens and 20’s and that didn’t work out very well, Eric. Also, his theory doesn’t sound very ethical.
Epicurus got this a lot – mostly from people who really didn’t understand his philosophy. Truth is, he did not recommend trying to reenact a rock star autobiography. He felt all pleasures were good – but some were best avoided. He wasn’t overly indulgent (some even accused him of being an ascetic). But one thing is certain: he felt we do pleasure all wrong. So let’s learn a bit from the master about how to get it right…
The book we’ll be looking at this week is “50 Shades of Grey” — whoops, sorry. Wrong text… Emily A. Austin is Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and her book is “Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life.”
Let’s get to it…
Epicurus did not recommend turning your life into an endless, crazed rumspringa. His goal was “ataraxia”, which best translates as “tranquility.” A state of pleasure with zero pain or anxiety. He was less about wild parties and more about feeling, well, “comfy.”
That still might sound irresponsible and unethical. But think about what you wish for your kids. You want them to feel pleasure but within reasonable bounds. You wouldn’t want them to be a jerk or an addict.
Epicurus felt people acted unethically because of anxieties lurking beneath the surface. They did bad things to quell those anxieties much like an alcoholic does. He agreed that pleasure competes with duty, but he felt we often overlook the pleasure in duty. We get warm fuzzies from helping others, accomplishing goals and from a job well done.
He didn’t take the Buddhist route of trying to reduce desire – what’s the fun in that? Epicurus felt we just needed to be smarter about achieving pleasure. The key to tranquility is choosing pleasure wisely. We need a firewall of common sense between total responsibility and total hedonism.
Often we opt for disastrous “direct” hedonism (fun now, work later) when “indirect” hedonism would be the net positive choice (work now, fun after). And he said we were too lazy about pleasure — choosing subpar, easy pleasures now when we could be smarter and get a bigger payoff with modest effort. We need to be “strategic hedonists.”
Now some people are just born magical sparkleponies of tranquility but most of us need some help. He felt that study was necessary. We need to understand psychology and the world in order to better choose pleasures and how to get them. (Yes, my blog is Epicurus-approved.)
Let’s break down how he saw pleasure so we can be smarter about it…
We’ll call them Necessary, Extravagant and Corrosive:
These are, in general, pretty easy to come by and don’t require intense effort. Food, free time, friendship, etc. He was all about “the simple things.”
These are often Necessary pleasures taken to the limit (fancy meals, expensive clothes, etc.). Think luxury. Epicurus was okay with Extravagant desires as long as: 1) they didn’t cause harm, 2) they didn’t become the goal of life, and 3) didn’t get in the way of Necessary pleasures.
But — all too often — they violate one or all three of those. If you’re working too hard chasing shiny things, you can sacrifice free time, friendship and even your health. No bueno. Extravagant desires are frequently not worth the hassle. We appreciate them more when they’re rare and if we indulge in them too often, they raise the hedonic bar and only fancier and fancier things will satisfy us.
Corrosive desires are things that have no limit: wealth, power, fame, beauty, etc. (Do I need to say these are bad? I mean, it’s got the word “corrosive” in the title. C’mon.)
They’re awful because you can never win. You’re forever on the treadmill. (Ever tried to be cool all the time? It’s exhausting.) Corrosive desires are often zero-sum, hard to get, hard to maintain, and cause anxiety at all stages because you can never get enough. The effort required tends to crowd out everything else – including Necessary pleasures. You can become like an alcoholic, destroying relationships, career and health in order to get more. Simply put: corrosive desires make you a slave.
Our problem is we often don’t have our priorities straight. We need to focus on Necessary pleasures. Extravagant pleasures are okay if they don’t become the focus of life, but often they aren’t worth the hassle. And we need to ditch Corrosive pleasures because they can consume your life entirely.
So do a “Pleasure Audit.” Decide what should really be in your personal Garden of Earthly Delights. Make a list. Yes, make a list. (You’ll make lists for work but not for enjoying life? Seriously?)
What are your Necessary pleasures? Friends? Free time? How many of those are easily available to you right now but you’re not engaging in them enough?
Next, what are your Extravagant desires? Which ones are okay and which ones are cannibalizing Necessary desires? Remember, Epicurus didn’t think Extravagants were intrinsically awful. He felt being abstemious was as bad as being too indulgent. Just make sure they’re not getting in the way or taking over your life.
Then think about your Corrosive desires — and ditch them. You will never win here. They make you a slave.
This can sound like a big shift. So what’s the big big payoff here that we’re lacking today? It comes down to one word…
The great thing about tranquility is that it’s an “enough” state. Imagine if you were playing with your baby. It’s pleasurable. But you wouldn’t think, “Hey, I’d be twice as happy if I had two babies! Triplets! I need triplets!” No, you’d just be happy. It would be “enough”. That’s the goal.
