On Pain, Pleasure, and Happiness
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 third state such as neutral, and there are no “fancy pleasures” which are different from regular pleasures. Because there is no neutral, reducing pain in life is only possible if there is a corresponding increase in 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 comprised of a pleasurable life. The capacity for pain is a valuable warning system and should not be disabled except in unusual conditions. The experience of pain is to be avoided except when 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.
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.
What are Pain and Pleasure?
It is important to understand that neither pain nor pleasure is a “nothing” state. Each is a specific type of feeling, typically produced in the brain as a response to experience, including the experiences of remembering the past or thinking about the future.
Pain and pleasure are not emotions or moods—they are enjoyable or unpleasant feelings, and any mood or emotional state will also have an associated painful or pleasurable feeling, which can vary according to the circumstances. Under normal conditions (leaving out, for instance, direct stimulation by a brain surgeon), we will not ever experience pain or pleasure out of context with various moods, emotions, thoughts, actions, and sensory inputs.
Anyone who is neurologically intact knows what pain is and has experienced it many times. The same brain regions involved in our awareness of pain also process emotional pain, such as the pain of rejection. Pain is often called a “negative” feeling and produces a desire for the feeling to end. The urgency of the desire to end the painful feeling varies according to the intensity of the pain as well as the overall situation.
All typical humans have also experienced pleasure and should have a very easy time understanding my use of this term. It is important to understand that I am never speaking of some hypothetical esoteric, unusual sensations. Some philosophies and religions hypothesize states they call “joy” or “bliss” which are supposed to be unlike ordinary pleasure and require extraordinary means to acquire. I will call all of these notions “fancy pleasure.” These states are held out as the ultimate carrot, to persuade adherents to continue in painful and ascetic practices. They forgo the pleasures of life in order to get some imaginary feeling that is supposed to be better than pleasure, either in life or in a non-existent afterlife.
As Epicureans, we do not persuade you with empty promises. We know that the ordinary pleasures of living are the real thing. The pleasures of eating a delicious meal with friends, listening to your favorite music, lazing in a hammock on a Spring afternoon, recalling your favorite memories, engaging in a physical or mental activity you enjoy—what you feel with these ordinary experiences is truly pleasure. There is no “extra fancy” state which is more pleasurable than pleasure. When I say joy or bliss, I am using these words as synonyms for ordinary human pleasure, the only type of pleasure we experience.
Only Two Feelings
The contents of our cups include only pleasure or pain—there is never a third item such as “air” or “extra fancy pleasure” in the cup, because “the feelings are two, pleasure and pain (3).” 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 (4).
Having only two feelings is a significant contrast to philosophies like Buddhism, which posit a neutral response where neither pleasure nor pain is present. Epicurus did not speak of a third feeling, 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 (5).
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 – even death is not really a zero, because we are not experiencing it-- 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 for 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 from the urge to act. 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. Without the cup of pleasures, happiness does not exist.
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 either neutral or “fancy pleasure” state, which they imagine as the peace of ataraxia, and they erroneously seek out this imaginary 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 pleasure in order to minimize their pain—there is no third option.
Ataraxia and Aponia
I have mentioned ataraxia as a word commonly misunderstood by neo-Epicureans. Some neo-Epicureans make the mistake of thinking ataraxia is a “fancy pleasure”, and they put this new interpretation of Epicurus' words as their goal instead of the real life pleasure he recommended. Because Buddhism has become a fad for many Westerners, I have seen some conflate detachment – part of the way Buddhists see tranquility—with ataraxia. This leads neo-Epicureans to think that they should not seek pleasure but just take a detached perspective on life and not get ruffled. They may think this is “fancy pleasure”. It is not pleasure—it is a disconnection from reality which leads to pain.
So what is ataraxia? What are those neo-Epicureans missing? Ataraxia is the Greek word for "without agitation", and agitation is pain of the mind. Ataraxia is paired with aponia, "without pain" of the body. If you apply these descriptions, without pain of body and mind, to your cup of feelings, it should be clear by now that you will be left with only pleasure of body and mind, not some alternative to pleasure or pain. Remember, there are only two options, pleasure and pain-- not three options, pleasure, absence of pain, and pain.
