“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
These days, we are offered a dizzying variety of secrets to happiness. Some are ways of life: Give to others; practice gratitude. Others are minor hacks: Eat kale; play a board game. Some 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.