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Happiness update, 21/22: shades of Epicurus

24 Jul

I’ve been away from this blog for several months, so there are a few things to catch up on – not least the ONS’s happiness statistics for 2020/21 (the COVID year), published last October.

But first, the Wellcome Collection, which in 2021 was celebrating “the complexity of happiness”. Below is part of a wall emblazoned with thoughts about happiness contributed by visitors to the Wellcome. Most of them are of the ‘happiness is a warm puppy’ variety. As Socrates might have said, “But you’re only giving me examples of happiness, not a definition”. Still, I enjoyed them. 

Wellcome 2

Highlights of its two exhibitions addressing two components of happiness – Tranquillity and Joy – can still be seen on the Wellcome’s website (, along with articles, interviews, and stories.  

Thomas Dixon, who lectures in the history of the emotions at Queen Mary University of London, tells us in an audio on the website ( that strong feelings like joy and sorrow, hope and despair, were for many centuries thought of as ‘passions of the soul’. They were seen as distinct from milder sentiments like family love or compassion. 

The word ‘emotion’ only took on its modern, psychological meaning in the 19th century. “Ever since then,” Dixon says, “scientists of the mind have tended to lump together all our feelings, sentiments, passions and affections in the capacious category of ‘the emotions’.” Earlier theories included categories that were seen as both rational and emotional. For instance ‘affections’ and ‘sentiments’ combined reason with passion, light with heat. But the new category of ‘the emotions’ was from the outset contrasted with intellectual states of mind. “In this way, the contrast between the head and the heart became even more firmly entrenched.”

Le Brun Tranquil Joy


In the exhibition, Dixon’s talk was illustrated by this image by Charles le Brun from his 1688 lecture on Passions. It was believed back then that each passion produced a different facial expression, and drawings like these were used to create a visual dictionary for artists.This one is titled ‘Tranquil Joy’.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus would have loved this idea: for him, the summit of happiness is reached in ‘ataraxia’, or tranquillity. Joy and serenity can co-exist. In fact they must, if we’re to achieve true happiness. 


alabaster bust Vexed Man


Of course, Le Brun’s drawings are by no means the only artworks used to present psychological portraits. The eighteenth century German/Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt was famous for his ’character heads’, some of which seem to depict passing emotions rather than settled character; for example this alabaster bust of a ‘Vexed Man’.

And last year in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery I took great pleasure in this installation by Sophie Cave. Here, a great range of feelings and responses are on display. In real life, many of them are fleeting. Tranquil Joy is, hopefully, more long-lasting. Pain is an inevitable part of human existence; but we must endeavour to deal with it as quickly and cheaply as possible – or we must learn to live with it. So says Epicurus. 


Happiness through the looking-glass

20 Aug

Here’s another interesting fact I gleaned from Leo Johnson’s ‘Hacking Happiness’ series:  our brains, according to Italian neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, contain a small circuit ofmirror cells called mirror neurons.  These are activated when we perform particular actions – such as smiling or shouting  or when we observe other people performing the same actions.  Mirror neurons wire us up to want what other people want.  Your friend smiles, you smile. In this way we develop what are termed mimetic desires: we don’t want things because they give us simple pleasure, but because lots of other people seem to find them desirable.  This, Iacoboni says, becomes a mighty force when it operates in the realm of social media.

I can well believe this. Mirror neurons help to explain a number of familiar responses. Such as why a few years ago I was willing to queue for five hours to see a play which I was only mildly interested in until I discovered that all the tickets were sold and people were talking about it … or  why everyone throngs to the same beaches … or why individuals get so fired up when they come together in crowds.

The lesson for happiness-pursuers, I suppose, is that it’s always a good idea to closely examine our desires and try to decide what we really really want – as Epicurus nearly said.

What we really want is not always fathomable, of course. The play I queued five hours to see was pretty good, but it was impossible for me to judge it rationally, because it would have had to be bloody brilliant to justify sitting for that long on the stairs at the Royal Court theatre. On the other hand, I did meet someone in the queue who became a friend. I learned something worth knowing  too – that well-off people send their au pairs and cleaners to queue for return tickets, which is one of the reasons why this system is so unfair. And above all the experience was worthwhile because it satisfied one of my deeply rooted Protestant principles: I suffered, and eventually I was rewarded.

