Chapter 1: Pleasure: The Guide To Life

“Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.”

Inscription at the entrance of the Epicurean Garden

If we were to describe the Epicurean philosophy in a single word, it would be “pleasure.” And if we were to sum it up in a sentence, it would be this excerpt from the letter of Epicurus to Menoeceus: “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of the happy life.” With this simple statement, Epicurus establishes the emotion of pleasure as both the means and the purpose of life, in contrast to all other philosophies that introduce rational means and ends such as achievement, success, wealth, status, morality, social justice, and so on.

The emotion of pleasure (and pain) in Epicurean philosophy and contemporary science alike is a mere physical reaction, a pure somatic expression. The health of the body and a smiling face are the true expressions of happiness. Similar to the sensations of vision, hearing, and so on, the emotion of pleasure is recognized in consciousness, and in that regard, it is the crude input of our rational judgment and decision. It reflects our inner truth on the consciousness.

Pleasure is a general term that incorporates all positive emotions. It is opposite to pain. It includes specific emotional states such as entertainment, enjoyment, ecstasy, euphoria, and so on. Its basic feedback is the motivation of the organism experiencing it to relive the event it has just found pleasing and to avoid past practices that produced pain. The experience of pleasure is subjective; no one feels exactly the same as another human being, even when he undergoes the same event or circumstances.

As a result, we are all capable of being happy, no matter how diverse our living conditions are, as long as our desires accommodate to the circumstances. Unsatisfied desire is the source of pain and unhappiness. Happiness truly is a choice. We can decide to focus on the positive and be happy with what we have, or we can concentrate on what we don’t have, which translates into unhappiness.

When we talk about pleasure, we’re generally referring to mixed pleasure rather than pure pleasure. An activity is said to be pleasant if the pleasure it provides is higher than the pain it involves. The more the pleasure and the less the pain, the higher the pure pleasure of the experience. However, when both exist, it is considered mixed pleasure.

Epicurus calls us to pursue pure pleasure, not to be carried away by pleasure that involves higher degrees of pain to achieve. Countless activities take place in an organism at any given moment; they generate an even larger mix of positive and negative emotions, the pure outcome of which defines our emotional state. Whether pleasant or painful, this pure emotional output is reflected through our body and on our face. It reaches its maximum when pain vanishes; thereafter pleasure can vary.

Epicurus’s research into the properties of pleasure is so elaborate and innovative that his views have had a great influence on the science of psychology until recent times.


The Origin of Pleasure

To discover the origin of pleasure, Epicurus looks to animals1 and infants2, who function instinctively and emotionally, so their behavior discloses the underlying motive. From their reactions, he finds that animals and children alike seek out pleasure and avoid pain. This mere evidence is adequate for Epicurus to determine that pleasure springs from the roots of the human organism, acting as the primary driving force of this life. What’s more, Epicurus notices that throughout their lives, both the animal and the infant are attached to pleasure and are averse to pain. Therefore, he concludes that pleasure is the lifelong guide3 of living beings.

Pleasure motivates the satisfaction of the human needs, namely of the needs of the body (health, food, shelter), of the soul (safety, friends, altruism), and of the spirit (knowledge). As soon as nature sets up its norms in our brains, nurture joins in to complete the portrait of our capacities, dispositions, and habits. The meaning and the significance our minds attach to our experiences are called perceptions4 or beliefs. Epicurus supports that we can mediate in the creation of our emotions by revising our underlying perceptions.

All emotions, says Epicurus, have a cognitive5 base and are subject to judgment, as beliefs are judged for their normative accuracy. In this sense, emotions are true or false, depending on whether the beliefs that ground them are true or false. If the individual can be persuaded to change his belief through an argument, the emotion recedes and is automatically replaced by a healthier emotion. The emotion of anger6, for example, is natural in the sense that it rests in human nature, but it can become nonnatural if it is accompanied by a desire for revenge. This desire is, to Epicurus, vain, because it rests on the false belief that revenge serves a utility and results in pleasure.

Interestingly, Epicurus’s claims on the nature and the qualities of emotions have been verified by modern research. Indeed, it is well-known that all stimuli—whether perceived from without or generated within the mind—are followed by emotions. This is the biological functioning of the emotional center of the mind. Research has shown that the amygdala, a tiny organ at the back of the brain, evaluates every single stimulus (urge or desire) to spot any risks or opportunities. Its reactions to the stimuli are emotions that act as signals for the initialization of the defensive or offensive mechanisms of the mind. The emotions of pleasure and pain are the inherent natural criteria for choice and avoidance of the mind. That is why we can say that emotions relate to intuition7; in a way, we experience happiness or sorrow before we become aware of it.

Natural and Nonnatural Pleasure

Epicurus’s approach to happiness combines genetics and free will.8 The appeal to animals and infants as witnesses of the innate dispositions of living beings is a confirmation of the genetic influence over our well-being. For example, the pleasure we take in eating is an effective way to secure that the body will get the nutrition it needs to be healthy. The pleasure of friendship is an equally functional way for the genes to secure safety.

Nonetheless, the satisfaction of these needs is subject to restrictions imposed by our capacities and the environment. Our desires are nothing but the inputs to our rational decisions and actions. Therefore, Epicurus exhorts us to exercise our free will and claim responsibility9 for the decisions we make regarding which desires to satisfy.

In his attempt to facilitate decision-making, Epicurus proposes a classification of desires10 into the natural and nonnatural and suggests we follow the natural and avoid the nonnatural. The natural, he says, is a desire that is followed by more pleasure than pain so that the pure emotion felt is pleasant. The nonnatural is a desire that is followed by more pain than pleasure so that the pure emotion felt is pain. Epicurus then differentiates the natural pleasures into the necessary and unnecessary.

Natural and necessary pleasure corresponds to the satisfaction of our needs, and if they are left unfulfilled, they necessarily lead to greater pain. Epicurus indirectly suggests that these needs are (1) bodily, such as the urges for health, food, and shelter; (2) psychological, like security, friendship, and altruism; and (3) spiritual, which is knowledge. Under normal conditions, natural and necessary pleasure can be procured rather easily. That is why a principal doctrine prompts us to thank nature for making the necessary things easily to procure.11

Natural and unnecessary desires are natural—that is, the pleasure they generate is greater than the pain involved—but they are not necessary for the continuation of life or painlessness. Unnecessary pleasure is incapable of increasing happiness; it can simply vary it. We can live without it. The most notable example of such a desire is sexual desire and the desire for luxurious food, clothing, and so on.

A nonnatural pleasure is the outcome of fulfilling a vain desire, such as for luxuries,12 wealth,13 fame (social status),14 power,15 and immortality.16 Such desires are pleasant at the beginning, but over the long run, the pain they create is higher than the pleasure. In short, the pure emotional impact of such desires is pain.

Epicurus’s emphasis on the fulfillment, with priority, of the natural and necessary desires raised doubts17 on how sincere he is, in so far as, on the one hand, he praises maximization of pleasure and on the other bounds strict pleasure-seeking.

The proponents of this view usually put forth the advice of Epicurus to his friend Menoeceus: “For it is not continuous drinkings and revelings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning.”

If, some argue, pleasure emerges from the fulfillment of my desires, should I not attempt to please as many as I can and as frequently as I can? Instead of being content simply with the satisfaction of my needs, should I not try to enjoy as much pleasure as possible? Certainly, Epicurus agrees that all pleasure is good, and one may enjoy unnecessary pleasure along with the necessary, but he also acknowledges that not all pleasure is equally important to happiness.

We should pursuit pleasure based on priority, and, besides, keep in mind that, at times, the pursuit of natural pleasures may turn nonnatural due to their painful consequences. An Epicurean quote is a reminder of this view: “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.”18

Epicurus emphasizes that prior to satisfying a desire, we should examine the costs and benefits, as well as its hierarchy among our desires. Is the desire natural? Is it necessary or not? Is the desire under our own control19 or does it exceed our capacities? With these considerations in mind, Epicurus, in his letter to Menoeceus, concludes that the desires of his friend are natural but not necessary, and they may turn into nonnatural desires considering his inclinations, capacities, and the circumstances. Therefore, Epicurus rightly suggests that Menoeceus reconsider his beliefs about what is necessary to his happiness and reevaluate his desires under a new perspective.

