On Pain, Pleasure, and Happiness (Original Version, Superceded by Version 2)

This is a draft article, and end notes are not complete yet

Not "absence of pain" as a full statement of the goal of life, but “the Feelings are two, pleasure and pain” and “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of a happy life.”

Brief: The feelings are only two, pleasure and pain—there is no true third state such as neutral, except after death. Because there is no neutral, removing all pain in life is only possible with maximal pleasure. The extent of pleasure can be maximized by making sure to attend to all parts of one’s body, including the brain. Happiness is itself a pleasurable feeling, most easily described as the condition of a person who has maximized pleasure in all areas of life. The capacity for pain is a valuable warning system and should not be disabled except in unusual conditions, but the experience of pain is to be avoided unless it is chosen for the sake of greater pleasure/ lesser pain over the lifespan. Humans have many shared responses of pain or pleasure to specific experiences, and they also have individual variations. The standard of pleasure in one’s life must be one’s own subjective feelings, not a generic advice. There are many pitfalls to avoid if one desires a happy, pleasure-filled life, such as a false belief in a neutral state, practices which attempt to disable the normal capacity to feel pleasure and pain, and failure to consider the long-term pains and pleasures resulting from actions. In discussing pain and pleasure, Epicureans stick to real life situations, not hypothetical philosophical puzzles.

Detailed Analysis

The Cup of Feelings

For this analysis, I will borrow the model of Cassius Amicus on the “full cup of pleasure” (1), inspired by Lucretius writing of a “vessel” (2). Let us describe the total capacity for the two feelings, pleasure and pain, as a cup, and the contents as pleasure and pain. At any given moment, we could see a single frame in the lifelong movie of this cup, and we could instantly see how much pain and how much pleasure is contained within it. In our actual lives, we do not see the pain and pleasure, but we feel it with our nervous systems. So the cup model is only useful for communication of subjective feelings and should not be taken literally.

Only Two Feelings

The contents of our cups include only pleasure or pain—there is never a third item such as “air” in the cup, because “the feelings are two, pleasure and pain.” Epicurus was very precise when he listed attributes or parts of a whole. For instance, he said that there is matter and void, not a third thing. He did not consider “absence of matter” to be included in matter—he specified absence of matter as the presence of void. If we have a room and want to minimize the void inside it, we will need to maximize the matter. There is no other option. (3)

Having only two feelings is a significant contrast to philosophies like Buddhism, which posit a neutral state where neither pleasure nor pain is present. Epicurus did not speak of a third state, neutral, and therefore we can safely assume he understood that there is not one. Otherwise, just as with matter and void, he would have said “the feelings are three, pleasure, pain and neutral.” This means that “absence of pain” requires the fullness of pleasure, not a bland, neutral state which he did not describe at all.

In my personal experience, I have observed that what people call neutral is pain. Either they have been in pain for so long that they have forgotten what pleasure is like, or they are afraid of pleasure for some reason, so that they fear leaving their pain state for pleasure, and they have sought out the least intense pain possible. Or they have engaged in some practice to attempt to disable the cup itself, the capacity for pleasure and pain. But they never get to zero unless they are dead or unless they have substantial brain injury. The neurotransmitters of pleasure and their receptors in the brain are always active to some degree in a typical, healthy, living person, and the neurotransmission of pain is always at the ready in case of threat.

The goal in some philosophies is to achieve this hypothetical neutral state, where one is not pulled by desire of pleasure or retreat from pain in one direction or another. This would require annihilation of core survival neurologic faculties, if it is even possible in life. What I have observed in people who follow this path is that they attempt to extract their cup of capacity for feelings or disconnect this cup from their actions, disabling the cup of feelings while still being mindful of it. A lot of them endure painful boredom for hours on end, to desensitize themselves taking action based on removing the pain of boredom. Trying to eliminate or disable the cup itself is not the same as minimizing the pain within it, which requires the maximization of pleasure. As I will explain below, this is an unwise action if a person desires a happy life.

