Why I Aspire To Be an Effective Hedonist

6 minute read
Bresler, Ph.D., is the Co-Founder of The Life You Can Save, an organization that curates cost-effective, high-impact nonprofits that save lives, empower livelihoods, and reduce suffering among the global poor

I doubt you think of yourself as a hedonist. But I assume that, like me, you also don’t view yourself as driven by self-sacrifice. That’s why the term “altruism” has never resonated with me, despite my connection to the effective altruist (EA) movement. As a psychologist, I don’t think altruism is a good way to understand our motivations. While few people strive to be altruistic, there is abundant evidence that people feel good when they do good, summarized in a 2017 article entitled, “7 Facts about the Science of Doing Good;” and in behavioral scientists Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton’s 2013 book, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.

I don’t like to make personal sacrifices. But I do want to behave in a manner that allows me to view myself as the kind of person that I aspire to be. Does it require some sort of alchemy to be a pleasure-seeker and a good person? I think not, That is why I aspire to be an effective hedonist.

I use the term “effective” hedonism because pure hedonism often leads to self-destruction and harm to others. We all want to do what feels good right now. Our automatic reactions are often inconsistent with what is best for us or with our core values. Fortunately, our cerebral cortex enables us to use cognition to override our instincts and socialization, and to align our behavior with our goals and values. Therefore, we can avoid dysfunctional hedonic decisions—that is, decisions that do not maximize our wellbeing.

Most of us could list all we do to seek short-term pleasure or what is expedient at the expense of what we know is good for us. Perhaps even more destructive, many of us follow life paths that do not maximize our satisfaction or values. But an effective hedonist does not see a dichotomy between feeling good and doing good. In fact, this is seen from a young age. In Joyful Toddlers and Preschoolers, parenting coach Faith Collins writes that research supports the idea that  “People'' as young as toddlers “feel both energized and grounded . . . when they are contributing to something greater than themselves.”

So, how do we become effective hedonists?

First, shed your guilt. You may think this impossible because you fear doing so will make you a bad person. But I say, “Try it; you’ll like it!” Guilt is not a long-term motivator. You may feel guilty about having that second piece of cake, getting inappropriately angry with your child, or not giving more money to charity. But does that guilt help you change? Even if it does occasionally promote positive behavior, it is corrosive, getting in the way of a pleasurable life—and eventually unhappiness interferes with doing good things.

Read More: Giving Back Is a Birthright

Another key to effective hedonism lies in becoming moreintentional. Being more intentional requires keeping one’s values front and center in your consciousness. Why? Because if we are not aware in the moment, we often rely on instinct or socialization, which causes us to veer from what is most important to us. We might get on the “hedonic treadmill,” when we pursue material pleasures beyond the point where they maximize our wellbeing. Or you try to “get ahead” by taking a job you don’t like because of the money or status. We make matters worse by working too hard at a job we shouldn’t be doing in the first place.

I have two suggestions about how to become more intentional. The first is to enhance your moment-to-moment awareness through “mindfulness meditation.” You can do this as you pursue the activities of daily living. For example, simply breathing in and out slowly while paying close attention to your breath is an easy and very useful strategy for becoming calmer and more aware of your surroundings. Focusing your attention on daily tasks—like washing the dishes, walking, listening carefully to whomever is talking—helps you learn the difference between being distracted and being aware. Awareness is a critical step on the path to intentionality.

My second suggestion is to do a regular values-clarification exercise. This involves asking: what’s most important to me? Does my current behavior help me align with my core goals? If not, what do I need to change? I urge you not to change too much at a time, but rather to strive for your “personal best.” This means setting a goal that is a stretch, but achievable. Once you achieve it, set a new one that is a little more difficult, always aiming for your “personal best.”

For me, understanding what gives me pleasure and helps me to become more like the person I aspire to be was rooted in effective giving—of using your financial resources to maximize the wellbeing of others. Altruists see giving as a moral obligation, a sacrifice for the benefit of others. As an aspiring effective hedonist, I prefer to see maximizing my giving as an opportunity to feel good and to become more the person I want to be.

I say I value the lives of other people above all else, but until recently I had done little to live that value. A core value since I was 19 has been to play a role in reducing inequality in all its forms. Yet, I was drawn into a career as a psychologist and then as a business executive in what now seems to me as an excessive focus on both status and money. Had I been more awake, more intentional, I likely would have made very different choices that not only would have been more consistent with my values, but would have also enhanced my overall wellbeing and pleasure.

I assert that we can make high impact, cost-effective philanthropy and other activities that reduce inequality relevant to many more people if we take a different approach—one that centers on personal opportunity rather than obligation. I take pleasure seriously, and living a pleasurable life and making the world a better place doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. I urge people to consider and act on the idea that actualizing the value of making the world a better place by reducing inequality does not require altruism, but rather perhaps a little bit of effective hedonism.

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