The Pleasure of Luxuries

Epicurus claims that the satisfaction of needs, such as those for health, food, shelter, safety, friendship, altruism, and knowledge, are necessary for the good life, but he does not refer to the specific kind of food, shelter, and so on. He suggests, for instance, that my desire for food springs from my nature as an organism that periodically needs to feed itself, and I must fulfill this desire to live as a healthy and happy human being. Any other demand over this is to be evaluated separately on the grounds of the belief that it is based on and should only be satisfied to the extent that it results in pure pleasure.

If the underlying belief is sound, then the desire is most probably natural. If, for example, I have the means to live a luxurious life in a way that supports my health and makes my life enjoyable, that is fine with Epicurus. On the contrary, if my desire for a luxurious life is the result of social conditioning for status with no obvious utility, then this desire will have harmful long-term effects. Any desire that serves a utility and does not pose a threat to our self-sufficiency20 is natural. Leading a luxurious life may be either natural or nonnatural, depending on the conditions.

Varieties of Pleasure

Epicurus’s rejection of immortality and his confidence in the mortal nature of the body and the soul,21 their parallel birth and growth, and their common reactions to joy and pain raises both body and soul to an equal base. Epicurus compared the body to a vessel carrying the soul, not to a prison or a grave22 as other philosophers of his time argued.

Every pleasure, he claims, not only affects the specific body organ which realizes it first but the whole self—body and soul. Namely, each form of pleasure is psychosomatic.23 Pleasure is pleasure wherever it may be, no matter what part of the body is directly affected or if it is kinetic or static, moderate, or intense.

In parallel, whereas every pleasure is psychosomatic, the value of it varies with the organ that experiences it according to its intensity24 (quality) and duration.25 “Intense mental pleasure or distress contributes more to our happiness or misery than a bodily pleasure or pain26 of equal intensity.” The flesh, Epicurus says, feels pleasure instantaneously and momentarily. It is blind and unconscious; it looks neither forward nor backward.

Mental27 pleasure, on the contrary, combines the pleasure of the past, the present,28 and the future. For the same reason, the mind can ease or eliminate pain by remembering past pleasure or by anticipating the pleasure that will come. The wise man creatively exploits the capacity of the mind to look backward and forward, but those who look to the past with bitterness and to the future with fear run the danger of transforming this ability into a weakness.29

In an analogous way to pleasure, Epicurus holds that mental pains are worse than bodily pains because they endure more than the bodily; the flesh endures the storms of the present alone, but the mind endures those of the past and future as well as the present.

Similarly to bodily pleasure, the pleasure of goods last for a shorter time than the mental. Indeed, smart gadgets, shopping, and cars please us when we purchase them, but soon we get used to them and ask for more and more. On the contrary, pleasant mental experiences please us when they happen, as the purchases of goods do, but they endure in our memories for a longer time than the purchases of goods, since they are more emotionally charged.

Pleasure is Continuous

Challenging the established conceptions of his time, Epicurus argued that pleasure is continuous30 because each experience goes through two consecutive phases: the active phase of the experience that creates the kinetic31 (active) pleasure and the static phase of it that creates the static32 (katastematic) pleasure, which results from the memory of the kinetic pleasure and reflects the mental state of freedom from pain. As long as the active part of the pleasure unfolds, the katastematic part (the memory) builds up in our minds.

There is no such thing as a neutral33 state in between. In other words, for Epicurus, pleasure is continuous. It arises in two ways: both through the experience itself and the memory of it. The satisfaction of hunger and thirst is a kinetic pleasure. The feeling of comfort that stays in our memory is a katastematic pleasure. Watching a theatrical performance or a concert is a kinetic pleasure, while the pleasant feeling that remains in our minds is a katastematic pleasure.

A katastematic pleasure is the feeling of having a quiet evening at home after a feasting binge. Avoiding the risk of death, similarly, is a kinetic pleasure, and the memory of avoiding death following the passage through danger is a katastematic pleasure. Consequently, just as the treatment of an illness is a pleasure, so is the memory of recovering from illness.34

Epicurus was the first-ever philosopher to consider pleasure (and pain) as a continuous experience consisting of an active and a static phase. This approach conforms to his groundbreaking innovation to emphasize the unconscious underpinnings of our emotions. Indeed, the active phase of the experience coincides with the conscious part of it and the static with the unconscious part of it.

The latter, Epicurus insists, has a stronger impact on our feelings because it endures (in the form of memories) much longer than the active part of the experience. All in all, kinetic and katastematic pleasure are two components of the same pleasure. There can be no kinetic pleasure without a katastematic part and vice versa.

The Epicurean conception of pleasure found confirmation in contemporary research. Indeed, researchers discovered that our minds are very sensitive in recording our emotions, especially the intense emotions and the repetitive ones. The emotions of pleasure and pain that we experience acquire an organic base in our minds as memories; they reshape our perceptions underlying pleasure and pain and eventually become constituent parts of our personality. They are the new reality of our lives, a permanent source of new, long-term (katastematic) pleasure.

Hence, Epicurus claims that happiness is enjoyed to its fullest only by those who know how to judge correctly,35 suggesting that they are aware of the pleasant consequences of both the active and the passive phases of a pleasant experience. Indeed, most people, while they usually recognize the joy of the active phase of an experience, do not attach any value to the pleasure of the passive phase of the experience, which endures so much time36 as the memory of the experience does.

These two types of pleasure differ in duration and intensity. The enjoyment of a pleasant activity passes quickly and is more intense, whereas the pleasure arising from the memory of the activity lasts longer and is less intense.

The interpretation of pleasure as a continuous experience justifies Epicurus’s suggestion that memories37 can serve as a cure for present and future misfortunes. Indeed, having a record of the past can make a great contribution to the quality of our lives. It can free us from the tyranny of the present by revisiting former pleasant times and helping us deal with the future.

Qualities of Pleasure

The value of pleasure in Epicurus depends on the intensity of an activity (e.g., having fun with friends) and the duration of it, and similarly, on the quality of a good (e.g., buying a nice dress) and the quantity of it. We would like for any pleasure to last as long as possible38 and for us to live longer rather than for a shorter period of time to maximize our pleasurable experiences. But we should keep in mind we are after pure pleasure, not the mixed one. An experience that ends in more pain than pleasure is not worth living.

Along with the recognition of the importance of the duration of pleasure, Epicurus claims: “Infinite time and finite time contain equal pleasure if one measures its limits by reasoning.”39 Some rushed to interpret this quote as evidence that Epicurus denies that pleasure is increased by duration or becomes more valuable by its continuance.

Indeed, nothing could be more at odds with hedonism than the claim that we will not be happier if we can maintain pleasure longer. Epicurus goes even further to claim that the extension of experience may subtract from its value, rather than add to it. By asserting that we can experience the same level of pleasure in both a finite and an infinite time,40 Epicurus is referring to the overall value of pleasure, which, along with the duration, takes into account the parameter of the intensity of it.

Epicurus seems to value intensity more than duration. He believes that the intensity of an activity adds more to the value of pleasure than its duration. He says that if a very short life contains a greater sum of pleasure than a very long life, the former life is best.

Similar are the views of Epicurus on the pleasure of goods. He would rather have a smaller quantity of a good with higher quality than a larger quantity of it with lower quality. Epicurus uses an analogy to make the point more plain: just as we do not choose simply the largest portion of food, but rather the food of the greatest quality, so, too, should we not prefer simply the longest life, but the life of greatest value.

