The Philosophy of Happiness:
What the World’s Wisest Minds Can Teach Us About Finding Pleasure in Everyday Life


philosophy-of-happiness-girl-smiling-mainphoto: zabalotta

Philosophers throughout the ages—from Socrates to Buddha to Krishna to the authors of Judaism’s Kabbalah—were more than willing to advise others on how to live a happy life. These are all complex traditions, and I obviously can’t do justice to them in the short summaries that follow. My purpose here is to pull out some pertinent ideas in an attempt to deepen your understanding of the role of pleasure in our lives.

The Good Greek Life

Socrates believed that reason was a path to the good life. He also told his followers to look inward (i.e., do some soul searching) to find happiness. Socrates was so convinced about the power of introspection that he famously declared, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

As far as our desires were concerned, Socrates said mere mortals had the ability to achieve “a divine-like state of inner tranquility.” He was among the first philosophers to argue that happiness is not divinely given but humanly possible if we make an effort. Keep in mind that the ancient Greeks believed that happiness was extremely rare and reserved only for those the gods favored.


“All human beings naturally desire happiness.”


Against this somewhat gloomy backdrop, the optimistic Socrates believed that people were capable of harmonizing or prioritizing their desires to achieve this divine-like tranquility. By being virtuous and just, he said, one could realize the true purpose of human existence, which would then lead to a happier life. Most of us, he believed, are filled with pride, conceit, and beliefs we cling to for a sense of identity and security. Socrates challenged people’s preconceived notions, most of which he felt were based on faulty logic. And who among us wants to argue with Socrates?

Socrates’s student, Plato, wrote a number of famous dialogues on the pursuit of pleasure and the philosophy of happiness using his teacher as the central character. Scholars continue to debate the relationship between Socrates’s original teachings and Plato’s own ideas, but the following are their deepest thoughts about pleasure and happiness:

+ All human beings naturally desire happiness.

+ Happiness is obtainable and teachable through effort.

+ Happiness does not depend on material things but on how we use material goods (wisely or unwisely).

+ Happiness depends on learning to harmonize our desires. We do this by giving more weight to our desire for knowledge and virtue than to our desire for physical pleasures.

+ Virtue and happiness are inextricably linked; it is impossible to have one without the other.

+ The pleasures one gets from pursuing virtue and knowledge are on a higher plane than the pleasures we get from satisfying our baser desires. Pleasure is not the goal of existence, but it is an integral part of being virtuous.

The Greek word eros stands for love, friendship, and passion—desires that make up some of the best things in life. It is the root of the word “erotic” and, as you might guess, also includes sexual passion. While eros can keep us longing and never completely satisfied, Socrates said that we can either control it or let it take the wheel by letting our sexual desires overtake our reason. Jealousy, crimes of passion, and unrequited love are all examples of eros gone wild.


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In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates continues his discourse on the relationship between pleasure and virtue (morality). An immoral life, he says, is filled with guilt, stress, and anxiety—emotions that can lead us to escape through alcohol and other mood altering drugs. When you live a moral life, the philosopher says, you have peace of mind, but happiness also comes from the joy of knowledge, which involves exploring the higher realms of truth. Wisdom, he believed, can be far more rewarding than the pursuit of physical pleasure.

Socrates also theorized that nearly all pleasure is relative and that gratification can come from the absence of pain. Let’s say you are sick and suddenly get better; you might consider your new condition to be pleasurable, when it is simply a relief from illness. Of course, once you get used to being well, it’s no longer pleasurable. Likewise, someone who gets a job after a long period of unemployment might find working pleasurable, while another person who has the same job will find work a chore. Getting high on drugs, which gives us satisfaction in the short term, will eventually lead to pain if we abuse them, especially if we become addicted. Perhaps it was Socrates who first coined the phrase “It’s all relative.”


“Happiness also comes from the joy of knowledge, which involves exploring the higher realms of truth.”


A century after Socrates and Plato, another Greek philosopher named Epicurus would expand on the argument about positive and negative pleasures. Positive pleasure, he submitted, is nothing more than the removal of pain. If you are thirsty, you can drink a glass of water to get some relief. Negative pleasure is that state of harmony where you no longer feel any pain and therefore don’t require a positive pleasure (like a cool beverage) to get rid of the pain.

He maintained that positive pleasure always falls somewhere on a scale of good to great. This kind of pleasure can also be frustrating, because there will always be a contrast between the state you are now in and a “higher” state that would make your current experience appear less desirable. If you get more pleasure from sex than from eating, for example, eating won’t seem as pleasurable (unless you’re eating during sex, I suppose). Epicurus concluded that the true state of happiness is the state of negative pleasure, an oxymoron that is basically the absence of unfulfilled desires. (This idea is similar to the Buddhist concept of achieving Nirvana through the removal of desire—more about that later.)

happiness-and-pleasureliving the philosophy of happiness photo: toniboni

Plato had a renowned pupil, Aristotle, who proposed that pleasure is made up of energeia, which includes many activities such as music, art, and thinking, all of which help us lead fulfilling lives. He said the amount of pleasure we experience depends on how ardently we pursue certain activities. For example, as a beginner violinist gets better, the satisfaction she gets from playing music will also increase. Like his fellow philosophers, Aristotle believed some pleasures are greater than others. He ranked them as follows:

1. Thinking

2. Sight

3. Hearing and Smell

4. Taste

Aristotle also argued that animals experience pleasures that are appropriate for their species; that is, a bear’s pleasure is different from a dog’s. Similarly, there are certain pleasures, such as the ones listed above, that are mainly for humans: thinking (contemplation), hearing (music), sight (art), smell (flowers/nature—although one could argue that animals enjoy this as well), taste (food—again, does anybody enjoy their food more than a dog?). We humans, on the other hand, can apply these ancient musings to our modern-day Pleasure Principles when deciding which activities we would like to pursue.

