On The Need For the European Union To Adopt The Epicurean Concept of “Pursuit of Happiness” As A Human Right

Why should it strike anyone as unusual that there are so many unhappy people in Europe (and elsewhere, to be fair!) when the leaders of Europe have not adopted the “pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental right of man?

This was the topic of a recent talk given by Dr. Christos Yapijakis, Assistant Professor of Neurogenetics at the University of Athens Medical School in Athens, Greece.  Dr. Yapijakis is a founding member of the Friends of Epicurean Philosophy (“Garden of Athens”), and much of his work can be found at the group’s website, www.Epicuros.gr.

The general topic of the 26th International Conference of Philosophy held this past week in Athens was “Greek Philosophy And Moral And Political Issues Of Our Global Era.’’ Dr. Yapijakis delivered to the conference a paper entitled “The Need Of The Epicurean Concept Of  ‘The Pursuit Of Happiness’ in the European Union.”  He has kindly given permission for us to reproduce the complete paper here.  An original PDF of this document, which contains the footnotes that are omitted from the version contained in this post, may be downloaded here.

I have annexed at the end of this post a few comments of my own, which contains information I have gathered from Dr. Yapijakis (which I have summarized with the help of my friend Elli) about the reaction to his speech at the conference.




The Need Of The Epicurean Concept Of  ‘The Pursuit Of Happiness’ in the European Union

Dr. Christos Yapijakis


Happiness or subjective well-being may be considered to be a conscious experience of  hedonic feeling or cognitive satisfaction, according to current consensus opinion of psychologists  and neuroscientists. (1)  This notion philosophically corresponds to Epicurus’ concept of happiness as the katastematic pleasure of lack of body pain (aponia) and lack of anxiety or soul suffering  (ataraxia).(2)  The Athenian philosopher recognized that the pursuit of a blissful life is the goal of sane people.

Decades of psychosocial research has accumulated empirical evidence that subjective experience of well-being consists mainly of two interrelated components: cognitive life satisfaction and pleasant versus unpleasant moods and emotions.(3)  Most studies do not distinguish between the  two components of subjective well-being, but some people think that life satisfaction corresponds  to cognitive evaluation of one’s life as a whole, whereas happiness refers mainly to transient emotions.(4)  The distinction between cognitive and emotional well-being is usually made by idealist philosophers who do not consider people as biological beings but prefer instead to treat them in theoretical terms.(5)

On the other hand, neurobiology and biological psychology have accumulated hard evidence that humans have at the same time instincts, emotions and cognitive functions, in agreement to naturalist philosophers like Epicurus. By observing the human nature, the Athenian philosopher recognized the fact that the basic needs of people lay in instincts, he determined the purpose of human life on emotional grounds (namely the pursuit of happiness), and he considered prudence as the supreme agent of selection of physical needs and of satisfaction and preservation of emotional balance through virtue and friendship.(6)  Therefore, in this presentation the terms happiness, subjective well-being and life satisfaction will be treated as synonymous with each other and the greek word eudaimonia.
The unhappy situation in the European Union

In this presentation, I will show evidence that unhappiness or low life satisfaction is consistently reported by many Europeans over a period of several decades and that this fact results from the main widespread philosophies in Europe which do not aim at happiness of individuals. In addition, I will argue that the life disappointment felt by many Europeans is highly correlated to widespread notions of “democracy deficit” and lack of public support for EU.

In an era of socioeconomic crisis, there is accumulating evidence that in almost all European Union (EU) countries (including Greece) over 60% of people declare that they do not feel happy or very satisfied with life. (7)  Certainly, the EU countries share this average lack of life satisfaction with most of the rest of the world. In the 2013 Global Happiness Report of 156 countries, only eight of the 28 EU states were among the 20 happiest countries in the world, while twelve were distributed in places 21-51 and the remaining eight (including Greece) in places 70-144.(8)

One might argue that the overall unhappiness in EU should be circumstantial due to the recent financial crisis, but this does not seem to be true. I will provide two lines of empirical evidence that support against the notion that unhappy EU citizens is a recent phenomenon. The first line of evidence includes Eurobarometers data since 1974, which indicate that the unhappiness trend of most EU countries is similar for forty years. (9)   Over a period of four decades and despite some fluctuations, less than 40% of people in eleven EU countries have been declaring to be happy or very satisfied with life. In three countries (namely The Netherlands, Luxemburg and Sweden), 40-50% of citizens have been reporting to be satisfied with life, while in one notable exception (Denmark), subjective well-being has been fluctuating between 50% and 65%. (10)   The most plausible explanation for the Danes’ happiness is that it stems from their mentality of fully enjoying the present without having high expectations for the future. (11)   This is exactly what Epicurus recommended, namely to enjoy the present with prudence, self-sufficiency, virtue and friendship without fear or vain desires for the future. (12)

Furthermore, a second line of evidence comes from an EU survey long before the current socioeconomic crisis. A European quality of life survey, which was published in 2005, indicated a great deal of resignation and disappointment of Europeans. (13)  The survey reported that more than one third of EU citizens were pessimistic about the future, and they believed that they were forced to do incorrect things in order to get ahead those days, that good luck was more important than hard work for success, and that life had become so complicated that they felt lost.