On the other hand, Epicurus also supports the seemingly contradictory view that “bread and water produce the highest pleasure when one who needs them puts them to his lips.”41 If I am thirsty and gratify my thirst either with water or with some refreshing drink, neither of them, in the opinion of Epicurus, can be more pleasing than the other, because once the pain is eliminated or a desire is fulfilled, the value of pleasure that results is the same. In other words, the value of pleasure is maximized with the satisfaction of the need.

Had Epicurus meant by that expression that the pleasure of drinking some refreshing drink instead of water does not affect pleasure at all, he wouldn’t add: “Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.” He also wouldn’t claim: “Nor can I form any notion of the chief good, abstracted from those pleasures which are perceived by taste, or from what depends on hearing music,42 or abstracted from ideas raised by external objects visible to the eye, or by agreeable motions, or from those other pleasures which are perceived by the whole man by means of any of his senses,”43 nor would he proclaim, “Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good.”44

Epicurus does not suggest to those who can afford a variety of food to go for simple food or for those who can afford a glass of wine or beer to prefer water; he simply insists the value of the pleasure that they will enjoy in both cases will be equal. The maximum value of pleasure is defined merely by the satisfaction of the need (utility).45 Other complementary pleasures associated with the fulfillment of the need—such as taste, a pleasant environment, and so on—leave the overall value of pleasure unchanged; they simply change its composition. The explanation to this may be that the higher intensity of desire and the associated pleasure in satisfying the need compensates for the additional pleasure provided by the non-necessary experiences.

What matters in happiness is the maximization of natural and necessary pleasures, which are few and easily satisfied. Everyone can pick up the specific necessary pleasure that is concomitant to his condition. If the only thing I have at my disposal to satisfy my hunger is bread, then eating it provides the maximum pleasure I can get under the circumstances. If I have some cheese or meat, the value of pleasure would be equal to that of having only bread. It will differ only in variety.46

The value of pleasure of an activity is maximized when it is complete. That is when the intensity is bell-shaped. In such a case, the value of pleasure fluctuates within a lower and an upper limit and peaks at some point in time in between. For instance, the pleasure of playing a game is complete.

On the other hand, a pleasure in the shape of a flattened curve, with no fluctuations and peak in intensity (e.g., resting on a sofa) bears much less value than a bell-shaped pleasure curve. A life filled with complete pleasure47 is said to be a complete life.48

The Limits of Pleasure

The word “limit”49 is the second most crucial word in the Epicurean philosophy after “pleasure.” Indeed, a large part of the philosophy is consumed in the search for limits in pleasure and pain. Epicurus over and over again exhorts us to live as mortal beings within the limits of nature, listening to nature’s call.

There is also this saying of Epicurus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if you do so according to opinion, you will never be rich.”50 Nature’s wants are few; the demands of opinion are boundless. Knowing the limits of our nature delivers a life of maximum pleasure, for the one who accepts limits avoids the vulnerabilities and anxieties of the greedy.51

When it comes to any particular experience of pleasure, Epicurus contends that the intensity of it has a peak. Pleasure can never intensify beyond a certain level, even if it were to recur an infinite number of times.52 Regardless of how many times we rejoice in a particular pleasure, each of our separate experiences will never surpass a specified peak of intensity. The intensity of pleasure I feel by satisfying my hunger or thirst will never surpass a certain peak.

By analogy, the duration of pleasure has a limit too. Pleasure cannot endure endlessly. After some time, it decreases or vanishes in response to the experience that produced it. Let’s take the example of playing a sports game. My pleasure initially rises, peaks, and later declines, either due to fatigue or boredom. Similarly, in the course of a meal, my pleasure gradually increases, peaks, and decreases the more I eat. Having more results in less pleasure.

Epicurus is aware of that and blames false beliefs and habits for such a development: “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.”53 In other words, the false belief is the source of insatiable desire and the latter the root of the pain.

As a result of the existence of “limits” in intensity and duration, the value of pleasure has a “limit” too. In this regard, the pleasure of satisfying my needs (the natural and necessary pleasure) has a limit as well. This is the limit that pleasure can reach at a single point in time. At this moment, Epicurus says, one can say “I am happy.”

Pleasure can increase no more. It can only vary. The claim that pleasure has limits came as a blow to the theories of his time that declined such a view and suggested instead that the knowledge of limits is found only through rational thinking.54

Epicurus disputes these views on the grounds that mental formations can have no limits unless they rest upon the evidence of nature. Indeed, there is no innate mechanism to stop the mind from endlessly resetting a higher target when the initial is fulfilled. This natural inability of reason to set limits to thoughts and wants is at the root of the greediness and dissatisfaction we witness in everyday life.

The only way to contain the desire for more is to follow the guidance of nature, since “Natural wealth does have a limit and boundary, which is drawn around it by utility as by a compass.”55 For example, to satisfy our thirst we need one or two glasses of water, at the most. The limit of how much water we need is set by nature since we cannot drink any more water than the necessary, no matter how we try. In other words, we don’t have to think about when to stop drinking. The necessary quantity of water that maximizes our pleasure to quench our thirst is determined by instinctive bodily functions.

The overall pleasure in our lives has both a peak at a specific point of time and maximizes at a certain period of time over our lifetime. Normally, the longer we live, the higher the value of pleasure we experience. Therefore, for Epicurus, the meaning of our lives is to feel as much pleasure as possible and as little pain as possible during our life span. This coincides with the maximum of pure pleasure (pleasure less pain) of our lives.

The pure pleasure of our lives is normally maximized by the end of our lives. There may be occasions, however, when this value maximizes earlier due to a painful terminal illness or the extreme physical and mental decline of old age. In such a circumstance, the pain of experiences exceeds the pleasure, so that from that point in time onward, life is not worth living anymore. The more we live, the less the overall pleasure of our lives will be, and the more the pain. We may still enjoy the pleasure of existence, but the pain we suffer is greater, so the pure outcome is pain.

To Epicurus, the life of pure pain is not worth living. In short, our pleasure is not always maximized the longer we live. The ideal life span is at the break-even point, namely, when pleasure diminishes over time and catches the rising pain of everyday experiences. Thereafter, the accumulated pleasure of our lifetime will be decreasing in value.


Commonly, happiness is associated with experiencing more positive feelings than negative ones. Nevertheless, Epicurus’s definition of happiness is more rigorous and demanding than that. He recommends that this positive (pleasant) feeling should accompany the fulfillment of one’s natural and necessary desires. That is, for Epicurus, happiness is recognized by the presence of the so-called state of ataraxia, which denotes that the mind is at peace because it is free from the pain of desires awaiting their turn to be filled.

On this account, happiness is associated with the mind-body being at rest, since the kinetic phases of pleasure have ended. Therefore, Epicurus suggests that happiness coincides with the katastematic (non-kinetic) phase of pleasure. This particular perspective of happiness combined with the purpose of pleasure maximization leads to the conclusion that the best way to succeed in this goal is to strive for regular sources of pleasure rather than simply for fleeting, active kinetic pleasure.

In turn, this requires us to get a grip on the pleasure we experience, and the latter presumes to get hold of our desires and, going backward, of our beliefs and habits. At the end of the day, belief is the source of pleasure we experience.

Epicurus views happiness as the proper transformation of one’s personality and emotional outlook, since the wise one “is always happy; his desires are kept within bounds; death he disregards; he has a true conception, untainted by fear, of the Divine nature; if it be expedient to depart from life, he does not hesitate to do so. Thus equipped he enjoys perpetual pleasure, for there is no moment when the pleasures he experiences do not outbalance the pains; since he remembers the past with delight, grasps the present with a full realization of its pleasantness, and does not rely upon the future; he looks forward to it, but finds his true enjoyment in the present.”56

Therefore, when Epicurus refers to happiness, he means the lasting happiness which is the result of the transformation of our minds through complete experiences. Happiness, in Epicurus, is associated with the long-lasting katastematic pleasure rather than with the short-term kinetic pleasure. Nevertheless, the values of kinetic and katastematic pleasure (and pain) are intimately related. The more intense and long-lasting the kinetic pleasure, the more hardwired the memory of it will be and the longer and more intense the katastematic pleasure arising from the memory of it will be.

