The Happy Life of Bob’s Burgers
By Richard B. Gibson
According to many (myself included), philosophy aims to enable us to live well. The practical wisdom that philosophical study affords us should be employed to transform both our lives and the world for the better. What form this goal should take, however, has been a timeless point of contention.
For millennia, the question was formulated as what is the good? It was this style of inquiry which drove Plato to construct his Platonic Forms; those perfect ideals of nature which cannot be genuinely encapsulated by the material world, and the actualising of potential into eudemonia. However, in 307/6 BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus tackled the question of how to live well via an alternative route. Rather than being concerned with a transcendent ‘good’, he grounded his philosophic inquiry on another question; what makes people happy? For Epicurus, happiness, not goodness, was the key to living well.
It is happiness which resides at the very core of everyone’s favourite, restaurant-centric, always charming, animated series, Bob’s Burgers. The show centres on the Belcher family – parents Bob and Linda, and their three children, Tina, Gene, and Louise – who run the titular eatery. While not commercially successful (the restaurant is often on the brink of financial collapse), the family enjoy an enviable, happy life. This is despite the harassment from Hugo the health inspector, the stealing of customers by local competitors, the odd requests from their eccentric millionaire landlord, and the unusual encounters with the town’s colourful residents.
So, in this post, I’m going to give a brief account of the three main conclusions which Epicurus reached regarding how to live well by being happy and, how his recommendations are at the very heart of the Bob’s Burgers’ philosophy of life.
You don’t need sex; you need friends
Epicurus did not put too much stock in romance. Never marrying and never having children, it is commonly reported that his attitudes towards romantic, sexual relationships were less than favourable. This point crescendos when he argues that sex hasn’t done anyone any good and that if you come away from it without suffering harm, you’re lucky (Laertius, cited in Epicurus 1994, p.43). While not saying that sex was inherently wrong, he classed it as a non-natural necessity, suggesting that its unfulfillment was far from cataclysmic.
He derived this conclusion from observing the romantic relationships of others. Epicurus saw that so many are marred by jealousy, possessiveness, misunderstanding, insecurity, and bitterness. In comparison, he witnessed that friendships commonly exist without these additional complications. While problematic cases precipitate such issues, this is rarer. For Epicurus, it is in friendships where human nature is sweetest. Thus, friendships take precedence over romantic endeavours.
Hence, his first conclusion on how to obtain happiness is to spend more time in your friends’ company. Something which, he argued, we don’t do enough. Taking this to the extreme, Epicurus purchased a house and a large walled garden, in which he lived with his like-minded friends. Here, he formed a close community with his fellow residents, considering philosophy in the house which came to be known as Kêpos – the Garden.
In Bob’s Burgers, we see this attitude towards the romantic most clearly manifested in the relationship between Bob and Linda. While they are married and have an adult relationship, this aspect of their relationship seldom plays a crucial role in their characterisation. The friendship that the two have is a much more central concern for the show. Their escapades, even when centrally focused on satisfying the other, are never concerned with an exclusively romanticised adult ideal. They seek to make each other happy, but this takes the form of finding an item from their first meeting, recording a school Mother’s Day performance, or enduring an odious experience because the other one enjoys it. Their relationship is framed primarily as one of an immutable friendship.
It is from this more prosperous relationship that Bob and Linda draw such happiness from each other. They don’t chase an unbridled, romantic desire, but rather, find a genuine, unflinching, and constant happiness in the company of the other; company which, while laced with romantic interests, has as its foundation one of friendship.
Money costs too much
Secondly, Epicurus believed that to be happy, we need to recognise that we confuse happiness with having excessive amounts of material wealth or prestigious status symbols; but being richer does not mean being happier. The sacrifices we make to get money are repeatedly underestimated. The long hours, the stress, the isolation, the lack of personal satisfaction; all lead to one being miserable. We tell ourselves that this misery is worth it because it results in wealth, and the happiness this money affords us will then offset this previous unhappiness.
Epicurus thought that this was wrong, writing that “[t]he presence of wealth, honour and admiration among the many will not produce joy or dissolve the disturbance of the soul” (Epicurus, 1994, p.53). We miscalculate how much happiness we’ll derive from possessing wealth or status; the price we pay is too high.
