What can Greek philosophy teach us about the art of happiness?
How the ideas of an ancient Greek philosopher could help you find true inner joy today
For the vast majority of people, the desire to be happy is one of the core motivators in this life.
Whether we consciously realise it or not, the reason why we work towards certain financial, career, or personal goals, is generally because we believe that achieving these things will help us to become happier than we are now.
And it is the same story with our relationships, social activities, hobbies, interests – and even for when we might decide to just sit around the house all day long, doing nothing.
Yes, we may sometimes seem to make decisions that are not necessarily good for us at all in the long-term. But, even here, the core reason is often because we are simply pining for an as yet unrealised form of happiness.
But this is the problem: the more we pursue happiness in any of its forms, the more we realise just how difficult it is to really hold on to.
I’m sure we have all experienced times when that success we worked so hard for turns out to be, somehow, not as good as we always imagined it to be. Or when a short-term pleasure never quite gives us that lasting happiness that we really need.
So, with that being the case, it is really no surprise that many of us may feel completely lost when faced with the question: “How can I be happy?”
The truth is, happiness means different things to different people – and (sadly) there is no universal key to finding it.
However, we can still give ourselves the best possible chance of finding real happiness by approaching our life in a more philosophical way. And, this is the main purpose of this article. To dive a little deeper into the real ‘art of happiness’ via the insights of an ancient Greek philosopher known as Epicurus.
Now, just as a quick side note, if you have heard the name “Epicurus” or “Epicurean” before, then it may well have been in the context of describing someone who is hedonistic, or living a life of excess.
And, in fact, even since the very earliest days of Epicurean philosophy – which started in a modest garden academy around 300 BC – this has been one of its most common misrepresentations. Because, of course, if we live our life only with the goal of being as happy as we possibly can, then there is a good chance we might stray increasingly towards a life of endless partying, overindulgence, and pleasure-seeking, forgoing all other personal responsibilities.
However, when it comes to Epicurus’ real thoughts on living a happy life, the message could not be more different. Yes, he advocated for happiness being our ultimate goal in life. But he also insisted that the best way to actually approach this “pursuit of happiness” is always with a philosopher’s mindset.
In other words, this is not about living with total abandonment. Rather, it is encouraging us to approach every situation – and every temptation – with a discerning mind. Asking: “Will this particular pleasure really bring me lasting happiness? Or will it only bring temporary pleasure, which might lead to negative outcomes in the long run?”
As an example, let’s consider someone who enjoys playing video games in their spare time. If they use this hobby as a way to connect with friends, or to switch off from the pressures of work, then, clearly, it is something that brings lasting happiness in their life. And, as such, can by all means be enjoyed without guilt.
However, if the same person starts becoming so consumed by their ‘enjoyment’ of the video game that they begin playing obsessively, or staying up all hours of the day and night, to the point that it negatively impacts their physical or mental wellbeing, and ruins their ability to function at work or school then, clearly, the hobby has become more detrimental to their overall quality of life. And, therefore, should be stopped, because it is no longer beneficial to their long-term happiness.
So you see, the issue is not with the video gaming itself, rather it is the manner in which such an activity is enjoyed. Much like how our favourite food can be extremely enjoyable in moderation, but makes us feel quite unwell if eaten to excess. Or how a shopping trip is good for some modest retail therapy, but bad if we end up spending every penny we have as a result.
Essentially, all things are about finding balance. And, in that sense, the philosophy of Epicurus can almost be pictured like one of those old-fashioned weighing scales – where we are trying to weigh what we do now, alongside whether it will actually make our life happier in the long-term.
And remember, there are many occasions in this life where our long-term happiness is actually only achieved after a period of short-term discomfort. For example, when the struggle of exercise can lead us to achieving a healthier body. Or, when a period of intense anxiety and nervousness comes in conjunction with our pursuit of that dream job, or new relationships.
If we were living for short-term pleasure alone, we would probably avoid all of these things from the outset! But, if we keep in mind Epicurus’ mindset of: “Is this going to be good for my overall happiness in the long-term?” then, we can actually start to find joy in discomfort, too. Because we know that it is all part of a process – leading us to something better.
So, once again, having happiness as our fundamental goal in life is not something to feel guilty about. In fact, it is essential to our very nature.
But, for that very reason, it is even more important to pursue it more mindfully.
And to remember that real, lasting happiness is not just about short-term material pleasures. Rather, it is something much broader. It is found in things like positive relationships, pursuing a vocation, contributing something meaningful to the world, or, most importantly, finding a sense of contentment within ourselves.
Because, after all, if happiness is our fundamental goal – then it must also be our inner reality, too.