Therefore, Epicurus suggests prioritizing satisfying the natural and necessary needs, which have a significant impact on our emotional memories, rather than the unnecessary desires that have a minor impact. As memories pile up over time, the emotional brain is reshaped, and our feelings adjust accordingly. Afterward, our whole perception of life changes. We find ourselves desiring less and simpler kinetic pleasure than before, and we even become more flexible in our desire for pleasure.

In other words, Epicurus insists that happiness strengthens our sense of self-sufficiency since pleasure springs from within rather than from without. In this manner, he says that happiness is katastematic pleasure. We are worry free, more efficient in our everyday activities, and have more psychic energy in discovering new sources of pleasure.

We see that, in Epicurus, happiness is associated with the satisfaction of human needs. At that point, the overall pleasure of our lives peaks. It cannot increase any more. Therefore, like any pleasure, happiness has a limit. Once our needs are satisfied, any further pleasure can simply diversify happiness. Unhappiness results from the unsatisfied need (desire). The obvious corollary is that people can be happy as long as they adjust their desires to their conditions. Inflexible desires are the source of discontent and frustration.

Epicurus teaches flexibility by his paradigm. He says that simple food brings the same level of satisfaction as luxurious meals if hunger is satisfied. Once we accept our conditions, we can be happy, no matter what these conditions are. Pleasure is subjective, and comparison of subjective states is meaningless. The trouble arises when our desires exceed our capacity to satisfy them under our present conditions.

Epicurus does not recommend living on bread and water if we can enjoy more tasteful food or wine, as some assume. On the contrary, he says that anyone should pursue the pleasure that fits his tastes and preferences for as long as they meet his needs and he is in control of them. “Natural Philosophy supplies peace of mind, for it removes all ignorance of the mysteries of nature; self-control, for it explains the nature of the desires and distinguishes their different kinds.”57

He, therefore, who is acquainted with the natural limits of life understands that those things that remove the pain that arises from the need, and those things which make the whole of life complete, are easily obtainable, and he has no need of those things that can only be attained with trouble. Also, through understanding the natural goals and limits of the body, and by dissolving the fear of eternity, we produce a complete life that does not need for an infinite time.

In the words of the Epicurean poet, “For there is naught more which I can devise or discover to please thee: all things are ever as they were.”58 The wise man neither flees enjoyment nor, when events cause him to exit from life, does he look back as if he had missed any essential aspect of life.

All in all, when it comes to satisfying our needs, say of hunger and thirst, the value of pleasure we will feel by fulfilling them depends on the intensity of the desire for them. The stronger the desire, the higher the expected pleasure and vice versa. Consequently, the desire of the needy to survive is stronger than that of the rich, and the associated expected value of the pleasure greater.

As long as the needy can control his desires, he maximizes his pleasure and can be happy. His troubles arise when he aspires to the conditions of the rich. Otherwise, he will be equally satisfied whether on bread and water or meat and wine.

The importance that the mind instinctively attaches to satisfying a need depends on the circumstances it faces. The harsher the circumstances, the higher the intensity of the urge to satisfy that specific need, and the higher the value of the expected pleasure.

On the contrary, under normal conditions, the intensity of the urge to satisfy a need is lower, and we may ask for further pleasure in the form of prolonging the duration of the pleasure and (or) introducing variations of it, such as taste, aesthetics, and so on. A clear reminder of this is the Epicurus claim: “Bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips.”

Expected Pleasure

Epicurus disagrees with the Cyrenaic hedonists59 about caring for the future. The Cyrenaic insists that we will feel more pleasure by considering ourselves as rejoicing in momentary experiences of pleasure instead of looking to the future: “The Cyrenaics do not admit that pleasure can be derived from the memory or expectation of good, which was a doctrine of Epicurus.”60

Epicurus assumes that we achieve more pleasure by looking at ourselves as self-sufficient beings rationally preparing for our future.61 If we appreciate our future, we may cut back on some present desires to satisfy future ones, or we may control or remove desires whose present gratification may have harmful future consequences.

In parallel, we must be cautious about assigning the proper value to our future feelings. Too intense a desire for safety, for instance, may lead one to show a parallel desire for power, or wealth. Epicurus considers that we should look forward to those future states that are under our control, and the most reliable states in that regard are the inner states that are immune to chance62 and disappointment.

Epicurus also claims that a certain degree of preoccupation for the future affects our present emotional well-being. Especially, an essential condition of happiness is the secure expectation63 of future freedom from pain. In this context, the hedonic calculation in decision-making involves the estimation of the value of future emotional states, and the further they extend into the future, the harder the estimation of them will be.

On top of that, our perception of pleasure changes with time, and we run the risk of disliking that which once was the object of our desire. In short, in making decisions, we take into account future emotional states, but the less we rely on them the better.

Hedonic Calculus

Decision-making in the Epicurean philosophy requires a hedonic calculus of the pleasure and the pain involved in satisfying a desire. No reference exists, though, in the remaining literature as to how this calculation is to be made. The first attempt to calculate the utility of a policy was made in public finance as late as in the eighteenth century by the proponents of Utility theory.

Recently, a growing number of studies have tried to experimentally measure the value of pleasure of an experience. Some parameters in the calculation of the value of pleasure appear to be common with those that Epicurus mentions in his letters. For instance, they all consider how likely an action is to lead to future pleasure or pain, instead of focusing only on the immediate pleasure and pain. Also, intensity and duration are recurrent criteria in the calculation of the value of pleasure. An outcome of these experiments is of particular interest.

The psychological data64 confirm Epicurus’s assumption that pleasure has an upper limit. They indicate that during an activity, pleasure surges up to a certain level and then declines. In other words, the data show that there exists a limit, separately, for each pleasure (and pain) for each individual. This is defined internally through automatic organic processes.

Duration of pleasure (and pain) takes an unprecedented dimension in the Epicurean philosophy well beyond any previous vision of it. Pleasure and pain, Epicurus argues, have a past, present, and future. They initiate in our minds at the outset of the desire; they follow up during the preparation stage, the decision-making process, and the fulfillment of the desire, and end up as memories in our minds.

The emotion in Epicurus bears a resemblance to a trip. It is born as soon as the desire for the trip emerges in our minds out of the blue. It accumulates during the preparation of the trip, the decision-making process, and the realization of the trip. The later stage Epicurus names as the kinetic pleasure of the trip. The end of the kinetic phase finds our minds filled with the memories of the pleasure and the pain that preceded it. These memories are sources of continuous pleasure and pain for as long as they remain in our minds.

They are the katastematic pleasure and pain of the trip. The longer and the more intense the experiences of the trip, the more lasting and intense the katastematic pleasure and pain of them will be, and the higher the emotional value of the trip. This creative inception of pleasure reveals the essence of the Epicurean philosophy. It is not the realization of our desires that matters most but the enjoyment of the pleasure that precedes and follows it. All in all, the process of living is the essence of life, not the successes and failures of it.

Epicurus, on the one hand, advises us to take into account the emotional consequences of alternative courses of action and, on the other hand, doesn’t offer a mathematical calculation of them. He suggests merely to compare the advantages against disadvantages65 considering that if we are constantly focusing on maximizing our pleasures in every single act of our daily lives, we will soon become obsessive and nervous; pleasure will get away while we consume ourselves in calculations. Epicurus suggests that over time we get accustomed to hedonic calculation so that it eventually becomes habitual and instantaneous.

The Pleasure of Flow

Recent developments in positive psychology provide scientific evidence of the qualities of pleasure that Epicurus indirectly talked about and practiced in the Garden. Indeed, the “flow theory”66 emphasizes the value of pleasure in “optimal experiences.”67 (For details see chapter 16, on enjoyment and flow.) In such an activity one is so focused on the activity and so overwhelmed by the pleasure of it that he loses the sense of himself and of time and space. He becomes one with the activity.

