Sustainable Hedonism: Paradox or Pathway?

Originally published on the degrowth platform, 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.

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