A Field Guide to the Bon Vivant

Do you know someone who has a love of novelty and pleasure, lack of fear and a high dependence on other people? Chances are you know the bon vivant.

By Alison Rogers, published on July 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Pleasure Hunters

When hip-hop mogul Sean Combs throws a party, he does it in style: Imagine a Fourth of July shindig with a thousand guests, including Al Sharpton, Lisa Ling and Paris Hilton, dressed head-to-toe in white attire. Combs, wearing a linen suit with diamond vest buttons and a matching fedora, arrives by helicopter, naturally, touching down on his nine-acre estate in Bridgehampton. Champagne in hand, the dapper host shows off a precious copy of the Declaration of Independence. Not a Xerox, mind you, but one of only 25 originals.

There's one in every crowd, the joke teller whose love of food, fun and wine makes him the life of the party. It takes gregariousness, a lack of inhibition and an appreciation of fine things to produce such a lively personality, one the French call a "bon vivant." The words literally mean "someone who lives well," but the type, as Combs' example shows, can run to great extremes. The good news, according to experts, is that most bon vivants do genuinely enjoy their own antics and aren't drowning out anger or depression with easy laughs and freely flowing liquor.

The bon vivant possesses three key traits, notes C. Robert Cloninger, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis: a love of novelty and pleasure, a lack of fear that makes him an outgoing risk-taker and a high dependence on rewards from other people.

Some people live the good life so well that they make careers out of it: The joy that Emeril Lagasse gives off while he "bams" up a new dish filters down to his many culinary fans. When the rest of us are around a bon vivant, we can't help but be won over by his passion—and ability to communicate it. "This personality style makes for a good actor or a good politician, someone you look forward to having a meal with," says Cloninger.

While you may know one bon vivant, you probably don't know a dozen. Lagasse's colleague Martha Stewart , while a gourmand, is too anxious about details to claim the title. "Not every gregarious person is a bon vivant," says Paul T. Costa, Jr., the Baltimore-based chief of the laboratory of personality and cognition at the National Institutes of Health. "Outgoing people aren't necessarily assertive. They'll say, 'I want to be in the audience, but I don't want to be on stage.' "

The Bon Vivant in Daylight

For some people, the high life masks an inner emptiness that is a hallmark of serious personality disorders. This more troubled variety of bon vivant tends not to deliberate before acting and reacting. As such, they are primed for self-destruction, particularly because such cognitive deficits only make it harder to curb their penchant for escapism and strong appetites—for attention, alcohol, drugs or gambling.

And even more well-adjusted hedonists must deal with the "after-prom" loneliness that sets in once the last guest heads home. To fight it, those who live to hold court have to learn ways to boost their self-esteem that aren't dependent on feedback from other people. "It's OK to be the center of attention," says Lia Nower, associate professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "But if you have a solid self-concept and know who you are, you aren't constantly looking for people or experiences to define you. You [have to] realize that life is cyclical," she adds. "Sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug."

Taming Hedonism

You May Grow Out Of It

There's a time and place for donning a lampshade on your head—a fact that's often lost on notoriously shortsighted teenagers. "Parents don't typically say to their child's guidance counselor, 'We want Bobby to be more of a bon vivant and crack more jokes in class,'" says Costa.

Luckily, judgment improves with age. Counter-hedonistic qualities such as impulse control and conscientiousness increase in young adulthood (ages 20 to 40), midlife and old age, says Brent Roberts, associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In All Things, Moderation

For most, the secret to healthy hedonism is making sure your pleasures accede to your responsibilities, and not the other way around. Be aware of your deadlines: If you're going out with the gang tonight, get that report in shape today so you can hand it in tomorrow morning.

And why not aspire to the "work hard, play hard" credo, applying your zest for celebration to more productive pursuits? Three years ago, music impresario Combs, who also has a successful clothing business with his Sean John line, raised $2 million for charity by running in the New York City Marathon.

Think It Through, If You Can

Careful planning is particularly difficult for the estimated 9 percent of Americans who are highly impulsive. New research suggests that when they are asked to show restraint, their brains' prefrontal cortical areas, or executive decision-making centers, aren't activated as much as they are within normal subjects. Folks who can stay out until dawn or dabble in hard drugs without severely compromising their work or personal lives, on the other hand, seem to have a very keen ability to both assess and cushion themselves from risk.

How to Run Wild

What if you're a mousy soul who feels an urge to let loose? Positive aspects of impulsivity include curiosity and openness to new experiences, so force yourself to do something unexpected and see how it feels to be a temporary bon vivant.

It's tough for shy people to hear, but gregariousness is rewarded in our society. The trick is to dip your toe in the water; try being the party leader for an evening so you can see how satisfying it is.

Cloninger, author of Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being, notes that while it's tough to change your temperament, you can change your outlook: "If you're trying to fake being friendly and warm and confident, it comes off as fake.

"But by changing your perspective," he says, "you change the meaning of different situations. If you say, 'I'm going to this party and I'm not worried about how they're going to judge me,' that eliminates the stimuli that make you anxious, and it allows your spontaneity to shine."

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