To be capable of enjoying the pleasure of flow, one should be fond of the activity and should do it exclusively for the enjoyment it offers. The theory suggests that the most effective way to find happiness is to discover our abilities in order to gain permanent, instead of momentary, sources of enjoyment.

Surveys that detected optimal experiences began in the 1980s. In related questions, artists, mostly painters, mentioned that quite often they experienced a state of flow. They described that at times they were so engrossed in their work that they forgot their needs for health, food, water, and sleep. Similar flow experiences are reported throughout the course of history in all cultures. The religions of the East speak of “action of inertia” or “to do without doing,” expressions that recall much flow experience.

Also, texts such as the “yoga of knowledge” refer to similar absorption modes. Historical sources claim that Michelangelo68 painted the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican while he was in the highest state of flow. It has been reported that he was painting for days at a time and was so engrossed that he did not stop even to eat or sleep until he reached the point of fainting. After that, he awoke, freshened up, and began to paint again, entering full absorption mode once more. Epicurus, along with his friends, probably experienced a constant state of flow in the Garden.

Pleasure and Ataraxia

Ataraxia is the state of mind associated with freedom from disturbance or peace of mind. In this mental state there are no unfulfilled desires to cause any pain. One is free from all sorts of desires and worries and enjoys maximum pleasure. As Cicero informs us, “Freedom from pain does not mean the same as pleasure” but instead, “The complete removal of pain is the limit of the increase of pleasure.”69 He later adds, “When all pain has been removed, pleasure may vary in kind but cannot be increased in degree.”

However, in the letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus claims that pleasure is the beginning and the end of the blessed life, and a bit earlier in the same letter, he asserts that all choice and avoidance refer to the health of the body (aponia) and the soul’s freedom from turmoil (ataraxia), since this is the aim of the blessed life.

The identification of pleasure with freedom from turmoil certainly conflicts with the preceded claim that “to feel pleasure is a different thing from not feeling pain.” Most scholars took the words of Epicurus at face value, interpreting ataraxia as a feeling of pleasure, and indeed, of the highest pleasure.

On the contrary, I tend to agree with Cicero’s reference to the meaning of ataraxia, which assumes that “freedom from turmoil” is the mental state that signals the presence of the feeling of “maximum of pleasure.” The misunderstanding owes to Epicurus’s habit of using the phrase “maximum of pleasure” interchangeably with “ataraxia” when in a close circle of his friends and students. In his books, however, he made it clear that maximum pleasure and ataraxia are different phenomena. We would expect Epicurus to have been looser in expressing his views in a private letter than he would in a book.

Similarly, we would expect him to have tailored his writing according to the character and the needs of his specific friend. Had Epicurus known that this letter would be the only authentic piece of evidence of his ethical theory left in the world, he would certainly have been more precise in his use of sensitive words to avoid misinterpretation.

Therefore, while we may agree that Epicurus made a statement here that may appear to contradict his other statements, at least in the form in which it comes down to us, we also acknowledge that the philosophical community rushed to draw general conclusions about his ethical theory from a single piece of evidence.

Analytically, turmoil in the mind is the awareness of an unfulfilled need or desire. Once the desire is satisfied, the turmoil vanishes, and the mind becomes peaceful. But we know that desire precedes the creation of the emotion. Since there is no way to measure the value of the emotion, we can at least find out whether it is maximized by considering the status of our desires.

Indeed, once our desires are fulfilled, the conscious mind is in peace and, simultaneously, overall pleasure reaches its peak. The activities that generated the present level of pleasure have come to an end since the desires are fulfilled and there is no power to increase pleasure any further.

It is therefore obvious that pleasure and ataraxia are separate phenomena, with their relationship being that the feeling of maximum of pleasure corresponds to the mental state known as ataraxia. Their relation is one-to-one, but the two are not equal.

There is one more reason that Epicurus does not identify ataraxia with pleasure—and the maximization of it. Ataraxia (imperturbability, equanimity, or tranquility) is a word first utilized in Ancient Greek philosophy by the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrho, and later by Epicurus and the Stoics, to describe the mind’s freedom from distress and worry.

Indeed, achieving ataraxia is a common goal for Skeptics, Epicureans, and Stoics, but the function and weight of ataraxia within each philosophy differ given that each philosophy has a particular understanding of how to acquire ataraxia. Ataraxia is the ultimate goal of the Skeptic approach. The Skeptic practice for attaining ataraxia is through achieving Epoché, which is suspension of judgment regarding all matters of non-evident belief. It is a state of the mind by virtue of which we neither reject nor confirm anything.

Unlike the Skeptics, for the Epicureans and the Stoics, ataraxia is not the ultimate purpose of life. Instead, on the one hand, for the Epicureans, a life of pleasure is the goal of life, and ataraxia is a consequence of maximizing lifelong pure pleasure. On the other hand, for the Stoics, a life of virtue according to nature is the goal of life, and living virtuously in agreement with nature would lead to ataraxia as a by-product.

Therefore, those who insist that ataraxia is the Epicurean purpose of life are either ignorant of the true facts or do it on purpose, to slander the philosophy.

A word of caution: our peace of mind should be a consequence of satisfying our desires, not a consequence of our practices such as prayer, meditation, yoga, and so forth, aiming at eliminating the desires. Indeed, there are Eastern religions, like Buddhism, which establish that desire is the primary reason for distress because it is always linked with fear and hope, making the heart suffer. So protection from mental pain lies in the demise of all desire or disturbing affection, especially the desire to live.

Pleasure as a Side Effect

Since antiquity, there have been two mainstream philosophies of life: the Epicurean philosophy of Nature that finds meaning in pleasure, and the philosophies of Idealism70 that consider pleasure as a by-product of fulfilling another end. The latter considers that pleasure is not to be sought for its own sake. Instead, pleasure is a side effect of a good or an activity.

Contemporary culture is duplicitous in defining the meaning of life. It officially suggests pleasure to be the purpose of life, with economic welfare and status the means to it, but in practice it is the other way around: economic welfare and status are the ends, with pleasure a side effect. There is an explanation for this, as we will see below.

Whether pleasure is the end of life or a by-product of another end has an organic impact on our brains. When we introduce pleasure as the means and the end of our lives, our minds are reformed to habitually give priority to decisions and actions that involve pleasure. We enjoy our actions, and we are absorbed in them. Our attention is immersed in the here and now, immune to distraction.

Our experiences are meaningful in the present, instead of being conditional upon expected future returns. All our energy is available to dispose of in creative, pleasant activities, here and now. We are more patient in overcoming obstacles and more determined in pursuing our goals. The successful outcome of our actions boosts our pleasure further, but failure will not let us down either since we enjoyed the whole process. We consider day-to-day experience not just one aspect of life, but life itself. Activities are rewarding straight off.

On the other hand, if pleasure is a second-order goal, our minds, through habit, are structured to fulfill the requirements of the first-order goal, leaving pleasure-seeking in the background, conditional upon the fulfilment of the primary goal (usually professional success, economic prosperity, social status, and so on). The common consequence of pursuing such goals is the phenomenon of rising expectations.

Indeed, there is no inherent function in human nature that could stop us from asking for more and extending our goals. Our minds eventually acquire the habit of achieving one goal after the other and postponing enjoyment further into the future. If we ever consider that the time is ripe to enjoy the fruits of our accomplishments, regrettably, we will find ourselves incapable of feeling what we initially imagined our success would feel like.

In the course of time, our personality has changed. In our effort to make rational and knowledgeable decisions, detached from the influence of emotions, our cognitive brain and reason have disproportionately developed to the detriment of the emotional brain.71 Organically, pleasure-seeking became conditional on achieving goals in the future.

The absence of contentment in the present creates new habits and structures in the brain that place the creation of pleasant emotions on hold. The mind learns to redirect its energies to achieving goals in priority at the expense of feeling good in the present. Sadly, even when we succeed in our goals, we are unable to feel pleasure from them since our brains have changed in the meantime, and we are deprived the organic capacity to enjoy.

