Hedonism is concerned with the pursuit of pleasure, and those who pursue pleasure are known as hedonists. By pleasure, I do not mean happiness, which is something quite different, but rather the experience of enjoyment, gratification and other sensual pleasures. Pleasure, therefore, is a transitory experience, while happiness can be a lasting state. We experience pleasure through a variety of methods including music, touch, sex, drugs, and myriad other activities, too numerous to mention.
Physiologically, pleasure is associated with chemicals known as endorphins, which are released by both pleasant experiences (e.g. laughter, music, sex) and also by painful experiences (e.g. spicy food, masochism). In the case of painful experiences, the endorphins offset the pain; in the case of pleasant experiences, the endorphins enhance the pleasure.
Everyone has within themselves an “inner hedonist” who enjoys the experience associated with these endorphins, and we all pursue our pleasures in our own ways. Even the strictest puritan still finds their pleasure somewhere – a monk who has forsworn the pleasures of the flesh may get their kicks from the austerity of their lifestyle, the music they make with their brothers, and their worship ceremonies.
The problem comes when this inner hedonist becomes the sole voice in our lives. When we are committed solely to the pursuit of pleasure we not only gravely limit ourselves as to our activities – abandoning all self-development in favour of immediate gratification – but we find ourselves on a slippery slope, since the dogged pursuit of greater pleasure is ultimately self-defeating, as the heroin addict will attest. Triggering a big endorphin release requires an even greater release in the future – this makes any pleasurable activity less satisfying if it is constantly pursued.
Young adults may be able to afford to let loose their inner hedonist every day – this is the time of life for experimentation and new experiences – but the rest of us should be cautious about such abandon. We must balance our desire for pleasure against the need to work on our lives – our relationships, our jobs, our families, our homes. The irony of hedonism is that the sole pursuit of pleasure is unlikely to lead to happiness, and the staunchest hedonist is likely to find themselves awakening one day, alone and desperately depressed.
Let your inner hedonist be your friend, but never your master.