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The Art of Happiness: What can Greek philosophy teach us about mental health?

Which Greek philosophy can best help us manage our mental health? How might we balance the use of our reason and emotion?

Mental health is often considered to be a new topic. It’s only in recent years that we’ve truly been talking about mental health. Mental illness, however, has been a topic of conversation for far longer. Despite not naming mental health, or the idea of self-care, explicitly. I believe that they have been considerations of society for longer than we initially imagine.

As far back as Ancient Greece, we can see implications around the conversation for mental health and self-care. Eudaimonia, the pursuit of a good or just life, is rooted in the philosophy of Aristotle (384 – 322 BC). Eudaimonia has also been understood to mean “happiness”, “wellbeing” or “flourishing”. Thus, it resonates with our modern thinking around mental health often linked to the concept of wellbeing. But overall, the understanding of the human ability to thrive emotionally rather than physically.

Ideas of mental health and self-care can be found in further schools of philosophy. By considering Ancient Greek thinking through the lens of mental health, we can find various references which would not be so far away from our modern considerations of wellbeing.

If we were to view philosophy as a continuum, similar to the mental health continuum, we find that Epicureanism can be viewed as a balance between Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium (334 – c.262 BC), on the one hand and Hedonism, founded by Aristippus (435 – 356 BC), on the other. Whilst we must be careful not to apply anachronistic ideas of mental health onto the Ancient World, we can perceive Epicureanism, based on the teachings of Epicurus (341 – 270 BC), as an equilibrium or balance between these two schools of thought.

Mindfulness in Ancient Greece

Before a further investigation of each of these Schools of Philosophy, it is important to note the time period which they span. From the Classical period in the 5th and 4th centuries BC to the Hellenistic period, often marked from the death of Alexander the Great (in 323 BC), reaching through the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. These three Schools of Philosophy all have different lessons for managing our mental health.

The influence of luxury and a changing political context have been cited as reasons for the proliferation of these ideas, with monarchies being more common in the Hellenistic world compared to democratic rule and enforced oligarchies in the Classical period. Whilst the impact of luxury and the changing political scene is beyond the scope of this piece, Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian provides an excellent overview.

Let’s start with perhaps the most recognizable philosophy: Hedonism. The etymology of the word is from the Ancient Greek hēdonismos, meaning pleasure. This is the very hallmark of this school of thought, with the pursuit of a good life being tantamount to the pursuit of pleasure. And a focus on sensory pleasures as being good and pain as bad. This wasn’t the ungoverned bacchanal that we may perceive it to be by our modern reckoning, however, as the hedonists did not aim to increase pleasure in the world generally or even suggest that all forms of pleasure were good. Rather, that one’s pursuit of one’s own pleasure was the route to the good life. Remembering, therefore, that what one person defines as pleasure is not necessarily identical to that of another.

In contrast, Epicureanism takes elements of Hedonism but places restrictions on them. To Epicurus the pursuit of pleasure was not the answer to the question ‘what makes a good life’ but rather a life without pain. Whence Aristippus advocated for a life of pleasure, Epicurus settled on more neutral ground – a life without pain, but without unadulterated pleasure too. Thus, whilst Aristippus may have advocated for the continued pursuit of anything that would bring pleasure, Epicurus settled for the necessities of life but no more than that. Whatever one did not need was not pursued. This middle ground for Epicurus is the idea of equilibrium or tranquillity; a life lived without fear, or freedom from fear; ataraxia in Greek.

Lastly, we have the school of the Stoics, who like the Epicureans and Hedonists, also wished to answer the question of what constitutes a good life. Unlike the Hedonistic pursuit of pleasure or the Epicurean avoidance of pain, Stoics sought a life of virtue through the governance of emotions. They recognized the irrationality of worrying about anything outside of one’s control and switched their focus to problem-solving and logic, an important factor in boosting resilience. This left little time for indulging one’s emotions – the modern day ‘pity party’. And yet, we must be wary of understanding Stoicism according to modern interpretations of the ‘stiff upper lip’ or a denial of emotions completely; their approach was the application of rationality on those emotions.

Hedonism

The Hedonist pursuit of pleasure may distract us from a life of purpose or acts of kindness. Blinkering our world view to our own individual sphere of interest. Denying us the mental health benefits that arise through helping others or having a long-term aim or goal to achieve. ‘Give’ is one of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, in the UK, acknowledging the positive impact of relating to others as a mechanism for improving our mental health.

However, Hedonisms’ pursuit of pleasure can be a timely reminder to put ourselves first from time to time, a message so often forgotten in the modern world, where self-care is often perceived as selfish. Additionally, Hedonism reminds us to find our ‘pleasure’ ourselves, because self-care isn’t self-care when it’s defined by another.

Stoicism

The Stoic way of life has messages for our mental health too, by encouraging us to take a more logical approach to our lives and struggles. Stoicism does not deny the negative aspects of life, but instead encourages the allocation of energy to what we can control rather than what we can’t. An important message when change can have such a huge impact on our mental health. In a world where much of our anxieties and stress is focussed around the past or the future, Stoicism reminds us to take a step back from our concerns, and to be more present. This idea is rooted in mindfulness, which has become a common practise of boosting our mental health in the modern day.

On the other hand, as many of us know, attempting to be rational when we are feeling emotional isn’t always possible. At times we need to sit with our emotions and process them before leaping to try to fix or solve them. Thus, whilst good for our mental health in some ways, Stoicism may prevent us engaging in imperative emotional or mental self-care. Denying us the benefits of truly processing our emotions or encouraging us to speak about them openly – the ultimate form of self-care for many.

Epicureanism

For these reasons, I maintain that Epicureanism balances these two approaches. It allows for the pursuit of pleasure without allowing the self to become one’s sole focus. Both the Stoics and Epicureans understood that too much pleasure or material gain could become an additional source of worry. Whether due to the need to protect one’s gains or the need to accumulate more. Therefore, the Epicurean ideal of pleasure to a certain degree, or the pursuit of one’s happiness or wellbeing as appropriate, provides a positive message for our mental health.

The Epicureans also balance Stoic regulation of emotion with the Hedonistic indulgence of it. We know that for good mental health it is important to be allowed to feel. And most importantly to be able to convey how we feel to others. That sitting in an emotion for too long, and crucially not getting support, can also be unhelpful. And that, with time, we need to address these emotions in a more rational or Stoic fashion. In fact, the Stoic connection of emotion, thought and feeling can be mapped onto current models of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).

So, whilst mental health and self-care may seem like a construction of the modern world. And although it would be anachronistic to attribute these ideas to the Ancient World. We can see that the Schools of Philosophies in Ancient Greece were espousing ideas that continue to boost our wellbeing to this day. With the School of Epicurean philosophy being particularly useful in guiding us to a more measured approach to managing our mental health and a balanced view of self-care.

Emma Gordon

Emma is currently a mental health educator in the voluntary sector, spending her time running training and interactive education sessions. Emma is interested in Ancient History and Literature and holds a BA in Classical Literature and Civilisations. She uses this knowledge to write her own mental health and wellbeing blog 'My Musings and Me'.