It is exactly this misunderstanding of the “only two” nature of feelings of pleasure and pain that leads some neo-Epicureans to think that minimizing pain results in some kind of neutral state, which they imagine as the peace of ataraxia, and they erroneously seek out this bland condition. But a neurologically intact person in a bland, under-stimulated condition will be bored, and this is a type of pain. In fact, one can recognize a state of total pleasure/ absence of pain by the inability to imagine an increase of that pleasure. So they have not minimized their pain at all, if they can imagine a degree of pleasure that is absent. They will need to experience maximal pleasure in order to minimize their pain—there is no third option.

This is a critically important point to understand, or you will not progress in the philosophy, nor will you understand any of Epicurus’ teachings on pain and pleasure. You will misread Epicurus saying “the limit of pleasure is the removal of all pain” as implying there is an imaginary neutral state that was his goal. When on the contrary, if absolutely all pain is removed, a person is in total bliss.

The Volume of the Cup of Feelings

When I first read this model, I made the mistake of thinking the volume that pain or pleasure was taking up in the cup had to do with intensity. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the issue of intensity, because I have experienced pleasure and pain alike in subtle and intense forms.

I realize now that is an error, because although intensity of pain can vary, intensity of pleasure seems to have a “sweet spot” at any given moment. If you are not in that sweet spot, you will either desire an increase in intensity of stimulation, which means you feel a lack, a form of pain, or the sensation will be uncomfortably intense, which is pain. The maximally pleasurable intensity of stimulation will vary from person to person and from one moment to the next. As Hiram Crespo helpfully pointed out to me, intensity of sensation and response requires the use of biochemical energy by the body, and people vary in their energy availability between each other and over the course of a day.

So for a given action/ stimulus, there is a sweet spot where the pleasure will be felt at the maximally pleasurable intensity at that time.

If the volume is not intensity, what is it? I believe we can go back to remembering that it represents the whole person, the body including the brain. If every part of the body and every function of the brain is in a state of pleasure, which requires that no part is in pain, the cup will be full of pleasure.

This is why some activities are not fully satisfying for many people—activities which only produce pleasures of the senses but leave the cognitive functions such as memory or intellectual capacity in pain will not get rid of the pain in your whole cup. Whereas if you can find activities which engage all functions of your body, including your brain, you can enjoy complete pleasure.


This brings us to the need to define happiness, which in English corresponds to the Greek eudaemonia. The point of all the philosophizing was to find out how to have a happy life, so we should pause and say what we mean by that.

Epicurus defined happiness in life as being comprised of pleasures. With the model of the cup, the happiest imaginable life would be one where every frame in the life movie of the cup was full of pleasures, admitting no pain. Although this is not a realistic expectation for humans, a life where no frame of the movie has any pain, it IS possible to have a full cup of pleasure for extended periods and to plan well enough so as to have the cup representing the whole movie be mostly full of pleasure. Epicurus taught that this kind of happy life was not just an imaginary goal but could be accomplished by real, ordinary humans.

Once a person’s cup is full of pleasure, Epicurus said that we make a mistake to think we can add more. If there is truly no pain in your cup—nothing you lack—your cup is full. He said after this we can only have variation. I will add that we know humans can become bored by lack of variation, and this would introduce the pain of boredom into the cup. For this reason, I advised varying your pleasurable activities at a rate to maintain your pleasure.

In order to have a truly happy life movie, there are certain conditions that must be obtained for most people to the maximum extent they can—physical and mental health; freedom to make their own choices; sufficient resources so that they do not live day to day in fear of lack; friends; peace and safety; freedom from anxiety about imaginary supernatural beings; and freedom from fear of an imaginary afterlife. Those conditions will not provide all the pleasure needed to fill the cup and cast out pain—each person will have to additionally act, using their freedom, to engage in activities that produce pleasure—but the conditions make it possible to gain pleasure.