In short, acquiring material goods and money, or status, or even health will not make us any happier. Worst of all, no matter how qualified and well prepared we are, we always run the risk of failure. Furthermore, when our goals are very demanding and extend into the future, we run the risk of losing the necessary enthusiasm and human energies to support them, and we get bored and disappointed.

Pleasure as Cure

The Epicurean cure for a troubled soul rests on hedonistic grounds. It concentrates on issues related to the absence of pleasure.72 In the words of Epicurus: “Only then have we need of pleasure when from the absence of pleasure we feel pain, and when we do not feel pain we no longer feel need of pleasure.” The trouble of the soul, in Epicurus, owes to the lack of one or more natural and necessary pleasures; that is, of health (physical and emotional), finances (food and shelter), safety (physical and emotional), altruism, friendship and knowledge (beliefs, habits, and the nature of things).

The first step in the therapy is to spot the desires that create the deficit in pleasure. The next step is to uncover the false beliefs and habits that ground the spoiled desires. The third step is to replace the corrupt beliefs and habits with healthy ones. The fourth is to habituate the new beliefs through memorization and practice. Normally, the therapy requires the help of a like-minded friend; otherwise, a competent professional will do.

In addition to the therapy, a fine-tuning of the decision-making process may be useful. Even though our desires are healthy, we still need to rank them and decide the priority in which to satisfy them. Epicurus’s advice is to rank the desires according to their utility, giving priority to the natural and necessary. Next, we should satisfy those natural and non-necessary desires we enjoy the most. Having control over our desires facilitates the building up of self-sufficiency and autonomy, which will take care of the accidents of fortune.

The life of the wise man is subject to rational planning73 that minimizes the effects of chance: “In but few things chance hinders a wise man, but the greatest and most important matters reason has ordained and throughout the whole period of life does and will ordain.”74 For example, my natural and necessary desire to have a shelter may turn out to be nonnatural (painful) if I buy an expensive house on mortgage in the expectation of future financial successes.

Obstacles to the Search for Pleasure

Basically, every human desire has been utilized for the imposition of social authority by politicians, churches, corporations, and advertisers. The old standing puritan hostility to pleasure has been reinforced by the capitalist culture of seeking pleasure through hard work, the accumulation of wealth, and the acquisition of stuff. On occasion, exploitation, oppression, and financial hardship are also employed as social means of eliminating pleasure.

Internal barriers, such as introversion75 and egoism,76 are also obstacles to claiming pleasure. An introvert who is worried about how others see him or is afraid of giving the wrong impression has no psychic energy left to devote to enjoying himself. Like the introspective, the egomaniac is concerned most of the time with himself, and how to promote his personal interests, instead of enjoying pleasure. His conscience is completely structured to meet his personal aspirations. Experiences have value only if they confirm and promote his ego instead of the pleasure they offer.

Strategies in Search of Pleasure

Feeling good is the purpose of our lives. Ideally, we would like our feelings to be entirely in our own control. Nonetheless, there are circumstances beyond our control which affect our feelings. On the one hand, heredity establishes the foundations of our emotional identity, and on the other hand, our environment builds upon nature through culture and social teaching.

Combined, these factors exert such an overwhelming pressure on us that we are left with no option other than to get used to them. As a result, the only way to affect our feelings is to accept our own condition and claim control over our desires.

Epicurus was the first philosopher to allege that our desires hinge on both the conscious and the unconscious functions of the mind. In other words, Epicurus claims that both the conscious function of reasoning and the unconscious innate drives, beliefs, and desires are necessary in decision making.

In this, Epicurus reminds us that our beliefs and desires are shaped by society, and in order to claim our freedom from society, we should scrutinize them and question whether they are in harmony or in conflict with our innate drives. Claiming ownership of our decisions and actions presupposes ownership of our perceptions of life. Only then will we become self-sufficient and free.

Epicurus shows us an effective and well-tested strategy in pursuing a pleasant life based on the premise of safeguarding our self-sufficiency. This is a rational procedure that involves the following: separation of the natural from the nonnatural desires; dismissal of the nonnatural desires; distinction of the natural desires into the necessary and the unnecessary; discovering the false beliefs that trigger the nonnatural desires and replacing them with the true Epicurean suggestions; repeating this process until our new beliefs become habits; employing “sober reasoning” to make a wise decision; and fulfilling in priority the necessary and the unnecessary according to our preferences and the circumstances.

Let’s take a simple example. Let’s assume that I take great pleasure in purchasing expensive clothing. Once I become aware of this feeling, I employ my reason to evaluate the pros and cons of making such a decision. By and large, the decision to purchase an expensive dress is made on economic grounds. If the fulfillment of my desire poses no threat to my self-sufficiency, I may keep enjoying my habit without any further investigation.

On the contrary, if I realize that the fulfillment of my desire will endanger the fulfillment of other necessary desires, eventually threaten my self-sufficiency, or eventually make me dependent on luxurious dressing, I decide to hold back on my desire and I do my best to track down the belief on which it rests upon. Once I locate the sick belief, I reshape it in line with my conditions of life, and as a result, I reform my desire.

Lastly, I make the decision that fits best with my tastes and capacities. Had I left my desire unfulfilled without any questioning, this would have been a seed that would grow into continuous turmoil in my mind and subsequent emotional pain.

Epicurus suggests a particular strategy for each category of desires. Beforehand, it is essential to establish pleasure as the guide to our lives and develop the habit of deriving enjoyment from everything we do. This competency can overcome routine and boredom and transform our time of work and leisure into a pleasant time; we can train ourselves to turn every piece of our everyday activity into a pleasant activity.

We can refine, for example, the biological necessity of feeding and drinking into a pleasant experience by paying attention to what we eat and drink, tasting every single spoonful and every sip of the drink. To enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing course of our everyday activities, we should take control of the pleasure of our lives as much as possible and, be subject, as little as possible, to the rewards of the society or to the uncertainty of future successes or to the hope that tomorrow perhaps something good will happen.

The Epicurean philosophy introduces a hierarchy of needs. As a Vatican saying quotes, “We must not violate nature, but obey her; and we shall obey her if we fulfill those desires that are necessary, and also those that are natural but bring no harm to us, but we must sternly reject those that are harmful.” Assuming that a minimum amount of financial means is available, we can satisfy our essential needs and live a happy life.

A tasty and nutritious diet satisfies hunger and the need for health; decent accommodation offers a pleasant place to stay; friendship covers the need for companionship, support, and safety; and knowledge ensures faith in the success of our efforts. In so far as we can meet our needs and still have leisure time and disposable resources, we may go for further natural pleasure to supplement our basic pleasure.

In this regard, we can exercise our talents and practice the activities we like. We can train ourselves to acquire the skills to use our body and mind as sources of enjoyment. Dance is probably the oldest and the most popular pleasant activity of the body, while reading is the most common among the many intellectual pursuits available.

At the same time, we should dismiss the nonnatural desires. They are known as vain desires because they drive us to live beyond our reach, pursuing luxuries, power, wealth, fame, and immortality. These desires are not only difficult to satisfy, but they are even harder to sustain.

Besides, there is no natural limit to them. If one desires wealth or power, no matter how much one gets, it is always possible to get more, and the more one gets, the more one wants. As for the desire of immortality, this is quite impossible to satisfy. All these vain desires are infused by false beliefs and should be eliminated.


Humans, exceptionally among living beings, are privileged to consciously experience pleasure and even pursue the prospect of happiness. The human ability to consciously evaluate and predict the consequences of thoughts, desires, and feelings provides our species the advantage of anticipating and planning for the future. Although there is an inevitable end to our lives, it is still worthwhile to enjoy the ride by maximizing our pleasure while minimizing the impact of anxiety and depression.