Interestingly, the survey noticed that despite an unequal distribution of happiness in a north–south divide and a west–east divide, the disappointment pattern was consistent in almost all EU countries regardless of economic development. According to the survey: “Once national prosperity has reached a certain level beyond hardship and the fulfillment of basic needs is assured, subjective well-being remains only weakly linked to such a general measure of economic welfare, and other country differences, such as education, life expectancy or the quality of society play an important additional role.” (14)  As a rule, citizens of almost all EU countries declared that were mostly satisfied by family life and were least satisfied by education and standard of living. (15)

The survey started with the observation that “interventions to promote subjective well-being have not been explicitly at the centre of a European social policy strategy up to now (16) ” and concluded: “The core message of this report is that subjective quality of life, as a main provider of individual welfare, can be improved by raising the individuals’ standard of living, by developing the political and democratic culture in a country and by providing citizens with better opportunities to live a life according to their needs and aspirations. Individual characteristics and psychology might determine subjective well-being to a large extent, but social inequality and the quality of a society are also decisive factors. Their improvement and modification can and should be of immediate concern for policymakers.” (17)

According to several studies and surveys, EU is faced with a “democracy deficit” and diminishing support from its citizens. (18)   The lack of public identification with the EU is a result of the lack of more accountable governance but, more profoundly, communication structures, which make political community possible. Obviously, it is not irrelevant that the EU policies mainly aim in economic growth and prosperity and not in well-being of people. This notion reflects the fact that the right to pursue happiness is not included in the 54 articles of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. (19)  Of course, this issue is contrary to the will of the people, in general. A survey in the United Kingdom found that 81% of the population agreed that the Government’s primary objective should be the creation of happiness, not wealth. (20)

The absence of the right of happiness in EU is not coincidental, but it is philosophically deliberate, since it is well known that one of the main foundations of European civilization is philosophy. According to Nebredø, the two main philosophies that shape the background of modern European thinking is the Neoplatonic/Christian Center-right Europeanism and the Stoic/Kantian Enlightenment Center-left Europeanism. (21)  None of these two philosophical approaches seem to be interested mainly in human individual well-being. The Neoplatonic/Christian tradition is characterized by idealistic, elitist and teleological ideas with faith in God, virtue and justice as the abstract supreme goods. On the other hand, the Stoic/Kantian Enlightenment is characterized by rational, deontological and social duty ideas with reason, virtue and social justice as the abstract supreme goods. Neither of these philosophical approaches places emphasis on individual value of every human being, like the humanistic ethical philosophy of Epicurus.

The need for happiness in EU

The philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus were the first to realize that the purpose of philosophy is happiness. Furthermore, Epicurus recognized the right to well-being of all people teaching wealthy and poor men and women of all classes including slaves. The Athenian philosopher taught that happiness corresponds to absence of mental and physical pain and may be attained though observation of nature, prudence, free will, virtue and friendship.

Many centuries later, in 1776, the main author of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, influenced by Epicurus’ teachings, included among basic human rights the right of pursuit of happiness. Jefferson wrote to a close friend: “As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” (22)

Due to the legacy of Jefferson, for more than two centuries the people of the United States of America know it is their right to pursue happiness in their democratic society, regardless of their financial status. (23)  Even in the first part of the 19th century a democratic culture was rooted in USA supported by public spirit, as the French Tocqueville noted with admiration back in 1840:

“There is a sort of patriotism… [which] is engendered by enlightenment, grows by the aids of laws and the exercise of rights, and in the end becomes, in a sense, mingled with personal interest. A man understands the influence which his country’s well being has on its own; he knows the law allows him to contribute to the production of his well being, and he takes an interest in his country’ s prosperity, first as a thing useful to him and then as something created.” (24) 

In light of the above, there seems to be a correlation of democracy deficit, lack of public identification with the EU and widespread unhappiness of Europeans. The time has come for introducing the Epicurean concept of the pursuit of happiness in the EU culture. (25)   The writings of Christian and Enlightenment philosophers who were fond of Epicurean philosophy like Gassendi, Condillac, Diderot, La Mettrie, Jefferson and others may serve as intellectual bridges with current main philosophies.

The Declaration of the right of happiness in the EU

In 2012, the United Nations (UN) decided to recognize that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal and right, designating the 20th of March of every year as International day of Happiness.  (26)  According to the UN resolution, the General Assembly was “conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal and recognized the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”  Also, UN “recognized the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples”.