When most people think of the word “happy”, they have a pleasant feeling associated with it. That is because since happiness is made of pleasures, even the thought of happiness is a pleasure.

But some have tried to define happiness as something that doesn’t involve any feelings. Try to imagine yourself saying “I am happy” but no feelings are coming along with that. The word wouldn’t mean anything. You would have to ask “well, if happiness isn’t a pleasurable situation, what is it?”

People who try to redefine happiness as being something separate from feelings will then give you a goal they have decided is ideal, perhaps a set of virtues that you should aim for. Or they will say happiness is about meaningfulness, not about pleasure. Try to imagine “meaningfulness” without the feeling of pleasure. What on earth is that? It wouldn’t mean the same thing at all—it entirely relies on the pleasure associated with it. An Epicurean would not deny that a person can experience a sense of meaningfulness as one of life’s pleasures—just that the pleasure of meaningfulness is what makes it important.

Another attempted blow against pleasure and happiness is telling people about research supposedly showing that if you try to be happy, you will be unhappy, so you have to do some specific set of things instead, while not trying to be happy, that will make you happy. Do you see the confusion in that idea? What they really mean is that some actions will not lead to long term sustained pleasures and others will. The things they recommend doing are still efforts to gain life pleasure, whether they admit this or not. Epicureans have no trouble with advising against actions which don’t achieve their intended result.

One great danger in believing these people who say virtue or meaning is a substitute for pleasure, not an activity which can produce pleasure, is that believing them can lead you in a direction where you are carrying out someone else’s idea of what your virtues or meanings should be. You will be working for their pleasure and missing your own. How sad! You can only recognize what is meaningful for your life, happiness-wise, by the sense of pleasure the choice produces. Here we have Epicurus’ words: “Beauty and virtue and the like are to be honored, if they give pleasure; but if they do not give pleasure, we must bid them farewell.” (4) I would go so far as to say I don’t even know how to recognize beauty without the associated pleasure.

The Function of Pain

Although our goal is to have our cups full of pleasure, it is important to consider the function of pain. Epicurus described pain and pleasure as feelings we had been taught by Nature to have, in order to survive, and this is what has happened in evolution. Where he personifies Nature, for ease of communication, it is important to remember that he was a materialist and did not actually mean some kind of being. Organisms with nervous systems learn to avoid tissue damaging actions through the mechanism of pain, and they learn to seek out life and health promoting actions through the mechanism of pleasure. These feelings of pain and pleasure are our guides to both survival and health, without which our goal of pleasure is not possible.

In general, pain is to be avoided and pleasure to be chosen. But there are two important caveats.

First, in avoiding pain, it is usually unwise to disable one’s capacity to sense pain. These are two different things—the ability to feel pain, and the feeling of pain. We can see the extreme of this issue in people who are born with a condition where they are unable to feel physical pain. They usually die very young, because they have no warning system to stop them from grabbing a hot pain on the stove and so on. The only times when I would advise disabling one’s pain systems, or parts of them, are when they have become irreparably dysfunctional or the pain is impossible to remove otherwise, such as in some chronic pain syndromes. There are anecdotal cases where people have used self-hypnosis to disable their dysfunctional pain responses but have extended this also to functional pain, such as pain from appendicitis. This is obviously a bad idea, if one wants to lead a pleasurable life and not die from an untreated ruptured appendix.

Second, Epicurus reminds us that some pains are to be chosen if they lead to greater pleasure. This does not mean that every life decision for pleasure should involve some kind of pain, based on a confused idea about “balance.” It just means that in reality, sometimes pain is part of the process leading to long term pleasure, and that if we don’t accept some pain on the front end, the long-term result may be more pain than pleasure. This instruction should be taken to apply to multiple frames of the life movie, so that on the whole, pain is minimized, which as we have learned, is the same as maximizing pleasure. An example of wisely choosing a pain could be missing a party in order to study for a test required to get a job one will deeply enjoy. Or the pain of the initial nursing of a newborn, in order to have the longer-term pleasure of nursing and the associated health pleasure benefits.