Some have criticized Epicurus for not prizing ambition, but he felt we had the idea of success all wrong. We want to be tranquil so we drive ourselves crazy chasing success to try and be tranquil but just end up more crazy. Stop being so Type A and be Type A-Minus.
Epicurus felt we should aim for satisfaction over success. Satisfaction can be reached; success is forever a moving target. Satisfaction is “enough”. You can get there after a good meal with friends or other Necessary pleasures. The people we call “successful” are often just those panting and straining on the Corrosive desire treadmill. We think they’re happier but that’s not necessarily the case.
We think success is rare but Epicurus thought satisfaction was even more rare. Reaching “enough” and being happy with it, that’s something few people do. And it’s probably more of an issue now than it was in his time.
But this “simple life” raises an issue: what the heck are you supposed to do with your time?
Epicurus felt friends were the single biggest contributor to happiness, bar none. And modern research backs him up.
It’s pretty sad that intense friendships are something we’re usually expected to grow out of. Young people are smart about prioritizing friends but their relationships are unstable because they’re shot through with Corrosive desires — being cool, popular, beautiful, etc.
What we should look for in friends is trust and a shared idea of what matters in life. It’s not about what they can do for us; it’s about reliability. Friends need to be there for you.
In the friendship section of my latest book, I talked a lot about the importance of vulnerability. Epicurus is on board with that. We need to be open and honest with friends. We need to express our weaknesses and fears. Normally we cordon this stuff off like a crime scene but getting sympathy and support from friends is as important as offering it.
Eat with friends as much as possible. Turn off the tv, throw your phones in the nearest river and have fun. This was a regular ritual for Epicureans. Yes, Epicurus was a foodie — how many other philosophers wrote about loving cheese? — but he was not a snob. Merely sharing dinner with friends counts as a true Epicurean meal.
And you have to laugh together. Ever laugh so hard and think, “Wow, I haven’t done that in a long time…” BAD SIGN. Ancient philosophy insists on laughter with friends. Test positive for seriousness and I’ll revoke your membership in the Epicurean club.
Oh, and Epicurus would not approve of social media. Most of our time on Instagram isn’t good. It’s often about pride and status seeking. Corrosive desires for more followers, more clicks, more likes, all crushingly quantified… Again, it makes you a slave. You’re not the influencer, you’re the greatly influenced. And it steals time that could be spent face-to-face with friends.
This is all great but what did Epicurus say about when life gets hard…?
The Stoics and Epicureans had a Yankees-Red Sox relationship. The Stoics emphasized steeling ourselves against pain by imagining worst case scenarios. And undoubtedly there is tremendous value in what they recommended…
But Epicurus felt life is tough enough without imagining worst case scenarios that will likely never occur. The Stoics were defense; Epicurus was offense. He felt we were better off dealing with the negative by focusing on the positive. We should handle grief through supportive friends, good memories, and oodles of gratitude.
We secure ourselves against misfortune by surrounding ourselves with those who love us and will provide emotional and material support when life gets lousy. He felt memory and anticipation are great tools that can counteract pain, grief and boredom. We should reflect on past pleasures, savor current ones and anticipate future pleasure. And be grateful for everything you have.
Plenty of research supports what the Stoics recommended but Epicurus has science on his side as well. When we’re feeling down, positive distractions like laughing with friends can be a great antidote. Reflecting on past pleasures and being nostalgic is underrated. And anticipation turns out to be the most pleasurable part of wonderful things like vacations.
Feeling and expressing gratitude is one of life’s most powerful happiness boosters. Make it a priority to collect great memories and fun times with friends. This isn’t indulgence – it’s serious philosophical practice. And it leads to a good life.
Okay, time to round it all up. And we’ll also learn how Epicurus handled that thing that scares us all — the end of life…
This is how to be happier:
Epicurus didn’t write about metaphysics. He felt philosophy was of no use if it didn’t directly improve our lives. We should seek tranquility. Prioritize Necessary pleasures. Eliminate Corrosive ones. Appreciate but be judicious about the Extravagant. Give as much time to making memories with friends as possible. And use those memories, along with anticipation and gratitude, to get through the tough times.
At some point, our lives will come to an end. (I hope that didn’t need a spoiler alert.) Nobody wants regrets. Nobody wants to look back with sadness or anger. The idea is terrifying. (I don’t even have a joke for that.)
But if we judiciously choose our pleasures, we can avoid that fate. How did Epicurus handle the end of his life?
He died happy. We know because he sent a letter to his friend Idomeneus:
On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you. My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are so great that nothing could augment them; but over against them all I set gladness of mind at the remembrance of our past conversations.
He had so many lovely memories of time with his friends. What more can we hope for?
I hope this post brought you pleasure. I hope it made you laugh.
I have to go now – I need to make my friends laugh in person.