A person with ataraxia and aponia is enjoying the full wellbeing of pleasure, the most pleasure humanly possible, in their entire body and mind! And this wonderful feeling is available to us during the course of many ordinary days in an ordinary human life, if we plan wisely.
From now on, when you read commentary saying Epicurus wasn't advising actual pleasure but just to be untroubled, as if there is even the possibility of freedom from pain and agitation which is not wholly pleasurable, you will know that writer has completely and thoroughly misunderstood Epicurus.
When you read PD 3 in this light, you will have an accurate understanding: "The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once"(6).
Mental or Physical—Which is Better?
I have witnessed several debates about which pleasure is “better” than another pleasure. Some people believe there are pleasures that are “higher” than others, and they place so-called “mental” pleasures in this category. If we remember that the feeling of pleasure is a response to a wide range of circumstances and activities, and that people differ in which of those circumstances and activities are pleasurable, I believe this is an easier question to take up.
The brain, which produces pleasures like thinking and remembering, is part of the body. Without past sensory input, none of the activities we call mental pleasures would be possible. Also, the brain does not shut down during activities bringing sense pleasures. I believe the distinction between mental and physical pleasure is not highly useful, for those reasons. However, Epicurus does talk about mental and sense pleasures, so I will also do so here.
Because our goal is to maximize pleasures, it is simply wise to engage in activities which can bring about longer lasting pleasure. For many if not most of us, enjoyable memories (mental, but based on prior sensory experience) are a reliable source of pleasure (7). The social pleasure of knowing one has beloved friends is a mental pleasure, and friendship, both sense and mental, is one of the greatest pleasure-producing experiences in life (8). We can also use our brains to remove pains, such as warrantless fears of the supernatural (9) and provide ourselves instant pleasurable relief that life is free from such terrors. What could be quicker to hand, if nothing else is available? Although many pleasure-producing activities also produce some pain, these particular mental activities are not only present on demand but pain free.
However, the pleasure feeling itself from memories is not “better” or “higher” than the pleasure that comes from eating a piece of chocolate (10). It is not somehow more virtuous or philosophical. It is not “fancy pleasure”—we have ruled out the existence of a third feeling. And you are not going to have that memory pleasure later if you don’t engage in pleasant activities now. How will you enjoy the pleasure of knowing you have friends, if you haven’t spent any time with them? You will be stuck with imaginary friends, who cannot come to your aid, hug you, or converse with you.
In the course of a life in which you engage in an ordinary variety of activities to fill your cup with pleasure, you will most likely please both your mind and your senses. If you feel your mind isn’t getting sufficient pleasure, so that your intellect is bored, that is your cue to plan more activities for mental pleasures. If your body is getting left out, it will send you pain messages to remind you to eat, get some physical activity, and so on. Which one is needed depends on what is going on in your life. With practice, you will become skilled at planning for pleasure of your whole self, even before any messages of pain come up, without needing to worry whether you are getting the “best” type of pleasure and accidentally starting to believe in some imaginary “fancy pleasure.”
Active or Passive Pleasure—Which is Better?
Sometimes, modern Epicurean circles debate about active vs passive pleasures. I approach this the same way I do the issue of mental vs. physical pleasures. Neither active nor passive pleasure is “fancy pleasure.” In some ways, the distinction is as meaningless as that between mental and physical pleasure—even for the passive pleasure of receiving a massage, you must take the action of arranging it. An afternoon in the hammock requires an active decision to climb in as well as the brain activity involved in being aware of the pleasurable sensations. The brain is not shut off during sleep. Action happens constantly until the moment of death. Nevertheless, I do know what most people mean by active and passive. Active usually means mental effort and/or physical movement beyond just breathing, which means some degree of effort, and passive implies stillness, rest, and effortlessness.
