Lessons from the Routines of Famous Creators

I’m a big believer in routine. I think that a lot of what contributes to determining whether a person succeeds or fails in their endeavors is whether or not they have a routine in place – a system – that acts as a benefit or detriment to their progress.

So I was excited to find this visualization of the daily routines of 25 famously creative individuals by Podio and the one below from Infograph We Trust. Let’s take a look and see what learn from them.

Sleep

I’ve said before, sleep is super important.

When we look at the 25 people in question the average amount of time spent per day sleeping was 7.65 hours. Of course, this is a mean and of a relatively small sample size at that so take from it what you will. Within those 25 we have a few outliers such as poor Voltaire clocking in at only four hours of sleep per day and Mozart with a meager five. On the other end of the spectrum is Balzac with around ten hours of sleep per night.

Overall though the majority fall between the seven and eight hour range. This follow pretty closely with the current general guidelines on how much sleep is considered healthy. Stepping outside the chart itself, you’ll notice a mild correlation between amount of sleep daily and lifespan – not to say this implies causation, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

An important thing to take away from this for me is that to be a successfully creative it isn’t necessary to deprive yourself of sleep in the name of overzealous production. In fact, it would seem if given the option of spending more time on sleep or more time on creative work itself the individuals here at least were better off getting extra sleep rather than putting in more work hours.

Quality beats quantity here, and sufficient sleep appears to be an important factor in keeping to a high standard of quality.

I’d also like to note that five of our twenty five here were nappers, depending on whether you include poor insomniac Kafka or not. Napping doesn’t mean you’re lazy, and can actually be a big help in boosting your productivity and creativity.

Creative Work Habits

Our sample twenty five here don’t follow any apparent pattern of when they favored creative work. Some worked in the mornings immediately after waking, some worked late at night and others worked in little intermittent spurts throughout the entire day. Don’t assume just because some people say it’s better to do creative work in the mornings or evenings that it’s true for you. Experiment and find what works best for you then schedule your work times for when you feel most creative or engaged.

Another thing of note is that, with the exception of Kant and his hour or so of creative work a day, the majority of the twenty five in the graphic made their creative work a priority. It wasn’t just some extra thing tacked on to their day, it was clearly a major focus for each of them.

I don’t think this means that there’s any kind of magic number of work hours you have to put in on your creative endeavors, but I do think it’s strongly indicative that all these individuals were passionate about their creative work. It was a defining part of their lives, and they treated it as such. In other words, don’t phone things in.

While most of these individuals lived during times when the modern concept of exercise was essentially unheard of, it’s interesting how many of them included something that could be categorized as exercise very near to when they routinely engaged in their creative work. At least fourteen of them enjoyed going for walks around when they were trying to be their most creative.

If you’re feeling stuck or uncreative, try taking a short walk and letting our mind wander then coming back to things.

Leisure Time

It stands out to me that the majority of these twenty five creative individuals, though they clearly considered their creative work time an integral part of their day, weren’t chained to their desk/easel/piano/whatever.

For nearly all of them their leisure time either matches or exceeds their creative time. Being fair, this does include listed mealtimes and everyone has to eat, but it’s still telling that even the most creative people around are still able to get plenty of time to relax and de-stress.

For those on the list with day jobs in addition to their creative work, there always seems to be at least a small buffer of leisure time before they get into the creative stuff.

I can relate to that personally. I can never go from training a client or teaching a class straight into creative work like writing, I always like to have at least a little chill out time in between as a buffer. Keep that in mind if you feel like you have to go right from your other work into that creative project you’ve been working on – you’ll probably be better off if you take a little break in-between to recharge.

24 Hours

Out of everything, the most helpful thing to me in seeing so many famous creative individuals’ daily routines all together is that it’s a convenient reminder that we all get twenty four hours in a day.

Successful people and absolute failures alike each get the same amount of time everyday – the important variable is how that time is spent.

Hopefully if nothing else this has inspired you to take a look at your own daily routine to see if there are any areas where you can make adjustments to improve your creativity or well-being. If anything jumps out at you from these graphics, or you have a particular area in your daily routine you’ve recently changed and want to share it with everyone, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Podio, Infographic We Trust

Why Behavioral Change is Hard and What You Can Do About It

Adventure Time - "Dude, sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something." by Jake the Dog.

