The Perils of Pursuing Pleasure

How you think about happiness might be making you unhappy.

Posted Jul 06, 2016

A happy life is a life that's good or valuable for you. Philosophers have long speculated that how you think about happiness can make you unhappy: It's a mistake to value pleasure too highly. In recent years, some psychologists have come to the same conclusion. 

Harold Lloyd and Wesley Stout, An American Comedy / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Source: Harold Lloyd and Wesley Stout, An American Comedy / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Hedonism is the view that pleasure (and a lack of pain) is all there is to a happy life. At the other end of the spectrum, stoicism holds that a happy life is a life free of emotion. There's acres of room between these extremes. A balanced philosophy of happiness (including this one I'm partial to) recognizes that the pleasures of food, sex, accomplishment, companionship (and more) can contribute to a happy life. But so can other things, such as positive attitudes (like hope and optimism), positive traits (like conscientiousness and extraversion), meaningful activities, or healthy relationships. 

Here are three ways the singular pursuit of pleasure can get you into trouble.   

1. You’ll be a “fair weather” everything: If you think that pleasure is all there is to happiness, then the people and projects in your life promote your happiness only insofar as they give you pleasure. And that seems wrong. Philosophers diagnose the problem as follows: To be happy, you must commit to people and projects in a deep, meaningful way. But if you’re a hedonist, you can’t do that (Sidgwick 1874/1981). You’ll be perpetually ready to bolt as soon as something else looks more pleasant. While a number of studies suggest that thinking like a hedonist is bad for you, none (as far as I know) pinpoint "fair weather" commitments as a source of the problem. So this worry is, for now, merely a philosophical speculation. 

2. You’ll be unhappy when your unrealistic expectations about happiness are dashed: Suppose nothing momentous has happened recently in your life. Someone asks how you’re feeling, and you say, “Good.” Call this your standard, everyday level of pleasure. Not great, not bad. Good. (It’ll help if you say “Good” with a teen's weary inflection.) 

Hedonic adaptation refers to the fact that our emotional systems have a strong tendency to stay Good (Fredrick & Loewenstein 1999; Wilson, Gilbert & Centerbar 2002). Something terrific happens, and for a while you feel Great! But you get swiftly dragged back to Good. Good is just a hard fact of life. If you think like a hedonist, though, Good isn’t good enough: Extended happiness requires ever-increasing levels of pleasure. And when that doesn’t happen, when you keep coming back to Good, you’re going to feel frustrated, disappointed, and unhappy.

In a widely reported study, Mauss and colleagues (2011) found that thinking like a hedonist (i.e., placing a high value on pleasure) is associated with lower levels of well-being. But this relationship held only in low-stress situations. That's presumably because in a low-stress situation, you might expect to be happy. If you have unrealistic expectations about what your life will be like when you're happy, you'll end up disappointed and unhappy when those expectations are dashed. In a high-stress situation, you don't expect to be happy, and so no expectations (unrealistic or otherwise) are dashed.1

3. The hedonist recommends a life you don’t really want: Suppose you could set your emotional system to "Maximum Pleasure" for the rest of your natural life. No matter what challenges you face, your normal, everyday level of pleasure wouldn't be Good. It would be Ecstatic! For a hedonist, this would be a great thing. Your life would be maximally happy. But reflect a bit and you'll see that the hedonist is wrong. You'd feel happy. But you wouldn't be happy.

Our emotions have an important function. They help us navigate the challenges and opportunities life sets in our path (Frijda 1986, Levenson 1994, Fredrickson 1998). But if your emotions are stuck at Maximum Pleasure, they wouldn't be sensitive to those challenges and opportunities. If you can't regulate your emotions, they can't do their jobs. At Maximum Pleasure, fear wouldn’t do its job when you're in danger. You'd chuckle in the face of the charging bull. Disgust wouldn’t do its job when potential sources of disease are nearby. You'd smile at the oozing glop on the sidewalk. Anger wouldn’t flash when someone disrespects you.

Studies suggest that high levels of pleasure would also compromise your ability to think logically (Forgas 2007) and make sound decisions (Cyders & Smith 2008; Martin et al. 2002).

Perhaps worst of all, you’d creep people out. In the face of tragedy, you'd be filled with pleasure. ("My dear friend's child has two weeks to live? I'm so happy!") Your irrepressible joy would be offensive in any situation that called for solemnity - memorial services, a Holocaust Museum, sacred religious ceremonies. Living a hedonist's dream would be a nightmare.2,3

Pleasure is part of many happy lives. But just a part. Exaggerate its importance to your happiness at your peril.

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Notes

1. The Mauss et al. (2011) findings are sometimes reported as a paradox: "If you want to be happy, stop trying to be happy!" But I don't think that's right. The paper defines  "happiness" in terms of "an individual's positive hedonic state" (301). This assumption is perfectly reasonable given the study's goals - to find out if some ways of thinking about happiness are self-defeating. But there are other ways to think about happiness, including some that might not be self-defeating. My reading of the Mauss et al. findings is that they suggest that excessive valuing and monitoring of pleasure (of how one feels) leads to decreased hedonic balance, decreased life satisfaction, and increased depressive symptoms. (Here's a somewhat similar worry.)

2. You might object: "What if I could set my emotional system to Maximum Pleasure except when it would be inappropriate?" That would be fine, except that by trading pleasure for something else, you're admitting that a happy life isn't just a life of pleasure. You're rejecting hedonism in favor of a balanced view of happiness. 

3. Many hedonists agree that thinking like a hedonist will make you unhappy. But they have a solution: Be a hedonist but don't think like a hedonist. Value in an unconditional way the people you love. (A whispered aside: But realize that the only unconditional value is pleasure and lack of pain.) Commit yourself passionately to the projects you find valuable. (Repeat the whispered aside.) This is unconvincing. If you want to be happy, it's not enough to know that hedonism is the wrong way to think about happiness. You need to understand the right way to think about happiness. But once you've got the right way to think about happiness, why would you ever go back to hedonism? Why go back to a philosophy that its proponents admit is, as a practical matter, self-defeating? 

References

Cyders, M.A., & G.T Smith. 2008. “Emotion-based dispositions to rash action: Positive and negative urgency” in Psychological Bulletin 134: 807–828. 

Forgas, J.P. 2007. “When Sad is Better than Happy: Negative Affect Can Improve the Quality and Effectiveness of Persuasive Messages and Social Influence Strategies” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43: 513–528. 

Fredrick, Shane, and George Loewenstein. 1999. “Hedonic Adaptation” in D. Kahneman, E. Diener, and N. Schwarz, eds., Well Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, 302–329. New York: Russell Sage.

Fredrickson, Barbara. 1998. “What Good are Positive Emotions?” in Review of General Psychology 2: 300–319. 

Frijda, Nico H. 1986. The Emotions. Cambridge University Press.

Mauss, I.B., M. Tamir, C.L. Anderson & N.S. Savino. 2011. “Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy? Paradoxical Effects of Valuing Happiness” in Emotion 11, 4: 807-815.

Sidgwick, Henry. 1874/1981. The Methods of Ethics. Hackett.

Wilson, Timothy, Daniel T. Gilbert, and David B. Centerbar. 2002. “Making Sense: The Causes of Emotional Evanescence” in I. Brocas and J. Carrillo, eds., The Psychology of Economic Decisions. Vol. 1: Rationality and Well-Being, 209–233. New York: Oxford University Press.