Epicurean Positive Emotions (1)


The therapeutic project of ancient Epicureanism is predicated on the contention that banishing sources of pain (both physical and psychological) will guarantee the attainment of peace of mind or ‘tranquillity’ (ataraxia). But such a state is not passive or neutral. Hadot (1995, p. 87) notes that, for Epicureans, once false sources of pleasure have been removed, we are left with ‘the only genuine pleasure there is, the pleasure of existing’, and such pleasure in ‘the sheer joy of existing’ is definitely held to be a positive emotion:

‘The voice of the flesh cries, “Keep me from hunger, thirst and cold!” The man who has these sureties and who expects he always will would rival even Zeus for happiness’ (Vatican Saying #33).

In this project I want to explore ways in which an Epicurean take on emotions – specifically that ‘joy’ (khara) resulting from ataraxia – resonates with Frederickson’s model of positive emotions broadening and building. I will also focus on what might be considered the opposite of joy, namely pain, as personally experienced by me in recent months.

The basic tenets of Epicurean therapy were summarised by the ancients in the tetrapharmakos, or ‘four-fold cure’ (Long and Sedley, 1987, p. 156):

  1. Don’t fear the gods
  2. Don’t fear death
  3. What is good is easy to obtain
  4. What is bad is easy to endure

In modern terms, this might be translated as:

  1. Scrutinise one’s beliefs from a rational, evidence-based perspective
  2. Accept the inevitability of death
  3. Understand that more stuff does not guarantee happiness; a sufficiency is easy to acquire
  4. Realise that ill health need not prevent one from experiencing many positive emotions

Using both self-reflection (auto-ethnography) and a carefully structured programme of Epicurean exercises, I want to explore Epicurean ‘joy’ and discover if it can ‘broaden and build’. Whether Epircurus and Frederickson even mean the same thing when they speak of ‘joy’ remains to be seen. But first some discussion of the theory of emotions – both ancient and modern – is required.

Epicurean Positive Emotions

Frederickson (1998) argues that positive emotions are an evolved adaptation, in that they ‘broaden an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire, encouraging the individual to pursue a wider range of thoughts or actions than is typical’ (p. 312); such broadening leads to ‘resource building’: over time, these broadened thought-actions produce a ‘durable’ increase of ‘an individual’s store of physical, intellectual, and social resources’ (p. 312). In her original 1998 paper she lists four – ‘joy, interest, contentment, and love’ (p. 304) – later expanded to ‘ten representative positive emotions’ (2013, p. 3). The 2013 paper refers to ‘serenity’ instead of ‘contentment’, potentially signalling a promising semantic shift towards Epicurean ‘tranquillity’.  Frederickson says of serenity (2013, p. 4) that it ‘creates the urge to savor those current [cherished, right, or satisfying] circumstances and integrate them into new priorities or values’, which in turn creates ‘durable resources’ of ‘a more refined and complex sense of oneself and of one’s priorities.’

How far does this agree with Epicurus’ notion of ataraxia? For Epicurus, ‘pleasure is the goal of life’ (Woolf, 2009, p. 158) – although as Hadot (1995, p. 87) noted, not all pleasures are worthwhile, and the ‘pleasure of existing’ trumps all else. The basic pleasure assumption is derived in part from Epicurus’ so-called ‘cradle argument’, namely that ‘all creatures from birth go after pleasure and avoid pain’ (Woolf, 2009, p. 175); there is an evolutionary slant to Epicurus’ thinking here, since the seeking after pleasure and avoidance of pain are deemed to be instinctive, ‘pertaining as much to animals as to human beings’ (Konstan, 2008, p. 15). From these premises it is ‘a self-evident lesson’ that everyone naturally seeks ‘the pleasure given by the absence of pain or distress’ (Woolf, 2009, p. 175). Such pleasure is not, however, a neutral state but ‘is experienced as having a positive qualitative character … a felt character that is not unfairly captured in terms of pleasure – a relaxed freshness, let us say, that feels wonderful’ (Woolf, 2009, pp. 173-4).

Konstan (2008) goes further and distinguishes carefully between mere hedone (‘pleasure’), which is a pathos (‘a non-rational affect’, p. 11) on the one hand and the concomitant emotion on the other, which has a cognitive element added. ‘The rational emotion, which responds to an impression of something deemed to be pleasant’ (p. 17) is khara (‘joy’) – one of Frederickson’s core positive emotions – the joy in savouring life itself already mentioned by Hadot above. The cognitive element is vital, for it is this component that is targeted by Epicurean philosophical therapy (i.e. the tetrapharmakos): joy can be mistaken if dependent on ‘empty belief (kenodoxia) … If, however, one anticipates rather the kind of tranquillity that is possible for human beings, and which resides in the absence of pain and the freedom from mental perturbation, then it is a proper and rational joy’ (p. 17).

Epicurean ‘pleasure’ (hedone), therefore, is an instinctive and natural feeling (or ‘affect’) experienced by all creatures; however, the cognitive reaction to that pleasure is what constitutes an emotion proper. The joy (khara) of knowing that one is free from physical and mental disturbance, and is destined to remain so, is the positive emotion associated with the state of ‘tranquillity’ (ataraxia).

[See also: Epicurean Positive Emotions (2) — Static and Kinetic Pleasures]


Epicurus (trans. O’Connor, 1993). The Essential Epicurus. New York: Prometheus Books.

Fatic, A. (2013). ‘Epicureanism as a Foundation for Philosophical Counseling’. Philosophical Practice, March 2013, 8.1: 1127-1141

Frederickson, B. (1998). ‘What Good Are Positive Emotions?’ Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

Frederickson, B. (2013). ‘Positive Emotions Broaden and Build’ in  Devine and  Plant (eds.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 47. Burlington: Academic Press.

Hadot, P. (ed. Davidson, trans. Chase, 1995). Philosophy as a Way of Life. London: Blackwell Publishing.

Konstan, D. (2008). A Life Worthy of the Gods: The Materialist Psychology of Epicurus. Las Vegas: Parmenides.

Long, A. A. and Sedley, D. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol. 1: Translations of the Principal Sources, with Philosophical Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woolf, R. (2009). ‘Pleasure and Desire’ in Warren, J. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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