Who doesn’t want to be happy? Everybody wants to be happy. The trouble starts when we begin the search for happiness.
Will that big slice of cheese cake make me happy? How about a new car? A new partner? How about a big move to somewhere else, anywhere but here?
Nope. Those don’t do much for happiness, not in the long run, anyway. You’ve probably read about the study that compared lottery winners and paralyzed accident victims a year after the event. Winning the lottery doesn’t make people appreciably happier after the initial high, nor does paralyzation make people appreciably sadder after the initial shock. Habit and habituation make all the world one, it appears, and external events don’t change our level of happiness, which appears to have a default setting for each of us, up there in our noggins.
Yes, happiness rather than sadness is a goal, but is there such a thing as habitual or sustainable happiness?
The Greek philosopher Epicurus (342-270 BCE) thought so. He said this,
We must practice what produces happiness because when we have it, we have everything, and when we don’t have it, we will do anything necessary to get it again.
Epicurus taught that happiness consists of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Epicurus gets accused of hedonism, but he had another kind of happiness in mind rather than the usual hedonism of egotism and selfishness run amok.
Epicurus taught that the way to a happy life is bodily comfort and peace of mind—all the time. Herein lies the first lesson Epicurus can teach us: peace of mind and indulgence don’t mix. Happiness is a habit, not a one-off good time. He said,
A clear understanding of desires enables us to base every choice and avoidance upon whether it secures or upsets bodily comfort and peace of mind, which is the goal of a happy life.
Every choice? That requires a lot of thought. Epicurus wrote, “wisdom is the beginning and end of a happy life.”
Wisdom? Ick. What’s hedonistic about that? Yes, exactly . . .
Happiness is not something for sale on eBay. Or at the Galleria. Not something to be had through sex, money, power, a good address, or cheesecake.
The Greek playwright Sophocles agreed, writing, “Happiness depends upon wisdom.”
These Greeks are not the sort of people who sound like their progeny will end up in a debt crisis, are they?
Be that as it may, “happiness” is not a Greek word.
The ancient Greeks used the word “ataraxia” for what is called in English “tranquility.” Ataraxia begins with the prefix “a,” meaning “not.” The root is tarasso, to trouble or disturb. They were looking for a condition of not being troubled or disturbed.
That’s happiness? Well, wait . . .
According to Epicurus, that untroubled condition led to eudaimonia, a combination of two words, “eu,” meaning “good,” and “daimon,” meaning “spirit.” A good spirit. This is the word that gets translated into English as “happiness,” though a better translation is probably “human flourishing.”
Happiness also requires the wisdom of thinking about what happiness is.
This is why Epicurus sounds at first like a hedonist—he starts at the most basic idea he can find that will lead to human flourishing, then builds upon it until he has discovered an entire life stance. Epicurus is using philosophy to find the right way to live, and he suggests that we should too. So, he begins at the beginning: we wish to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Well—that’s true, isn’t it?
So, how do we do that? We look at how we habitually go about maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. And as we look at those actions, we ask of each one, “Does fulfilling this desire bring me comfort and peace of mind,” which is actually what maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain means.
Does eating this piece of cheesecake bring me comfort and peace of mind? Well, as a matter of fact it does! In addition, my having this piece of cheesecake doesn’t hurt anyone else. Well, then, do it.
However, we also know that eating too much cheesecake; or drinking too much, et cetera, et cetera, also brings pain—pains such as Type II Diabetes, which is a pain, not a pleasure and, in addition, Type II Diabetes is not a comfort and does not contribute to peace of mind.
So, don’t do that.
Sounds like I need to moderate my intake of cheesecake.
This chain of thinking leads to arete, a word translated into English as “virtue,” but that term has lots of baggage from its use in Christianity. It’s probably best translated into English as “excellence.” Or perhaps“fulfillment,” which, by golly, brings us happiness, doesn’t it?
Practical philosophy works like that. It encourages us to think through the little things in order to see how they become the big things. Practical philosophy, like theology in religions, pushes us toward looking at the small questions as connected to the biggest question, the question of what gives meaning and purpose to life.
Yes, where we stand on eating cheesecake is ultimately how we live our lives. Momentary happiness is not ultimate happiness. And individual—me, me, mine— happiness is not human flourishing.
As a matter of fact, it is a cause of human suffering rather than an remedy.
Epicurus put it this way:
Just as the wise do not choose the greatest amount of food over what is most delicious, so too the wise do not seek the longest possible life, but rather the happiest.