Sometimes we need to be active to produce a feeling of pleasure, either in the present or for the long-term, and sometimes we need rest. There is a significant amount of research on cognitive fatigue, also called decisional or directed attention fatigue, and it is wise to learn the rest needs for your particular body. When you need mental or physical rest breaks, long or short, take them and enjoy them. Perpetual motion is not the goal. I don’t think this is a very complicated concept.
Whether one is active or passive is not the important point—one must choose the approach necessary for pleasure. Don’t be like the people Epicurus describes in VS 11: “for most men rest is stagnation and activity is madness” (11).
To extend the duration of pleasure from an action, the “afterglow”, I like to alternate active and passive pleasures. For instance, I might enjoy actively making a painting, and then I will stop and enjoy the pleasure of appreciating what I have made, rather than jumping right into another activity. You can experiment to find what works for your own pleasure.
In order to enjoy a life full of pleasures over the long term, I do not know of a way to proceed other than by including some physical and mental activities. If you are born into wealth and have people to carry you around all day and feed you mush that you don’t have to chew, your body will wind up in pain, a known and significant complication of inactivity. If you sit in a cave your whole life, meditating, trying to find some version of “fancy pleasure” you’ve read so much about, your body will have the pain of inactivity and your mind the pain of boredom and loneliness. People have to act in the world at least some of the time to produce pleasures for themselves. For example, they would be wise to make friends and arrange to spend time with them, to study nature in order to alleviate their false fears, to acquire sufficient resources that they don’t have to worry about famines, and to seek various pleasant experiences now, both for the pleasure today and in order to have pleasurable memories later.
I want to make clear that there would be absolutely nothing wrong with meditating in a cave for your whole life, if that decision would fill your cup full of pleasures, on the same principle given by PD 10: “If the things that produce the pleasures of profligates could dispel the fears of the mind about the phenomena of the sky and death and its pains, and also teach the limits of desires (and of pains), we should never have cause to blame them: for they would be filling themselves full with pleasures from every source and never have pain of body or mind, which is the evil of life” (12).
The problem is that sitting in a cave will lead to pain.
Choose or Avoid—Which is Better?
With only two feelings, pain or pleasure, we have two different ways of looking at our actions. Pain brings with it the desire for avoidance, and pleasure the desire to choose, to seek out and continue. If our actions are effective, either choosing or avoiding should bring about pleasure—because if pain is avoided, pleasure is present, and if pleasure is chosen, pain is cast out. There’s only so much room in the cup.
Either avoidance or choice can involve action. For instance, to avoid being caught by someone trying to harm me, perhaps I will need to run as quickly as I can. To avoid being jailed or fined for not paying taxes, I had better file them on time. Avoidance of pain is not the same thing as avoidance of action.
Some decisions could be thought of as either choosing pleasure or avoiding pain. For instance, I could say that I am choosing to take a new job I will enjoy more, or I could say I am taking the new job to avoid the pain of my old one. I could say that I am honest to avoid the painful anxiety coming from lies or that I am doing it because truth telling feels pleasurable. The result of pleasure will be the same.
However, there is a particularly interesting feature of our brains which to me makes choosing pleasure the most useful perspective, when it is possible to go either way. I am not aware of Epicurus mentioning this, but I can’t imagine he would object, if he had access to recent psychiatric research. When we are trying to avoid something, our brains keep it in mind. Remember the “don’t think about a white bear” problem? If we are trying to avoid pain, our brains will keep that memory of pain active. And even the word “pain” can produce a slight zing of discomfort. If instead we set ourselves a plan to choose pleasure, when that perspective works just as well, we will not have to leave the unnecessary pain active in our minds. And we will get a small burst of pleasure just from thinking of the word “pleasure” itself. This is similar to what a friend told me about driving a motorcycle—if you look at the potholes, you’ll drive into them. That doesn’t mean we need to pretend the potholes aren’t there, but look in the direction you want to go.
The Volume of the Cup of Feelings
When I first read this model, I made the mistake of thinking the volume which 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.
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 a cup full of pleasure.
