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Happiness and hedonism

As I'm about to go out to enjoy the sun-drenched Mission Bay beach that beckons from my bedroom window, I thought "hedonism" would be good to address. Along these lines, I also had an extraordinary conversation the other night with a woman who had not yet encountered the explicitly Objectivist perspective on happiness. (Btw, if any dear readers haven't read Ayn Rand's magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, then by all means get thee to a bookstore! Minor caveat: I would recommend reading Nathaniel Branden's Honoring The Self concurrently, for proper psychological perspective on the characterization and style elements of Rand's novel). The extraordinary nature of our conversation stemmed from the fact that it occurred in a bar that was filled with very loud dance music and lots of alcohol-assisted merriment, and that her curiosity and engagement in such a discussion stood in stark contrast to what typically passes for conversation in most late-night establishments.

Anyway, the topic of hedonism arose on account of my statement that she ought to pursue her own selfish interests, and that by doing so, happiness can be achieved. At first glance, this sounds awfully similar to hedonism, which is defined as the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. By the way, are not the people in dance clubs pursuing outright pleasurable activities? Indeed, it seems that many good times can be had in such places, because they oftentimes combine an intoxicating mixture (pun intended) of art and esthetics, amidst a relentlessly celebratory atmosphere. Yet I think there are two components to this experience, one stemming from the true-self and the other stemming from the false-self.

The true-self component is the authentic aspect of enjoyment, of shared experiences, of funny stories, dance moves, and all the esthetic elements of music and dress/fashion that keep so many people coming back for more. All are ostensibly looking to have a good time (however that is constituted) with people they already know or new people who are appealing. This seems all in line with pursuing one's selfish interests, does it not?

In our conversation I of course had to qualify the nature of "selfish interests" to mean that which is rational, neither sacrificing self to others nor sacrificing others to self. Turns out, self-honesty (and by extension honesty with others) plays a major role in pursuing one's rational self-interest. There comes a point when one asks, "Is this what happiness is really about?" Most participants in the bar scene seem to take the present context as the given, so they hardly ever get to that question ("We're here because the clubs are where the late-night fun is!"). This is where hedonism diverges from happiness. Hedonism takes one's feelings and the places that cater to them as the primary methods to pursue one's bliss. Happiness takes one's feelings as valuable indicators, to be sure, but the method concerns one's context on Earth as a rational, conceptual being that is focused on flourishing. Reflecting on hedonism, Ayn Rand eloquently put it this way:

I am profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism. Hedonism is the doctrine which holds that the good is whatever gives you pleasure and, therefore, pleasure is the standard of morality. Objectivism holds that the good must be defined by a rational standard of value, that pleasure is not a first cause, but only a consequence, that only the pleasure which proceeds from a rational value judgment can be regarded as moral, that pleasure, as such, is not a guide to action nor a standard of morality. To say that pleasure should be the standard of morality simply means that whichever values you happen to have chosen, consciously or subconsciously, rationally or irrationally, are right and moral. This means that you are to be guided by chance feelings, emotions and whims, not by your mind. My philosophy is the opposite of hedonism. I hold that one cannot achieve happiness by random, arbitrary or subjective means. One can achieve happiness only on the basis of rational values. By rational values, I do not mean anything that a man may arbitrarily or blindly declare to be rational. It is the province of morality, of the science of ethics, to define for men what is a rational standard and what are the rational values to pursue.

Playboy’s Interview with Ayn Rand,” March 1964.

So, there is an objective standard for happiness. What makes it objective is the fact of human existence on this particular planet (or wherever else we mayventure). Humans' essential nature stems from their reasoning ability (in contrast to our rather inarticulate primate cousins). In his essay titled "A Philosophy for Living on Earth," Peter Saint-Andre explored this topic further by quoting another passage by Rand (from a character in Atlas Shrugged):

Just as your body has two fundamental sensations, pleasure and pain, as signs of its welfare or injury, as a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death, so your consciousness has two fundamental emotions, joy and suffering, in answer to the same alternative. Your emotions are estimates of that which furthers your life or threatens it, lightning calculators of your profit or loss. You have no choice about your capacity to feel that something is good for you or evil, but what you will consider good or evil, what will give you joy or pain, what you will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on your standard of value. Emotions are inherent in your nature, but their content is dictated by your mind. (Rand 1957, 1021)

Any hedonistic behavior can be the direct result of abandoning the cognitive element (rationality) in experiencing pleasure. One drops the objective context of how happiness can be attained and maintained. This is where false-self feelings and behaviors can come to the forefront. When one doesn’t develop a healthy sense of self and objective outlook, one can try in vain to satisfy the quest for pleasurable feelings: focusing on looking good (or better than others) as the primary means of social acceptance and status; constant recreating without setting any long-term goals of achievement; engaging in superficial conversations without ever addressing the deeper philosophical concepts involved; surrounding oneself with material possessions and luxuries without having cultivated self-esteem (which requires introspection and some serious mental and behavioral work); doing or saying basically mindless or irrational things because it’s the cool thing to do (socially acceptable, or even socially encouraged and rewarded); and so on. Above all, a definite level of emotional evasion must be employed in order to continue such false-self pretenses.

Being distanced from deeper feelings is an essential element of pseudo-self-esteem. Those deeper feelings are assessments being made by one’s sage-self, that wise part of us that is connected to reason and reality. All of us have a sage-self that knows all the things we think we don’t know and can do all the things we think we can’t do (within reason and reality, of course). It’s also important to note that a fundamental aspect of the sage-self entails reconnecting with your child-self, that is, with the most curious, most adventurous, most playful, most optimistic, and most honest part of who you are.

Here is Peter’s take on the topic of hedonism, and the better approach to happiness:

In general, then, I hold that enjoying is just as much a characteristic activity and cardinal value for humans as conceptualization, self-direction, and achievement. The key to avoiding the trap of hedonism that Rand, Branden, and Mack all warn against is to avoid making joy the standard of value in ethics, while recognizing that the four cardinal goals of conceptualization, achievement, self-direction, and enjoyment must be pursued and realized in an integrated fashion. And this integration is at root metaphysical: the integration of the fundamental aspects of the individual (thought, choice, and action), and the experience of this integration as causally efficacious and valuable through states of joy, and especially the state that Rand called “metaphysical joy” or “love for existence”.[11]

So, let’s shoot for that love of existence, particularly your own love of your own existence. If others do the same, then there will be no contradiction between what is pleasurable and what is good for you and for your relationships with others.

I find the concept of metaphysical joy quite endearing. Rand wrote brilliantly on the subject of “sense of life” in her book The Romantic Manifesto. Whatever her judgments were on various works of art, many of which have been criticized for constricting the range of esthetic pleasures, it’s crucial that we align our happiness with live-giving values. That way we can avoid the hedonism trap and live extraordinary lives. Here’s to a future in which the presently extraordinary becomes the ordinary, while retaining the best within us.