Saturday, April 04, 2009

Hedonism and happiness: Looking back, I'd have to say that the writer that has had more influence on me than anyone is Bertrand Russell. Reading him as a college student, I quickly went from a devout Christian to a a scientific-minded atheist. But it went further. Following the utilitarians, he argued that: 1) goodness can be reduced to pleasure and badness to pain; 2) pleasure and happiness are the same thing; and 3) a society should maximize pleasure (happiness) for the most people. Like many of his ideas, I bought it hook, line, and sinker.

So are pleasure and happiness linked so intimately? The Longitudinal Study of Violence Against Women asked male college students how much they were in low spirits in the past month, and whether they agreed that they were pleasure seekers. I calculated the mean sadness score and list it by the answer to the hedonism question (N = 646):

Mean sadness score

Strongly disagrees that he's a pleasure seeker 1.97
Disagrees that he's a pleasure seeker 2.16
Neither 2.18
Agrees he's a pleasure seeker 2.28
Strongly agrees he's a pleasure seeker 2.31

Being in low spirits increases with one's hedonism. The difference between the two extremes is not huge--about three-tenths of a standard deviation--but it completely contradicts Russell's idea.

Also, keep in mind that these questions were asked at the same time. Getting pleasure right now does not bring happiness even right now--forget about the accumulating sense of pointlessness that comes from living to feel good.


  1. Epicurus could have told you that 400 years before Christ supposedly lived. Oh wait, he did.

    "The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain."

    "No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves."

    "If the things that produce the pleasures of profligate men really freed them from fears of the mind concerning celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, and the fear of pain; if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, we should never have any fault to find with such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasures from every source and would never have pain of body or mind, which is what is bad."

    "The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity."

  2. It's a bit more subtle than that -- John Tierney recently reviewed some studies on long-term regret, and people who abstain too much end up more regretful later on about missing out. (I reviewed this at

    It's probably that being more excitement-seeking gets you into a pickle in the short-term, producing guilt. But guilt wears off over time, while regret increases. So pleasure-seekers end up happier in the long term, while pleasure-avoiders are content and guilt-free for now but think "what might have been?" as time goes by.

  3. Anonymous9:44 AM

    If a writer influenced you to become an atheist (rather than your own logic, scientific study and critical thinking) then I am no longer surprised how you quickly swung back to becoming a devout Christian. Many of the events you (like many avid churchgoers) adore about the Bible are not unique. Some are even found in myths that predate the Bible. I'm surprise someone as educated as you does not see that.

  4. The writer who explains this all to me is Schopenhauer. I believe he'd say that the people claiming to not be pleasure seekers are simply people more likely to spend their time contemplating nature and appreciating things they cannot own - cherishing friendships, good music, humming birds, etc. The ones who claim to be pleasure seekers have less ability to manage their egos, and more desire to possess good things, generally becoming rapidly bored and wanting to move on quickly.

  5. Surveys have limited value in studying this question - but Inductivist's analysis here probably has more validity than the Tierney studies mentioned by Agnostic, because the variable being studied by Ron is depressed mood, rather than happiness.

    Surveys of sadness/ depression seem to be more robust than studies of happiness, and the two variables cannot be regarded as fully reciprocal.

    My current assumption is that when people are asked about happiness you get answers which correlate with personality (happiness correlating with higher 'Big Five' emotional stability, for example) - and personality is a lifetime-stable trait; whereas asking about sadness gives you a more state dependent estimation of depressive symptoms (often affected by current problems such as illness, sleeplessness, 'life events') over recent days and weeks.

    The partial negative correlation between happiness and depression comes from the fact that neuroticism (emotional instability) seems to predispose people to depressive periods (I regard neuroticism as a pathological trait).

    I hadn't realized that Russell had put so explicitly the hedonic morality which is the inevitable consequence of a non-religious belief system. Russell is simply articulating the moral system which now underlies all secular states in their public discourse. All modern policy in secular states is discussed using this calculus.

    My feeling is that long term trends (especially demographic trends based on fertility differentials) show us that the hedonic moral system is self-destroying ('decadent', as they used to say) with 'lifestyle' as the highest value; and this stance is progressively being out-competed by supernatural and other-worldly religions.

  6. Anonymous2:26 AM

    "Many of the events you (like many avid churchgoers) adore about the Bible are not unique. Some are even found in myths that predate the Bible. I'm surprise someone as educated as you does not see that."

    Well, seeing as how Ron is obviously not some scripture-bound fundamentalist, I can't imagine why you'd think the shocking revelation that things in the bible mirror earlier myths would disturb him. Moreover, plenty of Christians would see these parallels as evidence of the bible's truthfulness. (These events are precursors, proves God's influence is everywhere etc.) The parallels issue is a minor sidenote that will almost always be interpreted in light of what someone already believes. I find it hard to imagine that it swings many.

    More related to the main topic, I gotta wonder about the possibility that some nihilistic sorts might find a sort of meaning in vaguely dissatisfied hedonism. I tend towards nihilism (whether or not God exists, this universe is clearly going down and is not meaningful or lasting in and of itself), and I feel that my melancholic hedonism is precisely the correct response to this perspective. Thus, relative sadness and hedonism go hand in hand, not because one causes the other, but because they naturally go together. My hedonism isn't really meant as a cure for my vague dissatisfaction, but as a kind of companion.

    On the other hand, this is probably a pretty small group, with most hedonists not being irreligous, and most atheists more or less supporting Judeo-Christian ethics, despite their purported freethinking. On the third hand, maybe more people think like this than I'd thought, but we just tend not to proseletyze.

  7. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Don't be so quick to reach for such a tenuous conclusion, since it's not implausible that pleasure seeking is inversely correlated with pleasure experience. After all, one only seeks what one doesn't have.


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