Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Pursuit of Pleasure

“Man is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed.” –Henry George

I've battled depression throughout adolescence and for several periods of my adult life.  For the past few years, I've been studying happiness, determined to completely overcome depression.

Our society seems to tell us that happiness is so fundamental that everyone will just figure it out, while simultaneously treating it like it's some elusive ghost that can never be fully understood or explained.

But what does happiness really mean?  Looking around my great nation, I can find many answers to that question.  I might think happiness is fame.  But despite the infinite potential for personal connection, so many famous people struggle with relationships and intimacy.  I might think happiness is having endless strings of one-night stands with attractive women.  But the men I've known who've lived that lifestyle, despite the enjoyment, always have a large, almost tangible emptiness in their lives.  I might think happiness is owning fancy trinkets, a mansion, and a yacht.  But many rich people seem to be overwhelmed with bitterness and anger.  Maybe I'm a romantic and I think happiness is a faery tale ending.  But I've never seen such a thing in real life.  Or maybe I'm disillusioned and think happiness is found in a drug.  I've known plenty of addicts, none of whom I'd call happy.

So it seems there's a disconnect.  I've mistaken pleasure for happiness.  The two aren't mutually exclusive, but they're definitely not synonymous.  Happiness is a deep-rooted contentment.  Pleasure is fleeting and superficial.  Pleasure is sensual, while happiness is almost like a personality trait.  Pleasure is something external that you experience, something that happens to you.  Happiness comes from within.  It's something you do, something you cultivate.  People who are happy are hopeful and optimistic.  People in a moment of pleasure are often anxious about the inevitable end of the pleasure.

If pleasure and happiness are so different, then why did I confuse them?  Happiness is not a product that can be bought for $29.95.  But pleasure is.  And in an individualistic, materialistic, media saturated, consumerist culture, it's economically beneficial to convince everyone that maximizing pleasure will lead to happiness.  Thus this lie has been so widely spread that it's become the cornerstone of our entire economy for the past century.

But people who really understand religion and spirituality know that' all the teachings (in any religion) about temptation are warning us about this exact problem.  So how does the lie keep perpetuating in a country with such high religiosity?  We're taught about temptation in terms of good and evil.  I might be tempted to do something evil, like to steal something I want or hurt someone I don't like.  Or I might be tempted to engage in premarital sex.  In these sorts of cases, the acts are considered to be morally wrong.  So we, as a culture, have defined temptation as a desire to do wrong.  Pleasure doesn't enter into our conversation on the topic.

But most of us realize intuitively that temptation is not the desire to do wrong, it's the desire for pleasure.  Sometimes pleasure entails something morally wrong, and sometimes it doesn't.  So what's the problem with temptation and pleasure when there's no crime or victim?  Five years ago, I would have told you there is no problem.  And I saw that conclusion as a critique of religion in general.  Anton LaVey sold a lot of books thanks in part to that very critique.  But I have a different perspective today.  Time spent in pursuit of pleasure could instead be spent in pursuit of happiness.  It could be spent in communion with friends.  It could be spent learning.  It could be spent making the world a better place.  So the problem with pleasure, is that it motivates us to act from our base impulses, rather than our higher ideals.

The most pious and saintly of people might say for that reason, we should avoid all pleasure and resist all temptation.  Maybe they're right.  But I'm not going to live my life by that.  I don't have the discipline even if I wanted to.  I think moderation will serve most of us well enough.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

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