Happiness is for hedonists

The cowboy dances in front of the stage at the Third Street Blues Bar in Reno as the Colin Ross Band performs song after song about heartbreak and loss. Alvin, an older gentleman, wears a black hat and a western shirt tucked into Wranglers secured with a large ornate belt buckle. He sways his shoulders and waves tattooed arms to the music.

Then he sits, sips beer and whiskey and pulls out an unfiltered Pall Mall. He smokes it down to a tiny pinch between thumb and forefinger—the only digits left on his right hand.

I don’t catch Alvin’s last name. Between songs, he tells me he’s a retired welder from Oklahoma City. He praises the music. In this moment, he seems delighted to smoke, drink and absorb melody and rhythm.

He stands to dance again.

The bar isn’t exactly full at 11 p.m. on a Thursday night. But Alvin gives us a reason to smile.

An evangelical minister once informed me that “God doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your happiness.”

Perhaps he was having a bad day.

We’d been talking about heaven—and how he explained it to the faithful. He said that true believers shouldn’t worry about happiness, which he argued was situational, but they should anticipate an afterlife jam-packed with eternal joy—a state of bliss provoked by an indescribable religious experience.

I went home and looked the words up, finding that the words are synonyms. Happiness is “pleasure, contentment, joy.” And joy is “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying.”

I chewed on this a bit. If this spiritual leader were right and a personal, loving God wasn’t concerned about an individual’s temporal happiness, then who would be?

In the mid-1800s, economists experimented with ways to measure happiness, according to a Dec. 23 article in the Economist. They believed that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain drive all human behavior, so calculations were sought to tally good feelings minus bad. The trend dissolved, though, and economists in the ensuing 100-plus years observed outward behavior and not inner feelings.

Recently, the Economist reports, scientists known as “hedonimetrists” have reinvigorated happiness research. Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton believes that, when asked, people can accurately gauge (on a scale of one to 10) how happy they are at a given moment. Studies have ensued.

What is learned about happiness?

End results matter, as does perception. Not surprisingly, people repeat experiences that seemed pleasurable. Sadly, those with poor memories can end up repeating the wrong things.

Experiences are recommended over commodities, “pastimes over knickknacks, doing over having.” Rich people are happier than poor people. And we greatly enjoy out-doing our peers, a competition that leads some to slave away at less than enjoyable tasks.

Pursuit of pleasure can be complicated. I was raised to sacrifice my needs on behalf of family harmony, business success, world peace, etc. My reward for martyrdom: disgruntled angst when my amazing selflessness went unappreciated.

It’s a habit worth breaking. In 2007, I plan to pursue mindful hedonism by doing what makes me happy while not causing injury to self or others. Sounds tricky—and sublime. I might take a cue from Alvin and dance my way through the blues.

Greg Graffin of the punk band Bad Religion talks about his naturalist beliefs—that this world is all we can know—in Wired magazine’s “The New Atheism.” Graffin, who has a Ph.D. from Cornell University, advises, “There is only this life. So live wonderfully and meaningfully.”