There Are Two Kinds of Happy People

There Are Two Kinds of Happy People

via the Atlantic by Arthur C Brooks

hese days, we are offered a dizzying variety of secrets to happiness. Some are ways of life: Give to otherspractice gratitude. Others are minor hacks: Eat kaleplay a board gameSome are simply an effort to make a buck.

I have found that most of the serious approaches to happiness can be mapped onto two ancient traditions, promoted by the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Epictetus. In a nutshell, they focus on enjoyment and virtue, respectively. Individuals typically gravitate toward one style or the other, and many major philosophies have followed one path or the other for about two millennia. Understanding where you sit between the two can tell you a lot about yourself—including your happiness weak points—and help you create strategies for a more balanced approach to life.

Epicurus (341–270 B.C.) led an eponymous school of thought—Epicureanism—that believed a happy life requires two things: ataraxia (freedom from mental disturbance) and aponia (the absence of physical pain). His philosophy might be characterized as, “If it is scary or painful, work to avoid it.” Epicureans see discomfort as generally negative, and thus the elimination of threats and problems as the key to a happier life. Don’t get the impression that I am saying they are lazy or unmotivated—quite the contrary, in many cases. But they don’t see enduring fear and pain as inherently necessary or beneficial, and they focus instead on enjoying life.

Epictetus (c. 50–c. 135 A.D.) was one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers, who believed happiness comes from finding life’s purpose, accepting one’s fate, and behaving morally regardless of the personal cost. His philosophy could be summarized as, “Grow a spine and do your duty.” People who follow a Stoic style see happiness as something earned through a good deal of sacrifice. Not surprisingly, Stoics are generally hard workers who live for the future and are willing to incur substantial personal cost to meet their life’s purpose (as they see it) without much complaining. They see the key to happiness as working through pain and fear, not actively avoiding them.

Epicureans and Stoics can coexist, and even cohabitate (my wife and I have such a mixed marriage). But in my experience, Stoics and Epicureans tend to look down on one another, and appear to have been doing so for about as long as both philosophies have existed. The 3rd-century biographer Diogenes Laërtius wrote that “Epictetus calls [Epicurus a] preacher of effeminacy and showers abuse on him.” While there’s no historical record of it, I can easily imagine Epicurus responding to Epictetus, “You totally need to chill out.”

For roughly 2,000 years, philosophers have asked which approach leads to greater happiness and a better life. My purpose here is different. Both views have virtues and weaknesses. I want to know what each of us, given our natural tendency toward one of the approaches, can learn and adopt from the other…

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