“Philosophers tell you, that pleasure is contrary to happiness.” – Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.
Perhaps when you were reading the last post on physical pleasure as a possible source for meaning in life, you thought that is not the kind of pleasure that should be seriously considered. We take up today on whether alternate forms of pleasure can instill meaning in life.
In the course of life, all of us have a multitude of opportunities to experience non-physical pleasure – elation, feelings of accomplishment, and intense excitement. In rough order of increasing depth, some examples include.
1. Acquiring a desired material good – for example a beautiful home or luxury automobile,
2. Completing an onerous task – finishing a Marathon or a long novel such as War and Peace,
3. Winning the lottery or achieving financial success,
4. Acquiring a desired skill – for example, mastering the piano,
5 .Creating a great work –such as a museum quality painting or prize winning poem,
6. Becoming famous – for example politically or as a performer,
7. Making a great discovery – a valuable invention, or a scientific breakthrough,
8. Falling in love,
9. Having children
Clearly most if not all people will experience the pleasure of one and more likely several of these events. Can they be the instruments of a meaningful life? The answer is maybe, but there are several major pitfalls. As in the case of physical pleasure, most of these give only temporary satisfaction. Several, including the acquisition of material goods and completion of a task, offer particularly brief elation. Some, such as wealth, are instrumental to future goods, rather than good in themselves. Others such as fame are highly dependent on the approval of others and thus suspect. Most are diminished if unethical behavior is involved; for example wealth through theft or the fame (infamy) of the tyrant. Falling in love imparts immeasurable quality to life, but is typically fragile and impermanent. Having children likely brings the most predictable joy to life of any of these, but that joy fluctuates and eventually feels incomplete.
We know from the experience of others how elusive meaning and happiness can be despite attaining such non-physical pleasures. There are countless examples of unhappy celebrities, including ones who commit suicide. We know of lottery winners and the super-wealthy who experienced bad outcomes. The high number of divorces and the persistence of child abuse attests to the tenuous hope of meaning from love, marriage, and offspring.
As in the case of physical pleasure, the seeking of continuous non-physical pleasure seems a precarious strategy prone to disappointment. Still non-physical pleasure seems to be an undeniable component of the meaningful life. Next time we look for a more comprehensive foundation for the meaningful life.