Humans are not inherently insatiable
There is a phenomenon called the hedonic treadmill, the tendency for people to sometimes require escalation of a pleasurable experience in order to enjoy it as much. In behavioral psychology terms, we habituate to the stimulus and want a stronger one or something new. I have seen the hedonic treadmill used as a reason not to choose pleasures, because we will just get used to them and be forced to do more and more extreme things to enjoy life. People who fear the hedonic treadmill promote minimalism as a path to pleasure (and sometimes to the mythical “fancy pleasure”). Sometimes it is used, along with Buddhist philosophy, as proof that humans are inherently insatiable and will always just want more and more—so better to stop wanting.
It is useful to be aware of this issue, particularly the areas of your life where you have noticed susceptibility to it. If you are spending time wanting some pleasure you have no way of getting, in that case it is wiser to turn your attention to a pleasurable activity within reach. However, there is no reason to let the hedonic treadmill scare you away from enjoying life.
Humans are not inherently and comprehensively insatiable. The easiest way to be sure of this is to think of the last time you were hungry and ate a meal you enjoyed. After a certain amount of food, your body sent chemical signals to your brain that your nutrient needs had been satisfied. We call this satiety, and it is a pleasurable feeling. Some people will still want more taste, despite their stomachs being full—but if they have not been depriving themselves in general and if they know that in a few hours, they will have another enjoyable meal, they will usually enjoy the pleasure of satiety. If they eat more, they will become unpleasantly full.
Epicurus said this directly in VS 59: “It is not the stomach that is insatiable, as is generally said, but the false opinion that the stomach needs an unlimited amount to fill it” (13).
After being pleasantly full, we can enjoy the next several hours of physical comfort, perhaps doing other pleasurable activities, and then we will become hungry. I have heard hunger used as evidence we can’t be satisfied, only because our pleasure isn’t permanent. But hunger does not have to be a pain if we know a meal is coming—it can be a pleasant anticipation. I am personally glad that I get hungry more than once in my life, because I enjoy the tastes of food.
Another example is sleep. If we have been in a habit of getting sufficient sleep and are healthy, when we wake up in the morning after a good night’s sleep, we don’t want more sleep. We are satisfied, satiated with sleep, and ready to get up and move around.
If our social pleasures are in good supply, when we give a friend a hug, there will be a satisfying duration which is neither too long nor too short.
I went to an art museum a few days ago with friends, to see a Frida Kahlo exhibit. When I got to one of the paintings which struck me as particularly amazing and beautiful, I stopped there and sat on a bench beside one of my friends for quite a while. I had my fill of the beautiful painting, and I did not want to see the other galleries—more would have been like overeating. I was fully satisfied with pleasure.
Once you start looking for these moments of satisfaction, where you have no desire for more and are full of pleasure, you will likely notice multiple pleasurable activities free of the hedonic treadmill effect. I am not going to make a long list, because it is different for everyone.
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, and there is no indication he discouraged variation—it’s just that variation is not the same as an increase. 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. This rate will be particular to you and will change over time.
The idea that you could put more pleasure in a completely full cup is sometimes due to persistent delusions of “fancy pleasure”—the fallacy that there is some unusual, non-ordinary feeling you are missing out on if you don’t pursue it. I think PD 30 is relevant here: “wherever in the case of desires which are physical, but do not lead to a sense of pain, if they are not fulfilled, the effort is intense, such pleasures are due to idle imagination, and it is not owing to their own nature that they fail to be dispelled, but owing to the empty imaginings of the man” (14).
Please let “fancy pleasure” go for once and all. It does not exist. Enjoy the real pleasures of your life instead.
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 recognized that happiness in life is comprised of pleasures and no extra ingredients. 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.
In order to have a truly happy life movie, there are certain conditions that help us—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 easier 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.
They may tell you happiness is one of the “fancy pleasures”—and that you can’t even imagine it by comparing to your real-life feelings of pleasure. This is a dangerous lie.