The scientific investigation of emotions originates with the evolutionary theory which suggests that emotions are the outcome of adaptive responses to environmental situations. In that strain, pleasure “liking” and pain “avoidance” are affective responses of mammals and humans involving neural mechanisms valuable for the survival of the species.77 Envisaging pleasure as an evolutionary trait is straightforward.

For example, food is the most common path to pleasure, as well as a necessary condition for survival. Beyond food, sex is an additional evolutionary pleasure that involves pretty much the same brain circuits.78 Even abusing drugs exploits the same evolutionary affective brain circuits as food, sex, and other physical sensory pleasures.79 Moreover, the evolutionary pleasure of social interaction and friendship employs the same neural systems. Intellectual, artistic, altruistic, and other higher pleasure share the exact brain circuits with the essential pleasure.80

The evolutionary perspective of emotions succeeded a psychoanalytic approach stressing that people “strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at an absence of pain and displeasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure.”81 This view identifies pleasure with happiness. The more pleasure you have, while avoiding displeasure, the happier you are.

A similar but somewhat variant view is that happiness is conditional upon abolishing negative “pain and displeasure” to enable an individual to go after engagement and meaning. Positive pleasure by this scope is rather redundant. It describes the current emphasis on relieving psychopathology and painful emotions. It supports the notion that “happiness is not a positive feeling, but a negative condition.”82 When the negative feelings are wiped out, the outcome is happiness.

The truth is that many combinations of positive and negative emotions happen simultaneously in the organism, and people assign to them their own subjective value according to their beliefs and experiences. Under all circumstances, psychology and neuroscience support that emotional states such as pleasure and pain are of great significance to happiness.

While breakthrough discoveries have been made in decoding emotional functions, it is too early to assume that we have fully defined a neuroscience of pleasure. Still, many brain mechanisms contributing to the generation and transmission of emotions have been spotted by affective neuro-scientific methods. Theoretical and experimental evidence proves that the emotional functions have a biological base separate from that of the sensory and cognitive functions (see Chapter 20: The Human Nature and Chapter 21: Beyond Neurons: Who Am I?).

Even the most conventional sensorial experiences need the simultaneous involvement of emotional neuronal circuits to attach an assertive, affective gloss to the stimuli. Without this emotional refinement, we will be indifferent to even the most delightful sweet.83 A hedonic experience demands the synchronous stimulation of emotional neuronal circuits and organs placed in the inner regions84 of the brain which have undergone a substantial evolution in time, exactly because emotional reactions are vital for the survival of the species.

The biological nature of emotions safeguards the continuous emotional functioning of the organism irrespective of the presence of a destructive physical or emotional experience. It turns out that particular hotspots are responsible for maintaining the usual emotional stability of the organism in addition to their pleasure enhancement capacity.

Experiments show that natural nucleus responses remain intact despite major injuries and shocks, explaining why many people recover and live a fairly happy life even after devastating experiences.

How is pleasure really formed within the brain? To begin with, the structure and the functions of the brain are mostly oriented in addressing pain and fear. Indeed, convincing evidence for pleasure creation has so far been observed in a few brain substrates or hedonic hotspots. These areas are mostly submerged in subcortical formations85 rather than in the neocortex as one would expect. Emotional functions have objective bodily expressions, such as the facial expressions of newborn human infants86 as well as animals’ reactions in response to pleasant stimuli such as sweet food.

A comparison of emotional reactions across species shows that the emotional neuronal circuitry is alike in humans and other animals. Brain centers, spread as a series of pleasure tissue in the depth of the brain, act both independently and collectively as an integrated whole to create and magnify essential pleasure responses.

Stimulating one initiates the rest of the network, allowing the accumulation of a variety of pleasure. The characteristics of the system manifest a delicate background for pleasure creation and enrichment that demands unanimity throughout the particular members in order to promote pleasure functions.87

Pleasure varies among experiences. For example, the sensation of pleasure associated with tasty food differs from the pleasure of sex or from the pleasure of substance abuse. Similarly, the pleasure of friendship is distinct from the pleasure of listening to music. Nevertheless, recent discoveries in neuroscience show that a unique functional circuit88 is involved in all experiences of pleasure.

Emotional effects such as pleasure have both objective and subjective features. The objective aspects involve unconscious functions that result in behavioral, physiological, and neural reactions; the subjective aspects are conscious feelings, representing the subjective experience of emotion.

Therefore, feelings are a kind of cortical interpretation of emotional products created in the subcortical regions. On top of that, while feelings may be questioned for their accuracy, the internal emotional mechanisms are tractable by neuroimaging techniques and can be studied objectively regardless of the presence or reliability of subjective narratives of feelings.

Fundamental pleasure responses have always had a physical, unbiased character and have long been organically valuable, even before subjective feelings of pleasure appeared in humans. It is obvious that emotions have been too significant to survival for pleasure to be a solely subjective experience.

An emotional experience may seem a straightforward process; however, neuroscience reveals that even the most elementary enjoyable experience, such as a sensory one, is a complicated mixture of functions involving distinct neurobiological mechanisms. These incorporate wanting (desire) and liking (pleasure). Liking is the actual pleasure component of the emotion; wanting is the (cognitive) motivation for pleasure.

Usually desiring and liking go hand in hand, but the underlying emotional functions may be detachable in the brain so that even intense desires may result in displeasure. The brain exploits its capacity to seek and generate pleasure in performing other functions of the organism.

One of these functions is to make memories of these experiences in many new forebrain areas beyond the centers that generate it. This suggests that some brain action may both produce and record the effects of pleasure, whereas others do not create pleasure but only record it.89

Additionally, other pleasure effects trigger various psychological or behavioral processes, including thinking, decision-making, and action. Recording functions(memory formation) are trustworthy signals that indeed pleasant experiences are happening in the brain, and these signals (feelings) represent the significance of the experiences in terms of motivation, memory, and value in decision-making.

Neuroimaging evidence submits that the orbitofrontal cortex, which embraces consciousness, may be more relevant to turning emotional signals into cognitive symbols available to reason in decision-making than to creating pleasure in response to pleasant stimuli.90

It is plausible that the principal function of the prefrontal cortex is to serve as the interconnection of higher-order processing functions like consciousness and attention to the unconscious pleasure sources in principally subcortical areas.91 At its ultimate interpretation, this view assumes that the human prefrontal cortex may not really be necessary to initiate pleasure, or at least not the natural and necessary pleasure.

Neuro-scientific data demonstrates that there is significant overlapping, in biological and functional terms, between brain regions and neurotransmitters responsible for the management of physical pain and pleasure. For instance, endogenous opioids and dopamine engage in a sequence of functions that happen in central and peripheral regions, which include the management of the motivational and hedonic features of reward, modulation of physical pain, and, in general, emotional regulation.

However, regardless of how precious relief from pain is in relation to earlier pain, the absence of pain by itself is not identical to positive pleasure. The absence of pain alone is not sufficient to bring happiness. Pleasure reserves its own emotional organs and neural functions that cause distinct psychological characteristics. The obsession with pain relief rather than seeking pleasure may have an organic justification but reflects part of the truth.


Epicurus, uniquely among the ancient philosophers, sought to build his philosophy on reality and truth. To this extent, he rests his assumptions and conclusions on experience and scientific thought. Certainly, most of the scientific evidence relies on theoretical conclusions based on logical thinking rather than on scientific experiments. It turns out most of the core aspects of his philosophy comply with contemporary neuro-scientific evidence.

Indeed, emotion proves to be a discrete feature of the human mind, separate from the sensory and cognitive. It originates in the origins of human development, acting as an evolutionary advantage in the survival of our species. Its ancestral heredity places the emotional organs and neuronal circuits deep in the unconscious layers of the brain.

Our awareness of emotions is through feelings and bodily reactions. The way we feel and behave is the outcome of developments taking place in the unconscious, with no involvement or awareness of the conscious mind. Consequently, the only way to change our affective state is to reform the emotional circuitry of the brain, a time-consuming and demanding task.

