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Reordering the concept of well-being with Epicurus and the hierarchy of desires

By: Riina Bhatia



Photo taken by Riina Bhatia

With the publication of the 6th IPCC assessment report, it is clear that the consumerist lifestyle has caused serious damage to Earth’s life-supporting systems. The report recognises degrowth and post-growth as alternative trajectories to the hegemonic developmentalism, that is, the idea of Western capitalist progress as synonym for development. Remarkably, the report also highlights that well-being and good life are not solely dependent on economic growth and material well-being. Yet, while the contemporary western definition of ‘good life’ has long been based on consumption and ever-increasing material wealth, we need not look far from our own historical heritage to find principles and philosophies for a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.


Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher, argues that happiness in life can be found from simplicity and sufficiency, just like many advocates of degrowth would argue. His concept of the hierarchy of desires maintains that happiness and well-being are derived from satisfying our basic needs and having purposeful social relations. By adopting a Gramscian understanding of societal revolutions, we should focus on reordering modern societal common senses, or the “uncritical and largely unconscious way of perceiving and understanding the world that has become ‘common’ in any given epoch” , from ever-increasing material consumption as a source of happiness and well-being towards appreciation of fulfilling basic needs and finding meaningful social relations in society. 

Well-being, happiness, and sufficiency

To transform our societies and enable a more sustainable future, we must ask ourselves: How do we define well-being and happiness?


In modern societies, well-being is often measured in ever-increasing material growth, exemplified by the way society measures “development” according to the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, according to Epicurus, development, well-being, and happiness are all better measured through indicators on fulfilment of basic needs, such as maintaining meaningful social relationships and balanced socionatural relations—namely, having a solid and healthy relationship with the natural world, the web of life that supports and provides for all. 

Epicurus’ hierarchy of desires

Epicurus defined happiness as fulfilling one’s desires. Yet fulfilling desires was not based on ever-increasing lust or desire for material things, as we might think about it today, but rather on providing for the very basic desires on his “hierarchy of desires”. According to him, our desires can be ranked as follows:

  1. Natural and necessary desires. These are the basic tenets of life, such as food, shelter, and companionship—without which humans could not survive. Fulfilling basic needs entails natural limits. For example, when one is hungry, eating satisfies the desire, and this is fulfilled by natural limits (i.e., the size of one’s stomach). Similarly, socializing is a natural and necessary desire that can be satisfied with relationships with other people. While natural limits for this are hard to define, having social relationships is natural need, and thus necessary feature of happiness.
  2. Natural and non-necessary desires. These are also natural, but harder to satisfy. Non-necessary desires are linked with natural desires, like food, but they are unnecessary in nature, such as luxurious foods or drinks, and recreational travel. For example, satisfying hunger is a basic desire and it does not matter whether you satisfy it with bread and water, or caviar and champagne. The latter is, perhaps, nice occasionally, but in the long run such items are not necessary to fulfil the natural and necessary desire. 
  3. Vain desires, such as power, fame, and extreme material and financial wealth, are hard to obtain and can never be fully satisfied or satisfying. Vain desires do not have natural limits. The more power one obtains, the more power one wants, Epicurus argues—which leads to a destructive, never-ending cycle.


Consider the real-life example of the desire to tame thirst. Based on the first, natural and necessary desire, one would be able to fulfil that by drinking water. According to the second, natural and non-necessary, one would fulfil thirst with wine. Lastly, based on vain desires, one would want to gain admiration and status by drinking a special branded wine, e.g., champagne, to prove one’s self-worth. However, according to Epicurean philosophy, fulfilling vain and non-necessary desires can never truly fulfil one’s satisfaction, thus they can never bring true happiness.


In addition, Epicurus argued that happiness comes from being free from anxiety and pain. He considered the drive to fulfil vain desires, such as riches and power, as the ultimate source of anxiety and mental pain. For Epicurus, the best way to achieve happiness is by fulfilling natural and necessary desires, because not only are they a source of great happiness, but they are easy to satisfy. Above all, Epicurus argues that living in harmony with nature is the basis of all happiness as nature can offer humanity everything it needs for fulfilling its natural and necessary desires.


As we know, modern society could not be further from this goal. We live in an era of great wealth, yet with the highest-ever record of mental illnesses, such as anxiety and depression. To cure this, I agree with D’Alisa and Kallis (2020) that a necessary societal transformation is predicated upon a shift in the societal common senses. We need to start appreciating sufficiency over abundance.   

Gramsci and reordering the common senses towards non-material well-being 

How do we use such Epicurean principles to guide us in our journey to a more sustainable future? One option is to adopt a Grascian approach to change, which focuses on reordering common senses to form a new hegemony. According to Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, societal change is a result of a struggle between divergent views and ideas that takes place within the predominant political regime. This is crucial, as Gramsci understands that the power of the ruling elite of a society does not reside in physical force, but in the power to disseminate and persuade people what is right and what is wrong. For this, Gramsci understands that a sustainable societal change is a gradual reciprocal process where divergent ideas and views of a desired society engage in conversation. Therefore, a revolutionary change, or “war of attack” cannot be successful without a broader and longer “war of position”. However, as Gramsci argued, this “reordering of common senses”, must take place both at the individual level and within the existing institutions, because that is the way in which counter-hegemonies are able to materialize new common senses in the society broadly (D’Alisa and Kallis, 2020: 6-7).


Following the Gramscian understanding of societal change, whether we manage to take a sustainable turn in our societies depends on the success of counter-hegemonies to reorder common senses to rethink happiness, well-being, and development as being sufficient fulfil our basic needs—allowing us more time for ourselves and our friends and families. 


This must be done both on a discursive and practical level. Discursive level refers to the way in which we speak and formulate personal desires. Practical level implies the ways in which we aim to achieve our desires.  

Contemporary counter-hegemonies in the making

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, we not only see the detrimental effects of trying to fulfil vain and unnecessary desires, but also increasing difficulties of fulfilling basic and necessary needs. These developments have led to increasing questioning of the modern growth-based economies, as the inflation of energy and food prices—the cornerstones of our economies—has made and will make fulfilling basic needs more difficult for a large proportion of the population. These developments will have a detrimental impact on inequality, especially in regions in the Global South that are highly dependent on Ukrainian wheat and energy.


As many will struggle in fulfilling even their basic and necessary needs, others, those with greater resources, might suffer from fulfilling their natural but non-necessary desires. In this situation, it is more important than ever that we shift our economies towards a more equal sharing of resources, so that everyone can fulfil at least their basic and necessary desires. This should be done at the local and regional as well as global levels.


In the short term, this means that countries with high level of food stocks should help those with less. In the longer term, we need a form of global economic governance that is based on solidarity rather than competition: a global wealth tax, cancellation of the Global South’s states debts, and setting such rules of trade that does not solely benefit those already in power.


Most importantly, we need to shift our personal and societal imaginaries of ‘the good life’ from that of ever-increasing consumption and material wealth to cherishing sufficiency, fulfilling basic needs, and respecting a vivid and vibrant web of life.

About the author

Riina Bhatia

Riina Bhatia is a researcher scientist at the Future-Proof Societies team at VTT, Technical Research Centre of Finland. She is also the chair and co-founder of Rethinking Economics Finland. She is interested in transformations, innovations for post-growth and political economy and ecology.

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