by Awais Leghari

There is nothing more profound, yet misunderstood as much as “happiness”. I would not go on and claim that “over the centuries people have wondered about the secret formula to achieve happiness”, but there are in-fact, a few interesting anecdotes that I have managed to come across by going back in history – very recently – that speak volumes about what happiness really means. The reason why I elected to go back into the times, perhaps the times of the Greeks as you would later discover, is because they had not the means of wealth, technology, education, opportunities and accessibility that a layman today would be exposed to. Their analogies are ‘sweet’ and apt to their times, and even if there are no complications of the present world to influence their understandings about the important aspects in life, the explanations afforded are equally applicable to those times, as well as times that we live in. To find what “happiness” meant then, would truly be of moment.

I do have a subjective understanding of what happiness is about, but to claim it to be the absolute meaning of happiness, or claim anything with certainty, would be foolish. Perhaps it is true that I do not consider myself seasoned enough to ponder over this murky topic, simply because I am devoid of the meaningful experiences in life, given that I am still very young. So here is a disclaimer: I have avoided religious explanations or doctrines simply because religions are too many, and so are their followers, and to reject a certain thought on happiness on grounds of religious associations would not be conducive to the point I wish to make. Therefore, I have wandered across times to look for philosophical explanations about what happiness is, and there are quite a few philosophers who have dealt with it adequately. However, the philosopher that drew most of my interest is Epicurus. This also confirms that I have not explored other philosophers and their works entirely such as that of Antisthenes (who is regarded as the founder of “Cynic Philosophy”, and was also a disciple of Socrates) and of Aristotle, to name a few, so that I could focus down on just one: Epicurus. I have mostly read primary text, and therefore, what I will posit here in this post will solely be my interpretation of that text.

Epicurus was a Greek Philosopher, born on the Greek Island of Samos in 341BC. Most of his works have not survived, and those that have are more or less a mixture of primary and secondary sources. One of the major resources about Epicurus’ philosophy is the biography written by Diogenes Laertis, called “Lives of Eminent Philosophers”, as it features original dialogues and letters from Epicurus. Epicurus believed that there was a way for everyone to be happy, but the pursuit of happiness most often and always started off awry.

Epicurus’ ideas about happiness are hedonistic. He believed that pleasures were the end of life, and that one should not feel guilty about pursuing pleasures. This seems rather striking to say the least, but most of us today, are engaged in exactly pursuing pleasures.

Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and every aversion, and to it we come back, in as much as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.

However, our understanding of pleasures are varying, but also very common in a way. It may be true that we all have desires for things that are odd and different, but they find common ground with luxury and plentiful resources. Money becomes the key to everything, and in abundance, we find ourselves socially exalted, exposed to greater opportunities to succeed and of course, to indulge in a variety of pleasures as the mind pleases. At one time, due to Epicurus’ extensive perpetuation of the pursuit of pleasures as a good thing, eating out at expensive fine diners became associated with Epicurus’ ideas, and those people were becoming to be known as Epicureans. However, nothing could be more opposite as this to what Epicurus actually proposed.

For Epicurus, life was simple. Here is a man who tells us to indulge deeply in pleasures, yet he is the one who lives off staple food like bread and olives, wears ordinary clothes and drinks water instead of wine. He very famously remarked to his friend once:

Send me a pot of cheese so that I could have a feast whenever I like.

This makes it very clear that what Epicurus perceived as pleasures, aren’t in-fact the sort of pleasures that come to our minds immediately when we think of a happy life. We often associate what we want with what we need, strictly when it comes to pleasures. Shopping, as a consequence of being affluent, may be something that may give us pleasure, but is it the sort of pleasure that will lead to a happy life? I want you to respect this particular distinction within pleasures. That is how we have corrupted ourselves into associating pleasures that give us momentary joy, to the sort of pleasures that are necessary to lead a happy life. That, for Epicurus, is the real problem.

While therefore all pleasure is naturally akin to good, not all pleasure is worthy of choice, just as all pain is an evil yet not all pain is to be shunned.

But why do we see pleasures such as shopping or going out and eating luxurious food as the sort of pleasures that will help us fulfil our lives? To answer this question, we need to ask ourselves another question, which is, that do we really know what we need to be truly happy? Often times more or less, we fall prey to our pursuits of a goal, and while the chase is thrilling, the catch isn’t, and the charm evaporates as soon as it captivates. So what if these desires are actually distractions, or substitutes, to the actual needs for a happy life? Epicurus certainly believed so. So if we do not really know about what we truly need to be happy, then are we forever lost in the chase of finding the right kind of pursuit? For Epicurus, not all hope is lost, because he believed to have unlocked the holy grail, the right way for anyone to lead a happy, fulfilling life, and it will be a good news to many, for “these ingredients to happiness come pretty cheap.”

