The Cyrenaics were an interesting bunch. Their school of philosophy (founded in the 4th century B.C. in the Greek city of Cyrene) preached skeptical epistemology and sensualist hedonism.
What’s skeptical epistemology? Dunno! But Wikipedia tells me it’s about knowing what’s true, what’s real, and the theory of knowledge. Seems legit.
I’m more interested in sensualist hedonism, which “deduces a single, universal aim for all people: pleasure.”
Physical pleasure is best, said the Cyranaics: sweet foods, a soft kiss, cool water on a hot day. But pleasure can also take form in “brain-only” feelings, like contentment, altruism, friendship, and justice.
Pleasures, though, are only beneficial insofar as they don’t bring pain with them. Pain, after all, is the antithesis of pleasure.
Cyranaic leader Aristippus once wrote, “the best thing is to possess pleasures without being their slave; not to be devoid of pleasures.” In other words:
- Seek pleasure.
- Don’t let pleasures or pleasure-seeking capture you, since being captive is painful.
- Don’t intentionally avoid pleasure for fear of pain.
Our brains are hard-wired for pleasure seeking. We say yes to the “easy bads” and no to the “hard goods.” Pass the donuts, please!
But do we actually feel contentment from pleasure-seeking?
A Question While Camping
Last week, as a few of us sat too close to the campfire, friend-of-the-blog Nikki asked me,
Do you and [your fiancee] ever struggle with contentment? …The feeling that what you have is enough?
YES! Yes, yes, yes. We absolutely do.
[And let me add, no, I don’t think hedonism is the answer. 🙂 ]
My first reaction to Nikki’s question is that I feel FOMO, or the fear of missing out, because, simply, there isn’t enough time. Our 24 hours aren’t enough to satiate the feeling that I could (and should?) be doing something more.
This is despite the fact that I’m in a loving relationship, with a good career, wonderful families, a happy dog, terrific friends, etc. etc. My life is great! Yet I still pine for more.
Ugh. Why? Why am I this goblin, gobblin’ life?
To answer, lets jump from the Ancient Greeks to the original Buddhists. According to PBS:
In Buddhism, desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering. By desire, Buddhists refer to craving pleasure, material goods, and immortality, all of which are wants that can never be satisfied. As a result, desiring them can only bring suffering. Ignorance, in comparison, relates to not seeing the world as it actually is.
The desire for more, according to Buddha, can never be satisfied! And this brings us to the so-called “hedonic treadmill,” a pillar of frugalism and the FIRE movement.
The hedonic treadmill, also called hedonic adaptation, describes the tendency of humans to seek pleasure, then adapt to that pleasure, thereby maintaining a stable level of happiness.
You get new shoes and feel happy. But then you get used to the shoes and your happiness resets to prior levels. While the real treadmill wears your shoes down, the hedonic treadmill wears down the pleasure they bring.
Now substitute everything else in life for the shoes. A new house. A new car. A new hobby. Searching for happiness in this manner is like running on a (hedonic) treadmill. You can try, try, try, but you won’t actually get anywhere. You’ll be working hard but standing still.
And you won’t be running in place, per se. You’ll be spending money in place. You’ll spend more, more, more, and won’t feel any better for it. That’s a recipe for financial hardship.
Contentment is a personal finance topic.
Is my salary enough? Is my car enough? Is my house enough? All legitimate questions that most of us ask at one time or another.
I’d respond: why are you asking?
For example, let’s look at the house question…
- Are you worried that your family is simply outgrowing the space you have?
- Or does your house feel small compared to that of your friends, neighbors, or coworkers?
The first question has a tangible end point. The solution is within reach. Buy a house to meet your family’s needs. Unless your family grows infinitely (are you that kind of hedonist?!), you can find a house to address your concerns. This question isn’t a treadmill, but a well-defined trail from Point A to B. It’s more of a need, less of a want.
But the second question…I’m not sure it has a tangible end point. Much like “there’s always a bigger fish,” there’s always a bigger house. It’s a want, not a need. If you’re comparing your house to others, you have end points of:
- Build the best house in the world
- Or feel inferior to other houses
So you’ll always be inferior, a mere fishstick next to a great white shark.
The solution, therefore, is to train yourself to not compare. Comparison truly is the thief of joy.
This learning curve is steep. Our Western culture (and its bent on materialism) has bombarded us with urges to compare. Just check out the bumper stickers next time you drive…
But we have to learn, hard as it might be, not to assign our self-worth based on comparisons. Your house, your car, or your dog’s status at the kennel club do not make you a superior (or inferior) person.
Here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.David Foster Wallace
What I Want, and Why I Want It…
So here’s an exercise you can start practicing:
- Write down what you want.
- Write down why you want it.
- Write down why it’ll make you happy.
- Write down the date.
Rinse and repeat every week (or month, or quarter). Start tracking your desire.
And when enough time has elapsed, track your happiness too.
You’ll start to collect real data from a real, past versions of you. And that data will show if you’re struggling on the hedonic treadmill.
Are your desires based on comparisons to others? Or based on real, material needs in your life?
Did your desires turn into action? And did that action actually lead to more happiness? Or did it lead to dissatisfaction and more desire?
Did your happiness persist? Or was it fleeting? Did you hedonically adapt?
Humans have struggled with this stuff forever. The Cyrenaics tried to figure it out 2400 years ago. And Buddha had them beat by about 150 years. Seeking contentment is part of the human condition.
In fact, this discontent is probably a simple evolutionary side-effect. Who is more likely to survive? The animal content to sit on his butt, or the animal constantly seeking more, more, more?
While desire-seeking might be natural (or at least natural selection), most of you are beyond your ape-on-the-savannah days, and no longer need the more, more, more to survive.
It doesn’t take a sensual hedonist to remind you, “eat, drink, and be merry…for tomorrow we die.“
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