This should never be taken to mean that one cannot remove these associated pains, if that becomes possible, on the grounds of “no pain, no gain.” Indeed, sometimes it is “no pain, no pain”, and that is preferable if possible. So perhaps one can arrange the test study environment to be as pleasurable as possible and arrange with friends to have a party after the test. That would be a wise action to take.

Pleasure and Pain are Subjective

An objective measurement is one that can be accurately reproduced by most other people, usually using a standardized instrument like a ruler. It isn’t dependent upon the person doing the measuring. We often speak of it as having an “outside” quality, in that it doesn’t depend on what is “inside” of the person.

Subjective experiences are those which require a specific, individual experience—a feeling or a sensation. These are experiences we describe as being “inside” our bodies.

Pleasure and pain are in the subjective category. Although we can make outside observations of vital signs, facial expressions, and body language, the actual pain or pleasure is only present if experienced within the person’s body.

Because humans share most of our DNA in common, being the same species, what gives us each pleasures or pains will often be similar. Every neurotypical person will have pain on touching a hot stove, for instance. But we are just different enough that there will also be many specific feelings of pains and pleasures, and we will each be the only one who can feel these responses first-hand.

For example, some people (me) would rather have a small burn than be forced to watch The Three Stooges for an hour. Others (not me) feel that way about opera. Many (not me) about public speaking.

We can make some broad generalizations which will apply to most humans, but we can never fully predict from the outside what a “generic” person’s pleasures and pains will be, because there is no such person. We can confidently say that close to 100% of humans dislike having their things stolen or being physically assaulted, or that most of us will experience anxiety if we break the law. These common traits are the basis for many of Epicurus’ specific recommendations about how to maximize life pleasure. But they are based on our shared biology and not on a universal absolute standard, so each person, to be happy, must take their own choices in hand, after learning about their pains and pleasures.

Because pain and pleasure are subjective and qualitative, it is not useful to try and turn them into abstract numbers. The “hedonic calculus”, the making of wise decisions to create a life movie of maximal pleasure, is not literal calculus. Patients often have difficulty and frustration with the question “what is your pain, 1-10”, but they can more easily compare intensity and extent of one pain versus another. In your pleasure planning, you can compare two outcomes with each other, as Epicurus advised, without any abstract math: “What will be the result for me if the object of this desire is attained, and what if it will not?” Choose the path with the most pleasure.

Common Life Errors

Here are a few common errors people make in their attempts to have a happy life. The first I have already mentioned, the aiming for an impossible state, neutrality. For as long as you persist in believing in such a state, you will miss your chance for happiness.

A second mistake is failing to consider the whole of the cup – so that you give pleasure to your senses but fail to engage your intellectual needs for pleasure, or your social needs for friendship. Or, if you are one of the people (not everyone is) who feels a desire for the pleasure of meaningfulness, that is part of your cup, and you must attend to it or you will have pain. If you are like most people, your need for at least a few close friends is strong, and a part of your pleasure capacity will be the joy of seeing your friends be happy and engaging in “shared pleasure”. You will generally benefit in pleasure from attending to your self-sufficiency and freedom from control by others, and by the removal of false fears, such as fears promoted by many religions.

Third, you could consider only a short-term view of your cup and fail to consider the whole of the movie. Your future self will not be very happy, in that case. This is what Epicurus meant by not engaging in every pleasurable activity, if the net outcome is pain. For example, getting drunk might feel great for an hour or so, but most of the next day will be miserable, and if you do it often, your suffering will be compounded by social rejection and liver failure.