Want to make a big change in your life? Maybe you want to get fit or commit to learning a language or instrument, or even to start meditating.

At some time or another, everyone sets goals they hope to attain someday that will require significant changes to their lifestyles. Unfortunately though, most will fail to achieve those goals.

Every new year, gyms are crowded with well-intentioned “resolutioners” who want to become healthy, perhaps lose some pounds, and be a better version of themselves in the new year. By February the number of those who stick around will be halved, then by March that number halved again. Only a very small percent of those who started will stick around.

Motivated by Negative Emotions

A lot of the people at the gym are motivated by the things that make them upset or by a negative conscious. They’re upset about being overweight, feeling guilty for not exercising as often as they should.

The same goes for many other pursuits, even learning instruments – they focus too much on what they can’t do, or the guilty feelings for missed practice sessions.

Studies have shown that those seeking to make long-lasting changes are most successful when they are self-motivated and founded in positive thinking.

So don’t focus on the negatives – focus on the good that will come from that change, on how good it feels to know you’ve hit your targets along your way to that goal. Focus on the wins you have had – it’s better to exercise once a week for 15 minutes, than not at all.

Your inner dialog effects your success rate, your confidence and your moods. The more you can make it a positive voice instead of a negative one, the happier and more successful you’ll be.

Visualizations and personal mission statements have been shown to help people succeed in their goals and in changing the tone of their inner voice.

Practice visualizing succeeding in your goals and make time at the beginning of your day to recite your personal mission statement, like “today will be a productive day – I’ll practice Spanish and go to the gym.” Or “I’m hardworking and make awesome videos – I dedicate myself to making the best videos available.”

“The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, the manufacture their own meaning, hey generate their own motivation.”
– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Take on More than You Can Handle

Your willpower is finite and so is your time. Taking on too many goals at once will not only drain your willpower and motivation, but will lower your focus and ability to devote time to meet those goals.

Once one thing fails, it’s easy to slip into a negative mind-set and let it all fall apart.

People who seem to be able to “do it all” and “magically have time for everything” didn’t start out that way – they built it up slowly.

To ensure your goals will be successful, start with just one or two and add to it as you feel able to. Once meeting your first couple goals is so easy and habitual that you do it without even thinking, then you can add more.

Stay in Your Comfort Zone

A lot of changes will require that you do something uncomfortable. They will make you do things you don’t normally do, in the name of making you into a better person.

Practicing a language requires you get out of your comfort zone – you’ll eventually need to go out and practice speaking with other people.

Eating healthy foods, hitting calorie and macro targets, exercising all require that you get out of your comfort zone. It’s just easier to not do those things, and eating ‘bad foods’ make you feel really good right now.

An simple way to address the comfort zone issue is to break it up into small, swallow-able chunks and to congratulate yourself on the successes you do make.

Practice speaking in your target language for just a few minutes, and build it up from there. Same goes for exercising – don’t try to go all out and lift or run for an hour. Eating healthy food all day isn’t easy for everyone, so start with just one meal.

Once those small commitments aren’t painful anymore, then you can increase the time or difficulty.

“We avoid risks in life, so we can make it safely to death.”
-Philosoraptor

Make Things as Hard as Possible

Sure, you can keep track of how much you’ve spent on ‘entertainment’ in your head. And you can remember to practice playing your ukulele for fifteen minutes a day if it’s hidden in it’s case and tucked in the closet, right?

Right?

Nope.

We aren’t perfect, so the more we can make change easier to do than to not do, the better. Rather than fully putting away your instrument after practice, keep it somewhere in the open where it is easy to see and think “Yeah, I’ll just grab it and practice for a few minutes.” The hassle of taking something out of it’s case is small, but enough to discourage someone from doing it.

If keeping to a budget is difficult, forcing yourself to only spend cash on your entertainment will eliminate the need for (often wrong) mental math and keeps you on track to that big goal.

If you want to exercise early in the morning, keep your exercise clothes out ahead of time – set them out before going to bed so that it’s in your way and easier than not to put them on and go work out. Put your meditation and language-learning apps on the front screen of your phone so you’ll have that many fewer steps to comply.

Vague, Un-actionable Goals

We’ve talked a lot about how having vague goals practically ensures failure. When you have a big goal like “lose weight,” “learn guitar” or “become financially independent” it’s incredibly easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and paralyzed by not knowing what to do.