In this effort, reason and learning act as mediators rather than the recipients of the change. The conscious mind seems to simply decode the pleasure and pain rather than cause it. The cause lies within the deep substrates of the mind, and the only way to get in touch with it and possibly cure it is through learning. The methods to do so exceed those of simple reasoning and academic teaching.

More efficient methods are required to dig into the brain, involving the narration of one’s feelings, unveiling the cause of the hurting feelings, finding out the beliefs that justify them, and finally replacing those wrong beliefs with healthy ones. Changing beliefs is not simply the outcome of understanding, thinking, and decision-making, as many would expect, but of reshaping our brains.


1 Cic Fin I; Sextus Empiricus (M 1 1 .9 6; PH 3. 1 94-95); DLX 137; Epic Let Men; Brunschwig, 1986.

2 Cic Fin I; Sextus Empiricus (M 1 1 .9 6; PH 3. 1 94-95); DL, 10.137; Epic Let Men; Brunschwig, 1986.

3 Cic Fin I 71 xxi.

4 Epic LetMen; Philodemus’ On Anger, VI. 13–23; Rao, 2009; Pickens, 2005; Marsh et al, 2005; Choudhry, 2016; Searle, 2015; Merleau–Ponty, 1948; Huxley, 1954.

5 VS 8, 62, 71; PD 15, 17, 29; Epic LetHer. 81; Epic LetMen. 124; Philodemus, On Anger.

6 Philodemus, On Anger; Horace, “The Epistles” Book I, epistle ii.

7 Radin, 2005; Houghton, 2002; Katkin, 2001; Muth, 1999; Sadler, 1968.

8 Epic LetMen 133; Us 554 (Plutarch, Against Colotes, 31, p. 1125C); Lucr DRN II 261-83.

9 Epic LetMen 133; Us 554 (Plutarch, Against Colotes, 31, p. 1125C); Lucr DRN II 261-83.

10 PD 15, 26, 29, 30; VS 21; Epic LetMen.

11 PD 14, 15; VS 8; Us 469 (Stobaeus, Anthology, XVII 23).

12 Epic Let Men; DL X130-131; VS 69.

13 VS 25, 67, 68, 81; PD 15; Cic Fin H 91; DL X 117.

14 PD 7; VS 81.

15 Cic Fin I xviii; Lucr DRN III 995-1002.

16 Epic LetMen 125; Lucr DRN III 597-655.

17 Annas, 1987; Mitsis, 1988.

18 PD 8.

19 Epic LetMen; VS 64; Cic Fin I xix-xx, IV vivid-viii.

20 VS 77.

21 Lucr DRN III 161-167; DL X 10.63, X 67-8.

22 Plato, Phaedo 81d.

23 Epic LetHer; DL X 63, 67; Lucr DRN III 94-416.

24 Epic LetMen; PD 18; Cic Fin BOOK I xvii-sviii.

25 Epic LetMen 129; PD 4, 19; Cic Fin XI 88; Lucr DRN III 830-977; Us 602 (Cicero, On End-Goals, Good and Bad, II.27.88).

26 Cic Fin I xvii-sviii.

27 PD 18, 20; Epic LetIdom; Cic Fin I 55.

28 Cic Fin I xix.

29 DL X 137.

30 Cic Fin I xix, xi 38; Us 439 (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, V.34.95).

31 Cic Fin II iii-iv, V x-xi; Us 398 Cicero, On End-Goals, Good and Bad, II.10.31.

32 Cic Fin II iii-iv, v and x-xi; Us 398 Cicero, On End-Goals, Good and Bad, II 10.31; Us 450 {Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, X.136 (see Us2); Ibid., II.87, Aristippus}; Us 439 (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, V.34.95.).

33 Cic Fin I xi 38; Us 439(Cic, Tusculan Disputations, V.34.95.).

34 DeWitt, 1954, p. 233.

35 Us 68 (Plutarch, That Epicurus actually makes a pleasant life impossible, 4, p. 1089D).

36 See Pleasure Is Continuous.

37 Epic LetIdom; DL X 22; Cic Fin I 55-7.

38 Epic LetMen 129; PD 4, 19; Cic Fin XI 88; Lucr DRN III 830-977; Us 602 (Cicero, On End-Goals, Good and Bad, II.27.88).

39 VS 71, 80; PD 19.

40 PD 18, 19.

41 Epic LetMen.

42 DL X 6; Cic Tusculan Disputations III 18.41.

43 Cic Tusculan Disputations III.18.41.

44 Epic LetMen.

45 Us 471 (Plutarch, On the Desire for Wealth, 4 p. 524F); DL X 120; DRN IV 853-7; PD 31,33,37; Us 70, 150; Porphyry, Letter to Marcella, 31, p. 209.

46 Epic LetMen 127-8, 130-31; PD 3, 9, 18, 19, 29, 30; VS 33, 59, 69, 71; Lucr DRN II 963-6, III 28-30, IV 858-76; Cic Fin I xi 39; DL X 22, 136-7, 37-9, 55-7; Porph. Abs. 1.51.6-52.1.

47 My interpretation; Sen, Epistulae Morales, letter xv, xviii.

48 PD 19, 26.

49 Epic LetMen 130-3; PD 14, 15, 18, 20, 21, 31; VS 68; DL X 121; Cic Fin  I63; Sen, EpisMor 16. 9.

50 Us 201 (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 16.7).

51 VS 69.

52 PD 18, 19.

53 VS 59.

54 Plato, Theaetetus 184-7.

55 Us 471 (Plutarch, On the Desire for Wealth, 4 p. 524F).

56 Cic Fin I xix.

57 Cic Fin I xix-xx.

58 Lucr DRN Ill, IL ssr-sss (turns. Bailey).

59 Cyrenaics, See list of terms; Us 453 (DL Lives of Philosophers, II, Aristippus, 89).

60 Us 453 (DL Lives of Philosophers, II, Aristippus, 89).

61 DL X 120; Epic Let Men, VS 33, Us 491 (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 15.10); Cic Fin I xix.

62 DL X, Epic LetMen; PD 16; VS 47; Porph. Ad Marc. 30.

63 VS 33, 34; Epic LetMen 125; Us 439 (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, V.34.95); Us 68 (Plutarch, That Epicurus actually makes a pleasant life impossible, 4, p. 1089D).

64 Kringelbach, 2010.

65 DL X 120.

66 Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.

67 Csikszentmihalyi, 1989, 2016.

68 Csikszentmihalyi, 1996.

69 Cic Fin II.

70 See list of terms.

71 LeDoux, 2015.

72 Epic LetMen.

73 DL X; Epic LetMen; PD 15; VS 47; Porph. Ad Marc. 30.

74 PD 15.

75 Hills, 2001.

76 Csikszentmihalyi, 1996.

77 Darwin, 1872.

78 Geogiadis et al, 2010; Komisaruk et al., 2010.

79 Everitt et al., 2008; Kelley and Berridge, 2002; Koob and Volkow, 2010; Britton et al., 2006; Frith and Frith, 2010; King–Casas et al., 2005; Kringelbach, 2009; Leknes and Tracey, 2008.

80 Frijda, 2010; Leknes and Tracey, 2010; Skov, 2009; Vuust and Kringelbach, 2010.

81 Freud and Riviere, 1930.

82 James, 1920.

83 Kringelbach et al., 2012.

84 Damasio, 2010; Panksepp, 2011; LeDoux, 2012.

85 Peciña and Berridge, 2005; Peciña et al., 2006.

86 Smith et al., 2011.

87 Pecina, 2008; Pecina and Smith, 2010; Smith et al., 2010.

88 Veldhuizen et al., 2010; Georgiadis et al., 2012; Kringelbach, 2010.

89 Kringelbach, 2010; Leknes and Tracey, 2010.

90 Dickinson and Balleine, 2010.

91 Izard 2007; Kringelbach, 2010; Panksepp, 2007; Smith et al., 2010.