Should we pursue a life of pleasure or one of meaning? This question has been asked at least since Greco-Roman times, and it is perhaps best exemplified in the contrast between two of the dominant Hellenistic philosophies: Epicureanism (pleasure) vs Stoicism (meaning). (With a major caveat: since the Epicureans defined lack of pain as the highest pleasure, it has reasonably been argued that Epicureanism shouldn’t really be considered a hedonistic philosophy. Not to worry, for the purposes of this article you can substitute it with Cyrenaism.)
Modern psychologists are also very interested in the issue, referring to it as hedonia (a life of pleasure) vs eudaimonia (a meaningful life). My friend (and co-author) Greg Lopez brought to my attention a recent series of studies pertinent to the question at hand published by Katharina Bernecker and Daniela Becker in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2020) under the title: “Beyond Self-Control: Mechanisms of Hedonic Goal Pursuit and Its Relevance for Well-Being.” Let me summarize their findings, and then we’ll discuss what this may mean to you in terms of practical philosophy.
They begin by reminding us that research shows that self-control in the pursuit of long-term goals is a major component of wellbeing. So far, so good. However, chronic lack of pleasure (anhedonia), or the inability to savor pleasurable experiences, is linked to clinical disorders like depression. Makes sense.
What the researchers were interested in was the potential interference of “intrusive” thoughts about long-term goals on a person’s ability to enjoy pleasure. For example: one may set the long-term goal of a healthy diet, but this may be undermined by intrusive thoughts related to pleasurable yet unhealthy foodstuff.
So they carried out five related studies to explore various aspects of the question of hedonia vs eudaimonia. The first study simply established a necessary common measure of individual preferences in hedonic pursuit. A multivariate analysis uncovered a common factor relating variables that measured hedonic success and a second factor relating variables that measured intrusive thoughts. The two factors turned out to be strongly negatively correlated, so they could be collapsed into a single measure of hedonic capacity.
The second study aimed at finding out whether people differing in their hedonic capacity (i.e., capacity to enjoy pleasure) also experienced different degrees of wellbeing. Not at all surprisingly, people’s hedonic capacity was indeed positively correlated with wellbeing.
The third study of the series was designed to test the hypothesis that intrusive thoughts related to long-term goals interfere with hedonic pursuits. Bernecker and Becker focused on thoughts referring to work to be done or chores to be carried out and investigated how such thoughts affected the ability of subjects to relax. Again not exactly surprisingly, they found that if we think about work or chores we can’t relax. People with high hedonic capacity, however, were better at relaxing despite intrusive thoughts. The setup of this study, though, was somewhat artificial, and participants did not get to choose their hedonic goal.
To obviate to these limitations, the researchers carried out a fourth study that investigated whether hedonic capacity predicts success at hedonic goal pursuit in everyday life. The results were congruent with those of the third study: if one has a high hedonic capacity one also reports more positive hedonic experiences.
Finally, the fifth study was designed to replicate the results of the fourth one, with the variant that hedonic capacity was measured independently from hedonic experience. Once again, hedonic capacity predicted people’s momentary enjoyment in everyday life. Moreover, hedonic capacity predicted life satisfaction, albeit over a period of only 10 weeks. Importantly, self-control also was a predictor of life satisfaction and affective wellbeing.
So what did Bernecker and Becker conclude from their investigations? That people with high hedonic capacity are more successful in pursuing hedonic goals, and that this is likely because they do not experience intrusive thoughts from long-term goals. That is, thought of work or chores to be done either do not arise or do not distract them enough to get in the way of their enjoyment of pleasures. Interestingly, the authors admit that thinking about long-term goals can be a hedonic experience in its own right, which increases wellbeing and reduces anxiety.
They also write: “We want to emphasize that hedonic and long-term goals are not mutually exclusive. First, it is possible to engage in an activity for mixed reasons, the immediate pleasure associated with it and its long-term benefits. Second, people may experience immediate pleasure even while engaging in a particular activity purely for the reason of a long-term benefit (e.g., exercise, work)” (p. 12). They conclude that “a balance between long-term and hedonic goals is paramount to psychological adjustment and wellbeing” (p. 13).
When Greg brought this paper to my attention he suggested that it may represent an empirical problem for Stoicism. And since Stoics are supposed to pay attention to empirical evidence, I paid attention. But I honestly don’t see anything problematic about Bernecker and Becker’ findings.
To begin with, contra popular misconception, the Stoics have nothing at all against the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Those are, respectively, preferred and dispreferred indifferents, meaning that they may be sought (or avoided) so long as one doesn’t compromise one’s integrity. Here is Seneca:
“Let virtue lead the way and bear the standard: we shall have pleasure for all that, but we shall be her masters and controllers; she may win some concessions from us, but will not force us to do anything. On the contrary, those who have permitted pleasure to lead the van, have neither one nor the other: for they lose virtue altogether, and yet they do not possess pleasure, but are possessed by it.” (On the Happy Life, XIV)
“There is great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. The former is according to nature, the latter contrary to it. So long as they are rated by this standard, there is a great gulf between; but when it comes to a question of the virtue involved, the virtue in each case is the same, whether it comes through joy or through sorrow.” (Letter LXVI.19)
So for the Stoics pain is “against nature,” and thus needs to be avoided, while pleasure is “in accordance with nature,” and may therefore be pursued. So long as all of this is done while keeping in mind that our paramount concern should be for virtue. Seneca also says, in agreement with Bernecker and Becker, that the practice of virtue itself is a pleasure, though not the reason why we pursue virtue:
“The highest good is a mind which despises the accidents of fortune, and takes pleasure in virtue.” (On the Happy Life, IV)
Overall, therefore, I do not see any contrast, in Stoicism, between hedonia and eudaimonia, provided that we have our priorities straight and keep in mind that — should there be a conflict — eudaimonia trumps hedonia. Indeed, and this is a major distinctive characteristic of Stoicism, for a Stoic life can be worth living even if there is little or no pleasure and much pain. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and yet his time there was worth it because he was fighting for a noble cause. Stoics do not choose to find themselves in that sort of situation, and they much rather not, but — at their best — they are prepared to endure it.
There is one more reason why the studies carried out by Bernecker and Becker are not exactly applicable to discussions about the value of Stoic philosophy: they contrasted pleasures with things like work and chores. But the latter two, for a Stoic, are in the same category as pleasures: preferred or dispreferred indifferents. The only thing that is above that category, and cannot be traded for, is virtue. It is certainly understandable that thoughts of work or chores left undone may “intrude” in our enjoyment of the small pleasures of life. But thoughts of virtue will not intrude in such a way, because they are themselves pleasurable and are, at any rate, in a wholly different class.
So, by all means, in order to maintain your wellbeing do balance out hedonia and eudaimonia. But keep in mind that by the end of your life it will be the memory of meaningful things, not of small pleasures, that will make you smile while you look back at the span of your existence.