The True Meaning of Hedonism: A Philosophical Perspective

Hedonism“If it feels good, do it. You only live once.”

Hedonists are always up for a good time and believe the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain is the highest good.

However, it’s obvious that this simple definition of hedonism has a cost. Putting personal pleasure over your responsibilities to others is not only selfish, but it may be self-destructive in the long term. It certainly sidelines other sources of meaning in life.

This article explores the philosophical meaning of hedonism and its various branches that offer more nuanced perspectives on enjoyment than the simple pursuit of pleasure at any cost.

We also explore hedonism in the context of positive psychology, “the good life,” and meaningful, values-driven living. Read on to find out more.

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The Meaning of Hedonism

The term “hedonism” is derived from the ancient Greek for “pleasure” (Weijers, 2011). However, there are multiple variants of hedonism in philosophy that are explored in this article.

For example, motivational hedonism claims that human behavior is primarily driven by the avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure (Moore, 2019).

Meanwhile, ethical hedonism asserts that pleasure is the highest human value, and pain is valueless. This idea led to the development of utilitarianism, a theory of ethical decision-making that determines what is good and right according to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people (Driver, 2022). Utilitarianism underpins the principles of modern democracy (Riley, 1990).

As Jeremy Bentham (1789, Chapter 1) stated in this famous quote from his book An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne.”

From this very simple summary, it’s clear that there is much more to hedonism from a philosophical perspective than self-indulgent pleasure. The next section explores the philosophical foundations of hedonism and offers examples of different perspectives.

The Philosophy of Hedonism and Examples

Philosophy of hedonismAs explained above, broadly speaking, hedonists would claim that pleasure and the avoidance of pain determine the morality of an action.

This could lead to self-indulgence in the pleasures of the senses, but it would also include any intrinsically valuable experience, like creative pursuits such as making music or the enjoyment of learning through reading books.

However, from a philosophical perspective, hedonism is a type of consequentialism, an ethical theory that argues that the morality of human behavior can be judged according to its consequences (Moore, 2019). This hedonism is more nuanced and has resulted in a range of “hedonisms” as listed below, with examples.

Normative hedonism claims that the pursuit of pleasure is humankind’s primary reason for living (Tiberius & Hall, 2010). Normative hedonism prioritizes short-term pleasure or gain over obligation or duty and often rationalizes these actions with a “you only live once” mentality.

An obvious example would be drinking alcohol or using drugs for pleasure regardless of the long-term potentially painful consequences, such as addiction and related health, social, and financial problems.

However, most socially successful adults exercise restraint in the pursuit of pleasure and discipline themselves to derive more sustainable benefits in the longer term. This is summed up in the common phrase “no pain, no gain,” the antithesis to hedonism.

Next, motivational hedonism claims that people are primarily motivated by the promise of pleasure and the avoidance of pain (Moore, 2019). This is often termed “psychological hedonism” and underpins Freudian theory (Daley, 1967) and theories of moral Darwinism (Wiker, 2002). The avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure is explanatory of all human behavior. Motivational hedonists would claim this is human nature.

However, critics claim motivational hedonism overlooks other factors that also drive decision-making, such as fairness, generosity, and authenticity. This is refuted by arguing that although agents may behave in ways that are not immediately pleasurable, upholding truth can help avoid the pain of guilt or being caught lying. Therefore, psychological hedonism holds.

Egotistical hedonism argues that individuals should pursue whatever contributes most to their own pleasure after subtracting any pain caused (Weijers, 2011). An example would be a drug addict stealing money for their next fix if the resulting pleasure outweighed any moral discomfort experienced through theft.

Finally, altruistic hedonism argues that maximizing the pleasure of humankind as a whole determines the morality of an action (Cialdini & Kenrick, 1976). An example of an altruistic hedonist would be a philanthropic billionaire donating their fortune to a cause that maximized the pleasure of the greatest number of people. The billionaire could then revel in being admired for their altruism.

However, the problem with hedonism of all kinds from a philosophical perspective is that it ignores the role of other values in determining moral choices, such as freedom, truth, and justice, when deciding what is right and wrong (Pradhan, 2015).

A useful discussion and summary of the philosophical roots and practice of hedonism are provided in the video below.

Hedonism: the pursuit of happiness - Aperture

What Is Hedonistic Nihilism?

Nihilism provides the philosophical foundation for adopting an egoistic, hedonistic lifestyle (Doomen, 2012). Nihilism proposes that all values are arbitrary, material phenomena are impermanent, and life is therefore meaningless (Doomen, 2012).

