Sustainable Hedonism: Paradox or Pathway? – Blog post on the degrowth platform

Originally published on 27th January 2022:

The notion of sustainable hedonism appears at first to be a provocation. Is it a paradox? Is it just more greenwashing nonsense? It is meant to puzzle, to perplex, and to propel. Sustainable Hedonism: A Thriving Life that Does Not Cost the Earth is a call to reflect on our beliefs and actions related to pleasure, joy and ecological sustainability.  How joyful is our life? How can we reconcile our natural quest for joy with our sense of responsibility and knowledge of the suffering in the world? How can we create a good life individually and collectively given the urgent call to reduce the use of natural resources? How can we end our addiction to GDP growth, income growth and the growth of consumption, given our instinctive drive for progress and fulfilment in our lives?

Limits to doing our best

While the ultimate solution to the current systemic crisis is a systemic transformation, as individuals we each need to consider existentially how we can best live our lives. Our individual actions may not matter that much in the context of global resource use, CO2 emissions, and corporate profits, but they matter infinitely in our own metrics, and they affect others. We are co-creators of this world, and through our actions we create not only our external world, but also our inner world, our well-being.

Probably, we all like to think that we have a conscious attitude related to our consumption, our work, our relationships: we are doing our best. Yet we sometimes fail. Our efforts seem futile. We may not know what is good for us. Or we may not do what is good for us. Our limitations become obvious when our world shatters, when our strategies fail, or when we undergo a crisis. We suffer and feel powerless. This could be the time to question our attitudes, visions and beliefs related to success, thriving and happiness, and especially how we go about seeking these. We may be driven by inner forces – internalized at an earlier or later stage of life from our families, community, or culture – that actually hinder and sabotage us from living a happy life. We may have an Overachiever, an Orphan or a Tyrant part living in us; a framework developed in the book. We may be standing in our own way.

Hedonism with inner freedom

Many of us may feel that we need more pleasure, not less, in our lives. Yet it is also clear how the search for pleasure can fail. We may suffer if our desires are not met. And we may suffer when they are met, too. Examples include buyer’s let-down after impulsive shopping, overspending, overweight, overdosing, hangovers or withdrawal symptoms. Unaware and unrestrained pleasure-seeking, often in the form of dependency or addiction, takes a toll on our mental and physical health as well as our relationships. On a collective level, unrestrained hedonism causes damage to others, to the Earth and endangers our future. This calls us to adjust our notion of hedonism. We need to refine and cultivate our strategies for pleasure-seeking.

Ancient hedonist philosophers can inspire us to be conscious hedonists, enjoying fully what life provides without becoming enslaved to our desires. It is a process, a practice, a path of inner freedom. Cravings, impulses are scrutinized, “vain and empty” desires – to quote the philosopher Epicurus – are spotted. Aristotle calls for a middle way with respect to pleasures, between the extremes of painful asceticism and harmful self-indulgence. Gaining self-mastery is the key. Self-mastery is different from self-denial: in self-mastery, not obeying impulses and temptations does not hurt any more. There is evidence from modern scientific research to back this up. A series of studies found that people opting for minimalist lifestyles, and making ’green’ adjustments, do not suffer – as some theorists may expect – and even experience higher well-being than more conventionally hedonistic fellow citizens. The key here is that these actions are based on voluntary choice and driven by non-materialist values. While a happy life and an ecologically sustainable life are compatible, as the evidence suggests, it remains a challenge how to inspire such transformations amongst those who have extrinsic life aspirations (e.g. money, image and status).

The way to a flourishing life

Pleasure, however, is not the highest good in life. Rather, it is happiness or “flourishing life”, according to Aristotle. The philosopher holds that happiness is not simply a gift of the gods, the result of lucky external constellations (like fame, wealth or meeting the perfect partner), but rather the result of conscious action. We are rewarded by happiness if we cultivate our “virtues” persistently. The ancient reminder of the importance of perseverance and commitment seems to be particularly relevant in our fast and changing world. Positive psychology has highlighted many practices for increasing mental well-being, including focusing on character strengths, as well as gratitude, physical exercise and spiritual practices, just to name a few. The notion of flourishing life, however, has a clear added value, in my view.

