When I was a teenager, I went through a period of depression. I stopped going out in the evenings, and spent most of my time alone in my room, brooding and listening to music. My father has always been a cheerful and sociable guy, and found it difficult to understand me. He used to say to me, “Cheer up Steve! We’re only here for seventy or eighty years, so you’ve got to enjoy yourself.” He would offer me money to go out to bars, and encouraged me to drink beer, have fun and chat to girls. But I preferred to be alone. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I had a strong feeling that my father was wrong. I felt that there was more to life than just enjoying yourself. But what could this be?
On the surface of it, my father’s hedonistic philosophy makes some sense. Our time in this life is limited, and could end at any moment, so surely we should treat ourselves to as much enjoyment, adventure and experience as we can. What would be the point of putting ourselves through suffering and hardship? You could compare life to a long vacation. When we go on vacation, we usually try to have as much of a "good time" as we can, so surely we should do the same with the "long vacation" of life?
The Tragedy of Errol Flynn
I thought about these issues recently while reading the autobiography of the early film star Errol Flynn. Flynn was in many ways a very impressive man: intelligent, determined and charismatic (as well as extremely handsome). His main aim was to get as much out of life as he could. He believed that since he was only going to be on this planet once, he should try everything. Before he became a film star, he was a trader and adventurer in New Guinea, and had ambitions to be a reporter and author. (In fact, he did later write two novels in addition to his autobiography.) Born and brought up in Australia, Flynn traveled to England to pursue a career as an actor, then tried his luck in Hollywood, where his fame and wealth gave him access to many more experiences. He had affairs with some of the world’s most famous and beautiful women, occupied some of Hollywood’s most beautiful mansions and owned a series of incredibly expensive yachts. His “try everything” philosophy led him to experiment with drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
Flynn’s lavish lifestyle may seem attractive, but more than anything else, he exemplifies the illusory nature of hedonistic happiness. Dissatisfied and dissolute, Errol Flynn died at the age of 50, partly due to the effects of alcohol abuse (the autopsy found that he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver). And even worse, his excessive lifestyle left behind a trail of chaos. There is an inherent selfishness in hedonism - by focusing on their own personal search for pleasure, hedonists put themselves before others, and neglect their responsibilities. And this was certainly true of Flynn. His countless lovers and three wives, and most significantly, his four children, were badly damaged by his irresponsibility and selfishness.
Of course, there are many other famous and wealthy individuals who have had similar issues. Being a millionaire and having access to unlimited pleasures, comforts and luxuries did not help Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and many other celebrities to find contentment. If anything, their wealth and fame seems to have caused them psychological problems, and led to their demise.
To anyone who has studied positive psychology, none of this would be surprising. Positive psychologists have established that merely to have a “good time” in the present moment does not provide the basis of a life of well-being. There are many other important factors: for example, a sense of purpose and meaning, positive relationships, regular periods of flow (absorption or engagement in activities), a positive thinking style, and a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Having regular contact with nature, practicing acts of altruism, and a sense of self-development are also important sources of well-being. In the long run, trying to find happiness solely through hedonism leads to sense of meaninglessness and emptiness. A life based on flow, altruism and self-development becomes rich with meaning and fulfilment, in the same way that a garden that has been carefully cultivated becomes fertile and abundant.
So I think I was right to doubt my father. I’m no longer a depressed young man. I am a now a middle-aged man who still feels young and excited by life, with an ongoing sense of fulfillment. And I feel that this is largely because I have always sensed that life means much more than just enjoyment, or "having a good time."
Steve Taylor PhD is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. His latest book is The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening.