Hedonism: The Pursuit of Happiness

In 2012, Drake made a song titled “The Motto,” but what most people remember from it is YOLO. YOLO tells you to live in the moment, enjoy the life you have today and not worry too much about tomorrow. Because at the end of the day, you only live once. 

While Drake certainly popularized the motto, he wasn’t the first to use the phrase, and he certainly wasn’t the first to come up with the idea of enjoying the pleasures of today without worrying about tomorrow. This idea has been around since the 4th Century BC as what philosophers call Hedonism. 

A school of thought that was created by Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates, Hedonism is the idea that the end goal of all our actions in life is to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Aristippus believed that the only good course worth pursuing was one that will ultimately bring you pleasure.

In today's society, we're taught that the way to succeed is to suffer today so you can enjoy tomorrow, to save for the rainy day. Once we get out of college, we're encouraged to find a job and work hard at a 9-5 for many years, live modestly, and save as much as possible so we can enjoy our retirement 50 years later. 

Aristippus didn’t believe in any of that. He didn’t believe in the idea of delayed gratification and he always advocated for people to simply get pleasure from what is present and available. He was completely against the idea of suffering in the present in order to get something that only might be pleasurable in the future. 

So instead of telling students in college to study hard for their exams so they can land a good job after school, for example, Aristippus would encourage them to fraternize, drink, and party lavishly. Because these are the pleasures that are readily available to them. 

On the one hand, you can see him as stupid and lacking foresight. After all, if you squander everything you have on the pleasures of today, you’ll quickly run out of resources and all of that pleasure will turn to pain. From people losing everything they had because of an addiction to people living in poverty as a result of their own laziness, we’ve seen the results of solely focusing on the present pleasures. 

But on the other hand, there’s some wisdom to this school of thought because truly, tomorrow isn’t promised to any one of us. What’s the point in working hard at a 9-5 for 50 years ignoring all of the pleasures of the time only to die a few years before retirement. 

And let’s say you do make it to retirement, the sad reality is that 1 in 4 people will have a disability by the age of 60 and the older you get, the chances of that happening increase drastically. 

Knowing all of this, is it still foolish to think that we are all better off just enjoying the pleasures that we do have in the present?

Socrates and other philosophers at the time certainly believed so. A lot of philosophers hated the idea of Hedonism because saying that the end goal of the entire human existence is simply to pursue pleasure and avoid pain just sounded vain. 

This opposition combined with the rise of Christianity in Ancient Greece at the time, meant that this extremely rash idea of Hedonism died with Aristippus. Many years later, Epicurus, who is considered the father of modern day Hedonism, redefined what Hedonism was. And to do that, he had to start by redefining a certain word - pleasure. 

For Aristippus, pleasure was a state of ecstasy and excitement. That amazing feeling you have after biting into your favorite food or after that first sip of coffee in the morning. And for most of us, this is how we define pleasure. 

But not Epicurus. For Epicurus, pleasure was a state of tranquility. Instead of encouraging people to indulge themselves in consistent gratification, Epicurus believed that the true meaning of pleasure was to kill the fear of both death and God because only then would you be able to fully enjoy what this life has to offer. 

While Aritsuppus simply encouraged people to pursue pleasure, Epicurus believed that all human beings do everything to gain pleasure and absorb pain. He didn’t encourage it, because according to him, that was our natural state anyway. 

To defend his point, Epicurus asks everyone to look at how babies view the world around them.

They don’t really understand how the world works yet, but they understand two things - when something feels good and when something feels bad. When something feels good, the baby is joyful and happy. When something feels bad, the baby cries because it wants that pain to stop and it wants to return to said pleasurable state. 

I’m sure at this point you’re wondering, if we were all solely pursuing pleasure, then what about selfless acts? Acts that are done solely because they are virtuous or valuable for other people and not ourselves? How do we describe those? 

Well, in Hedonistic ideas, it’s simply because those things make people feel heroic, which ends up being processed in your brain as a pleasurable feeling. So at the core, it is still pleasure they are chasing, just not the kind we might be thinking about. 

According to Hedonistic teachings, there are two types of pleasure. There’s moving pleasure and there’s static pleasure. Moving pleasure is when you’re in the process of satisfying a desire. When you’re hungry you eat, when you’re thirsty you have a drink, when you need a time out, you take a nap. 