Flourishing life is relational. Friendships play a key role in one’s own development (our best friend is a mirror to us) and the community is the ultimate benchmark of our own progress, holds Aristotle. Our personal happiness is intertwined with those who are close to us, and our wider community, as well. Yet, we can actively do our part. The ancient virtues of temperance, courage, good temper, as well as practical wisdom can bring many fruits today: joy, inner peace, greater control of one’s attention, time and money, autonomy, the ability to distance oneself from consumerism, self-care, conscious consumption, improved ability to cooperate and handle conflicts, engagement in community actions, and activism.

The actions required for a flourishing life are unique and personal, meaning it is a philosophical framework that respects our freedom and our differences, while also guiding us, showing a direction which is worth pursuing. A flourishing life is a life where we can be autonomous and creative beings, while at the same time meeting our deepest needs for belonging as well, to love and be loved, to respect and to be respected. This is a dynamic quest and our particular life situation may call for ever changing ways of reconciling our need for autonomy and for belonging, but it is a worthy quest for a full life. And we can learn and cultivate the skills for doing so.

The quest for a flourishing life invites us to reflect on the core values of our lives. In my research, I found two striking facts. (1) There are three main core values that are shared universally across cultures and countries: self-direction (autonomy), benevolence (mature love), and universalism (solidarity and love of nature). It seems, however, that these remain aspirations, as our world is ridden with injustice, conflicts, wars and the destruction of natural beauty. (2) Our current mainstream economic model, with its assumptions around human nature, being fully rational, egoist, competitive and aiming to maximize pleasure, seems to be in stark contrast with the three universal core values above. Our current economic system does not support the realization of the values we strive for, so many people may opt for conflicting life strategies to cope and to be “successful”.  Reminding ourselves and each other of what matters truly can give us a solid foundation for our long-term strivings.

Becoming better hedonists

We can become better hedonists and more virtuous at the same time. Responsible action and compassion for the suffering in the world can be an inherent part of our lives, and yet, they do not need to freeze us or separate us from our potential to enjoy our lives. We can take conscious action for our own happiness. Not in the manner of forced positivity or “happiness greed”, trying to exclude unpleasant feelings or experiences, but rather we can learn and re-learn how to live joyfully. In particular, we can develop our autonomy, our creativity, and our skills necessary for belonging, to experience supportive relationships. These three core psychological needs need to be fulfilled for a flourishing life, according to the self-determination theory.

Conscious hedonism can inspire us to make our ordinary experiences extraordinary. The key is our attention, our presence and the refinement of our senses. Our routine actions can turn into delicate enjoyments, as simple as drinking a glass of water. The profound can turn sacred. As discourses of degrowth contend, ecologically responsible behaviour does not need to be painful, but can be an inherent part of a happy and flourishing life. Conscious hedonism is a key element of a thriving life that does not cost the Earth.

After COVID-19: A time for conscious hedonism?


Originally published by Bristol University Press on their Transforming Society blog.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a sense of loss of control, and for many people it has been a painful experience. Our routines, lifestyle choices and all that we have so far taken for granted have suddenly been shattered and questioned. The world around us has shrunk, and existing structures have crumbled. Can it become a chance for a conscious readjustment of our lives?

We may have gained new insights. Social features like solidarity have now become visible and crucial. On a personal level, mental wellbeing has become precious. Autonomy, flexibility and the ability to cohabit and collaborate cordially have been essential for coping. Our experiences, either benefiting from these traits or missing them, could provide a basis for our future aspirations. What is the world we want to sustain and create with our efforts? What is ‘success’ for us? Can we enjoy life in the midst of a crisis-ridden world?

Is ‘conscious hedonism’ feasible?

Caricatures of hedonism

A frequent contemporary understanding of hedonism is like a caricature to me: a greedy, bulky figure sitting in front of a messy table eating from all the plates, including those of the neighbours, farting and burping. Irritating or perhaps amusing to some, but who would want to dine with this character? The figure is undoubtedly egocentric, has no self-restraint and is enslaved to impulses (and those of the powerful advertising industry), and as a result, drowning in objects, in body mass, and ultimately devouring the planet’s resources. A perhaps more appealing image is that of the global rich: drinking a cocktail on a private jet while flying between luxurious properties. It is actually a tiny wealthy global elite that is responsible for a sizeable share of global emissions. Do we regard this group as role models or not?

