Hedonism In Moderation

So I’ve been blogging a lot about Martin Seligman’s new PERMA theory on happiness. PERMA identifies 5 elements to living a happy life: Positive Emotion, Engagement (Flow), Relationships, Meaning and Achievement.

In Seligman’s earlier theories he identified 3 similar elements (you’ll notice overlap between both theories): The Pleasant Life (the “life of enjoyment”), The Good Life (the “life of engagement”), and The Meaningful Life (the “life of affiliation”).

In this post I want to really focus on something that I don’t usually write about, but is certainly beneficial to happiness: the pleasant life. The pleasant life is probably best depicted in the philosophy of hedonism, which holds the belief that pleasure is the only intrinsic good in this world. From a purely hedonistic standpoint: our happiness can be measured based on our amount of pleasurable experiences minus our amount of painful experiences.

While it is a simple (and primitive) worldview, I think there is a valid point to it. I remember in High School we had to write a persuasive essay on whether or not video games were good for children. My argument was fairly simple: video games are good because they bring children joy, and if we can’t have any fun in this world then what is the point of living? While my worldview today is a bit more in-depth and holistic, I still largely agree with this idea. We should be allowed to indulge ourselves every now and then.

My justification for self-indulgence actually stems from Buddha’s teaching of “The Middle Way.” Buddha describes the middle way as a path of moderation between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. I think people who inhibit themselves from experiencing any pleasure or joy (extreme self-mortification) are just as bounded to suffering as those who are addicted to pleasure or joy (extreme self-indulgence). The key, as I often find, is that we need to do things “in moderation.”

People always seem to find some sort of crutch; if it is not drugs or alcohol, then it is sex, or food, or TV, etc. I’ve found all of these to be nice (and healthy) in small doses. In fact, when I give myself permission to drink on the weekends, or pig out at a fast food place, I find it much easier to manage these pleasures and keep my life balanced. But I know if I tried to inhibit myself from all of these available pleasures, I would eventually snap, and I may do something even more reckless than I would if I just kept myself balanced.

I know friends who have tried to hold themselves to some ridiculous “pure” moral standard in some aspect of their life, and they have all have eventually given in to some temptation. Maybe they never drank alcohol like they intended to (but secretly wanted to try), but they found some other unhealthy pleasure to take to an extreme. I see it everywhere. Anything can become an addiction. And it is so interesting to me how people who were once so “morally upstanding,” caved in and went to the other extreme.

Now, I’m not saying you need to start drinking some alcohol or eating fast food – but I am saying be mindful of your temptations. Often when we inhibit one, we empower another. I think part of it has to do with how our will-power works. When we exercise will-power in one task, it often becomes more difficult to exercise that will-power in future tasks.

Will-power is a finite resource (although it can be strengthened by your beliefs or when applying reflective awareness or mindfulness). But despite how much we can strengthen our will, the fact remains that it is finite. If you spend your whole day fighting off every little temptation, then it’s more likely that you are going to “explode” at the end of the day, maybe turn on the TV and go through a liter of soda and a bag of Doritos.

Therefore, I think it is necessary and beneficial to know what pleasures are worth indulging in and keeping yourself satisfied. It might be better to give in to your will-power and drink a couple wine glasses at dinner every night, especially if it means having more will-power later on in the week to get work done in the office. It’s your decision – it should be based on your personal values – but I just want to make note that some indulgence is often better than attempting (unrealistically) to have no indulgence. Again, it’s the “middle way” that helps keep us balanced and sane. I’m not telling you what desires to indulge in specifically, just that some indulgence can often be good.

And really, why shouldn’t you enjoy yourself every now and then? If your pleasure-seeking doesn’t hurt anybody else, I believe you should have every right to partake in it. Even at the extreme, I have no disrespect for people who drink and smoke themselves to death before the age of 40. I really don’t. That is there choice – those were there values – and who am I to say how they should live their life? Some people would rather choose a high quality of life (in their eyes), rather than quantity of life. But not everything to everyone is about “living longer.” While their self-indulgence may be at what I would consider an unhealthy extreme, perhaps it works for them. I can’t say one way or the other.

Again, I don’t want to make it seem like I am promoting recklessness, but I have to be empathetic to people who choose to live differently than I do. Some people think it is just “commonsense” not to smoke cigarettes – I don’t. People have different values. Indulging in those pleasures may help that person cope through life better and enjoy themselves more. At times this can be acceptable behavior, especially if it can be exercised in moderation. The same goes for other pleasures: sex, junk food, TV, loud music, etc.

At the other end of the story, perhaps a Buddhist monk has a lower threshold for pleasure than I do. Maybe pleasure to them is just experiencing “bliss” during meditation or enjoying a walk in nature. Again, it’s not my place to define other people’s pleasure or joy, all I am saying is that indulging in these pleasures and joys need not be something we should feel guilty about. The balance is going to be different for everyone.

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