How I Rejected Hedonism
Hedonism is the belief that value resides in the feelings of pain and pleasure. Hedonism is a theory of value in which pain is intrinsically bad, pleasure is intrinsically good, and nothing else is intrinsically bad or good. To put it another way, pain is intrinsic negative value, pleasure is intrinsic positive value, and nothing else is intrinsically valuable. Other things can have instrumental value as causes of pain or pleasure, but not intrinsic value. To a hedonist, the purpose of life is to experience as little pain and as much pleasure as possible.
To be clear, I am talking about what is good or bad for an individual, not what is objectively/morally good or bad. The hedonist believes that his own pleasure has positive value to him, his own pain has negative value to him, and nothing else has intrinsic value to him.
In this context, “pain” is a general term for negative emotional experience, and “pleasure” is a general term for positive emotional experience. In other words, pain is “feeling bad”, and pleasure is “feeling good”. In ordinary discourse, “pain” is often used in a narrower sense to mean sensations of injury or illness that are localized to specific parts of the body, as in “aches and pains”. As I use the term, “pain” refers to any negative emotional experience, such as those associated with injury, illness, hunger, thirst, extremes of temperature, fear, sadness, lust, loneliness, fatigue, boredom, etc. Likewise, “pleasure” refers to any positive emotional experience.
Hedonism is sometimes expressed as “the pursuit of happiness” (by the optimist), or as “the avoidance of suffering” (by the pessimist). However, it is not usually expressed at all. Most people are naive hedonists. They have never thought about the purpose of life. They simply take hedonism for granted, as an unquestioned assumption. Hedonism is one of the underlying assumptions of the ordinary worldview.
When I was young, I took hedonism for granted. I assumed that the purpose of life is to experience as much pleasure and as little pain as possible, or in other words, to be happy. I did not arrive at this view by thought. It was just an assumption that I had acquired somehow. It seemed intuitively correct, but I had never really thought about it, let alone questioned it. Then one day, when I was 14 years old, I began to question it.
I have a very clear memory of when I first questioned hedonism. It was a spring day. The sky was overcast, but it wasn’t raining. I was walking past the house of an old lady who had a koi pond in her back yard. I walked past her house almost every day, and I would often stop to look at the fish. That day I didn’t stop, because I was deep in thought. On that day, for some reason, I was thinking about the relationship between money and happiness.
It is generally accepted that money is one of the keys to happiness. This seems reasonable. Money allows you to buy what you want. It seems obvious that having what you want makes you happy, or at least happier than you would be otherwise. So, having more money should make you happier. However, I had noticed that my richer friends weren’t happier than me. They had more stuff, but they didn’t seem to be happier.
I began to question the assumption that having what you want makes you happy. I wanted the same things that my friends did. They had more of what I wanted than I did. If having more of what you want makes you happier, then they should be happier than me. But they weren’t.
It was clear that getting what you want makes you happy in the short run. If I found a $20 bill on the sidewalk, I would be happy in that moment. There was no doubt about that. But having what you want doesn’t seem to make you happy. The joy of receiving an unexpected $20 would quickly fade away. Also, getting what you want raises your expectations. If I found a $20 bill every day, then I would eventually come to expect it, and I would be disappointed if I did not find one.
My friends were used to living in nice houses, having their own rooms, playing video games, going on vacations, and having pizza for dinner once a week. They would be disappointed if they did not have those things. By contrast, I was not used to those things, so I was not disappointed by not having them. What was normal for my friends did not make them happy. What was normal for me did not make me unhappy.
Thinking about the events that cause pain and pleasure, I noticed that pain and pleasure are caused by things getting worse or better, not by things staying the same. If my condition stayed the same, regardless of how good or bad it was, I would not experience pain or pleasure.
The pleasure of getting something is transient. It soon fades away. I might want a big house with a koi pond in the back yard, but if I had that house, I would not be satisfied. I would start wanting something else. Also, when you have something, then you worry about losing it. The desire to get it is replaced by the desire to keep it. No matter how much you get, you are never satisfied. You never stop wanting. You are never happy.
Getting what you want makes you happy in the short run, but having what you want does not make you happy in the long run.
This principle is sometimes called the “hedonic treadmill”, but I had never heard of it before. I discovered it myself by observation, introspection and thought. In retrospect, it seemed obvious. I was surprised that I had never noticed it before. It had been hidden in plain sight by assumptions and intuitions.
The evidence of the hedonic treadmill is always there, all around us. Rich people aren’t happier than poor people. Beautiful people aren’t happier than ugly people. Young people aren’t happier than old people. Even disabled people confined to wheelchairs don’t seem any less happy than able-bodied people.
When I looked around for the mythical happiness that people were pursuing, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see people living lives of misery either. Everyone seemed pretty much the same on average. They had their ups and downs, but nobody was really happy or unhappy.
If having what you want doesn’t make you happy, can anything make you happy? Maybe the people who think they are pursuing happiness are chasing an illusion: a mirage on the horizon that recedes from them as they approach it. Maybe happiness is impossible.
And if happiness is impossible, then it can’t be the purpose of life. Or if it is the purpose of life, then life is futile.
I lost my faith in hedonism that day, just as I had lost my faith in morality years before. I began to question the assumption that pleasure and pain are the ultimate source of value. I had never really thought about it before, but now I could see that it was an assumption, and I could find no justification for it.
Why had I ever believed that happiness is the purpose of life? There are many problems with that assumption. Pleasure and pain are transient, fleeting experiences. They do not stack up like bars of gold. They cannot be stored and re-experienced. They exist only in the moment. How could the purpose of life be the “acquisition” of transient experiences?
In the months that followed, I thought about the nature of desire on my daily walks to and from school. I thought about what desire is, how it affects judgment and action, and how it affects subjective experience. I also did some empirical research. I fasted for two days, to see what it felt like. I confirmed that I experienced greater pain from hunger, and greater pleasure from eating when I ended the fast. When fall came, and then winter, I walked to school without a jacket almost every day, to experience the cold. I confirmed that there was pain involved in getting cold, and pleasure involved in warming up afterward. By observing, experimenting and thinking, I developed a theory of desire.
I was not just thinking about the psychology of desire. I was also thinking about the purpose of life. My inquiry into the nature of desire had raised a philosophical question. What, if anything, is the purpose of life?
For the next few years, that question was the focal point of my existence.