Happiness defined negatively?

The philosopher Epicurus, as I mentioned in a previous post, defines happiness as freedom of the body from pain and freedom of the mind from distress.

I sometimes muse on how this defines happiness negatively. Not, of course, negative in the sense of bad or unpleasant. How could such freedom appear bad or unpleasant?

What I mean is negative in the logical sense, the sense of saying that something is not something (as distinguished from saying that something is something). So in saying happiness is freedom of the body from pain and freedom of the mind from distress, Epicurus seems to define it, in a logical sense, negatively. Happiness is the state of not experiencing anxiety and not being in pain, the state where anxiety and pain are absent.

And yet… Well, many would say that happiness is not merely an absence of unhappiness. And happiness does, I think, seem to have its own particular quality, and to be a state which is not merely the absence of certain other states.

Personally, I think that although he may define it negatively, Epicurus does regard happiness to be something more than merely an absence. And it might be interesting to explore further what that might be.

What do you think?

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27 thoughts on “Happiness defined negatively?

  1. If I am correct, Epicurus brings forward a couple of things in life that do make people happy, such as having friends around you and having decent food. This has two aspects: the absence of pain on the one hand, but the appreciation of these basic needs as well. Epicurus goes on further to state it is better to have a decent/basic meal with good friends instead of a royal meal all by yourself.

    1. Good points, Steen. If I understand (and recall) Epicurus correctly, he seemed to view the contribution of friends to happiness as relieving one from and protecting one from anxiety and pain. And then also, to provide variation within happiness (while setting variation in happiness apart from increase in happiness). But I suppose, looking closely, the possibility of variation might imply positive qualitative aspects to happiness…(?)

  2. A dying Mom who is in serious pain may experience happiness at the birth of her child. Happiness is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with physical objects or physical well being.

  3. I like to say that “suffering is the result of resisting what is” taking that a step further I could extrapolate, that happiness is being liberated from the habit of anguish in facing ordinary challenges which occur in one’s life. Seeing them as opportunities. We can’t control what happens, but we can control how we respond.

  4. I remind my girls to choose to be happy when their feet first hit the floor in the morning. I remi d them to laugh at their mistakes as long as it’s not life threatening. Not everything has to b a crisis.

  5. I think happiness is one of those words we think we know, but don’t, or at least not with any depth. I don’t mind Epicurus’ definition: the absence of physical and mental distress is no small thing. I’d consider that happiness of a type.

    For me, happiness feels like a collective term, under which subcategories live. Is it joy? Ecstasy? Giddy enjoyment? Is it exuberant? Is it peaceful?

    Language can be a challenging tool with which to convey our inner workings.

  6. Under the Epicurus definition, feeling numb would be a form of happiness, and that seems just wrong. At the same time, can happiness exist without the opposite?

  7. If you’re in pain, then happiness would be relief. If you’re not in pain, then happiness would be something else. I’d say happiness is always the next thing. Humans don’t stay content for long.

    1. Hmm. Epicurus argued that humans do stay content with the removal of all anxiety and pain — particularly anxiety. If you aren’t in pain, you may still be in anxiety, and probably most of us are perpetually in anxiety at some level(?)

  8. Interesting point there, but to me it feels like a lack of unhappiness equates more with contentment, and elation more with happiness. Both are nice and necessary for balancing the maelstrom of emotions.

  9. No philosophy long survives modernity without being hopelessly twisted out of shape. Epicureanism is best described as “ethical hedonism” with emphasis on the ethical.

    There are two types of pleasure described by Epicurus: kinetic (physical pleasure) and katastematic (psychological pleasure.) Of the two, the latter is the better.

    Epicurus’ definition of happiness is more like what we call contentment. One must remove fear and anxiety from one’s life in order to achieve “ataraxia,” a state of tranquillity. We have to be careful not to read things into words like “pleasure” and “happiness” when he isn’t using the same definition we are. Not that he’d turn up his nose at a good massage but Epicurius valued an unburdened mind more. If you think you need lots of sex, expensive clothes, or gourmet food to be happy, that need is a burden on your mind and an obstacle to happiness.

    Even some of his contemporaries couldn’t quite understand this. Their very definition of happiness WAS lots of sex, expensive clothes, and great food – how very modern of them! It is a very “Zen” concept, the opposite of modern materialism.

    I think he would consider numbness to be a type of pain. That shot of Novocaine is not a pleasant state to be in. Psychological numbness is also a kind of pain. It is a pain we embrace out of fear of experiencing even greater pain. Pleasure is a type of feeling and numbness is the absence of feeling.

    If one accomplishes something that causes oneself pain in the process but the accomplishment itself gives one greater pleasure, you’ve still won. If your pleasure comes at the cost of greater pain to others or your own fear of consequences, you’ve lost. (Ethical, remember?)

    Here are my disjointed thoughts on happiness.


    1. Hmm, I remember reading kinetic and katastematic differently . . . . I will need to revisit that text at some point. Have been thinking of sharing that distinction in a future post

  10. I agree. Buddha also said happiness is innate. In that case – freedom and absence of pain/unhappiness should bring it about. My experience is, on those rare occasions when I want for nothing to be different happiness shows up quite unexpectedly. Learning to want less/nothing is a way to cultivate greater happiness in my book. Good question seeker five 🙏

    1. So Buddha and Epicurus seem to be consistent on this point then(?), . . . at least so far as we’ve discussed it here anyway. So many interesting consistencies between Early Buddhist and Hellenistic pursuits of wisdom.

  11. I do think happiness is more than the absence of things that cause unhappiness. I think happiness involves an element of joy, elation, or exuberance. There’s an energy to it. Mere absence of unhappiness could just be a neutral state.

  12. I would like to think that happiness is omnipresent and that there are moments when it gets clouded. It is always there only waiting to be revealed behind layers at certain times.

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