It may surprise you, but the first thing that we need to be truly happy, is a collection of really good friends. Epicurus analysed the way people lived over time, and what was it that made them happy. It is not a doubt that in the company of our friends, are we truly allowed to explore ourselves. Here, we find the most idiotic, and most profound of our musings to be catered seriously, or rather trivially, all in such a way that creates an abundance of joy, or paves the way for self-discovery. But there is a catch to this idea of friendship. Epicurus was in-fact so serious about the idea of friendship, that he proposed that in order for us to live a happy life, we must choose to live with our friends. This is something that he actually pursued as well, and he purchased a house in Athens, around 306BC, and moved in there with all of his close companions. He rejected strongly the simple idea of having to eat alone, and advocated that one should always eat and drink in the company of his or her friends. Therefore, all meals served in the house were to be consumed in the company of people. This house later also became the school of thought for Epicurean philosophy, and was known to be called “The Garden”.

Before you consider to drink or eat anything, consider carefully who you drink or eat with, rather than what you eat or drink. For eating without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf.

College students will positively testify that a large, and perhaps the most significant part of their college experience is living in the hostels, with friends. It makes for memories that bear the tests of time and stay afresh. However, after college, in the world of today, this is indeed a hard task to replicate. We all have our families, and most importantly, we engage in establishing ourselves economically. This, nevertheless, should not be a reason enough to seclude one self, or as the professionals say, “focus” one self towards only a career. The frequency with which we meet our closest friends should be high on the scale. There is no need to prove that you will not have a bad experience out of this exercise, because you won’t.

There is another aspect that I would like to explore. Just like shopping, an activity which we wrongfully perceive as a pleasure associated with a happy life, online social networks have attracted a similar sort of attention. Now, I do not mean to undermine the utilitarian aspects of a social networks, which includes connecting people to new stories, but I mean the obsession with it, and how we are unable to imagine a life without a social platform. If we ask ourselves the question, “does going on Facebook every hour makes me happier?”, then we are at a loss for words, because we are never sure. Social networks are but a delusion of a real social life, and we are tricked into believing that it is what really connects us to people, when in reality, it only substitutes ineffectively for a need that makes us happy.

The second pre-requisite for happiness, as Epicurus points out, is freedom. Epicurus’ dedication to freedom persevered to the extent that he and his friends decided to leave Athens, and go somewhere far to start there own commune. Their idea of freedom was to be self-sufficient as to feed themselves, and not be slaves to anyone’s opinions or whoever had more financial strength than theirs.

We must free ourselves from the prison of everyday life and politics.

Moreover, they gained independence from what other people thought about them, and to be mentally free in the world of today, would literally translate to being free from the influence of those people that shackles our free thought, and potentially makes us feel sad, or induce complexes about our finances, strength, intellect or image.

The final ingredient to Epicurus’ philosophy of happiness is “living an analysed life”, where we implore on our troubles, in a place free from distractions and opinions of others, more or less in effect a meditation. Thinking about what troubles us helps us get to the root of our worries and anxieties, and that is the first step in overcoming them. Epicurus provokes us into understanding that the commercial world slyly associates with what they want to sell us, with we actually need for a happy life. Since this is the month of Ramadan, there is a festive nature to it, and the world outside tries to capitalise on it. For instance, Coke advertisements on the television will often visualise setting of a family, perfectly happy, sitting together while eating and drinking, and it slyly associates a greater part of that happiness to the sharing of the Coca Cola drink, while true happiness does not preside in sharing of a fizzy drink, but enjoying the company of those around us, instead. Therefore, in order to be truly happy, we must reject such advertisements as an aberration to our pursuit of happiness, because it will change the definition of “pleasure” a great deal.

There is also something very interesting a citizen of Oinoanda, now in modern day Turkey, did to counter the negative influences of the marketplace. Diogenes of Oinoanda, who was one of the wealthiest citizens and a dedicated follower of Epicurus, built a giant wall near the marketplace, where a large part of Epicurus’ philosophical writings were inscribed as a way to advertise them. It did work wonders and led to many communities being founded that only practiced Epicurean beliefs. So may be today, we need to advertise products, and not associate them with a happy life, so that we may realise that happiness is not in our pockets, and readily at our disposal.

There may be similarities to what we mean by “contentment” to Epicurus’ philosophy, but this is hardly true, because contentment allows us to sit down and accept that we are entitled to only a limited amount of money, or happiness, or anything else. This is more or less, a defeatist point of view, because the pursuit of happiness is not as stagnant as the belief in contentment. For Epicurus, happiness would be dissociating simply the pleasures that we don’t need, with the pleasures that we do, and for him, life is all about pursuing pleasures and that is hardly achieved by staying content with the condition of our lives.

At the conclusion of this post, I would recommend you all to search for answers in philosophy more often as well, because there are some very potent insights to our day-to-day problems that we quite often misunderstand. As Epicurus aptly commands:

Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past or gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that is now no more.