Hedonism part 1: the oyster question

14 Jul


Hedonism – the idea that pleasure is the highest good – was certainly being discussed in ancient Greece by the end of the fifth century BC. It is outlined in Plato’s Protagoras, a dialogue in which Plato’s old teacher Socrates is debating the question of whether virtue can be taught. He’s talking to Protagoras, a leading Sophist and philosophical relativist.

‘So to live pleasurably is good, to live painfully bad?’ Socrates asks.

‘Yes, if one’s pleasure comes from what’s honourable,’ Protagoras replies.

‘Really? Protagoras, you surely don’t subscribe to the commonplace notion that some pleasures are bad, and some pains good?’

Socrates is being ironic here, because Protagoras was famous in his day for challenging conventional views of morality. Wrong-footed by Socrates (something that happens repeatedly in Plato’s dialogues), he has to admit that there are some pleasures that aren’t good, and some pains that aren’t bad.  (Plato, Protagoras 351c) So a criterion for the good life – ‘what is honourable’ – has already been introduced. Pleasure is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. 

In another of Plato’s dialogues, Philebus, Socrates asks his companion Protarchus whether, if he got the chance, he would choose to spend his whole life in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures.

‘Of course I would.’

‘Would you want anything else out of life apart from perfect pleasure?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Think about it for a minute. Wouldn’t you want wisdom and intelligence and foresight?’

‘Why should I? If I have pleasure, I have everything.’

‘But if you didn’t possess mind or memory or knowledge or true opinion, you wouldn’t know whether you were enjoying pleasure or not.’

‘I suppose not.’oyster

‘And if you had no memory you wouldn’t even know that you had ever enjoyed pleasure in the past. … And if you had no foresight, you wouldn’t be able to look forward to enjoying it in the future. Your life wouldn’t be that of a man. It would be the life of an oyster.’
(Philebus 21b-c)

Here Plato assumes – rightly, I’m sure – that without consciousness we have no way of enjoying pleasure. He also seems to assume that consciousness immediately introduces other factors into the good life, factors that will lead us away from relying solely on pleasure. This assumption is more questionable.

So it seems that identifying pleasure as the highest good involved complex questions right from the start. Nearly a century later, when Epicurus appeared on the philosophical scene, he became the Greek world’s most celebrated hedonist. ‘When pleasure is present, as long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either in the body or the mind.’ (Principle Doctrines 3). But Epicurus’s view of pleasure, like most other people’s, is far from straightforward, since he believed that the limit of pleasure is reached in the removal of pain. If we’re hungry, we eat; but if we go on eating after we’ve dealt with our hunger, then we’ll only cause ourselves further pain. The answer for Epicurus lies in managing our desires so as to achieve maximum pleasure; and maximum pleasure means limited pleasure. This is a far cry from the modern use of the term ‘Epicurean’; and indeed in Epicurus’s own day his doctrines were misinterpreted, and seen as offering an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ message. ‘No, I’m not talking about fine food and fornication,’ he kept having to say. And I’m not talking about oysters either, he might have added, though he didn’t. So I would probably put Epicurus in the ‘desire theories’ category when it comes to ideas about well-being. More of this anon.



Happiness and unforbidden pleasures

11 Dec

adam phillipsLast week on the Radio 4 programme ‘Start the Week’ the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips discussed his new book Unforbidden Pleasures. One component of our self-reflection, he argues, is that we ask ourselves the question, ‘Do we lack anything that feels essential?’  Once something has been forbidden to us, we begin to experience a lack – we begin to desire it and to see it as essential to our well-being. So what we desire is often all about transgression – we are seduced into thinking that freedom lies in following forbidden pleasures. Unforbidden pleasures, such as kindness, friendship, fidelity, or just a nice cup of coffee, are taken for granted. The stories which we are told tend to bolster this desire for the forbidden. They focus on heroes, on bold people who live transgressively, and this steers us away from pursuing basic satisfactions.

