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How Epicurean Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial and Personal Life
Over the last few years, one of the most valuable areas of growing my understanding of personal finance has come from reading philosophy. As I discussed a few weeks ago:
Wikipedia provides a great basic definition: “Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.” Philosophy can be abstract, such as trying to figure out what is real and what isn’t or what it means to truly “know” something, or it can be more practical, asking questions like what the best way to live is.
I find both avenues very interesting and both are good parallels to personal finance. Understanding some of the big “whys” of the world often helps refine a lot of your internal perspectives and helps you define your internal values and principles, and the more practical elements of philosophy tend toward some degree of personal development, which I discussed earlier as an interesting area in its own right. Both avenues provide a lot of tools for thinking through challenging problems in life.
Honestly, philosophy (in a broad sense) is probably my favorite subject for reading these days. I find myself very attracted to books on philosophy and associated fields and sub-fields. I’ve jokingly suggested to my wife that this is something of a midlife crisis as I’m trying to figure out why I’m here and what the best life is.
To summarize, quite a lot of philosophy is focused on the question of how to live the best life, or what the “best life” even is, which is a question strongly tied to personal finance.
The first school of philosophical thought that really attracted me in terms of how to use it for personal success was Stoicism, the applications of which I discussed in an earlier article, How Stoicism’s Principles Can Help You Transform Your Financial Life. I found – and still find – that Stoicism is incredibly helpful in terms of stepping back from your emotional responses to things and carefully considering your actions.
However, my philosophical journey didn’t end there, and today I want to discuss Epicureanism. Epicureanism is so named because it was largely founded by a single Greek philosopher, Epicurus.
In simplest terms, the philosophy of Epicureanism centers around the idea of pleasure as the greatest good. One should seek a life of pleasure. However, what sets Epicureanism apart is its idea on what pleasure really is.
Epicurus argued that pleasure is found by living modestly, curbing one’s desires, enjoying simple pleasures in the moment without gluttony, and reflecting on and understanding the world. Doing this leads to tranquility and freedom from fear (and, to some extent, less physical pain) and that those factors together are a huge source for personal happiness. Epicurus considered this state to be the highest and best form of happiness and pleasure.
Let’s break these ideas down a little bit and see how they apply to modern life and personal finance.
Great Happiness Comes from Simple Pleasures with Minimal Cost
Epicureanism nudges people toward the idea that the greatest happiness is found in pleasures that have a minimal cost associated with them. When you pay a high cost to enjoy a particular pleasure, then that pleasure is inherently dampened by what you’re paying to enjoy that cost. This obviously has huge implications for how modern people spend their money.
Consider for a moment that a pleasurable activity or item is actually reduced in pleasure by having a significant cost associated with it. For example, let’s say you plan an amazing trip to Disney World with your family, but the bill means that you’re going to have to work a lot of hours to pay for that trip. While the trip to Disney World might be wonderful, you have to subtract from that joy the steep personal cost you’re paying for it – a lot of hours at work. On the other hand, you might enjoy a very low cost weekend camping trip somewhere that would require very little additional expense beyond what it would cost to just sit at home.
With the Disney World trip, if you don’t consider the cost of it, it might be substantially more fun than the camping trip. However, if you subtract out the immense amount of work you have to put in to be able to pay for the Disney World trip and subtract the unpleasantness of all of that time spent working on things you didn’t necessarily choose for yourself, the end result is rather little pleasure. On the other hand, that local camping trip is in itself quite enjoyable and doesn’t have nearly the downside in terms of hours of work associated with it.
For an Epicurean, the better option is the simple camping trip. It provides pleasure with much less cost. The Disney World trip may indeed provide more pleasure in itself, but it comes with a larger batch of unpleasantness – working on tasks that you didn’t choose for yourself.
(It’s important to note that work isn’t inherently unpleasant, particularly if you’re working on things that you choose for yourself; it becomes unpleasant when you can’t decide when and how much to work on your own terms and when you’re doing tasks you don’t want to do, which is a state most of us find ourselves in when working, at least some of the time.)
