Hedonism and eudaemonism, happiness and pleasure: the great confusion

- through Francois Leclercq

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A common mistake is to confuse pleasure with happiness. Pleasure, says the Hindu proverb, "is only the shadow of happiness." It is directly caused by pleasurable sensory, aesthetic or intellectual stimuli. The evanescent experience of pleasure, hedonism, depends on circumstances, places and privileged moments. His nature is unstable and the feeling he inspires quickly becomes neutral, even unpleasant. Similarly, its repetition often leads to its dullness, even to disgust. “Going into this pastry shop, writes Albert Cohen, and eating cakes? No, this happiness didn't last, it ended as soon as we finished the cakes. You should be able to eat cake all the time, eat to death. Without going to death, ten cakes later, nausea is at the rendezvous.

Pleasure is exhausted as we enjoy it, like a burning candle. It is almost always linked to an action and leads to weariness, by the simple fact of its repetition. Listening with delight to a Bach prelude requires an effort of attention which, however small, cannot be maintained forever. After a while, listening loses its charm. Imposed for days on end, it would become a torture.

Furthermore, pleasure is an individual experience, hedonism is essentially self-centered, which is why it can easily be associated with egocentrism and come into conflict with the well-being of others. We can experience pleasure at the expense of others, but we cannot derive happiness from it. hedonism can be combined with wickedness, violence, pride, greed and other mental states incompatible with true happiness. “Pleasure is the happiness of fools, happiness is the pleasure of the wise », wrote Barbey d'Aurevilly.

Some take pleasure in revenge, in torturing other human beings, in rejoicing in the ruin of a competitor. A burglar rejoices while contemplating the hoard and the spectator of a bullfight is inflamed by witnessing the killing of a bull. These pleasures, these states of temporary, sometimes morbid exaltation, just like the moments of positive euphoria, have little to do with happiness considered as a way of being.

Pleasure-seeking can go hand in hand with obsession, greed, worry, and ultimately disenchantment. More often than not, pleasure does not fulfill its promise, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns puts it:

“Pleasures are like poppies,
Barely seized, already destroyed;
To snowflakes falling on a river,
White flashes forever vanished.
And yet, we often prefer pleasure and its sequels of satiety to the gratification of lasting well-being. »

Well-being comes from within

Unlike pleasure, happiness, or more precisely “well-being” is born from within. If he can be influenced by circumstances, he is not subject to them. Far from transforming into its opposite, it endures and grows as we experience it. It engenders a feeling of fullness.

If pleasure corresponds to hedonism, happiness corresponds to eudaemonism. In ancient Greek, “eudaimonia” evokes the notion of accomplishment, plenitude, fulfillment over time. In Buddhism, “sukha” corresponds to a particularly accomplished way of being, rooted in wisdom and benevolence.

Eudaimonia and sukha are not linked to action, they reflect a way of being resulting from a deep emotional balance, itself resulting from an understanding of the functioning of the mind. While ordinary pleasures occur on contact with pleasurable objects and end as soon as the contact ceases, eudaimonia is felt as long as we remain in tune with our inner nature. Its components are inner freedom, serenity, fortitude and altruistic love, an altruism that radiates outward instead of being self-centered.

“Pleasure, different from happiness by nature, is therefore not its enemy. »

This distinction between pleasure and happiness does not imply that one should abstain from seeking pleasant sensations. There is no reason to deprive oneself of the sight of a magnificent landscape, of a delicious taste, of the scent of a rose, of the sweetness of a caress or of a melodious sound, as long as they do not alienate us. In the words of the XNUMXth century Indian Buddhist sage Tilopa: “It is not the things that bind you, but your attachment to things”. Pleasures only become obstacles when they upset the balance of the mind and lead to an obsession with enjoyment or an aversion to what thwarts them. So they directly oppose the eudaimonia experience.

“Pleasure may be based on illusion, but happiness is based on truth. »

Pleasure, different from happiness by nature, is therefore not its enemy. It all depends on how it is experienced. If it hinders inner freedom, it hinders happiness; lived with perfect interior freedom, it adorns it without obscuring it. A pleasant sensory experience, whether visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory or gustatory, will only go against happiness if it is tinged with attachment and generates thirst and dependence. Pleasure becomes suspect as soon as it engenders the insatiable need for its repetition.

On the other hand, lived perfectly in the present moment, like a bird passing through the sky without leaving a trace, it does not trigger any of the mechanisms of obsession, subjection, fatigue and disillusion, which usually accompany fixation. on the pleasures of the senses. Non-attachment is not a rejection, but a freedom that prevails when we stop clinging to the very causes of suffering. In a state of inner peace, of lucid knowledge of how our mind works, a pleasure that does not obscure sukha is therefore neither essential nor dreadful.

According to Chamfort, “pleasure may be based on illusion, but happiness is based on truth”. Stendhal, meanwhile, wrote: "All misfortune comes only from error and all happiness is procured for us by the truth". Knowledge of the truth is therefore a fundamental component of sukha. Isn't remaining in adequacy with the truth one of the primary qualities of wisdom?

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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