Coronavirus has changed much of our perspective on life, or at least mine.
We were free to live and let live, party away, and have a good time – that is, until 2020 rolled around and things suddenly changed. Isolation from friends and family and shutdown of parties and pubs left many thinking deeply about our existence. We have been cut off from the things that distract us and forced to live with ourselves, leaving us to deal with the existential questions we often ignore – the most pressing of which is: “why do I live?”
Many of us see the point of living as experiencing pleasure. It’s a pretty simple formula; you experience pleasure and, generally, want to experience it again. You hope a chance to re-experience it will come around in the near future and you live because of it. It also makes choices in daily life pretty straightforward, and is often tremendously enjoyable.
Understandably, this mode of being is massively popular today. There is a practically endless supply of audio-visual entertainment, delicious food, thrilling sex, and blissful drugs. These sources of pleasure are accessible to almost everyone in Western society, regardless of socioeconomic status. Instant gratification has never been easier, nor more intense.
Hedonism is the field of theories which explores the role of pleasure in human lifestyles and its different forms. A hedonist is a person who believes the pursuit of pleasure to be the most important thing in life. While this isn’t the full scope of hedonism as an ideology, a significant issue is that we often only take what we like from it and I think this has led to hedonism being corrupted from its roots. Our pursuit of short-term pleasure is obsessive and this obsession has become a threat against the other forms of pleasure, which are more sustainable, virtuous, and fulfilling.
A fundamental question of hedonism is: “what is pleasure?” Many of us think of the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ branch and perceive it as being the very trunk of pleasure. But this is not the only form of pleasure; some pursue lifestyle choices such as marriage or parenting that seem to cage them in, give them more responsibility, less freedom and less opportunity to pursue those material pleasure. Why are some of them are so content while doing it?
In the words of the most famous hedonist, Epicurus, “by pleasure, we mean this: freedom from pain in the body and freedom from turmoil in the soul” – a definition which does not seem to put bodily pleasure as paramount. It’s a definition that recognises matters of the soul such as fulfilment or contentment are also deeply important – and not always connected to bodily pleasure.
This makes sense. If life is only for physical pleasure, why carry on? We all know that age brings bodies that don’t work; and a life slipping and fraying at the edges. Even worse is the knowledge that we will lose those we love and will hurt others. If our primary motivation is bodily pleasure, we continue to focus on short-term pleasures despite knowing that eventually, we will never return to those same heights of ecstasy.
The problem with the popular view of pleasure is that by making our feelings central in our meaning for existence, we give a rather fickle thing an awful lot of power over our lives. We make feeling good the only reason for living and then wonder why those who feel depressed question why they should live. We all feel sadness sometimes and many of us struggle with depression. Our meaning in life must explain why we should carry on if our best life isn’t now.
It is a popular pursuit: that of material wealth in our lives, because it brings us more things that offer that short-term pleasure. How can we then explain the fact that the ones who supposedly ‘have it all’ seem to struggle with life’s purpose just like everyone else, or even worse . Surely, if material pleasure could suffice as the crux of our existence, this wouldn’t ever occur. Instead, over time we’ve seen the emergence of societal stereotypes that associate sad and failed marriages, depression, and day drinking, with the wealthy and upper middle class. The most undesirable relationships and mental states are linked to those who have finally achieved ‘the dream’.
Kanye West puts it best when he states:
There is no Gucci I can buy/
There is no Louis Vuitton to put on/
There is no YSL that they could sell/
to get my heart out of this Hell/
and my mind out of this jail
Here, he unpacks how his ability to indulge in luxury clothing, as a result of his skyrocketing wealth, means nothing if he is all alone. Right when he was reaching worldwide fame, West lost his mother to a plastic surgery operation he paid for. Over a decade later, he has been reported to still struggle with guilt over his mother’s loss, despite being a multibillionaire.
Perhaps a world view that only recognises emotional and physical pleasure as reasons to live does not provide adequate reasons for living. And while it has gained traction in Western societies since the 1960s, hedonism has led to an increase in divorces, single parent families, and suicide rates which in the USA recently surpassed the previous high in 2015.
Perhaps we should seek to reform the way we view pain, responsibility, and duty and realise that a fruitful life includes each of these things. Instead of idolising a life without them, we should focus on living a life that productively includes these. Part of becoming an adult is learning to pick which responsibilities and duties we take on. Not to take them on for fun, but to take them on if they generate something of greater worth. Perhaps the easiest analogy is the muscle; it can only grow in exertion and pain – albeit the controlled and productive form rather than pointless pain. For if life always brings pain, a painless life is not life at all.
We must realise the material is important for living, but is not everything in life, and that basing our life on material pleasure both stunts our existence and provides a rather shaky foundation for one’s life.
Perhaps, as the world returns to normalcy, it is time to re-examine our reason for existence; let pleasure flow from life, rather than life flow from pleasure.
Lucas is a chemistry student and supposedly deep thinker.
Words by Lucas Wright
1: Agerbo E, Gunnell David, Mortensen P B, Eriksson T, Qin P, Westergaard-Nielsen N et al. Risk of suicide in relation to income level in people admitted to hospital with mental illness: nested case-control studyCommentary: Suicide and income—is the risk greater in rich people who develop serious mental illness? BMJ 2001; 322 :334