Nihilism itself has various strands that can be traced back to the advent of the scientific revolution and the demolition of the authority of religion in the West (Pratt, 2001).

The video below describes the evolution of nihilism, from its origins in Russian literature, its exploration in 20th-century Continental philosophy, and its expression in postmodern relativism today.

Nihilism: the belief in nothing - Aperture

So, what does nihilism have to do with hedonism? What is hedonistic nihilism? If life is inherently meaningless, and as you only live once, the hedonistic nihilist believes you might as well enjoy your life to the maximum. It doesn’t matter how your pursuit of personal pleasure affects others or whether it shortens your life, as life has no inherent value (Pratt, 2001).

Pursuing the “good life” as ethical and meaningful has no meaning for the hedonistic nihilist (Doomen, 2012). For a hedonistic nihilist, their best life would be characterized by the maximization of personal pleasure regardless of the risk, until life ends.

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A Look at Hedonism vs. Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is sometimes called “universalistic hedonism” because for utilitarians, the morality of an action is established according to its capacity to deliver the greatest happiness (the primary value) to the greatest number of people (Driver, 2022).

In other words, an action is virtuous and moral if it results in more pleasure than pain for the majority. As stated above, utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory because the morality of an action is determined by its consequences.

“An act is morally right if and only if, and because, it produces at least as much pleasure minus pain as any alternative act available to the agent” (Rosenqvist, 2020, p. 2).

For a bite-size summary of utilitarianism, view this video:

Philosophy - ethics: utilitarianism part 1

However, most forms of hedonism are not concerned with the happiness of others, but with the pursuit of individual pleasure. We all know that one person’s idea of pleasure or happiness may vary a great deal from another’s.

To give some examples, masochists enjoy pain, some athletes get high on extreme sports that are highly dangerous, and some people find joy and peace in extended solitude in nature. Meanwhile, others find pain repugnant, physical risks frightening, and solitude lonely.

While these differences do not matter for hedonists, as the value of an experience is accrued according to individual pleasure, the diversity of sources of pleasure is a problem for utilitarianism. Therefore, when utilitarianism is applied to decide a course of action, there will always be some that suffer for the so-called “greater good” (Kahane et al., 2014). This distinguishes it sharply from egoistic hedonism.

Discussing Hedonism vs. Epicureanism

Epicurus was a philosopher living in ancient Greece from 341 to 270 BCE (Konstan, 2022). His ideas were embraced in a network of communities that taught and practiced his philosophy. Members lived a life of simple pleasures supported by fraternal relationships and surrounded by nature.

He was not an advocate of self-indulgence in pleasures of the senses, as is commonly claimed, because he understood these as unnatural and vain pleasures that had a painful cost – for oneself and others (Mitsis, 1988).

Epicurus defined the good life as the attainment of “ataraxia,” a state of contentment derived from the relative absence of all forms of pain (O’Keefe, 2010). The lifestyle he recommended aimed at achieving peace of mind.

Today, the simple living movement would be one example of an Epicurean lifestyle based on the enjoyment of sustainable, natural pleasures in the company of friends and aligned to the conservation of nature.

Epicureanism is a form of hedonism that upholds eudaemonism — a kind of middle way between egoistic hedonism and stoicism (O’Keefe, 2010). The video below presents a fascinating exploration of Epicureanism in more detail.

The philosopher of pleasure | Epicurus

Differences Between Stoicism & Hedonism

Stoicism involves focusing our efforts on the things we can control and learning to accept the things we can’t. You may have seen the serenity prayer that, in part, reads:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Debates continue about who wrote this in the early 1930s (Shapiro, 2014); however, the Stoics of Ancient Greece were preaching a similar outlook 2000 years previously (Durand et al., 2023). Stoics understand that suffering is caused by our struggle with unpleasant and painful experiences and events that we cannot control.

The most important difference between stoicism and hedonism is the role of pleasure. For the Stoics, pleasure is not a value, it’s neither “good” nor “bad,” but a matter of indifference. Instead, the ability to control how you respond to what happens by exercising the four primary virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom leads to a life well lived (Anna, 1993).

Therefore, living the good life involves accepting inevitable difficulties, losses, and traumas that occur, while concentrating on those things we can change to improve our lot in life. While the hedonist’s objective is the maximization of pleasure, the Stoic cultivates equanimity as a source of inner freedom (Graver, 2007).