Take the time to make your goal specific and then explicitly list out the steps required to achieve that goal – this will go a long way to ensure your success. Once you’ve completed the goal and actions-to-goal sheet, put it somewhere easy to see and take a look at it from time to time to remind yourself that your goal is doable, and you know exactly how to do it.

Breaking down big goals into smaller, mini goals will help not to feel overwhelmed and will give you clarity. You know what you need to do and you know you can do it. The only thing is to actually do it.

Don’t Build New Habits

One of the easiest ways to achieve a goal is to incorporate it into who you are, to make it a part of your habits and being. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time to do this. We want to skip the hard work of change and just reap the benefits – but it doesn’t work like that.

If your goal is to workout three days a week for an hour per session when you haven’t set foot in a gym for the past year, starting there is likely to fail. Going to the gym three days a week is something you aren’t used to doing and the time commitment will wear you out.

If you want to make meditation, language practice or instrument practice into a daily activity, the same idea applies – jumping into a huge time commitment will wear down your willpower.

Instead of taking on a big commitment that is a huge change, start with a small change. Meditate or practice for just five minutes per day. At the beginning, five minutes may seem ridiculously easy, but the point is to make the act of practice a habit. Once that is down, you can slowly increase the time.

Don’t forget to track your progress toward those habits, too. Using the Seinfeld chain method, keep a piece of paper on a wall and mark it for each day you successfully complete the goal task. Having a visual reminder of your successes will keep you positive, motivated, and ingrain this habit.

Focus on the act of complying, not with the results. Making the task become a habit and a part of your lifestyle will ensure not only success, but sustainable success. Results will follow.

Don’t Identify Triggers

Have you ever had a day when something is just off and when one thing is off it spirals downward until everything has gone wrong and you just give up?

Sometimes it’s easy to point to what went wrong – but often it’s not so easy. Say you went over on your calories at lunch and beat yourself up over it, then by dinner time thought, “ugh, I screwed up. Forget it, let’s eat pizza for dinner.” Maybe you did this consciously, maybe unconsciously.

Keeping a journal during your change and having regular check-ins once or multiple times per week will help you to identify triggers that caused you to de-rail your progress. Once you can identify those triggers, then you can work on creating a plan to deal with them. If you went over your calories at lunch – remember that it’s not a big deal, keep your dinner to what you planned. Remember that there will be bumps along the way.

Change is a Process

Changing your habits and behaviors is hard work. Humans are complex and even under ideal circumstances, they can fail.

You don’t exercise once and suddenly become a gym-rat or play guitar once and suddenly become a riff-master. It takes patience and persistence. Learn to love the process and the results will come.

The key to successful change is simple though: don’t give up. The path to successful change is never straight and often requires starting over and over. But that’s okay – failures are a way to start again with more knowledge than before (what worked? What didn’t?) Take a break if you need to, but then get back to it.

It requires an immense amount of courage to get out of your comfort zone and to become more than average. If you have any major changes you want to make in your life it’s important to remember exactly what you’re doing - you’re trying to become more than average. To become awesome – or epic.

If it were easy, everyone would be their ideal selves.

“The higher the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
– Frank Underwood

How Mindful Meditation is a Workout for Your Brain

Meditation

You don’t need to be a monk to meditate, nor do you need a huge time commitment.

For the longest time the idea of meditation always conjured up images monks sitting cross-legged on mountaintops, cliffs, under waterfalls or some similar wilderness space all while being completely silent for hours on end. I thought it was a spiritual thing and the benefits were all just myths or pseudoscience.
However a growing body of studies caused me to take a second look at it and since experimenting with it personally, I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

What Is Meditation

There’s several different ways to meditate, however most of the scientific research focuses on mindful meditation, or Zazen (literally: seated meditation.) As such, that’s what we’re going to focus on in this article.

In mindful meditation, you focus on one specific thing – it could be a sensation or your breathing. The point is to focus on this one thing and when you catch your mind wandering, you gently bring it back to that focal point.

We train our bodies in a gym – doing reps to increase our strength and cardio to improve heart health. Meditation is like going to the gym, but for your brain. Unlike a gym, it’s cheaper and doesn’t require any fancy clothes and doesn’t have any potential for worrying about how you look in front of others.

