What the laughing philosopher can teach you about finding happiness

Ever heard of the “laughing philosopher”? Democritus was born in an ancient Greek town called Abdera and nicknamed “the laughing philosopher” due to his cheerful personality. A curious man, he sought to understand people and the world.

His curiosity led him to invent numerous theories, the biggest one being the theory of happiness. Here, he sought to understand what makes one happy, leading him to declare that happiness should be the highest, noblest goal of every man’s life.

Democritus never married, but he enjoyed being alone with his thoughts. He hated overeating, alcoholism, and promiscuity. Avoiding these habits enabled Democritus to lead a happier life.

Could it be that the reason Democritus lived an impactful and fulfilling life was that he pursued happiness above all else? But by examining his life, we can see how he enforced certain habits and avoided others. If you want to find happiness, there’s no better way than to learn from the life of the laughing philosopher.

Unlock the party hormones

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s no coincidence that the happiness philosopher was always cheerful. He knew inner happiness always radiates on the outside. Do you remember the last time you felt cheerful? Did you need a reason to smile?

A cheerful person smiles effortlessly. Behavioral psychologists Sarah Stevenson, says it’s also possible to find happiness from the outside in by smiling. “Each time you smile, you throw a little feel-good party in your brain.”

She recounts her experience; One rough Monday morning her alarm fails to go off. She’s late to drop her son at school. Things get worse when a driver rolls into her car. Frustrated, she rushes to her doctor’s appointment only to realize she’s an hour earlier!

With extra time on her hands, she pops into a coffee shop. Her server, Colette, captures Sarah’s attention with a dazzling, infectious smile. She can’t help but smile back. Because Colette continues to smile for the entire time, Sarah’s awful mood starts to dissipate.

When done, she leaves with a big grin. The rest of her day is no longer dull. That’s the power of a smile. It can elevate your mood by unlocking the feel-good hormones.

Psychologists from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville also confirm that smiling can indeed make you feel happier.

Smiling really can make people feel happier, according to a new article. A team of psychologists combined data from 138 studies testing more than 11,000 participants and found that facial expressions have a small impact on our feelings.

Eliminate toxic habits to unleash happiness

“Men ask for health in their prayers to the gods: they do not realize that the power to achieve it lies in themselves. Lacking self-control, they perform contrary actions and betray health to their desires.” ― Democritus

The laughing philosopher knew that to be happy, he needed to nurture his well-being and for that to happen, he had to eliminate toxic habits. As such, he hated overeating, alcoholism, and promiscuity. Recently, I learned that if I want to be happier, toxic habits have to go.

Last Tuesday, I spent the morning working and doing grocery shopping. In the afternoon, I joined my friend Florence for a long walk by the Yarra River. Afterward, I went home and started fixing dinner. By then, I was dog-tired. Yet, I had one more thing to do; video-chat with my mom in Kenya.

Halfway through, she said, “Njoki, you’re always yawning and dozing off when we talk.” Her comment stung like a bee. I realized I’d been prioritizing work, chores, and friends over one of the most special people in my life. By over-committing and cramming a lot into my day, mom was getting the washed-out version of me. I drew the line on the sand by eliminating all commitments on date days with mom.

Now, we have long, deep and fun conversations. No longer over-committing, I’m enjoying the few tasks I do. I’m genuinely present, deeply focused, and much happier. You too can do the same. By getting rid of toxic habits like laziness, procrastination, social media addiction, unhealthy foods, and gossiping, you can be much happier. Doing this creates a space of peace and improves how you think and feel.

Do one feel-good thing every day

Democritus believed happiness should be the primary goal for everyone. He’s quoted:

“A life without festivity is a long road without an inn.”

His theory suggested that happiness doesn’t stem from external circumstances but from your mind. And that you can be happy by doing noble actions. Every day, do one thing that makes you feel good. Cook a scrumptious meal, read an inspirational book or crack your ribs in a hilarious comedy. Anything.

Life is hectic. You have too much on your plate and are consistently slicing yourself up for your loved ones. But are you giving yourself anything? Are you dragging your feet to bed bone-tired each night? No wonder that brilliant sparkle in your eye continues to fade.

My partner has been a runner for most of his life. He says a run always elevates his mood. For him, a daily run is non-negotiable. You, too, need one feel-good non-negotiable act to engage in daily no matter what. When you put yourself in a joyful zone, it’s easier to stay happy.

Cut the cord of unrealistic expectations

“By desiring little,” Democritus said, “a poor man makes himself rich.” Democritus wasn’t interested in money. He knew how to tame his expectations and lived a simple, happy, and fulfilling life.

The Covid pandemic has turned my friend’s business upside down; her prospects are looking dimmer by the day. Two weeks ago, she said she’s worried it’ll take years to recoup the losses, if ever. Although our conversation was sad, I encouraged her to let go of any expectations and stay rooted in the present.

The biggest killer of joy is unrealistic expectations. We attach ourselves to specific outcomes because we don’t want to float through life aimlessly. That’s good, except we trap ourselves with these very expectations when they turn into obsessions.

Dr. Travis Bradberry advises;

“Your expectations shape your reality. They can change your life, emotionally and physically. You need to be extra careful about (and aware of) the expectations you harbor as the wrong ones make life unnecessarily difficult,”

Yesterday, I was pleased to hear she resumed her daily morning walks and is finding peace slowly. She’s no longer looking at life through the lens of the past or what she wishes it is. She’s embracing her life by detaching from expectations. When you’re focused and enjoying the present moment, it can lead to positive emotions and improve your mental, social, and emotional health. Life is much more bearable when you’re grounded in the now.

Sift through your tribe

Democritus knew that to quench his thirst for knowledge, he needed a tribe of other philosophers. After his father’s death, he packed his bags and followed Thales and Pythagoras.

Being deeply impressed with them, Democritus aimed to soak in every little ounce of knowledge. Is it surprising that he accomplished all he did? That he had a blazing bonfire of intellect in his belly? Exactly.

You, too, are a social creature living off the energy of those around you. Researchers say your happiness depends on the happiness of those whom you’re connected with. Last year, I walked away from someone I’d known for a while. The friendship was unbalanced. All she did was talk about herself. It was emotionally draining.

We’re living at a time when mental disorders, anxiety, and depression are at an all-time high according to a fact-sheet from the World Health Organization. As such, your tribe needs to take away physical loneliness and emotional instability. It needs to enhance your happiness.

Final thoughts

Democritus knew what he needed to do and avoid in order to lead a happier life. He did things that made him feel good like retreating to his cocoon of solitude, where he immersed himself in the study of theories. He also stayed away from what didn’t bring him happiness. He never married, hated overeating, alcoholism, and promiscuity. Essentially, his happiness stemmed from that sweet spot between addition and subtraction.

Point being, your happiness largely depends on what you do and don’t do. Today, start eliminating toxic habits and replace them with feel-good ones.

Cut the cord of unrealistic expectations and stay rooted in the present. To crown it all, build a tribe that encourages, supports, and enhances your happiness.

This article first appeared on Medium.