For a bite-sized practical explanation, see the Daily Stoic’s “Stoicism Explained in 3 Minutes” video below.

Stoicism explained in 3 minutes - Daily Stoic

These four primary virtues comprise four of the six classes of character strengths in the Virtues In Action strength classification system today. Strengths are one of the main pillars of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) and are explored further in our extensive collection of strengths and virtues articles.

Understanding the Paradox of Hedonism

Paradox of hedonismThe paradox of hedonism points at a conundrum we have all witnessed or experienced directly as citizens of a consumer-driven culture.

The problem with pleasure seeking, or hedonism, is that the more pleasure you experience, the more accustomed you become to that level of pleasure and the less pleasurable it becomes. You want and even need more sources of pleasure to achieve the same level of enjoyment or “high” (Timmerman, 2005).

This attachment to pleasure and avoidance of pain is similar to addiction and eventually leads to a miserable existence characterized by endless craving. In this way, endless pleasure seeking is likely to result in an inner vacuum that can never be filled. This is sometimes called the pleasure paradox (Zerwas & Ford, 2021). It means the more we pursue pleasure as an end in itself, the less likely we are to experience it.

Now let’s explore the role of hedonism in positive psychology, the science of human flourishing, and the good life.

Hedonism, Happiness & Positive Psychology

Positive psychologists developed indicators of subjective wellbeing to measure human happiness, which is then explained using hedonic and eudaimonic theories of human flourishing (Huta & Ryan, 2010). You can read more about the roots of positive psychology in the science of wellbeing in this article about the founding fathers of positive psychology.

Hedonic theories explain happiness in terms of maximizing pleasure, while eudaimonic theories explain happiness as an outcome of virtue and meaning. Our blog has a series of science-based articles on these themes for you to explore further.

According to positive psychology, sources of happiness can be both hedonic and eudaimonic. Given the choice, would you opt for a life of continuous pleasure?

The video below depicts the thought experiment devised by philosopher Robert Nozick (1974) that invites participants to plug into an “experience machine” and trade in a life of ups and downs for a life of continuous pleasure. However, there’s a price: A life of continuous pleasure entails a loss of contact with reality. See more below.

Would you opt for a life with no pain?

This experiment shows that for most people, some experiences have an intrinsic value that overrides pleasure, most obviously truth and authenticity, in this example.

However, research has demonstrated that a life devoid of hedonic sources of pleasure is also experienced as meaningless (Baumeister et al., 2012). This shows that for most human beings, a mixture of hedonic and eudaimonic sources of happiness are needed to live a good life.

Most positive psychology research has found that human flourishing is achieved by living in accordance with our most deeply held values (Seligman, 2002). Our values point toward behavior that we consider virtuous. Therefore, a fulfilling life is characterized by eudaimonic contentment and satisfaction more than a hedonic indulgence in an endless string of pleasures.

However, research indicates that a fulfilling life will also yield some types of hedonic pleasures — so it’s a win-win when we make decisions and life choices in line with our values (Huta & Ryan, 2010).

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A Take-Home Message

The word hedonism is often associated with indulgence in the pleasures of the senses to the exclusion of other types of enjoyment. However, different philosophical perspectives on hedonism have informed ideas in ethics, governance, and the psychology of motivation. While a life devoid of pleasure would be experienced as meaningless, it isn’t only pleasure that invests life with a sense of meaning.

Values steer us through life in the pursuit of meaning and provide a sense of deep fulfillment. This fulfillment is in itself pleasurable but not in the sensual way associated with hedonism.

Living life in line with our values provides eudaimonic pleasure, the reward of a life worth living. The pursuit of hedonistic pleasures quickly robs life of meaning in the absence of eudaimonic pleasure based on virtues like courage, justice, authenticity, and reason. Both sources of pleasure are needed to live “the good life.”

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Frequently Asked Questions

Synonyms for hedonism are pleasure seeking, self-indulgence, decadence, sensualism, epicureanism, self-gratification, high living, excess, extravagance, luxury, and overindulgence. Hedonists are often called party people.

The Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (1862/2009) coined the term “nihilist” in his novel Fathers and Sons through his character “Bazarov the nihilist.” The nihilists of the 1860s and 70s were regarded as unruly, unkempt men who rebelled against tradition and social order. Strictly speaking, nihilism is not a branch of philosophy, but more of a literary revolutionary movement.

For the Stoics, wealth is unnecessary for living well. While material possessions might bring comfort and pleasure in the short term, the pursuit of luxury is likely to hinder living a virtuous life.

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