A dissimilar image of a hedonist is that of a refined wine connoisseur, holding up a glass of excellent wine, observing its colour, its movement in the glass and its smell before slowly tasting and savouring the noble liquid. This latter image comes closest to the original ancient Greek concept of hedonism. It is the type of hedonism that could provide us with much inspiration nowadays in our quest for a joyful life that is not harmful.

The good practice of hedonism

Ancient Greek hedonists were masters of enjoying life, and regarded pleasure to be the most precious thing in life. Perhaps less known is their call for inner independence and an endeavour not to be enslaved to one’s desires. Epicure suggested avoiding fairs in order to prevent unnecessary desires, to prevent temptation at all. This has a lot in common with contemporary minimalist lifestyles, which aspire to be restrained in terms of material possessions, but abundant in terms of enjoying life.

Aristotle called for self-mastery, a middle way, avoiding the extremes of asceticism or indulgence. The middle way was also a key teaching of the Buddha. Buddha personally explored and experienced the extremes and it was in the middle where he ultimately found enlightenment.

Seeking maximum pleasure, or utility-maximisation as it’s referred to in economic models on human behaviour, is not an optimal life strategy for many reasons, and causes much malaise personally and collectively. But why would we want to let go of something if it is pleasing? Only for the sake of something even more precious!

According to Aristotle, pleasure is not the ultimate value in life; rather, it is happiness or ‘flourishing life’. He holds that happiness is not the gift of fate, Gods or a lucky turn of external events, but a matter of inner practice. Contemporary psychological evidence confirms that attitudes affect our wellbeing a lot more than external circumstances, although it does not deny the importance of the latter either, especially with respect to basic goods and material security. The key questions are: What do we really need in terms of external resources? What can we do in our internal adjustment to enjoy life to the fullest? In sum, what is the right strategy to become a conscious hedonist?

An experiential laboratory of a good life

Less known in this context is the importance of values – materialist values in particular. Materialist people tend to aspire for more in financial and material terms, so are more prone to excessive consumption. On the flip side, they benefit little from this, as they tend to have lower subjective wellbeing. Materialism and egoism are often related to compromised core psychological needs for autonomy, competence and belonging. They may be a strategy to fill a void that cannot be filled in this way.

A healing of these suboptimal life strategies is possible and may be not only a key to personal happiness, but also a cure for ecologically and socially harmful behaviours as well. Suboptimal life strategies are not the exclusive features of a few villains in the world; most of us may also have inner parts that sabotage our endeavours for a good life.

An inner readjustment of values and priorities will not simply happen as a result of alarming headlines or moral pressure. Rather more engaging is a friendly invitation to explore an alternative. This exploration cannot remain intellectual, but needs to be embodied, emotional and intuitive as well. It may be about existential matters, but does not need to lack a playful spirit or a friendly and curious attitude. The experiential learning enabled by the so-called ‘theatre of the soul’ can become the laboratory of a flourishing life.

It does not mean that we do not need institutional changes or incentives. But institutional change will not bring us the ‘good life for all’ if it is not intertwined with a personal and collective realignment.

We have the intellectual and practical tools available that can support us to become conscious hedonists, living an enjoyable and caring life that does not cost the Earth.

Sustainable Hedonism cover.Sustainable Hedonism by Orsolya Lelkes. Available to order on the Bristol University Press website for £17.59.

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Weaving the threads together: how the book came about?

For a long time, I lived a “double life”. Part of me was researching social justice and analysing statistics of happiness, submerged in public policy. The other part of me, kept separately, lived a life, embodied, playful and spiritual – exploring an inner journey and learning methods like coaching, psychodrama, improvisation dance, mindfulness, meditation. I felt that I had to keep them apart not to discredit myself in these circles… as they all seem to have had great reservations about the other. As my „second life” was gradually growing and I started to lead groups and to work as a coach, it became ever more difficult to maintain this divider in my life and in myself. Somehow I was blocking the natural flow of life energy in myself.