Modern Thinkers, Spiritual Leaders, and Happiness Gurus

While we can look to philosophers and prophets to help us find the path to guilt-free pleasures, we can also pay attention to what some of the modern religious and secular thought leaders have to say about getting on board a higher plane to the high life.

In a recent interview with the Argentine publication Viva, Pope Francis offered advice for being a happier person, based on his own life experiences. He encouraged people to be more positive and generous, to turn off the TV and find healthier forms of leisure, and, refreshingly, to stop trying to convert people to your own particular beliefs. The following are his top ten tips for a happier life.

“Live and let live.” Pope Francis gave the following advice that comes from an Italian cliché meaning, “Move forward and let others do the same.” “Everyone should be guided by this principle,” he said. This is also one of the slogans that people in both AA and Al-Anon use to keep themselves grounded in their program of recovery.

“Be giving of yourself to others.” People need to be open and generous toward others, he said, because “if you withdraw into yourself, you run the risk of becoming egocentric. And stagnant water becomes putrid.”

“Proceed calmly” in life. The pope, a former high school literature teacher, used an example from an Argentine novel by Ricardo Guiraldes, in which the protagonist, rancher Don Segundo Sombra, looks back on how he lived his life. In the story Don Sombra proposes new ethical examples to a youth the author considered disoriented and restless, including this advice.

A healthy sense of leisure. The pope said, “Consumerism has brought us anxiety,” and told parents to set aside time to play with their children and turn off the TV when they sit down to eat.

Sundays should be holidays. Workers should have Sundays off because “Sunday is for family,” he said.

Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people. “We need to be creative with young people. If they have no opportunities they will get into drugs” and be more vulnerable to suicide, he said.

Respect and take care of nature. Environmental degradation “is one of the biggest challenges we have,” he said. “I think a question that we’re not asking ourselves is: ‘Isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?’”

Stop being negative. “Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. That means, ‘I feel so low that instead of picking myself up I have to cut others down,’” the pope said. “Letting go of negative things quickly is healthy.”

Don’t proselytize; respect others’ beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses … The church grows by attraction, not proselytizing,” the pope said.

Work for peace. “We are living in a time of many wars,” he said, and “the call for peace must be shouted. Peace sometimes gives the impression of being quiet, but it is never quiet, peace is always proactive” and dynamic.

The Dalai Lama, another beloved spiritual leader who travels the world teaching his Tibetan brand of Buddhism, had this to say about how to achieve pleasure and happiness:

We all want happiness, not suffering, and as a consequence we have to see if the mind can be transformed… There’s no reason to feel low or demoralized; much better to be confident and optimistic… I believe compassion to be one of the few things we can practice that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives. I’m not talking about the short-term gratification of pleasures like sex, drugs or gambling (although I’m not knocking them), but something that will bring true and lasting happiness. The kind that sticks.

So what defines someone as an optimist or a pessimist other than the glass-half-full-or empty test? Scientific studies have shown that those who have a Pollyanna personality believe that negative events are temporary and limited in scope, rather than pervading every aspect of a person’s life, and that most problems are manageable and not out of one’s control.

Wherever you fall on the scale, professor of positivity Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says that optimism is a learned skill and that people can train themselves to be happier by changing the way they think and perceive the world. He cites recent studies that have shown how optimistic people are happier, have more social support, and feel less stressed and less depressed. Like the Dali Llama, Seligman says optimists react to problems with a sense of confidence rather than with a sense of defeat (e.g., “This will work out” versus “Everything bad always happens to me.”)


“People can train themselves to be happier by changing the way they think and perceive the world.”


Ekhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher and best-selling author of The Power of Now and A New Earth, takes a slightly different view, although he also believes that our thoughts are directly connected to our happiness. He is guided by the precepts that involve living in the moment and clearing one’s mind of all thoughts, both positive and negative, to maintain emotional “neutrality.” He says living in the moment has given him the gift of true peace and contentment.

“Pleasure is always derived from something outside you, whereas joy arises from within,” Tolle explains. “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but the thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral. It is as it is.”

He also advises people who are frequently caught in a maelstrom of negative thoughts and worries to, literally, stop and smell the flowers: “Look at a tree, a flower, a plant,” he suggests. “Let your awareness rest upon it. How still they are, how deeply rooted in Being. Allow nature to teach you stillness.”

Another purveyor of positivity is Gretchen Rubin, the Yale-trained lawyer and author of the wildly popular The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. (Apparently Rubin sought the wisdom of Greek philosophers.) Like Tolle and other satisfaction seekers, Rubin says that simple pleasures give us the greatest contentment and that we must learn to “appreciate our ordinary day.” Before you embark on your journey to find happiness, Rubin says you should ask yourself:

+ What makes you feel good? What gives you joy, energy, fun?

+ What makes you feel bad? What brings you anger, guilt, boredom, dread?

+ What makes you feel right? What values do you want your life to reflect?

+ How can you build an atmosphere of growth—where you learn, explore, build, teach, help?

Self-reflective questions like these can help us pinpoint the areas in our lives that might be causing us pain, frustration, or anxiety, and help us achieve that feeling of bliss that we all crave.

The following is excerpted with permission from High: 6 Principles for Guilt-Free Pleasure and Escape by Jodie Gould.

About The Author

Jodie Gould is an award-winning journalist and author of eight books, including Women & Recovery, with Kitty Harris, Ph.D., and Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You with Marie Pasinski, M.D. She has been a frequent contributor to Woman’s Day and Family Circle, and she wrote a monthly column for Gould has been interviewed on numerous TV and radio shows, such as Oprah, ABC World News Tonight, and ExtraVisit her online at


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