Happiness and Hedonism

Copyright © 2007 by Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D. Contact: ljohnson@solution-consulting.com

The question of happiness preoccupies us. How can we be most pleased with our lives? Many seek this state through some variety of

We can see this in people’s rush to seek physical pleasures. We want more and more sensations of pleasure, whether it be physical intimacy, food, or excitement from sports, games, and admiration from others. Owning and driving a new car is a type of hedonistic pursuit. New clothes give us pleasure, exciting movies, fancy favorite foods . . . the list seems endless.

Because we live in a civilization where such pleasures are literally at our command, where materialistic and sensational gifts are everywhere, we should be the happiest of people, right?

No, we are not. In America, we are reasonably happy. The total amount of materialistic goods and experiences have increased dramatically. The per-person income in 1956 (in constant, 1995 dollars) was about $9,500, and by the year 2000, it was $22,000. But surveys show we are no more happy. Oddly enough, we are slightly less happy than we were in the 1950s. In 1956, approximately 35% of people described themselves as “very happy.” By 2000, that had dropped to 30%.

Why would this be? Psychologists who study pleasure and happiness have found a phenomenon called “the hedonic treadmill.” In essence, pleasure may be somewhat important to our well being, but it does not give any sense of lasting joy. This is because we quickly become accustomed to pleasures and enjoyment. We habituate to them, so we have to seek more and more. That new car does give us a good deal of pleasure. After perhaps three months, it is just the car. It hasn’t been washed in three weeks, and newer cars look better and better.

We are on treadmills, running as fast as we can just to stay in one place, and it is self-defeating. We cannot become happier by having more sensations, more admiration, more desirable goods and services.

Perhaps you imagine I am recommending some kind of self denial as a path. No, it does seem as if some pleasure is a necessary component of a good life. So I don’t recommend we all become hermits and live like middleages monks. But it is probably a good idea to be skeptical of how much real joy and satisfaction that sort of thing can bring.

Perhaps pleasure is like oil for a car. Without it, the car won’t get very far. But it doesn’t make the car go. For that you need gasoline. What would that gasoline be?
Here are some things we know. There are clearly some traits that happy people do have. One of them is gratitude. The happiest people seem to grateful for many things. They see life as generally positive, a place where good things happen. They are grateful for their own talents and abilities, for their friends, for random acts of kindness that happen to them.

Another is optimism. Happy people expect that everything will tend to turn out all right. When bad things do happen, the optimistic person supposes that they will pass quickly. They tend not to be interested in who is to blame for negative events, and they think that a bad outcome in some area shouldn’t keep you from enjoying other things.

Happy people are engaged in good and worthy activities. They enjoy pleasure, but they don’t seem to seek it out much. Rather, they seek out things that make them feel connected. Whether it is a wood-shop where one builds furniture, or a hobby of researching and writing about birds, they are interested in things beyond themselves.

Connection with others is most certainly a trait of the happiest people. They tend to be engaged and involved with people around them. They have good and close friends. They tend to be married, and they are
not prone to living with someone outside of marriage. The current fad of living together actually predicts more unhappiness. Perhaps it is because it is simply a hedonistic pursuit, and the hedonic treadmill sets in. People who live together have a higher rate of divorce. But with a marriage, we declare publically that we are not afraid of a lifetime commitment. We raise ourselves to a higher standard, and living a committed life give us much more happiness.

We can – and we should – live lives of engagement, gratitude, optimism, and connection. Doing so helps us and helps society at large. Happy people are simply better citizens, giving more to charity, helping others, being more productive and successful, having better health . . . the advantages of joy, happiness and contentment seem to be endless.