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, which 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 action or condition 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.” (15) 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 as described in VS 73: the occurrence of certain bodily pains assists us in guarding against others like them” (16). 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 pan 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 (17). This does not mean that every life decision for pleasure should involve some kind of pain, based on a confused idea about “balance.” We do not have any idealistic virtues, including any virtue of suffering. It just means that in reality, we observe that pain is part of the whole process leading to long term pleasure, and that if we don’t accept this reality, the long-term result will 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.
If you see minimizing pain as avoiding any action with pain in it, you are making a huge mistake, because you are not thinking of your whole life. You will be left with low grade chronic pain, not the pleasure you were hoping for.
The pain is not necessary as a contrast, because continuing pleasure is possible at times without needing a pain comma for punctuation. I am not saying “whatever is, is good”, but I am saying pain is part of life. All we are doing is acknowledging reality, when we advise not getting caught up in imagining a pain-free life. You can’t have it. Pain happens even if it is _not_ chosen directly, because you aren’t magic—you can wear a seatbelt and drive carefully, but you cannot prevent an earthquake from hitting your road, and there is nowhere on the planet you can go to be in a pleasure bubble, safe from every kind of possible pain. You can, however, avoid many pains, and pleasures can take up much more of your cup when you act to increase them.
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 feeling 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. Or getting through the awkwardness of getting to know a new person, who may become a lifelong friend.
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 a particular choice is “no pain, no pain.” 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 by the person.
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, I do not think it is 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.
However, we are not in full agreement on that point, and I don’t think that is a big problem. Cassius Amicus believes that using numerical comparisons can be useful as a visual representation of decision making. This could be a style issue, and perhaps it is nice to know you have more than one option. You could try both and see what leads to more 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, such as neutrality or “fancy pleasure.” 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 it will not work. 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 of environmental input and action. Instead we should look for the extent and intensity of stimulation and action your body requires for a feeling of pleasure at a particular time.
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 act for your pleasure when needed. Epicurus advised avoiding a constantly luxurious diet, which I take to mean one which was intensely stimulating, which would result in more pleasure at the time of a special feast: “when after long intervals we approach luxuries [having temporarily abstained] disposes us better towards them” (16).
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 temporarily, 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.
The advice in this paper may be very different from what you have heard elsewhere. It may take you some practice to unlearn some of the wrong information which prevails in our culture. However, Epicurus’ advice is based on observation of humans and the rest of nature, and it holds true today as much as it did when he was alive. You have one life, one cup to fill with pleasure or pain. Which will you choose?
2) Lucretius, book VI
3) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Ancient Philosophers, trans Hicks, 10.34
4) 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.
5) This is not a unanimous viewpoint in our group. Cassius Amicus says, “Yes there are only two feelings, and there are no neutral feelings. But this does not mean that there is a feeling about everything that comes to our attention. Something can come to our attention without eliciting any responsive "feeling" whatsoever. Feelings serve as the only guide which Nature gave us to determine what to choose and what to avoid, but that does not mean that Nature gave us an indicator to choose or avoid in response to every experience that comes our way.” I do not find this to be the case—for me, every experience, including a sense encounter with an object, has an associated feeling, although in some cases it is subtle and would require more attention on my part to categorize. I am not aware of any research demonstrating that under ordinary conditions, the feeling function of the brain is ever disengaged from sensory input and experience. In fact, it appears most likely that it is responding to the entire sensory environment—all the components—and not just a single aspect. And if it is always engaged, and neutral is not a possibility, we are always responding with pain or pleasure. https://journals.sagepub.com/d…/10.1177/2158244016630591
6) PD 3 The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once. (trans Cyril Bailey, Epicurus—The Extant Remains)
7) VS 19 Forgetting the good that has been, he has become old this very day (CB)
PD 27 Of all the things which wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship (CB)
9) PD 2 Death is nothing to us, for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us (CB)
10) PD 9 If every pleasure could be intensified so that it lasted and influenced the whole organism or the most essential parts of our nature, pleasures would never differ from one another (CB)
16) CB, Letter to Menoeceus