Three Longs & Three Shorts

How to Balance Hard Work and Pleasure for Happiness

There’s plenty being written these days to cater to our need for an informed pursuit of happiness. As the author of this piece puts it they range from the mundane to the abstract, some even a sham. Arthur Brooks, a Harvard professor who also hosts a podcast on The Art of Happiness, helps us cut through the clutter simplifying it and even sharing a few ideas that might help us in this pursuit. He categorises most approaches to happiness into two broad buckets – one that focuses on pleasure and the other on virtue. He traces these back to ancient Greek traditions, where each of these two philosophies had a proponent – Epicurus and Epictetus. The article talks about these two philosophies, comparing and contrasting them to try and answer if one is better than the other. He concludes that we need a bit of both to balance.
“Epicurus’ 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.
…In truth, each pursues different aspects of happiness: Epicurus’s style brings pleasure and enjoyment; Epictetus’s method delivers meaning and purpose. As happiness scholars note, a good blend of these things is likeliest to deliver a truly happy life. Too much of one—a life of trivial enjoyment or one of grim determination—will not produce a life well lived, as most of us see it.”
At the end of the article, the author provides a useful strategy for us to follow to blend these two aspects into our lives. First, to identify which of these two aspects are our natural selves inclined towards. Second, to consciously build up the other side and he gives us some ideas about how. Third and the best, to build a ‘happiness portfolio’ that balances both approaches: “That portfolio is simple, and I have written about it before: Make sure your life includes faith, family, friendship, and work in which you earn your success and serve others. Each of these elements flexes both the Stoic and the Epicurean muscles: All four require that we be fully present in an Epicurean sense and that we also work hard and adhere to strong commitments in a Stoic sense”