I always wanted my practical philosophy to be more profound than “Seek pleasure, avoid pain.”
Who could have such a shallow view of human behavior? Are hedonistic teachings not invariably intellectually disgusting?
Well, I have now come to the conclusion that literally every life philosophy, including mine, is a “feel good” philosophy, whether I like it or not, because
Pleasure is all we truly want.
People want to feel good. Everybody does. But since different people choose different ways to experience good and avoid bad feelings, they have different life philosophies.
Most people want to experience simple pleasures. Others delay pleasure to secure or intensify it. Others try not to bother about pleasure to avoid its opposite. Still others renounce certain pleasures to feel the power of their wills, which is a pleasure, too. Even pessimists laying out their somber worldview just want to feel good about their ability to “think deep,” which gives them the pleasure of intellectual pride.
There is a broad range of pleasures we can pursue in life:
- Pleasures of the body: exercise, food, sex, drugs, aromas, music, beauty, sunbeams,…
- Pleasures of the mind: humor, reading, curiosity, learning, conversation, and intellectual pride as in problem solving, analytical thinking, rational argumentation, rhetorical persuasion,…
- Pleasures of the will: true pride of doing what one truly wants to do as in self-discipline, skill development, personal growth, the will to power, and virtuous, value-driven action
- Pleasures of the spirit: ego dissolution and focused attention as in meditation, trance, mindcoolness, and creative, athletic, social, or spiritual flow activities
Of course, body, mind, will, and spirit are all one, so their pleasures naturally overlap.
While we may be tempted to rank different pleasures by quality, doing so is again just a pleasure of the mind that seeks intellectual pride through categorical thinking. Would indulging in this pleasure not skew our ranking? Even not judging categorized pleasures is in itself a pleasure: the pride of having a non-judgmental, open mind.
The truth is: We are all different. Our bodies, abilities, talents, values, intelligence, life experience, and spiritual openness are all different. Accordingly, I will not rate some pleasures as better than others. Some simply fit better to some people than others, or to people at some life stage than another.
Importantly, nobody can truthfully say that his motivation, behavior, or life purpose is independent of pleasure. I take this not as a falsifiable scientific claim, but as an axiom of conscious human decision-making—a statement so broad that it is almost meaningless: humans want to feel good.1
We want to experience pleasure and avoid pain. This remains true when we choose temporary pain as a means to ultimately increase pleasure or avoid future uncontrollable pain. As long as we are mentally healthy, we endure pain and suffering only for our own (or maybe our offspring’s) greater net pleasure.
Pain and pleasure are the body’s fundamental mechanism to control human behavior in a way that increases the chances of survival and reproduction, while the pleasure of pride is a higher-level control mechanism that makes our more abstract social, intellectual, and purpose-oriented desires elevate our power, our social status, our behavioral flexibility, and thus our human freedom.
What about happiness?
The pursuit of happiness is the deliberate attempt to maximize pleasure over the course of our lives. Pleasure systematically embedded in a bigger picture. This sounds reasonable, but it is a trap: because it draws our attention away from the process (pleasure) toward an end goal (happiness).
With our attention led astray, we become more willing to sacrifice current pleasures to achieve our ultimate goal. We forget that joy and pleasure exist only in the present moment and end up in wretched regret.
Now, does this mean that we should just pursue immediate gratification: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll until we die a young death? Maybe. But maybe we are also inclined to gain pleasure from feeling the strength of our will: pleasure from victorious self-control, pleasure from true pride, pleasure from doing what we truly want to do.
If we have poor metacognitive abilities and a weak sense of inner pride, maybe our True Will is to live a reckless, hormonal life. But maybe we truly want to improve those abilities, enhance our sense of pride, and live a more balanced life. Or maybe our True Will is to live as a sage someday. In any case, our True Will is whatever we can do to objectively maximize our subjective well-being.
Doing the True Will disregards neither the short-term nor the long-term perspective; nor does it get lost in either: it is undazzled by impulsive desires and unsmitten with the goal of happiness. The True Will is a value-grounded long-term purpose; and when it exacts short-term displeasure, we can transform it into the pleasure of true pride or mindful attention.
We may call the skill of such transformation practical wisdom. It is how the way becomes the goal. A goal that has made way for a purpose, for a lasting pleasure, for an eternal joy.
PS: We can now define a mental disorder as the pathological inability to maximize pleasure (one’s subjective well-being), whereas weakness of will is the non-pathological inability to do so. To strengthen your will, read my book Willpower Condensed.
- Is Happiness the End Goal?
- Why You Can’t Control Your Mood
- Everyday Mindfulness: Awareness Over Feelings
- On the Pleasure of Rationality
- How to Take Action Without Judging
- Why Pride Will Never Die
- How Our Beliefs Undermine Our Happiness
- Little Bad Feelings & Personal Growth
- Update: I retract this statement. Whether people really want to maximize good feelings is an empirical statement, and it has been scientifically investigated.