How to be Positive: Small Steps to Happiness

Happiness is by no means a concrete concept: like love, it encompasses a wide range of emotions, whose equilibrium is measured in different ways for different people.

The great philosopher Epicurus constructed his philosophy around the notion that unhappiness is driven solely by desire and fear. The fear of not attaining satisfaction drives the unthinking person on a long journey of desperate hungers to fill ever-widening emptinesses.

Epicurus and his followers sagely noted that pleasures sought for solely indulgent gains generally lend themselves to unhappiness in the long- or even short-term. The drinker faces the discomfort of a hangover and the tragedy of alcoholism, overriding the buzz of intoxication; the heavier eater confronts obesity.

There is nothing inherently negative about the luxuries and indulgences of the world, but obsessive and excessive hunger for various kinds of satisfaction -- filling the gaps of desire -- leads us towards ultimate dissatisfaction as we consume more and more of their thrills.

Therefore, Epicurus concluded, happiness does not lie in plugging the vacuums of desire -- in seeking endless pleasures -- but rather in maintaining contentedness: an absence of pain, referred to as ataraxia in the original Greek.

Instead of seeking happiness directly, then, one ought to adopt a passive frugality in order to make one's life be positive: important small steps to happiness include the recognitions that "those who have the sweetest enjoyment of luxury are those who stand least in need of it", as Diogenes Laertius records Epicurus saying, and that the suffering of abstinence can become the sensible and content choice, if indulgence might create difficulties in the future.

One of Epicurus' most perceptive observations, again recorded by Diogenes Laertius, is that the pain of the wise man is better than the pleasure of the fool.

Bearing this in mind, wherever you find yourself in your life, take stock of your dissatisfactions, and avoid the impulse to overwhelm them with short-term pleasures or distractions.

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