It took courage and a supportive turn of external events (the COVID19 lockdown helped) that I started to weave these fields together.

My book, Sustainable Hedonism. A Thriving Life That Does Not Cost the Earth” published by Bristol University Press in May 2021, is my major undertaking in this regard, practising my newly developed freedom. In this, I present the notion of a “good life” based on ancient Greek philosophy, modern science and existing innovative practices, such as solidarity economy and ecovillages. I also show how the use of theatre and role play can become a laboratory for a flourishing life. The book argues that we can become both “better hedonists” and “more virtuous”, and that can bring not only personal happiness, but also contribute to the healing of our collective environmental and social calamities. It concludes that existing positive practices and networks can support us in our endeavour – as we are not alone with our aspirations.

The mystery of creative life: the time for non-action

Many ethical leaders, entrepreneurs, activists, and open-hearted people feel passionate about the fate of the world, and they strive relentlessly to bring about a change they wish to see. Some may be driven by frustration with the current state of affairs, and focus on protest. Some may envision a peaceful and regenerative future, and collective creation is their driving force.  All in all, however, constant effort is exhausting, especially if someone wants to carry the whole burden of the world alone – as the Greek God Atlas. If they forget about their needs and limits, they can become “endangered species” as well.

Although we may wish to, we cannot hold our fate under control. So much suffering comes from aiming to control not only our actions, but also their consequences! A sense of failure, of not being enough, of not trying hard enough. As if we suffered from not being omnipotent.

The holiest things in life are not created by us, by our own efforts. The seed emerges from the earth, the bud becomes a flower, the fertilized egg becomes a fetus, and then baby, as the organs and cells of our bodies relentlessly work to sustain our life – it is not the outcome of our will and action. We cannot do anything but notice, witness, feel a sense of wonder, and observe the miracle.

Hence, co-creative life is not solely based on will, the urge to act, or a desire for making a difference.  Action and non-action: they belong together. Each has its own time, just as the seasons follow each other, just as a tree blossoms, bears fruit, and then drops its leaves and fells into a winter dream. We cannot urge spring with an alarm clock. A great transformation often occurs during our non-action, when we experience a different quality of existence, characterized by openness, trust, and letting go.

Tuning into this rhythm of life is a great mystery. A mystery worth exploring.

Desires and happiness: the sacred and secret cornerstones of economics (my motivation for writing a book)

Desires drive the world, say economists, without pausing to think what desires are. De gustibus non est disputandum ‒ tastes are not to be disputed ‒ recalled the Nobel Prize-winning economists Gary S. Becker and George J. Stigler in a 1977 article, on the subject of “preferences”. Consumers know what they want and that suffices, they argue, for due respect can then be given to human liberty. Let people wish freely for what they will and decide how to enjoy it. That will make them happiest, and will ensure the greatest bliss to the most people in our common world (or technically speaking, maximise utility at individual and social levels). It becomes ever clearer that this is not so for several reasons.

Many academics fail to question what the nature of desires is and are little concerned with the myriad senses of happiness. We hang out the banner of freedom and leave mankind to flounder amidst the greatest undertaking in human life. By so doing we assume the two cornerstones of the system ‒ desires and the pleasure of fulfilling them ‒ as given without delving into them thoroughly. We have chosen cornerstones of a material whose composition is unknown to us. Does this not bring blind faith into building the house of civilization?

Continue reading Desires and happiness: the sacred and secret cornerstones of economics (my motivation for writing a book)

What is your logo?

What is your logo? What is your symbol, which truly expresses who you are now?

Mine was born partly out of my name: I love to sign my letters to close friends with a simple “O”. “O”, because of its shape, showing completeness, a circle which bonds individual dots, and because of the spaciousness in the middle. I always liked to ponder the beauty of the shape and appreciated that it was given to me as my initial. It led me to the “enso” sign in Zen Buddhism. The circle is hand drawn, and the brushstroke continues in space, entering a new dimension. A circle, which is also a spiral. Complete, whole, but still somewhat irregular, truly human in its implementation. Sacred imperfection, artistic and artful, ever rising.

What is YOUR logo?