Zazen is not so much about spirituality as much as it is about training your concentration and attention – the ability to be present, quiet your mind and focus on one thing.

Our brains have to process a lot of information – this information is like confetti being released from a ceiling and you are your brain trying to grasp on to each of them. Our attention is everywhere and it decreases our focus, productivity and increases our stress levels. With meditation, we learn to slow down and control that flow of information.

Meditation Works by Literally Changing Your Brain

Technology has enabled scientists to get a better understanding of what happens in our brains when we meditate and how it affects our brains. Thus far have been absolutely fascinating.

Using fMRI scans one of the biggest things scientists have learned is that it causes a decrease in beta waves, meaning our brains stop or slow down processing information.

In addition to controlling the flow of information, it also increases gray matter which has a huge impact on our lives, as I’ll describe below.

What Does This Mean For You?

Increased Focus

During mindful meditation, we are practicing holding on to a singular focus and bringing it back when our mind drifts – this practice enables us to be better at focusing even when we are not meditating.

Decreased Anxiety

This was a huge one for me, as I am prone to trouble with anxiety. Consistent meditation loosens the connections of particular neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex – commonly called the “me center.” This part of the brain processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences.

Typically, the neural pathways from bodily sensation and fear centers to the Me Center are strong – when you experience a negative or upsetting situation a reaction is triggered in your Me Center that makes you feel scared or under attack.

Meditation loosens these connections, meaning our reactions are more toned down and under control. Something
that would have previously lit up the Me Center would barely register.

As this connection is weakened, the connection in our Assessment Center is simultaneously strengthened. So, when we encounter a scary situation, rather than being gripped by fear and anxiety we are able to calmly and rationally assess the situation.

Decreased Stress

Meditation also helps reduce stress – part to lowering anxiety, but also in part by helping us perform while under pressure.

Increased Memory

One of the more fascinating discoveries is that meditation can help improve memory recall. Multiple studies have found that those who meditated were able to focus and remember facts better than those who did not.

Increased Gray Matter

Meditation has also been linked to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer lasting emotional stability, less stress, and heightened focus. Even ore, it’s linked to diminished age-related effects on gray matter and reduces the decline of our cognitive functioning. How cool is that?

Not enough for you? How about increased creativity, lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, increased compassion, confidence, well-being and overall quality of life. If you suffer from anxiety or depression meditation is one of the most powerful things you can do to help.

Meditation is not a cure-all for every ailment, however it is incredibly beneficial. So why not give it a shot?

How to Meditate

In order to glean the highest benefits of meditation, you need to integrate it into your lifestyle. You’ll benefit from just two minutes a day, or if you are ready to jump into it, meditate for between 10 to 30 minutes.
You can go it by yourself, or you can use an app to help. I’ll explain both ways for you here:

On your own

  • Find a comfortable, quiet place and sit. You can sit on the floor or in a chair – whichever doesn’t matter. As long as your back is straight, you are comfortable and there will be no or limited distractions.
  • Rest your hands on your thighs or rest them together in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice any sensations you feel – the sensation of your back against the chair, your feet on the floor, the weight of your body on the cushion. Notice your muscles in your face, shoulders, stomach, and legs. Don’t try to change anything, just notice it.
  • Take another deep breath and relax your facial muscles. With another breath, relax your shoulders. Go on from head to toes.
  • Just breathe. Focus on your breaths, flowing in and out. The only thing going on in your mind should be “breathe in, Breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.” Count your breaths up to ten, and then restart.
  • It wont take long for your mind to drift, to start thinking about the things you have to do today or anything that troubles you or excites you. This is natural. Acknowledge it, don’t chastise yourself over it and bring your focus back to your breath. Pick up where you left off.
  • At the end of your meditation (you can set up a timer) take a final breath, and bring your attention back to the room. Notice how you feel now. Slowly open your eyes.

As you progress, this process will become a lot easier. After a couple of weeks meditation you’ll begin to reap the benefits – a sense of calm and control, increased focus and less stress, among the many others.

When you meditate is up to you, however I highly suggest making it a part of your morning routine. I like to call it my start-up process. I have found that doing it first thing assists in feeling calm and focused throughout the day. However, you can also meditate before bed or midday – and you should if you are feeling particularly stressed. Just take a ten minute break to meditate.

