The Irony of Hedonism (Happy Face)

Why do we do the things that we do in life? Some people say that they are motivated by money and material goods, but is the ultimate good of those monetary gains? Some people say that they work hard to provide for their families and while this may sound like an altruistic philosophy, it still boils down to the greatest goal that most of us have in life. We just want to be happy. For some folks, happiness is about financial freedom. Others find much greater happiness by spending time with friends and loved ones. Whatever the case, happiness appears to be the goal.

The reason why so many of us struggle with finding direction in life is that we are either not sure what makes us happy or not sure how to get those things that make us happy. The irony is that by chasing happiness, you may not ever achieve it. Hedonism, by definition, is the pursuit of pleasure as a matter of ethical principle. If you allow your ethics to be guided by this pleasure principle (psychology buffs may be reminded of Freud’s “id”), you could find yourself in a world of hurt and misery. At that point, even novelty may not be enough.

For me, hedonism is inherently an ironic approach to life. By chasing happiness, you miss it altogether. Happiness cannot be approached directly.

Dealing with Finances

If you throw caution to the wind when it comes to managing your money, you’ll quickly find yourself in a lot of debt and a lot of trouble. The current recession is a monumental demonstration of this phenomenon, because people went out to buy things that they simply could not afford. They went and bought a house with an interest-only mortgage. They approached happiness directly by acquiring all sorts of material goods. As you can quite plainly see, this irresponsible approach to finances did not lead to happiness at all. Quite the opposite, actually.

A hedonistic approach to life would tell you to buy whatever you wanted. It’d tell you to spend beyond your means and not put any money away for your retirement or the education of your children. While this approach may bring some happiness in the short term, it is far from sustainable in the long term. You need to exercise some restraint.

Personal Relationships

Given the cultural climate in our society, I don’t think I need to remind you that hedonism is probably not the best approach when it comes to personal relationships either. We live in a society that encourages monogamous relationships and extra-marital affairs, while quite common, oftentimes lead to far more problems than they are worth. That wild night with the girl from the bar may be fun at the time, but is it really worth it when your wife finds out? Even if you are not in a committed relationship, excessive promiscuity is riddled with all sorts of health risks too.

Leisurely Exploits and Entertainment

This is partly related to the first point about responsible management of your money, but it also has to do with the impact that we have on the rest of the world. Is the pleasure that you are deriving from a certain activity or product worth the damage that it may be afflicting on the Earth? Have you considered the ethics of fine dining, for example, and what it took to bring that foie gras to your table? By providing yourself with that little joy, are you hurting those around you? Is that really the path to happiness?

Pursuing Your Career

In the ideal world, we would all love our jobs and these careers would all be very lucrative, but that’s simply not the reality of the situation. The hedonistic approach to careers can take on two very different forms. First, you may punish yourself with a job that you hate, simply because it comes with a fatter paycheque. You think that the extra money makes the pain worthwhile. On the flip side, you may eschew the traditional work environment altogether and pursue a hobby, hoping that it will be enough to provide a living. With the latter, you could find yourself in significant financial trouble. With the former, you’re unhappy for (at least) 40 hours every week.

In some ways, you could say that you are effectively choosing between success and happiness with these two scenarios. In reality, you don’t have to choose, because you can opt for a healthy medium. There are days where I don’t want to get up in the morning, but my freelance writing business provides both a suitable income and a sense of enjoyment.

Life Is a Balance

And that’s effectively how you should be approaching all aspects of your life. If you cast all other concerns aside and take the hedonistic approach of chasing happiness alone, you will ultimately be disappointed. It’d be great to spend money without having to worry about running out. It’d be great to travel the world and eat anything you want without having an impact on the environment and the peoples of the world. Unfortunately, that’s not how life is.

Chasing happiness is not enough. I want to have a sense of accomplishment. I want to make a positive impact on the world. And sometimes you have to approach these goals indirectly.