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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