Meditation with Apps

Calm

Calm is my favorite app for meditating. With it you have two options: guided meditation or a timer and doing it yourself. Two of the sets of guided meditation are free, while the rest are accessible for between $0.83-$1.66 per month.

The major benefits to Calm for me are the background white-noise options – you can listen to babbling brooks, a sunny meadow, or rain on leaves. I’ve found personally that having some form of white-noise while I meditate helps me keep that singular focus.

Calm App

Calm’s main screen.

Calm App

Calm’s Guided Meditations.

Additionally, you can choose the noise to signal the end of your session from a pre-set selection. I like them because most of them are non-jarring noises like a singing bowl or harp. Or, you can have no noise set.

Furthermore, Calm logs your sessions and helps keep you motivated.

Breathe

Breathe is a little bit different from Calm in that before you get to the meditation it forces you to take note of your current state by asking you some questions such as how you are feeling mentally and physically, and what words you’d use to describe them. From this, it offers up suggestions for guided meditations or you can go it yourself with just a timer.

Additionally, it has options to help teach you how to meditate, a list of guided meditations if you’d like to skip straight to one, and to see your progress.

Breathe App.

Breathe’s Main Screen.

Breathe App.

Breathe also teaches how meditation works.

Honorable mention: Headspace.

Headspace is also a cute little app that also teaches you about meditation and how to meditate. I like the app, however I feel that its use is stunted – your only option is to use the first 10 guided meditation sessions before you have to pay for more. There’s no option for “just meditate _ minutes.” However, if you like it the full version is not expensive at all.

Challenge

So here we challenge you to try meditation for just one month. Using the setup below, make this a part of your lifestyle by implementing it small chunk by small chunk:

  • Week 1: Meditate just one minute every day.
    Commit to just sitting down and taking one minute out of your day to meditate. Just one minute. You can do that, right?
  • Week 2: Meditate 5 minutes every day.
    Now that you made it through a week of one minute, time to increase the work. Try for just five minutes each day.
  • Week 3: Meditate 10 minutes every day.
    Again, if you made it five, you can do ten.
  • Week 4: Meditate 15 minutes every day.

Note and observe any differences you felt before and after meditation.

If you take up the challenge, come back and tell us how you felt in the comments below! If you are a seasoned veteran, we invite you to share your thoughts and tips as well.

Photo Credit: Sebastien Wiertz

Dominate Your Year with the Epic Annual Review Guide

Epic Annual Review Guide Cover

Cover of The Epic Annual Review Guide

New Years is coming up quickly and it’s that time of the year again that people begin making resolutions and goals to make themselves and their lives better. While I support people making goals and changes for the better, more often than not their efforts fail.

It’s common for folks to say “This year I’m going to get fit!” or some similar type of goal. On January 1st they get a gym membership and are excellent at keeping to their schedule for the first couple weeks, possibly even a month or two, but by March most of them have lost sight of their goals and are paying the gym for a membership they don’t use.

I used to be one of those people. There’s no shame in it.

But I wanted to be better – I was sick of the failures and tired of restarting the same goal over and over. After a lot of research and stumbling upon some awesome products, we’ve developed our own system for setting and attaining goals. One based on our research that looks at the big picture and breaks it down into a system to dominate life and goals.

The Annual Review: Our Goals, Productivity, and Habits System

What is an annual review? It’s a process of looking over the previous year and examining successes and failures, setting new big goals, and then planning the upcoming year taking into account the lessons learned. However, we like to take it one step further.

It’s not a secret that we are productivity junkies – we have a lot that we want to do and learn, so it makes sense that we would invest time figuring out how to most efficiently succeed in attaining those goals. Our guide includes not only the process of learning from your previous year and planning out the next, it also includes productivity and habit systems to help ensure those goals get achieved.

Adam likes to do his yearly review around his birthday in August, as that is a more “true” year in his opinion. I don’t really have a preference, it’s just a happy accident that my birthday falls near the end of the year, so I usually spend the first week of December looking over how my last year has gone and planning the next.

When you choose to do your annual review doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you have a clear, organized game plan to conquer your goals and live an epic life.