          Difficulty, Phillips stresses, should  not be confused with transgression. Pleasures that are won in a hard way – think of the satisfaction gained from studying or from creating  something beautiful – are not the same as forbidden pleasures, and we should  feel free to pursue them. But we mustn’t be fooled into thinking that we have to run after the things that we’ve been told we can’t have. That is a waste of our time and energy.

          Epicurus would have loved this.  Here is my slightly updated version of something he says in ‘Letter on Happiness’.

‘For us, a life of pleasure isn’t champagne and truffles and fornication.  It is a life that is based on sober reflection – nothing more, nothing less. Because it is reflection that helps us to examine our motives, and decide what we really want, and what we need to avoid.’   

We have to learn to manage our desires, Epicurus tells us. If we can eliminate the pain caused by desires that are unfulfilled, and the anxiety associated with the struggle to satisfy these desires in the future, we will attain tranquillity. This is the key to our happiness.

Cast-aside cares

19 Jun

bust of Epicurus

I read this recently in The Beautiful and Damned by F.Scott Fitzgerald:

                        Happiness is only the first hour after the alleviation of some especially intense misery.

The Roman poet Catullus said something similar:

o quid solutis est beatius curis  (poem 31)

                            Oh what is more blissful than cast-aside cares?

Catullus wasn’t offering this as a complete definition of happiness, although he may well have felt that ‘cast-aside cares’ was the nearest he himself was going to get to the experience of well-being.  He’s a poet who is well known for his unhappy love life, and he died at a very young age.

Epicurean philosophy may superficially seem to be sending the same message as Catullus. Epicurus (that’s him in the picture) believes that the optimum of pleasure is reached in the absence of pain. But for him, it is the life-long management of your desires, so that pains are removed as quickly and cheaply as possible, that produces overall happiness. Happiness isn’t just the glorious wave of relief that sweeps over you when something you’ve been dreading has been more or less successfully completed (though that’s certainly a delightful sensation).

When we say that pleasure is the goal of life, we’re not talking about sensual indulgence. No, we’re talking about freedom from physical discomfort and mental anxiety. A life of pleasure isn’t drinking, or partying, or exquisite food, or plenty of sex. A life of pleasure is the outcome of sober reflection. Why? Because sober reflection enables you to examine your motives in every situation, and decide what to do and what not to do…Careful observation of  our various desires enables us to consider the range of options available to us, so that on each occasion we make descisions that enhance our physical welfare and keep our minds free from anxiety. This is the objective which is proper to a life of happiness.

Epicurus, Letter on Happiness

Being unhappy in your leg

10 Oct

In Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Love and Information’ at the Royal Court one scene features a boy who can feel emotion but never experiences physical pain. When a friend pinches his leg he feels nothing. So he asks the friend to explain  to him what pain is like. She gets him to think about a time when he’s been unhappy, when someone’s been horrible to him and it hurts. “So it’s like being unhappy but in your leg?” the boy responds.  

The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that we achieve happiness by banishing (or at least coming to terms with) the pains of the body and of the mind. So for him the idea of being unhappy in your leg would not have been strange. And in fact (I speak as someone who’s got both toothache and a strained muscle at the moment) it is quite hard to be happy in your head when your body’s feeling pretty miserable.

But hopefully not impossible. On his deathbed Epicurus composed a letter to one of his friends. ‘On this blissful day, which is also the last of my life, I write this to you.  My continual sufferings from strangury and dysentery are as great as they possibly could be.  But the cheerfulness I  feel when I remember our past conversations outweighs all these afflictions.’


How to be Happy?

29 Aug
                                David Acton as Epicurus in ‘The Happiness Index’
                                                       at the New End Theatre


I’ve been interested in the subject of happiness ever since I studied the Greek philosopher Epicurus at college. Epicurus believed that happiness could be achieved quite simply, through bodily harmony and mental tranquillity. A few years ago I wrote a play about his ideas, called How to be Happy, which was performed in various schools and colleges, and at the British Museum. Then last year happiness hit the headlines when the Government announced that it was going to start including questions on happiness in the national Household Survey. So I revised my play to take account of these questions, and it became ‘The Happiness Index’. It was performed at the New End Theatre in London last summer.

The results of the first national survey on happiness in the UK were published last month, and I’ll be looking at these in my next blog.