So, on the whole, Epicureanism points us to find pleasurable things with minimal cost, with the best things being highly pleasurable things with no cost.
It is worth noting that, while cost is often financial in nature, it can also be measured in terms of a health cost and a time cost (or opportunity cost). Epicureans prefer simple pleasures with absolutely minimal cost (obviously while seeking the best pleasures with very low cost) compared to somewhat bigger pleasures with significant cost.
So, what does that do for a person’s finances? For one, it strongly cuts into non-essential spending. An Epicurean seeks pleasure at minimal cost, so if you’re actually working toward that, your non-essential spending should drop through the floor. What does one do with that money? Well, Epicureanism offers some answers for that, too, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
As noted earlier, Epicurus offers some specific tactics for achieving a lifestyle focused heavily on achieving low cost pleasure.
Tactic #1 – Living Modestly
The main tactic that Epicurus offers for achieving a life centered around pleasure with minimal pain is to live a modest life. A modest life is one in which you cut out a lot of very minor pleasures that are associated with inflated costs, which really don’t add up to much pleasure at all, as described above.
In other words, for things that offer you relatively little direct pleasure, minimize the cost as much as you possibly can. Do you get direct pleasure from your laundry soap? Then go as cheap as possible. Repeat that for virtually everything in your life that you spend money on. If it doesn’t directly bring you pleasure, either cut the cost down to the minimum or cut it out entirely.
In my eyes, this is basic frugality strategy. If it’s not something that’s important to you, you should either avoid spending money or time or energy on it at all or you should strive to minimize the amount of time or money or energy you invest in it. Why toss perfectly good resources after things you don’t really care that much about?
The thing is, it is often hard to distinguish what really matters to you and the mere perception that something is “better” or “desirable,” which is where the second tactic comes in.
Tactic #2 – Curbing One’s Desires
The first tactic, living modestly by minimizing resources invested in things you don’t care about or care little about, is a fantastic strategy, but it comes with the assumption that you’re very clear on what things you really care about and what things are actually not that important to you. The catch, of course, is that for many people, the line between what really matters to you and what doesn’t actually matter but seems to matter isn’t very clear.
A great deal of our modern culture is centered around inserting and propping up desires in our life. Marketing is designed to prey on the core things we all want – health, good relationships, sex, joy, and so on – and tie it to products that we spend our hard-earned money on. Over time, it creates an artificial sense of want – we want a particular item not because of what the item actually delivers, but because we perceive it as bringing us health, good relationships, sex, joy, and so on.
A big part of a modern practice of Epicureanism, then, comes down to cutting through all of those mixed messages, figuring out our true desires, and curbing extra desires.
For example, I desire good friendships, and because of that, I might desire a home where I can have friends over all the time and they’re comfortable and happy. That can often twist itself into having a much bigger home than I need with lots of flashy home upgrades to make my home feel more hospitable to guests and impress them with some virtue that we believe we’re signaling. The truth, however, is that most of us will happily meet friends almost anywhere that’s reasonably clean (and sometimes not even then, honestly). If you want to have good friendships, be a good person; if you want to have friends over, just keep things reasonably clean and presentable. You can do that without a McMansion.
This touches a bit on another issue: virtue signaling. Quite often, when we buy things that we’re going to show to the outside world, part of our reason for doing that is to signal certain virtues to others. We’re successful or we’re artistic or we’re smart or we’re tech-y or whatever. The thing is, most of those signals are completely missed by others – we think they notice far more than they do about us. This is called the “spotlight effect” and it happens constantly. For another, positive impressions are usually borne by you, not by your stuff. Be clean, be friendly, be kind, and listen, and you’ll find that it’s easy to build relationships and give a good impression in social situations, and those factors don’t really cost you anything. Your words and actions will form far more of their impression of you than anything else.
The key thing here is to figure out what things you actually want, what things are just fleeting impulses dropped on your lap by marketing and media and social influences, and what things are just stand-ins for a deeper desire. That takes time and reflection. One good way to handle this is to simply adopt the 30 day rule, which simply states that when you want something that’s not 100% essential, you give it thirty days before buying it, and you reflect on it a little bit during and after those thirty days. Almost always, you’ll find that the desire either fades away or you realize that it’s actually a desire for something deeper like friendship or love or knowledge, things that aren’t handed over by buying stuff.