So we thought it might be helpful to others to share our process. It’s based upon, and inspired by, Chris Guillebeau’s Annual Review – but somewhat more complex. In addition to the guide we’ve included a bunch of worksheets to help you organize your thoughts, set better goals and dominate them.

Conquer Life with The Epic Annual Review Guide

For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.
– Arnold Schwarzenegger

We all have goals and projects we want to complete. Things we want to do, things we want to make, things we want to become. The annual review takes a systematic approach to setting clear, measurable goals and then dominating them. Why not dominate life?

Achieving big goals and dreams can seem like a daunting task – but that is exactly what makes them so awesome, right?

The key to being successful in completing big goals or projects is breaking it down into smaller, easy to achieve steps and then following up with daily action toward those steps.

Everything needed for success is included in the annual review. Our system for conducting an annual review takes a look at life, who you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go. Then it breaks down those goals into small, easy to swallow chunks. Finally, using a variety of methods and habit-building techniques, we ensure that progress is made daily toward those goals.

When you complete a big project it’s important to look back at the process as a whole. What worked? What didn’t? The same is true for when you fail. When you take the time to examine how things went and to point out what worked and what didn’t, you’ll have an advantage the next time you take on a project and doing an even better job.

So why not apply this to life? This is exactly what we do in the first part of the review. Then we look at what we want to achieve and create systems using tactics we know work, like building habits, along with applied lessons learned from previous successes and failures.

Dominate Life with the Free Guide

Ready to be epic conquer your goals? We’re giving this away for free, forever. You can get the guidebook, plus additional worksheets to help you work through your goals and implement systems for success below.

Don’t be good – be great.

Get the PDF – if you lovely folks want we’ll turn it into a Kindle or iBooks file too. Along with the files, get access to the worksheets here.

If you run your own annual review, let us know what you think – especially after your year has been completed. Did you do more? Did you achieve your goals? What worked? What didn’t? Would you do it again? Leave a comment letting us know!

The Tetrapharmakos – An Ancient Cure for Modern Problems

Epicurus vs. Epicurus by AHM

When it comes to philosophy, I tend to gravitate toward the practical side. While I’m certainly interested in a lot of the more abstract areas it’s the parts of philosophy that I can apply to my life right now in order to improve it that I prefer to focus on.

To that end one piece of the Epicurean school that I think has added a lot to my daily life, or at least my attitudes toward it, is the Tetrapharmakos. Even though it was originally created in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE, the ideas it puts forth are just as applicable today.

What’s the Tetrapharmakos?

The Tetrapharmakos originally referred to a certain combination of ‘medicines’ (wax, pitch, tallow, and resin – not something I’d recommend trying) common in ancient Greek pharmacology. The word means ‘four part drug / cure’ in Greek, and Epicurus took that name for his philosophical version considering it to be a four part cure for healing a person’s emotional maladies instead of their physical ones.

Epicurus’s Tetrapharmakos consists of these four (slightly paraphrased) points:

  1. Don’t fear gods.

  2. Don’t fear death.

  3. Truly good things are easy to get.

  4. Truly bad things don’t last.

Let’s go through these points and take a look at how they’re still applicable today.

Don’t Fear Gods

In Epicurus’s time there was a societal division between Greeks who saw the gods as being literal beings that concerned themselves with the affairs of mortals and those (like Epicurus) who considered the gods to be more abstract concepts describing a state of bliss completely unconcerned with the affairs of humans. His essential argument was that gods are by definition perfect, and a perfect being isn’t going to care if you sacrificed a goat in its temple this week or not.

As noted in my personal philosophy I remain unconvinced there are any gods, or anything supernatural for that matter, in existence. I also remain unconvinced I (or anyone/anything else) has a soul, spirit, or whatever ill-defined word you want to use for that concept.

Why is this important? While it doesn’t always, belief in gods can cause a lot of harm. Furthermore the fear of gods specifically, and the fear of punishment by those gods after death can cause enough psychological harm in people that there are specific organizations out there to help people recover from that damage.

Epicurus believed one of the biggest obstacles to happiness was anxiety, and fear of gods and eternal punishment is a huge source of anxiety in people. Here in the U.S. where Christianity is most prevalent fear of punishment in Hell, both of the individual and their loved ones, can cause real stress. When you realize there’s absolutely no evidence that any of those things are real and that they probably don’t exist, it makes it easy to let go of that fear. It also helps set up the next point.

