I think I might be a hedonist. Are you imagining me snorting cocaine through $100 notes, a glass of champagne in one hand, the other fondling a stranger’s firm thigh? Before you judge me harshly, I know hedonism has a bad reputation, but it might be time to reconsider.
What if, instead of a guaranteed one-way road to ruin, hedonism is good for your health? If we think of hedonism as the intentional savouring of simple pleasures – like playing in fallen leaves, moments of connection with friends, or cuddling the dog – then it probably is. Seeking and maximising these kinds of pleasures can boost our health and well-being.
So where do our ideas of hedonism come from and how can we harness hedonism to improve our health and quality of life?
The popular view of hedonism
In broad terms, a hedonist is someone who tries to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street is probably the popular idea of the quintessential hedonist, where his extreme wealth allows him to indulge his insatiable hunger for all things pleasurable.
Hedonism Bot from Futurama is another character exquisitely in touch with things that provide pleasure.
We find these characters so compelling because they seem to reject the sensible, responsible way to live. They indulge their carnal appetites in ways we daren’t, with scant regard for consequences. We wait for their liver to rebel or their life to come crashing down around them, as of course it must.
But this kind of behaviour is better termed debauchery – extreme indulgence in bodily pleasures and especially sexual pleasures – rather than hedonism.
Hedonism has its philosophical roots as far back as Plato and Socrates, but ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is often credited with articulating an early brand of hedonism based not on a life of untamed appetites, but on moderate pleasures and respect for others.
What is pleasure?
It might help to think of pleasure simply as a subjective state of enjoyment. This is a broad perspective, but one easily applied to our everyday lives. So, a lover’s caress gives me pleasure, but so can a piece of music, laughing with friends, or simply sitting still in a comfy chair after a frantic day.
Just as different experiences can bring a similar shiver of pleasure, the same experience can conjure a range of responses — from extreme pleasure to definite displeasure — in different people.
If you close your eyes and think about a time you experienced a tingle of pleasure, chances are you’re remembering a sexual experience, or something delicious you’ve eaten. Perhaps the memory is of a very good glass of wine, or those last 50 metres of a long, satisfying run.
And these are good things, right? Sexual pleasure is linked with health and well-being. For example, women who say they are satisfied with their sex life score higher on measures of psychological well-being and vitality. A regular glass of wine is said to have a protective effect against dementia and heart disease, perhaps due to its antioxidant flavonoids. And everyone knows the advantages of physical fitness.
Well, these activities are good … until they’re not. Many of the things that commonly give us pleasure can also be used in risky or harmful ways.
When pleasure becomes a problem
Dependence, addiction, bingeing and compulsive consumption can be thought of as risky or harmful uses of otherwise pleasurable experiences, like using alcohol and other drugs, doing exercise and having sex.
It can be difficult to pin down the point at which a previously pleasurable behaviour becomes problematic. But, somewhere between enjoying an occasional beer and needing a drink before getting out of bed each morning, we’ve passed the tipping point.
At this stage though, pleasure is no longer the motivation, nor the result, of the behaviour. The uncontrollable “hunger” has wiped the pleasure away and the best we can hope for is relief. Without pleasure, the behaviour is no longer a hedonic one.
The single-minded pursuit of one intense pleasure at the expense of other aspects of life that bring meaning and pleasure is also counterproductive to living a rich and enjoyable life. This puts it well outside Epicurus’ idea of moderate pleasures and self-control.
Let’s be rational about hedonism
So, when we need to make the mortgage or rent and keep our complex lives on track, what might a modern hedonist’s life look like?
A practical definition might be someone who tries to maximise the everyday pleasures while still balancing other concerns. I’ll call this a kind of “rational hedonism”. In fact, Epicurus emphasised a simple, harmonious life without the pursuit of riches or glory.
Maximising pleasure, unlike with debauchery or addiction, need not take the form of more, bigger, better. Instead, we savour everyday pleasures. We relish them while they’re happening, using all our senses and attention, actively anticipate them, and reflect on them in an immersive way.
So, if my morning coffee gives me pleasure, I might pause and relish it while I drink it: inhale the fragrance of it fully and focus on the nuanced warm, smoky, bitter deliciousness of it. I should fully attend to the warmth of it in my hands, to the feeling of it in my mouth, and to the cascade of sensations and flavours it delivers.
Not only that, in the morning, before my coffee, I can anticipate it. I can think how lovely it will be. And later, as I go about my day, I can pause and think about that coffee, about just how warm and good it was, how it smelled and tasted.
In other words, I can immerse myself in these moments, in the anticipation, in the drinking itself, and in the remembering, and bring all my attention to them. This kind of savouring results in a totally different, and richer, experience than if I absent-mindedly gulp down the coffee while dodging traffic and talking on the phone.
And attention seems to be key to the link between pleasurable feelings and well-being.
How do we benefit from hedonism?
A state of pleasure is linked with reducing stress. So when we feel pleasure, our sympathetic nervous system – that fight or flight response we experience when we feel threatened – is calmed. First of all, the stimulus arouses us, then if we appraise the situation as safe, we have “stress-terminating responses”, which we experience as relaxation or stress relief.
Studies show pleasurable emotions are associated with broader and more creative thinking, and a range of positive outcomes including better resilience, social connectedness, well-being, physical health, and longevity. So, pleasure might not only help us to live more enjoyably, but longer.
Hedonism for health and well-being
One study of school children showed focusing on pleasurable daily events, in this case recording them in a diary, reduced depressive symptoms, and the effect was maintained three months later.
Focusing on the pleasurable aspects of healthy foods can also be a more effective way to eat more of them than focusing on how “healthy” they are. Similar approaches are likely to be effective with exercise and other behaviours associated with health benefits.
What we know about the benefits of this kind of rational hedonism is likely to grow from here. We have only just begun to explore the therapeutic value of shifting focus to fully attend to and maximise pleasure.
We do know that interventions encouraging individuals to focus on pleasurable experiences are associated with increased self-reported well-being.
Promoting well-being in older adults is a particularly promising area. Savouring pleasure is linked to resilience in older adults and positive emotions can help to offset the ill-effects of loneliness. Plus, regardless of physical health status, the ability to savour is associated with higher levels of satisfaction with life.
And savouring can be taught. One study, looked at the effects of an eight week program promoting savouring for a group of community dwelling adults aged 60 and above. The program reduced depression scores, physical symptoms and sleep problems, and increased psychological well-being and satisfaction with life.
In the meantime, we should defiantly shake off the idea that pleasure is slightly shameful or frivolous and become early adopters of this rational kind of hedonism. We can think of Epicurus, and intentionally savour the simple pleasures we have learned to overlook.