Fourth, some people insist that pain and pleasure is all about your attitude—that you should change your attitude towards your job or the pain in your foot. They may say “you may have to have pain, but you don’t have to suffer.” This is a denial of the reality of the material universe as well as another way to try and disable your natural pain and pleasure feelings, which are guiding you to make choices for a happier, more pleasure filled life. I am sure it benefits your boss if you try and be happy with a painful work situation, but it will not make you happy. If your pain system has become dysfunctional, by all means, address that. But otherwise, it is a mistake to discount your pleasure and pain.

Fifth is under-stimulation. Remember that pleasure and removal of pain requires action at least some of the time. If you could sit in a dark cave for years eating bread and drinking water without this resulting in pain, including boredom, that would be fine—but this is not going to work for almost anyone. Even if you go into a sensory deprivation tank, you will not be free from experience. Your brain, absent feedback from the environment, will start to create illusions for you instead. The conditions for pleasure are not absence environmental input and action. It is the amount of intensity and action your body requires for a feeling of pleasure at a particular time. So when you are tired, rest will be pleasurable, but immobility for prolonged periods is known to result in significant physical pain, and certainly in boredom.

Sixth is over-stimulation. The same action that causes pleasure at one intensity can cause pain at a higher intensity. Also, frequent, prolonged, and intense stimulation of the senses at a level far beyond the environment humans have evolved to encounter may habituate you, so that you no longer can get pleasure from ordinary daily life. It may overload your hormonal stress response in a way that causes you more net pain. If this happens, you may need to back off the intense stimulation for a time, to recover your enjoyment. This is _not_ a praise of “simplicity” or “minimalism”, nor do I mean it in a Luddite way. I use and enjoy technology. However, you must be aware of the potential physiologic responses from overuse of high intensity stimulation, so that you can take action for your pleasure when needed.

The Hypothetical Utopias

Invariably, in our public forums, we get this type of question: what if someone invented a pleasure pill, and people who took it could have only pleasure for the rest of their lives? Wouldn’t you Epicureans want that, since your goal is pleasure? A variant is: when technology is sufficiently advanced, we could get connected to computers who could control our desires and choices, making it feel like we were choosing, and they could intelligently maximize our pleasure. Wouldn’t we rather do that, if it were possible?

The answer to that is in three parts.

First, in Epicurean philosophy, we follow the example of our founder and avoid debating hypotheticals without enough specific detail to guide our decisions. The same is true of common philosophical questions such as the trolley problem. These are simply not relevant to our real lives of pleasure.

Second, we know that pain and pleasure capacities are different from the actual feelings of pain and pleasure. We know it is unwise, for future decision making, to disable our pain function. In reality, this can actually be done, by taking certain drugs. Deciding to take what would be in effect a permanent opiate would give us a disability. We would be like those born without pain fibers and would likely soon die, ending our chances for ongoing pleasure.

Third, for both the pleasure pill and the AI hypothetical, we would be placing trust for the entire rest of our lives in the hands of the pleasure pill makers and the AI programmers—and possibly, in the AI as independently acting entities. We would be abandoning the pleasures of freedom and of making our own choices, forever.

Fortunately, we do not have to debate those hypotheticals repeatedly, because our philosophy involves real life pleasures and pains.



1) https://newepicurean.com/wp-co…llness-Model-04-26-15.jpg

2) he then perceived that the vessel itself did cause the corruption and that by its corruption all the things that came into it and were gathered from abroad, however salutary were spoilt within it; partly because he saw it to be leaky and full of holes so that it could never by any means be filled full; partly because he perceived that it befouled so to say with a nauseous flavor everything within it which it had taken in

3) In modern physics, matter is one form of energy. I doubt Epicurus would take issue with this, and it doesn’t change the basics of the argument above.

4) Need specific source of translation


NOTE: While comments are turned "on" for this article, please post future comments at this thread, where they are more likely to be seen: Discussion of Article: "On Pleasure, Pain and Happiness"

Comments 1