The pursuit of happiness

It’s a bumpy road, but it’s yours if you want it

Woman&Home, January 2022

In the south of Turkey, on the dusty rise of a hill, lie the stone ruins of an ancient piazza. The hefty limestone blocks that lie scattered between the scrub and olive trees are notable for just one remarkable feature: they’re inscribed with one of the only surviving accounts of Epicurus’ recipe for happiness.

Born on the Greek island of Samos in 341 BCE, Epicurus was a philosopher ahead of his time. Delighted by the physical senses, his motto was apparently ‘Pleasure is the beginning and goal of a happy life’ – a sentiment that today finds its home in the term ‘epicurean’ and all the luxury and hedonism that has come to be associated with it. But in truth, Epicurus’ recipe for living a happy life was premised on delights much simpler.

In The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton describes Epicurus’ happiness ‘acquisition list’ as this: a home of your own, close friendship, freedom from superiors and everyday political pettiness, and meaningful self-reflection into one’s anxieties and beliefs. Not to mention a modest diet of bread, vegetables and ‘a palm full of olives’. That’s it. Sure, material wealth beyond what is needed for your bread and olives is nice, but happiness is not dependent on feasts, mansions and super yachts.

I know in these times of economic and political turbulence it might be easy to dismiss these as the idealistic ramblings of a man born in what might appear to be much simpler times. But even now, more than 2 000 years later, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. Studies keep confirming that those who live the happiest, healthiest lives are those who enjoy loving relationships and feel a sense of belonging in their community, who eat plant-based diets and partake in only moderate exercise (a point I’m particularly fond of).

Despite all this wisdom floating about, it’s taken me a long time to really internalise that happiness is not the wild euphoria of the chaotic high but the sustained satisfaction of living a life that you want to live, with the people you want to love, doing what brings you joy.

Maybe it’s taken me so long to understand this because there’s a level of complexity in arriving at this place of simplicity.

You see, I don’t think we’re set up for happiness when we pop into the world. Many of us aren’t given the tools to nurture loving relationships or even recognise them. Most of us grow up in a system that sets us at odds with ourselves and others, competing for attention, for work, for love, for our place in the sun. We’re distracted from self-reflection by the mania of self-improvement. We’re educated to graft ourselves to work and communities that deplete us instead of energising us. We’re told that more is always better, that happiness can be bought, that self-worth needs to be proved, that peace is something that lives elsewhere outside of ourselves.

Cutting through that tangle is hard work. There’s a kind of bullish commitment required to find and follow your own path to life satisfaction. I know it’s not fashionable to say this, but I believe that getting on that path and staying on it is a decision you make. Happiness is a choice. The choice, every day, sometimes many times a day, to take the actions necessary to build and support the life and relationships you want and need.

And making those choices is not always easy. That’s the paradox of happiness: sometimes to find it in yourself, you first need to claw your way through a whole lot of unhappy-making crud. You need to get your teeth bloody and your hands dirty with all that self-reflection Epicurus was on about before you can enjoy that palm full of olives with your chosen tribe.

The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, ‘We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness. So as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy.’

I am selfish with my happiness now and, if I’m lucky enough to continue living in a world where that is a choice I can make, I’ll keep making it, one day – and one very moderate dose of exercise – at a time.

Feature photo by Lucio Patone on Unsplash
Photo of the wall from the University of Idaho

Subscribe for weekly-ish updates. If you have a problem subscribing,
please get in touch via the contact form and I’ll send you an invite.