Three mistakes you’re making about happiness (according to Epicurus)

We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.
- Epicurus

I love ancient wisdom that still has relevance today. It reminds me that there is something universal about the human predicament and it impresses me that someone’s words could be remembered and found useful for so long. I think it also gives us moral and philosophical guidance that our modern pancake culture (spread wide, with no depth) does not provide.

2,400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epicurus said that people were making three mistakes about where to direct their energy in order to be happy: they were over-valuing romantic relationships, money and luxury, and that they were under-valuing friendship, satisfying work and simplicity. This couldn’t be more relevant now.

On my recent retreat I had a deeper experience of the truth of what he said, which I would like to share with you.

Romantic relationships vs friendships

Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much the greatest is the possession of friendship.
- Epicurus

Epicurus looked around him and saw many unhappy couples, broken marriages and relationships marred byjealousy, cheating and resentment. He saw the pleasure derived from them as being short-lived and that greater happiness can be found from spending time with like-minded friends.

On my retreat we were sixty men. We meditated together, ate, cooked, cleaned, shared rooms, respectfully shared a silent space for six days, were sensitive to each other’s needs around the dinner table, which was important because you couldn’t ask for what you wanted, and generally made an effort to make the experience a bit less about ourselves and a bit more about the collective.

It felt great! There was a sense of being looked after or held by the group.

‘Lifelong’ marital agreements currently last an average of 11.9 years. I’m sure you’ve got many friends you’ve had for longer than that. Friends therefore often provide more long-term stability than a lover.

Epicurus also found that there was a lot more trust and decency and less possessiveness amongst friends.

How often have you seen of spoken to your closest friends over the last month? Do you think you’d be happier if you made more effort with them?

Status & money vs fulfilling work

The wise man who has become accustomed to necessities knows better how to share with others than how to take from them, so great a treasure of self-sufficiency has he found.

— Epicurus

Epicurus believed in the pursuit of wealth and status, people overlook the competition, jealousy, back-stabbing and long hours of toil that will be involved. He thought that such efforts would lead to weariness and disappointment. Sound familiar?

On this retreat we had the experience of cooking and cleaning for the group, which was actually very satisfying. Seeing the fruits of our labour as a visible, tangible thing and seeing people appreciating it, was very different to the nature of modern work where so much exists only in cyber-space, and we can often feel under-appreciated for what we do.

He believed that it’s not money and status that we really want, but the sense of satisfaction that is derived from having a positive impact on other people through our work.

Luxury vs simplicity

If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.
- Epicurus

Wow, if Epicurius thought the Greeks were obsessed with luxury, he hadn’t seen nothin! He was particularly struck by how many people want to live in a scenic, tranquil home, and believed that was because people want to feel peaceful.

Instead, he thought it was better to cultivate inner peace through simplicity, reflection and meditation.

On this retreat I shared a small, very simple room. I brought four t-shirts, one pair of shoes, one jumper and one book for ten days. No computer, no gadgets, and no access to media.

Our days followed the same routine of chi kung, meditation and meals. There were several hours every day of free time, which I spent reading, walking and sometimes just sitting drinking tea and looking out at the beautiful landscape.

One day I challenged myself to sit on a chair and do nothing for an hour. Not meditating, not reading, not thinking about anything in particular, just sitting. It was actually quite a liberating experience.

I’ve since resolved to spend more time teach day doing just that — not doing anything. It often feels a little uncomfortable at first, and I have a sense of looking around for something to do, but after a while I start to feel really peaceful.

Are you looking for happiness in the right place?

I often explore with people what they really want in life, and feeling peaceful and contented comes quite high on the list. But they seem to be seeking that feeling by frantically rushing about, hoping that that if they cross enough things off their to do list, they’ll feel calm.

I’ve got a client who’s been regularly working until midnight, and when we talked it through he realised his aim was to have financial security, so that he could spend more time with his family, and in doing so was spending hardly any time with his family.

Sounds a bit mad doesn’t it?!

Call to action

Create some space in your life for inaction! If you’re always on the go, you won’t make time to reflect on what really matters to you, whether it’s your partner, your friends, meaningful work or having some peace and quiet to yourself.



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