What is the greatest good in life? A school of thought called Epicureanism, founded by Epicurus of ancient Greece, believed that the greatest good is pleasure. Epicurus and his followers believed that life is about achieving the greatest amount of pleasure possible. However, this has been mistranslated throughout time and people misused its name to promote the seeking of physical pleasures such as sex, decadence and partying (which is essentially hedonism). What Epicurus meant by “pleasure” was the combination of two states: a state of tranquillity and a state of no fear or bodily pain. A combination of the two states (ataraxia and aponia) constitute happiness in its highest form. Contrary to what the layperson thinks of Epicureanism, he taught people to live modestly and moderately, avoiding the suffering caused by overindulging. Ergo, an Epicurean life is not that filled with pleasures of the body, but with pleasures of the mind. To quote Epicurus: “with whom a person eats is of greater importance than what is eaten”.
To attain this simple life, Epicurus came up with the tetrapharmakos, or “four-part cure” – a guide to how to live the happiest life possible. It states:
Don’t fear god,
Don’t worry about death;
What is good is easy to get, and
What is terrible is easy to endure.
Epicureanism also promotes gaining knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires. For example, knowing more about the world will reduce your fear of gods and your worries about dying. Perhaps the act of discovering new things and quenching your curiosity brings about simple pleasures of the mind for you. Essentially, every action and way of life in Epicureanism is driven by the principle of minimising pain and maximising happiness.
However, the flip side to this is that if something does not result in happiness, it is deemed counter-productive For example, it advises against culture and politics as it can potentially create pain and unhappiness (although it is more complicated than such a sweeping statement). Even the morality and ethics of the thought is questionable, as it says that altruism and good morality is essentially driven by how it can benefit you. Epicurus believed that people should abide by the law and act morally as it will lead to less guilt and shame, and being nice to another person will make them trust you more and minimise pain. Ultimately, it is based on a social contract driven by mutual agreement rather than trust and goodwill. Although this may be effective and results in a “model citizen”, the motives may be deemed impure.
Even though it is a rather extreme example of how to live life, the thought of living for the sake of happiness is a nice one to go by. If it does not harm you or others, then do whatever the hell makes you happy.
Consider this theory. People feel happy when they experience an upturn in life. A hungry person is happy when he receives food, a poor person is happy when she earns money, and a person seeking love is happy when they find love. But as people are highly adaptable creatures, they become used to such upturns very quickly. Even the happiness brought on by great food and luxurious lifestyles tend to fade over time, and the love between a couple who act like they cannot live without each other will eventually die away. To remedy this, people always seek excitement that will create an upturn in life, giving them happiness. This causes them to adventure, seek new experiences and sometimes make dangerous, risky decisions.
Everyone has a point in their lives that could be called the “peak”. But no matter how tall the peak is, as people will adapt to it soon, the height itself does not matter. What matters is the path to the peak. For example, if someone experiences their peak in life too early, every moment from then on will seem worse than the past. The person will continuously face disappointment and reminiscence the good times. The reason being, no upturn can beat the peak that they experienced, meaning they cannot feel the happiness of an upturn in life. According to this theory, the key to a happy life is delaying this peak as much as possible. When life is starting to get boring and dull, add just a little sprinkle of greatness in your life to continuously infuse it with happiness.
However, life is not as predictable and controllable as we want it to be, making this theory highly implausible. But the theory is not completely wrong. Although it is near impossible to artificially add little upturns throughout life, it is extremely easy to “feel” an upturn. All you need to do is change your perspective. The difference between a happy person and a miserable person is that the former finds joy in the smallest things. A miserable person will feel bored unless something exciting is happening, but a happy person leads what appears to be a boring life while enjoying every minute of it. Enjoying a warm cup of coffee on a rainy day, being astounded by the beautiful sky, smelling the roses on the path, singing and dancing when no one is looking… Finding and enjoying the simple pleasures of life is the most important skill one can have in life.
Who would you rather be: a miserable person who always seeks excitement and thrills or a happy person who enjoys a “boring” life?
During the 1950’s when the field of neuroscience was making many research breakthroughs, a fascinating fact was discovered. Scientists had located the specific part of the brain responsible for feeling pleasure. In 1954, two Canadian neuroscientists named James Olds and Peter Milner were undertaking research to find the association between electrical stimulation of the brain and sensation in rodents. During their research, they found that if they stimulated a certain part of the brain, the rats would interpret the signal as pleasure. Based on this, they inserted electrodes into the rats’ limbic system (the part responsible for emotions) and connected it to a lever in the cage. Thus, they had devised a device that allowed the rat to feel pleasure by stimulating its own brain with the press of a lever. The results were astounding. The rat furiously pumped at the lever, forgetting to eat or sleep, until it ultimately died of exhaustion (over 26 hours, the rat pressed the lever 50,000 times).
Pleasure is not the same as happiness. Happiness awards us with satisfaction and contentment, but pleasure only brings greed, obsession and addiction. Pleasure was originally a mechanism devised to reward behaviour that aided survival (such as mating and eating), but addictive things like alcohol, smoking and drugs ruin your life and any chance at happiness instead of helping you survive.
The foolish run around to seek temporary pleasure while the wise seek permanent happiness.