A while ago, I saw a woman who had decided to count every item in her house, where she lived with her boyfriend and their son. At first, she tried to make a list of her possessions. Then she bought numbered stickers to put on everything and finally she hired a warehouse to store what she’d counted so far. It was quite impressive to see what’s essential to a normal household laid out in neat rows on a concrete floor. I remember the pawns, all numbered individually. Kitchen utensils that had been bought for a second or even a third time because they kept getting lost. The fact that her two-year-old son already owned over 100 books.
What makes us happy?
I remembered seeing this because I’m reading Alain de Botton’s “The consolations of philosophy.” His consolation for not having enough money mentions Epicurus. The Greek philosopher Epicurus lived from 341 – 270 BCE and he gave some serious thought to what we need to be happy. Living a self-sufficient life in the company of friends was very high on his list.Today, there are people with clipboards asking us how happy we are. Of course this information has to be quantified to compile the statistics for all the countries in the world. Then we can make comparisons and maybe derive a little happiness from the fact that our country has made it into the top ten. But in doing this we don’t address the fact that Epicurus already knew we don’t spend much time doing what makes us happy. As De Botton writes:
“He had come to some striking conclusions about what actually made life pleasurable – and fortunately for those lacking a large income, it seemed that the essential ingredients of pleasure, however elusive, were not very expensive.”
Richard Easterlin’s research of the 1970’s has shown that more income doesn’t always lead to more happiness. This is called the happiness-income paradox and it has been proved again in 2010. Even in developing countries happiness did not necessarily increase with a rise in income.
“Richard Easterlin discovered that high incomes are correlated with lots of happiness. But over the long term there’s this point at which increased income doesn’t correlate with increased happiness. This is the paradox.” Scientific American
What do we need to be happy?
“Of the desires, some are natural and necessary. Others are natural but unnecessary. And there are desires that are neither natural nor necessary.” Epicurus
Seeing the warehouse full of items made me remember how I travelled for months with just a backpack and how I felt strangely liberated when it got lost one night. The people from the airline gave me 100 dollars compensation and I didn’t need all of that to buy a toothbrush, a change of underwear, some soap and a clean T-shirt. It took me a few weeks to fill the new, small bag that I’d bought at a market somewhere.I remember Lin writing about rewarding activities that cost hardly anything and it made me think about friendship. Most of my friends would agree that we value friendship as much as Epicurus did, but if we all feel that way, why do we need to make an appointment to see each other weeks in advance?
“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” Mark Twain
It’s quite simple: we’re busy almost every night with activities related to work, family, health, culture and further education. According to De Botton, Epicurus decided to share a house with his friends and they grew vegetables together. They chose a simple lifestyle that would allow them to live independently. That meant giving up on the trappings of city life.
“True friends do not evaluate us according to worldly criteria, it is the core self they are interested in.” De Botton
“If expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, why are we so powerfully drawn to them?” De Botton asks. His answer has everything to do with us not thinking very much about what makes us happy:
“Expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand.”
Yes, we can also blame advertising for muddling up our needs, or the idle opinions of Epicurus’ day.A man once told me that he’d sold his car when he realised that he was working one day every week just to keep it going. Two of my friends gave up their jobs and are now running a small business from their home.
“What gave you that idea?” I asked.
“Facebook,” they answered.
They explained how they noticed that many of their friends were always writing about how they didn’t like their jobs and how much they were looking forward to the next exotic vacation. When my friends properly analysed the problem, they realised they could do all the things they would normally do on vacation if they organised their daily lives differently. Now they see more of each other, they go for long walks, eat well, listen to music and read good books on a regular basis. I guess we’ll just have to hope their business doesn’t become too successful…
With thanks to [blog since deleted; sorry] who suggested I read Alain de Botton’s book. Channel Four made a television series based on The Consolations of Philosophy that can be seen on Youtube, “Philosophy: A guide to happiness.”