Tactic #3 – Enjoying Simple Pleasures Without Gluttony
I appreciate a lot of simple pleasures, as do many of us. As I write this, I’m sipping on a cup of cold brew black coffee, made in my refrigerator from ground beans, just the way I like it. Each sip is a little treat. I love things like curling up with a good book for an hour or two of uninterrupted reading, the taste of sharp cheese, the smell of a forest not too long after a rainfall, the music of The Avett Brothers… I could list hundreds and hundreds of little simple pleasures that I enjoy.
The best simple pleasures are in line with the overall idea of Epicureanism – they come with minimal cost or, ideally, no cost at all. The coffee is made about as inexpensively as can be – it’s literally coffee grounds soaked in water for most of a day, then strained. I’m always reading books from the library. I listen to a lot of music streamed at a minimal cost. A little bit of food is always inexpensive.
The catch, of course, is that if you gorge on a particular pleasure, the pleasure of it starts to fade and it begins to feel ordinary. My first taste of coffee in the morning is a real pleasure, but if I gulp it all day, it ceases to offer much additional pleasure. That first nibble or two of cheese is amazing, but if I eat several ounces of it… it’s not as good any more. I can curl up with a book all afternoon, but if I don’t do something physical, I feel like a lazy slug. The wet forest is a marvel, but if I were there for hours and hours and visited it all the time, it would feel completely plain.
The key to simple pleasures, I’ve found, is to spread them out and alternate them. Don’t go to the coffee shop every single day or even several times a week or else it will feel completely ordinary. Don’t fill every ounce of hobby time with the same hobby or it will begin to feel dull. Don’t gorge yourself on delicious food or it won’t be as delicious or special any more (plus there’s a health cost). Mix up and spread out your simple pleasures; have a wide palette of them. Have several low cost leisure activities that you love. Spend time with lots of different friends in lots of different permutations doing lots of different things. Explore lots of different places. Sample (but don’t gorge on) lots of different foods, and enjoy small portions of your favorites on an irregular basis.
Doing this has a lot of benefits. It never allows the pleasure to become ordinary and expected; it remains a pleasure. It also prevents the downsides of overconsumption, which can be immense (obesity, alcoholism, dullness, etc.).
Tactic #4 – Reflecting On and Understanding the World
For Epicurus, a big part of enjoying simple pleasures in life is doing them without fear and worry, and one of his primary avenues for eliminating fear and worry is to reflect on, learn about, and understand the world around you. He felt that a life that involved directly addressing, learning about, and reflecting on the things that concerned you made that fear and worry fade away, enabling you to enjoy simple pleasures in life without that mild taint of worry in your mind.
For me, I find that there are three big tactics I can use to reflect on, learn about, and understand the world.
First, I practice lifelong learning. Very few days go by where I don’t spend at least a good hour reading a book about something that’s on my mind, and I often find that learning about that subject eliminates a lot of the fear I have about it. Sure, sometimes leads to new questions that might concern me, but then there’s a new avenue for learning. I used to be worried and stressed quite a lot about personal finance, for example, but now none of it really worries me at all as I have learned and applied good practices. I do this with all kinds of subjects, practical and otherwise – for example, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about subjects like AI and gene editing and politics, simply because those subjects really concerned me, and learning about them alleviated a lot of my concerns.
Second, I spend time meditating every day. For me, this is a quiet moment to still my mind from the hectic pace of my life. Typically, the voice in my head is always chattering and it often ends up flying off in unrelated directions (breaking my concentration and focus on the moment) and going down negative dead ends which can contribute to a sense of fear and worry. Meditation really helps me clear all of that up, and it definitely helps with my ability to focus in the moment. I just use a really simple mindful meditation practice where I either focus on my breathing or on a single word or phrase, and when other thoughts drift in, I notice them and consciously redirect either to my breath or to the word or phrase. That’s it. I do this for about fifteen minutes per session, one or two sessions a day. (At first, my sessions were much shorter, because it was actually quite hard to do this for very long.) I’ve found that this practice has calmed many of the worries of my wandering mind and helped me to focus on the moment much better.
