How Hedonism Harms Us

Before the last presidential election a group of liberal clergy came to me and asked me to help them in getting together a panel on social justice directed particularly toward the college age community surrounding my university. And I thought about it for a moment and responded by saying, “You know the real problem is one of moral values and hedonism. The behavior that I hear about and actually witness has much more to do with hedonism than with injustice. Why don’t you do a religious revival against hedonism?”

My liberal clergy friends sort of looked at me like I was either drunk or fallen into some new religious cult. And I thought to myself, “Maybe I’m overreacting to what I see and hear on campus. Are things really that much worse than when I was in college? After all I was no saint and neither am I one today.” At the same time, what I hear and see on my campus and across our culture is astonishing.

In a recent note to incoming freshmen at my university, the college officials assured the incoming freshmen that nearly 20 percent of the college students “Don’t drink.” A young man, who is about to start his first year at the university, who told me about this “good news,” laughed and said, “Wow, that means that more than 80 percent of students do drink, and many of them do so underage!” In other words, good luck to those who choose not to drink or do drugs when they socialize.

Okay, so I’m feeling self-righteous and little like a fuddy-duddy. Then I came across this new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences arguing that happiness, which they define as “associated with selfish taking behavior” actually leads to stress and an inflammatory response in the body. And a meaningful life, which they define as “selfless giving behavior” leads to the very opposite. More startling was that when they did their survey approximately 75 percent of their sample showed a form of happiness related to selfish behavior, with the accompanying negative symptomatic physical response. They called this the “hedonic” type, leaving just 25 percent showing what they called “eudaimonic” type, whose lives reflected greater meaning, fewer inflammatory symptoms, and less happiness but a much more healthy life overall. To quote the study:

“The terms hedonism and eudaimonism bring to mind the great philosophical debate, which has shaped Western civilization for over 2,000 years, about the nature of the good life. Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think? From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive. In the words of Carl Jung, ‘The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.’ Jung’s wisdom certainly seems to apply to our bodies, if not also to our hearts and our minds.”

Don’t you love science! This study has proven true in my own life, when I have been involved in self-giving actions, working with youth, doing service to those in need, loving my family, I have felt a deep sense of peace, and now I know that this peace is not just spiritual but in my body. The more we give to others the better we actually feel. Now it may not relate to the kind of happiness that gives one shots of adrenaline, but it does create forms of peace and well being at the cellular level.

This hit me with the whole Alex Rodriquez affair. The New York Yankee who is now under suspicion for taking drugs to enhance his baseball performance. From all the evidence he appears guilty. I remember him when he first came up as a Seattle Mariner. He was a stunning talent, full of joy, fresh and beautiful. But he went for the “big” money, first to Texas and then to the Yankees, all the while admittedly using drugs to enhance his performance. Now he stands accused, and booed by nearly everyone, a career in shambles—supported only by the lawyers that he pays so handsomely. He said the other day, “I’m fighting for my life.” And I thought, “Yes you are my friend.”

Truly, we now know that not only is a self-giving life more meaningful, but we know it’s a physical good, it is actually good for our bodies.

So, maybe just maybe, we need to set up panels on our college campuses that tell our kids hedonism is not only spiritually bankrupt but that it will ruin their bodies.


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  • Rich Lang

    I was one of those (3) liberal clergy Jim is taunting (eh talking) about — and YES his response made an impression on me. Although true that Jim ain’t no saint, he sure is smart and we all benefit from giving a listen to him.

  • Thursday1

    Well, it kind of seems like liberal morality (of both the libertarian and left wing varieties) just is narrowly focused on pain and pleasure (Haidt’s harm/care) and how those things are divided up (Haidt’s fairness/justice). Naturally, at least some people are going to really focus on getting their share. It’s really Haidt’s conservative moral foundations of loyalty, respect for authority, and purity that focus more on inherent meaning than on sensation, but I’m not sure you would like the ethical conclusions that might come out of taking those foundations seriously.

  • Lisa

    As a theologically progressive Gen X in divinity school I think about this and struggle with it almost constantly. Millennials face poor economic opportunities, changing family structure, global security concerns, and a saturation of technology, to name but a few factors, that seem to lead to a lack of meaningful belonging. I see this insecurity of place in the world as a major factor contributing to a hedonism that takes everything for oneself as often as possible for fear the opportunity will soon disappear. “Mainline” protestant churches hold no appeal for young people who have the sense that they must scramble to snatch up any sense of certainty and security for themselves, plus the worship is often truly boring. Evangelical churches, in my experience, offer just enough belonging to feel more real than Facebook but not enough to instill a sense of interdependence. These evangelical churches feed on the same habits of consumerism that retailers do. I see bits and pieces of a response to this lack of belonging and interdependence, but only existing as tiny pockets of community. I wonder how liberal churches can better respond to the changing times and new needs?

    • James Wellman

      This is a truly amazing response. You point out so well how the structural contexts, socially, economically and in terms of the church, are not conducive to communities of meaning… unfortunately, I don’t think liberal churches are offering much… other than social justice programs, and how “we” can do more for others, which is good, but what if we have no “we-ness” and our lives are rather strained and superficial, what do we do? I love my family and I intentionally love my friends and I minister to youth and i love my students and I cobble together a matrix of meaning that is deeply satisfying, but it takes a lot of work. I must say social networking is very satisfying in that I meet folks who are doing and thinking in ways that I find quite helpful. But alas, my solution is probably not yours and waiting for structures to change seems like waiting for Godot. I’m sorry I have no easy answers. Though, I think people have struggled with this dilemma always.