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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Column: Happy, Healthy

Through the last nine columns, I’ve written at length about your health – what you need to do, what you can try, what you shouldn’t do, how you can do this and avoid that, why you should be healthy at all. While I tried to err on the side of simplicity, some of the advice could get complicated, the details too difficult to recall weeks later. So you might have forgotten every tip I labored onto paper. I’m here to tell you this week that it’s okay. Lucky for the both of us, all the advice I could ever hope to impart, and the only advice you ever really needed, was discovered by a long-ago marginalized Greek philosopher.

A little over 2,000 years ago, Epicurus authored more than 300 works on everything from ethics to physics. Few of those works survived history, but his core message seemed to make it through just fine: do what makes you happy.

What does the advice of Captain Obvious here have to do with a column on health? First, happiness is health. I don’t mean that happiness causes health or vice-versa. By this I mean your health means nothing without your happiness, and your happiness is nonexistent without your health. They’re not just related to each other. I mean that your happiness is your health. Second, the advice of Epicurus is not that obvious after all.

Pretend that Yoloberry makes you happy. If you were to follow Epicurus’ advice, surely you would do nothing but eat Yoloberry all day, every day. But even the most dedicated Yoloberry enthusiast couldn’t eat that much Yoloberry and still be happy. Your economics professor might call this the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. Common sense would call it moderation. Doing what makes you happy entails that you are keenly aware of what “enough” means to you.

For some reason, we don’t always do what makes us happy. Social scientists might characterize this as an inability to distinguish Near from Far, the short-term from long-term. For example, your 15-minute break between classes at noon might frame your food options as Near, which pulls you to the fast, cheap and easy option of CoHo pizza. When you get out of class, the decision to go home and nap is Near. Far is going to the ARC, even if we know it will be better for our health (and our happiness) in the long run. Doing what makes you happy also means thinking about your happiness in the big picture.

But this doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. And you certainly don’t need to be rational all the time. It wouldn’t make you happy to completely change who you are. To keep himself happy and healthy, Socrates danced every morning. Sartre would’ve gladly kicked the bucket if he had to give up smoking. Ninon de l’Enclos, a courtesan of Louis XVIII, wrote that life without love is not life, but prolonged illness. Julia Child was known to enjoy guilty pleasures minus the guilt. Doing what makes you happy leaves you room for you to be who you are.

A final bit of Epicurean wisdom is especially germane to finals. At his school-residence known as The Garden (I wonder if that sounded as sketch back then as it does today.), Epicurus and his students did not concern themselves with the public life of Athens. Unlike every other citizen charged with civic duty, Epicureans just didn’t worry much about politics. They didn’t worry much about the Pantheon of Gods either. In fact, they didn’t worry much at all about anything. Epicurus thought stress, more than anything else, was both the root and cause of all unhappiness. A particularly toxic form of stress came from things no one could impact. Doing what makes you happy means not stressing out about what’s out of your control.

That’s it. I’m confident that everything I ever wrote in this space comes down to this one-liner. The task now is to stop and think at each juncture about what exactly will make you happy. What will make you happy now, what will make you happy in the future, what you could live with (and without). To be sure, the answers will be different for everyone, even if the result should be the same. The stakes are pretty high. After all, doing what makes you happy is doing what makes you healthy.

E-mailing your thoughts to RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu will keep him healthy.


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