Finally, I write in a journal (almost) every day. I usually just write down a couple of brief highlights of the day, a few things I’m grateful for, and some reflections on the things I’m trying to focus on. I’ll usually also do a single thorough “after action review,” which means that I write about a single situation in my recent life that’s troubled me, what exactly I did during that situation, what I ideally should have done during that situation, what the difference between the ideal and the reality is, and then what that difference boils down to in terms of what I can be doing better going forward. It’s pretty straightforward and takes about fifteen minutes or so in total; I often do some of it in the evening (highlights of the day, reflections on focus points) and some in the morning (after action review; things I’m grateful for; reminders of my focus points). For me, this is an opportunity to reflect on my life and the things that are worrying me the most, and the practice brings a lot of clarity which often washes away that worry.
Learning about the world followed by reflection on what I’ve learned and on my own inner self goes a very long way toward quelling most of the idle worry, fear, and emotional pain that I used to carry around. Quite honestly, eliminating those feelings (and improving my focus and gratitude) have been tremendously helpful in terms of keeping my spending under control. These things are practices in line with Epicureanism that I was doing before I ever learned about Epicurus, because the benefits are real beyond his philosophy.
Tactic #5 – Minimizing and Eliminating Pain and Fear
A final area of interest is the Epicurean focus on minimizing and eliminating areas of fear and pain, which makes it much easier to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and minimize the amount of money, time, and energy spent dealing with pain and fear. I find that there are a lot of things a person can do to minimize and eliminate pain and fear in life.
One strategy is to live a healthy life. This eliminates a lot of pain and discomfort and also alleviates a great deal of fear. Obviously, no one can be perfectly healthy, but we can all lead a basic healthy life by eating a reasonably healthy diet and doing at least some exercise and moving around, such as going on walks.
Another strategy is to maintain an emergency fund, which protects you from worries such as what to do if your car doesn’t start or what to do if you lose your job. Cash in a savings account really takes the edge off many of life’s fears about unexpected events.
For bigger unexpected events, insurance can help. Life insurance can protect you against the untimely demise of a family member, for example. Auto insurance can protect you against the huge cost of having to unexpectedly replace a car. Insurance should prepare you for the big expenses that have some notable chance of happening that you can’t afford out of pocket, bringing the cost down to something you can afford with your budgetary breathing room and emergency fund.
Another useful tool is retirement savings. Simply putting aside money for retirement alleviates a big general worry about your golden years. You’re no longer straddled with thoughts about what you’re ever going to do when you’re 70 and aren’t able to keep up as well any more and don’t have any money, because you will have money.
Where does the money for these things come from? If you’re following Epicureanism as a whole, it comes from focusing on simpler pleasures in life. The natural benefit of focusing on simple pleasures with little cost is that you have more money to spread around.
If you found these ideas intriguing, there are a couple of books on Epicurean topics that I highly recommend.
First, you can read the writings of Epicurus himself, collected in The Art of Happiness. The writings we still have from Epicurus today that weren’t lost to the ages are a little fragmented, but this volume organizes them into a very cohesive collection that really spells out the philosophy well.
For a more modern perspective, Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus does a wonderful job of putting a modern spin on Epicureanism, looking at it through the perspective of visiting people and communities living today on the Greek island of Hydra, which Klein visits after a troubling trip to the dentist and the realization that he’s facing a batch of painful and expensive (and a bit humiliating) dental work. It’s a great modern spin on the ideas of Epicurus.
In the tradition of Epicureanism, you’ll find the most pleasure from these books by checking them out from the local library.
Personally, I have found a lot to value in the ideas of Epicurus. I find that the overall philosophy – putting high value on simple pleasures with minimal cost, minimizing life’s worries – is strongly in line with how I’ve come to live my life. Thousands of years ago, Epicurus was able to take those elements and see the inherent links between them and how they form a nice framework for living, one that still rings true today.