Don’t Fear Death

It’s part of the human condition to fear death. It’s probably one of the most ever-present and strongest anxieties of all for most people. Obviously for Epicurus, this was a problem since he considered fear and anxiety the biggest obstacle to finding happiness.

Epicurus’s position was that there’s no reason to worry so much about death because when we’re alive death isn’t here yet, and when death comes we no longer exist to experience it. To put it another way reminiscent of something Mark Twain would say centuries later, there can be no ‘unpleasantness’ to non-existence because you have to exist to experience something unpleasant. In the same way that you have no experience of anything before birth, you’ll have no experience of anything after death.

Being dead will be just like the state you were in during the billions of years that came before your birth – non-experiencing non-existence.

We’ve already established that there’s no evidence for any kind of afterlife or existence past death, no punishment or eternal torment to worry about, so there’s nothing there to be worried about.

Why is this important? Being in a state of constant worry about what’s going to happen to you after death can cause all the same kinds of crippling anxiety as the belief in gods we talked about above can. It’s an ever-present, background fear in a lot of people and that directly detracts from their happiness and quality of life. Letting go of this fear makes it easier to be happy.

Does that mean you should be reckless or want to die? Absolutely not. There is definitely harm in death in most cases, even if it’s not to you directly (missed opportunity to do good, emotional or financial harm caused to friends and family, etc.), so seeking death is still generally a bad thing. It just means that there’s no reason to live in constant fear of it. Don’t let the fear of something that is inevitable and not unpleasant in the long term ruin your life and cause actual unpleasantness now.

Truly Good Things Are Easy to Get

Mimicking (and possibly influenced by, though I’m unsure of any evidence supporting it) some of the ideas of Buddhism put forth between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE Epicurus asserted that excessive desires led to more harm than good. By extension of this he claimed the things that are truly ‘good’, those things that will truly make a person happy, are all easy to acquire regardless of your situation.

In general, I agree with this idea. As long as a person keeps their desires in check it’s relatively easy to fulfill the range of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basic shelter, safety, companionship, and self-expression can all be had for relatively little effort by a majority of people.

I will put in a caveat here though that in modern times (and likely even back then, but Epicurus may not have been aware enough of it) situational and economic disparity can make it harder for people to get even the basics they need. I recognize having been born a white male in a middle class family there are certain things I’m susceptible to taking for granted. Accounting for that, there’s still things to gain from this idea.

The first is that your most basic needs, things like food and shelter, are technically easy to get. Now some might take this the wrong way and think the point is that even if you’re living in a cardboard box under a bridge you should be happy with it. I don’t see it that way. To me it’s a dual reminder both to not stress out over the fear of losing material things and to always hold a yardstick to the things I really desire to make sure they’re really important.

Some things are genuinely worth putting a lot of effort into, but it’s easy to stress out over meaningless things unintentionally. Reminding yourself that most truly good things are easy to get also helps encourage you to find peace with what you do have even if it’s less than what you’re striving for.

Truly Bad Things Don’t Last

This too shall pass.

In general, seriously terrible things tend to be acute whereas the chronic bad is often milder by comparison. This, Epicurus suggested, meant that you shouldn’t fear terrible things happening because they’ll always pass. On the inverse, things that don’t show signs of passing for a long time are likely things which you can find the strength to bear.

Don’t misunderstand this to think Epicurus was suggesting everything gets better in what would likely be the modern sense of the idea. Sometimes the end to that terrible suffering is death. Again, with no afterlife though there’s no need to worry about additional suffering after death – just impartial non-existence. That’s probably not the most comforting thing to everyone, but personally whenever something bad happens it’s always a comfort to me knowing that it won’t last. Recognizing that in a (relatively) short span of time you and everything and everyone you’ve known will be gone makes it easy to let go, and once you let go and stop being bothered by things they tend to get easier to handle.

These four principles probably aren’t going to solve every philosophical or existential problem you’re going to struggle with in your lifetime. Hell, it might not solve any of them, but I know I’ve found a lot of good in them when applied to my attitudes toward life in general. I encourage you to take whatever’s useful and don’t worry about the rest.

Do you have anything to add? Any other way you interpret anything in the tetrapharmakos here? Share with us in the comments! I’d love to hear them.

Photo Credit: A.H.M.