Based on the above, at the Fourth Panhellenic Symposium of Epicurean Philosophy that was held in Pallini, Athens in February 2014, I proposed the Declaration of the right of happiness in the European Union that concludes thus: “We (the people of EU) ask for the recognition of this right of happiness in the European Union, since it is self-evident that it is a fundamental human right and its non-recognition in any part of the world constitutes the violation of this natural right.” (27)   The Declaration of Pallini, Athens, as otherwise known has been initially signed by 114 people, and has been officially supported by the Mayor and Municipal Council of Pallini. So far it has been translated in 12 European languages with the aim to collect thousands of signatures across Europe, so that the issue be discussed in the European Parliament and the right of the pursuit of happiness to be ultimately recognized in the EU.

It is self-evident that the recognition of the fundamental human right of happiness in the European Union is a historic need for Europeans, in order to change their way of thinking and policies towards a brighter and happier future.

NewEpicurean.com Commentary:

I am informed that the conference had between eighty and one hundred participants, half of whom were from Greece and half from other parts of the world.  At least eighty percent of these were probably of Platonic orientation, and only two of the fifty speeches given were delivered from an Epicurean perspective.

Audience reaction was divided.  Some responded well, and asked Dr. Yapijakis for contact information to follow up with him in the future.  A number of these were of Aristotelian orientation, including one from America.

Others responded negatively, however, as  might be expected given the Platonic orientation of many of the participants.   These can be broken down into three camps:

One camp contained a prominent participant criticized Dr. Yapijakis for not giving more time to the views of other Greek philosophers on happiness.  Another criticized Dr. Yapijakis for seeming to imply that Epicurus was concerned about economic prosperity, rather than (in the views of the critic) only absence of anxiety and pain.

A second camp criticized Dr. Yapijakis because “in his opinion, the pursuit of happiness is not a human right!”  It made no difference to this critic that the UN recognizes  it, he refused to recognize it himself!

A third camp criticized Dr. Yapijakis because “everyone has a different opinion about happiness.”  This critic said that Dr. Yapijakis should have discussed the Aristotelian view of happiness (which is of course considerably different from that of Epicurus).

These negative camps reflect a fact that has been true since the ancient world — most other non-Epicurean philosophies (and religious orientations) are allied together in seeing Epicureanism as their common enemy.  As long as there are friends of Epicurus to promote his views, there will be modern-day Platonists and Aristotelians and Stoics to oppose us.

As for the camp that complained that equal time was not given to other philosophers, they are the heirs of Pyrrho and the skeptics. Such people are convinced that no philosophy and no philosopher can ever state that anything is true.  Such people believe that the only way to consider any subject is to give equal and unending time and credit to all positions, no matter the merit or reasoning or reality of the position.  It does not matter to such people that endless consideration of every possible viewpoint would leave no time at the end of the day to reach a conclusion.  Even worse, the Academic world long ago gave in to the idea that “diversity” is the unchallengeable ideal. From that viewpoint no single idea can ever be so worthy of merit that it can be allowed to emerge from the vast sea of flotsam that floats aimlessly on the waves.  Such people insist that the choice is to combine all colors – even the most divergent – into a single mish-mash that leads only to grey.

As for the camp that protests that the pursuit of happiness is not a human right, here we can include both the religionists, who see devotion to their particular god as the only possible goal, as well as the Marxists and similar social reformers, who see “the fatherland” or “society” or “the people” or “equality” or any number of other goals as the substitute for a god in heaven.  There are many ways that one can conclude that the pursuit of happiness is not fundamental to every human, but every such way involves turning one’s back on Nature, for it is Nature herself that endows all men and women with the same command to pursue whatever happiness is available to them.

As for the camp that argues that everyone has a different view of happiness, this is similar to the first camp mentioned above, but with an important distinction.  This camp acknowledges that a correct conclusion about happiness is possible, but they insist on defining the word “happiness” in terms that Nature would never recognize.  Try to pin down an Aristotelean on the meaning of “happiness,” and before you can say the word “eudaemonia” you will be drowned in vague words like “flourishing” and amorphous requirements of property and societal standards that have no justification in Nature whatsoever.  Add to the Aristotlelians those religionists (and other philosophies) which have succeeded in rendering the word “Hedonist” as a virtual synonym of devil-worship.  Before the subject of happiness can even be discussed, such people require much labor to explain that the philosophy of Epicurus was the furthest thing possible from the indulgence and debauchery they hear in the word “Hedonism.”  The point here is that the definition of “happiness” and “pleasure” is one of the battlegrounds where the fight for recognition of the “right to the pursuit of happiness” will be fought.  In holding up “happiness” as a natural right, we must refer to the true guidance of Nature through the faculties of Pleasure and Pain, and we must ground the true path to pleasure in the senses and the rest of the Epicurean Canon, not in rationalistic syllogisms.

Dr. Yapijakis’ article makes a great start to the task of calling the European Union to consider a matter which all of us – from individual to largest nation, must face.   How can the European Union together, or a single individual alone, hope to experience happiness unless they explicitly define happiness as their goal?  It is time that the EU point out to all its citizens that Nature has established the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental “right” – the fundamental “calling” – of all men and women.[divider_padding]


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