What is better, and what will promote happiness, is to work in a way that allows us to make a positive impact on the world; to make things better not only for ourselves but for those around us. Through solitary self-employment, or work within a small community of friends, we are much better suited to be able to achieve happiness and fulfilment, and thus, live well. Modest living is more likely to bring about a happy life. The materialistic and status-driven life, which society peddles, is a restrictive sham (Epicurus, 1994, p.58).
The Belchers embrace this enjoyment of the working task itself, at the expense of subsequent material success, in its fullest. The family restaurant is not a financial triumph. Multiple storylines are catalysed by a necessity to secure money so they can do things like pay their rent or get the car fixed. The Belchers are explicitly depicted as being poor. However, they don’t do everything they can in order to make as much money as possible. They only want enough to keep the business open as it allows them to work in a manner which brings them happiness.
Bob’s passion is cooking, and mainly, cooking burgers. We see that the diner was a childhood dream. This dream is not predicated on money, or fame, but rather, on expressing his creativity through a medium which brings him genuine joy. This enjoyment is not reliant on a later reward. It is the act itself that Bob loves. This is made even more poignant when we remember that he gets to live this dream with his family who, while occasionally branching out into other endeavours, also love that they get to work alongside their closest friends; their family.
Bob even has a nightmare about working in a tediously ubiquitous office job. This nightmare does not contain anything ghoulish. Bob merely has a commute, sits at his cubicle, has an awkward water-cooler conversation, and signs a birthday card. However, he wakes up in a panic, rushing down to the restaurant and expressing his joy that everything is still there, family included. This dream represents the horrors of a life devoid of happiness, one which the close-knit, expressive, working environment is sacrificed for greater financial returns.
Luxury is far from luxurious
The final point of focus is on Epicurus’ musings on life’s luxuries. While we may fantasise about having a fancy house, a fast car, beautiful possessions, and stylish clothing, Epicurus argued that these things, rather than being sources of happiness, bring anguish. By putting so much stock in these unessential material goods, one ends up: (i) being obsessed with obtaining them; (ii) upset when they fade away; and, (iii) forcefully moved towards acquiring greater luxury, and alongside it, greater misery.
This speaks to a general theme which runs throughout Epicurus’ philosophy; that we must be more discerning in understanding what brings happiness, and better at identifying extraneous things which import sources of misery under the guise of sources of pleasure. In this respect, he is philosophy’s Marie Kondo; charging you with understanding what brings you happiness and eliminating what does not.
While not being active Epicureans, the Belchers live up to this philosophical minimalism. They do not have mounds of material possessions upon which to draw a shallow imitation of true happiness. At one point, Gene walks into the kitchen wearing fashionable trash, which he dubs ‘trashion’. They live in a modest apartment above their restaurant, and what few possessions they own are beat-up, second hand, or hand-me-downs. Nevertheless, they live a life of happiness because they are not fixated on possessions.
When they do purchase a luxury, be it a new sofa, some porcelain babies, an espresso machine, or an old arcade game, these are quickly abandoned as they bring misery, or the Belchers realise that the investment they have made in these material goods could be better spent investing in the happiness of their family.
Compare this to the Belchers landlord, Mr. Fischoeder, and the contrast in happiness is stark. While not a sad character by any means, the eccentric millionaire landlord repeatedly confesses his admiration, and even jealousy, for Bob’s life. He remarks how Bob has a wonderful, albeit perplexing, family and finds Bob’s passion for his craft akin to art.
“Nothing makes me happier than serving some food to some guy”
Bob’s Burgers is not only a remarkably optimistic show, but it’s also a guide into what one should invest their time, energy, and love. Unlike in other animated shows, such as The Simpsons, the main characters of Bob’s Burgers do not actively seek to change the circumstances of their employment radically. While Homer frequently looks for a way to get rich quick, get a better car, or a fancier house, Bob doesn’t. The Belchers know that investment in these material goods, the constant chasing of the ‘good’ life, and the elevating of physical relationships over friendship, isn’t what brings true happiness. The most reliable and meaningful sources of happiness are to be found in valuing that which fulfils our essential needs. Everything else is a source of distraction and potential suffering. The Belchers understand this and, while they don’t live a wealthy life, they do live one of happiness. Just like Epicurus suggested we all should.
Epicurus (1994). The Epicurus Reader, Selected Writings and Testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Richard B. Gibson is a PhD candidate in Bioethics & Medical Jurisprudence, at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Social Ethics & Policy. His main research interests are in bioethics, normative ethics, biomedical technology and the law, and the medical humanities. He is also a big Bob’s Burgers fan.