Static pleasure is the tranquility you feel once you’re done satisfying those needs. At this point, the adrenaline has finished coursing through your veins and you’re left with a sweet feeling of satisfaction. In that moment, you feel a sense of tranquility and you keep feeling it until it is sadly replaced by pain. Because according to Epicurus, there is no in between. The absence of pain is pleasure and vice versa.

But even with this more modest way of explaining Hedonism, a lot of people still disagree and even frown at the idea. And this is because of one thing: the idea that pleasure is the only source of intrinsic value. 

Think about it for a second. If pleasure is the only intrinsic value, then what do we make of things like finding meaning in life, achieving great things, building and maintaining long-lasting relationships, becoming a legend in a particular field, or even something as simple as living religiously or upholding a set of moral beliefs that we hold dear to our hearts?

Hedonists might try to argue that all of these things do not hold any value themselves and that they are only valuable because we get pleasure from them. But something like upholding religious beliefs isn’t always pleasurable. In fact, most times it restricts the kind of pleasure you can get, but still it gives people a sense of fulfillment that for them is better than the pleasure they’re forsaking.

If self pleasure alone is the aim of human existence, then people who benefit from the wrong that happens in our society will never fight against it. People would never fight for the common good when it might affect them negatively. But yet everyday we see people put their own desires on the side to help other people. People get excommunicated from their families, rejected by those they love because they choose to speak up and fight for what’s right even if the issues don’t affect them directly. If we were all chasing our own pleasures, that would never happen. We’ll be too busy enjoying our broken society because it benefits us and not worry about trying to change it for someone else.

Another huge stumbling block that Hedonists face when trying to argue their beliefs is the worth of reality. If pleasure is the ultimate goal, then it shouldn’t matter whether that pleasure is real or imagined, right? If we say that people always intrinsically pursue things that are pleasurable, then if there is an option for unlimited pleasure, they should never choose anything else, right?

To answer these questions, Robert Nozick created a thought experiment. Giving people two options, he asked them to choose between being plugged into a pleasure giving machine for the rest of their lives and living their current reality with the pain that exists in our world. People always picked this reality. Because in the end, living a life that’s not real is pointless and meaningless. And even with the option of the most pleasurable thing in the world, people would rather have pain that’s real… whatever real means.

As I’ve said previously, the best memories are the ones you remember with both pleasure and pain. 20 years after he left his childhood home, Abraham Lincoln came back only to see the entire place in ruin. As he looked at it with tears in his eyes, he said, “My childhood home I see again and am saddened with the view, and still as memory clouds my brain, there’s pleasure in it too.”

This beautiful mix of pleasure and pain is something that the Hedonistic view of the world simply does not account for. When you’re graduating high school, you’re excited for the adventures that await you in college. You’ll be leaving home probably for the first time and you’ll finally be alone, able to enjoy what the world has to offer. The feeling is pleasurable. 
But the feeling is also painful. 

You’ll miss your high school friends and the simplicity of childhood. You’ll miss your parents, your siblings, and the community that you grew up in. And though these painful thoughts cloud your brain, there’ll be pleasure in it too. 

Hedonism is frowned upon in modern day society because it opens the door for a trap that you can easily fall into. Pleasure is an insatiable desire. If you get hungry and fill your belly, it only takes a few hours and you’re looking for something else to eat. It’s an unending pursuit. 

So if that becomes the entire reason for your existence, it can quickly become quite difficult to control. This is how most people become addicted. It starts out as just a fleeting pleasure and before you know it, the reason you’re doing those things stops being the pursuit of pleasure and starts being an unquenchable and uncontrollable thirst for those things. A trap that’s very difficult to come out of. One that many people get stuck in for the rest of their lives.

But this is not to say that we cannot learn some things from Hedonistic principles. Because as much as we might not like to think about it, it’s true that tomorrow is not promised. So, we might as well make the best of today. 

Things like making a conscious decision to enjoy the little everyday pleasures can help us lead a happier life. If your car breaks down and you have to walk to school, don’t be in a haste, embrace the journey. Walk with a friend, make jokes with them, and always leave each other on a good note. 

Craving a cup of coffee? Head out to your favorite coffee shop and order your favorite drink. You’ve earned it. 

You don’t have to wait until you’re retired before you start reaping the fruit of your labor. Take those vacation days, the promotion can wait a few more months. Stay on that call with your friends for an extra hour, missing an hour of study won’t make you fail. 

Because even if seeking pleasure might not be the ultimate goal of human existence, it’s certainly a worthwhile pursuit. 

- EE, MM