Like anyone else, I’ve spent a lot of time chasing pleasure. Whether it was food or other substances, I’ve done my share. And then some. And like anyone else, it’s often bitten me in the ass. The very thing I thought would do me good turned around and did me bad. Turns out, managing pleasure is not so easy.
It feels good to feel good. Naturally, we want more of it. Even a single-celled organism swims toward the food and away from the pain. Freud called this universal dynamic the “pleasure principle.” Bentham and Mill called it the “principle of utility” and built an entire ethical system around it known as utilitarianism. And two ancient Greek philosophers, Aristippus and Epicurus, asserted that pleasure was the highest good, and that we were morally obligated to pursue it. The Greek word for pleasure is “hedone.” Their philosophy is called hedonism.
Hedonism asserts that pleasure not only feels good, it is good. But Aristippus and Epicurus disagreed on the exact nature of pleasure. For Aristippus, all pleasures were equal, and no meaningful distinctions could be made between higher and lower pleasures. When you and I use the word “hedonism,” this is the version of hedonism we usually mean–pleasure for pleasure’s sake, the more the better, the sooner the better, and consequences be damned.
For Epicurus, on the other hand, a more refined definition of pleasure comes into view. In Epicureanism, an important distinction is made between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Lower pleasures engage the senses. Higher pleasures engage the mind and the soul. For Aristippus the pleasure derived from scratching a mosquito bite is morally equivalent to the pleasure derived from reading literature or writing music. Epicurus disagrees. For him, higher pleasures are of a much higher quality than lower pleasure and are therefore preferable, even if in lesser amount or mixed with pain. Aristippus focuses on quantity, Epicurus on quality. Quantity or quality–what matters most to you?
For Epicurus and his followers (known as Epicureans), the best life was a simple life of friendship, healthy living, and peace of mind. A good night’s sleep, a clear-headed morning, lucid thoughts, a keen sense of presence, and rich conversation offer deeper pleasure than the wildest evening of excess and revelry. Debauchery and conspicuous consumption, the hallmark of Aristippus’ form of hedonism, have no place in the Epicurean worldview for one simple reason–they do not in fact lead to more pleasure, but less. Sickness, dissipation, strained relationships, and that empty feeling that you’re wasting your life–these hardly qualify as “pleasure” let alone happiness. The well-lived life, Epicurus argued, was a source of deep satisfaction. In simple terms, less is more–restraint of appetite leads to a profusion of happiness. The mechanics of pleasure are more subtle and nuanced than we first imagined.
Another important consideration in pleasure management is the element of time. How good are you at trading small, short-term pleasure for larger long-term pleasures? The utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham called this consideration propinquity–nearness in time. For example, spending your entire paycheck as soon as you get it on fleeting entertainment vs. setting aside 10% of it for larger, more significant purchases in the future, like your next car or a trip to Paris. Either way it’s self-centered hedonism, yet clearly, one is more effective at maximizing pleasure than the other. If you’re really serious about pleasure, you learn how to wait.
There’s a reason I quit drinking and drugging. There’s a reason I go to bed early and get up early. There’s a reason I read difficult books. There’s a reason I regularly exercise, meditate, and do yoga. There’s a reason I keep my desk neat and clean. There’s a reason I eat healthy, delicious, fresh, and wholesome food in moderate portions. There’s a reason I push myself to do challenging things that stretch me out of my comfort zone. The reason is pleasure. I do all of these things because they greatly increase my happiness. This is the New Hedonism.
What used to be fun is no longer fun for me. The calculations have deepened and shifted. It’s still all about maximizing pleasure, but my definition of pleasure has changed. What used to be boring and dull is now exciting and bright. A walk through the neighborhood is a thrill. Waking up healthy and alive is a magnificent gift. Being of service is deeply gratifying. The simple grace of living in this miraculous mind-body, in relationship with all of these other innumerable mind-bodies around me, on such a beautiful planet, in this magnificent cosmos, is an inexhaustible stream of joy. By letting go, one by one, of the practices, thought patterns, and habits that no longer served my highest good, I grew simpler and simpler until the essential happiness dormant within each of us began to arise. It’s a process, not a destination. I don’t think I’ll ever be done growing and letting go. But with the loving support of the other awakening people around me, every day becomes an opportunity to see just how much deeper, how much truer, how much more pleasurable life can become.
What will the New Hedonism mean for you? What shape will it take?
What practices, thought patterns, and habits no longer serve your highest good?
What might a wiser calculation of short-term vs. long-term pleasure yield?
What will a clear headed assessment of every source of so-called pleasure show? In the accounting of our own sacred wellness, only the most courageous self-examination will do.
Without moralizing, without self-loathing, and without reference to any authorities other than your own instinctive good sense, what would careful and loving introspection reveal?
Let pragmatism be your guide. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, let it go. One by one examine every behavior, every habit, every practice, and every thought-pattern and apply this simple test–does this behavior, habit, practice, or thought pattern enhance my deep and overall happiness, or does it diminish it? Only you know. And again, without even the slightest appeal to religious authorities, cultural norms, or the opinions of others, ask yourself one simple question–is this enhancing my life or hampering it? Find a healthy balance between willingness to take direction and fierce independence.
As Socrates reminded us, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Without this sort of hard-headed scrutiny, our tendency is to just keep going on and on in the same stultifying patterns. Like sleep-walkers, we shuffle along chasing the same prizes that again and again have led to little more than disappointment and disillusionment. You deserve better. Your soul is asking for more. It’s time to move out of the darkness and into the light.
As this year comes to a close, re-examine your relationship with pleasure. We love pleasure and rightly so. All organisms do. Pleasure is good. Pleasure is one of the greatest joys of life. But what kind of pleasure? Only wisdom knows.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com