As I sit to write this I'm sitting on a train heading north, from the city to the coast, and I am surrounded by a plethora of different people. They are from all ages and all backgrounds and their many different faces make up their many different stories. As the view from the window flies by I see big houses and fast cars, albeit mainly stuck in traffic, and I wonder about the stories of the people I am surrounded by. I wonder to myself - are they happy?
I can't help but think about the struggles they may be facing, the challenges, and the joys. I see some people are returning home from a long day at work and I can't help but think did they get to jump in the ocean today or feel the sun on their empty shoulders? Did they have time to relax, time to ponder, time to choose how they were going to spend their day? Or was their day already planned out? From the moment their alarm beeped did the wheels just start turning and the routine click into gear?
It's interesting to see as I travel further away from the city, the traffic is diminishing, the suits being replaced with t-shirts, frowns with smiles and houses with trees. I wonder do we make our lives so complicated that we limit our choice? The water in the rivers I'm now passing seem so simple, clear and open and they are a complete contrast to the city life, and all its busyness, that I just left behind. We get stuck on this route of chasing after material possessions, so much so that when we acquire one of our targets we start racing after another one. We become entrenched in this non-stop tunnel and we believe that these material things and objects are the keys to our happiness.
The great Greek philosopher Epicurus had a vision back in Ancient Athens, of building a community based on bringing like- minded people together to live and share together in freedom, simplicity and happiness. Firstly, he decided that he would live together with friends, he didn't like the idea of only seeing them now and then. He bought a modestly priced plot of land outside of Athens and built a place where he and his friends could live side by side on a permanent basis. Everyone had their rooms and there were common areas downstairs and in the grounds. That way, the residents would always be surrounded by people who shared their outlooks, were entertaining and kind. Children were looked after and everyone ate together, one could chat in the corridors late at night - It was the world’s first proper community.
Secondly, everyone in the community stopped working for other people, they accepted cuts in their income in return for being able to focus on work that was more fulfilling to them. Some of Epicurus’s friends devoted themselves to their art, others to farming, some to cooking, a few to making furniture - they had far less money, but they were able to enjoy far greater intrinsic satisfaction.
And thirdly, Epicurus and his friends devoted themselves to finding calm through rational analysis and insight. They spent periods of every day reflecting on their anxieties, improving their understanding of themselves and mastering the great questions of philosophy. Epicurus created a place to live and work together in harmony, with the time and space to analyse, explore and reflect on life’s biggest questions in order to find greater fulfilment in everyone's daily lives and foster true happiness and freedom.
In today's climate this kind of world seems like nothing but a utopian dream. It seems we have moved too far in the other direction and even the thought of spending time every single day doing the things we love seems strange -but shouldn't the idea of not doing what we love every single day be the strange thing? So we jump on the train after a long day at work, like the day before, stressed and strained ready to jump back up when the alarm beeps again tomorrow. Why? Have we over-complicated our lives at the expense of our freedom and happiness?
I was always bent on finding my happiness in my consumption and this meant spending less time with my friends, less time pursuing what I loved, and less time exploring and reflecting on what it was that I wanted and needed. Then I spent three months living in a little hut in the forest, it was small and run down, the opposite of what most in the west would consider a beautiful home, and I came to realise that our happiness should never be about what we own. I saw that if we can be content and satisfied within the tiny confines of an old wooden shack then we can find happiness in anything, anywhere.
The small hut had a rawness to it, a simplicity and authenticity engrained into its old wooden palings. I see big houses everywhere I look, with televisions on in every room. We work hard so we can give our children the biggest and warmest homes but then we are too tired to talk to them and too tired to enjoy it. The hut was the simple life and I couldn’t hide behind my television or mobile phone, or ignore a friend because of the computer in front of me. It was a time to be open to the simplicities of life instead of always striving for something else.
In Alain De Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy he describes our associations with consumption and happiness. “Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what Epicurus termed the ‘idle opinions’ of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasising luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. The prevalence of ‘idle opinion’ is no coincidence. It is in the interests of commercial enterprises to skew the hierarchy of our needs, to promote a material vision of the good and downplay an unsaleable one. And the way we are enticed is through the sly association of superfluous objects with our other, forgotten needs." Like the advertisement of a new flashy car racing through the mountains filled with friends, it’s the car we are buying, but it’s actually the freedom and the friendship which we seek.
Epicurus believed that levels of consumption would be destroyed by “greater self-awareness and appreciation of simplicity.” It is obvious that our happiness doesn’t increase in line with an increase in our wealth, so why do we think we will be happy when we buy this or have that? Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When we take the time to live mindfully, we will discover that living a simple life and consuming less are the true conditions for happiness.”
We all have the choice to make our lives as simple as we like, but we continually choose things that create complications for our already over-complicated lives. We make our lives so complicated that they become a struggle and a chore when our lives should be anything but. As a consequence we find it extremely difficult to find true happiness when our lives are so complicated. When we have simplicity we have so much more freedom in every single aspect of our lives - maybe it’s a classic case of less is more? Less stress, less worries, more time, more happiness.
By Evan Sutter