Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Is Dorian Gray a tragic hero? (Re)defining Hedonism

Hedonism as the maladaptive pursuit of pleasure.

I must admit, when I was in high school I was more likely to read the sports page of the Dallas Morning News than my english assignments. But, for some reason, there was one book that I couldn’t put down: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Dorian Gray league of extraordinary gentlemen
Maybe it was something about the question of if there is anything better than pure pleasure (is that the good life?); maybe it was the weird tradeoff between hedonistic pursuits at no cost and seeing one’s debauchery displayed on a painting one sin at a time. Or maybe it was the how the Brits reacted to Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray, who has a lot of sex, drinks often, and cares only about pursuing pleasure over morality.

To this day I am still not sure what the draw was, but something still seems unsettled. Dorian Gray is what people call a “hedonist,” but what does that really mean? Who doesn’t like pleasure? Given the opportunity to experience more pleasure, who would turn that down?

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What seems problematic is when a person pursues pleasure to an unhealthy extent. For example, eating cake three times a day, every day, seems unhealthy. What about once a year? Not likely. For this reason one of my students, Masha Ksendzova, decided to operationalize hedonism, not as valuing pleasure per se, but as the maladaptive pursuit of pleasure—that is, “hedonism” is an unhealthy pursuit of pleasure.

With that definition in mind, we decided to determine how hedonism, the unhealthy pursuit of pleasure, is related to happiness, meaning, and satisfaction. At BeyondThePurchase.Org, and its sister website Your Morals.Org, we asked people to tell us how much they were willing to sacrifice (e.g., overspend, risk relationships, ignore their health) to experience pleasure.

What did we find? Those who are willing to sacrifice for pleasure valued thrill-seeking and physical pleasure. For example, the more people enjoyed eating tasty food, the more maladaptive they pursued pleasure. Interestingly, there was no relationship between hedonistic tendencies and happiness. However, hedonists reported feeling anxious. Thus, we wonder if the unhealthy pursuit of pleasure is really the pursuit of happiness or a maladaptive attempt to cope with unhappiness. 

You can help us better understand the (unhealthy) pursuit of pleasure and its relationship with happiness. First, Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then find out how hedonistic you are.

Take the Hedonism Value Scale and learn if you pursue pleasure to an unhealthy extreme.

How materialistic are you? Find out by taking the Materialistic Values Scale.

Are you a compulsive buyer? Take the Compulsive Buying Scale and learn about your spending habits.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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