An ode to hedonism? What?!? That might seem like an unusual posting coming from a therapist, particularly in a field which usually pathologizes behavior we might consider to be too extreme. Too commonly, when we think of the word “hedonism,” we conjure up images more akin to a similar, yet different word, “debauchery,” symbolic of sexual, alcoholic, or drug excess. In other words, being out of control, unbalanced, and again, just too extreme. But when you look at the dictionary definition for hedonism, the first thing that comes up is simply, “the pursuit of pleasure,” and with no further commentary on how unbalanced or extreme that pleasure is experienced.
It is this more pure definition of hedonism, as simply meaning “pleasure” that I would now like to focus on, because far often than not, unhappiness, depression, anxiety, and sexual difficulties are more correlated with too little pleasure, rather than too much. For, far too often, when we are stuck on a negative cycle, we lose all perspective and only notice the negative. The things that trouble us, that worry us, that cause us pain and anxiety. And that negative cycle continues unabated in part precisely because we lose sight of the other areas of life that bring us pleasure.
Look at it this way. Imagine a magnet, it has two poles, one negative, the other positive. That negative pole symbolizes all the things that cause us pain. These are the things we seek to avoid. The positive pole on the other hand symbolizes all that which provides us pleasure, these are the things that we strive to reach. Put another way, if suddenly some alien came to earth and asked me to name the most important things that the alien needed to know to understand humans, I would simply say that it only needs to know two things: that humans 1) try to avoid pain, and 2) seek to experience pleasure.
This is an oversimplification, but it contains many truths. When we are too preoccupied with the avoidance of pain, it’s as if we are wearing blinders like a horse, all we see is that pain in our subsequent attempts to avoid it. Inevitably, we become stuck in avoidance behaviors. And most damning, plenty of research shows that experiential avoidance is one of the most common factors correlated to mental difficulties such as depression, anxiety, and phobias. It becomes a negative downward spiral. Pain leads to fear of pain, which leads to the avoidance of pain, which leads to paralysis and a feeling of being stuck and unable to climb out of the hole. Take a look at this article I wrote about the most common types of fear. To be able to climb out of that hole, to get out of the downward spiral, we need to be able to grab onto something. Something that will pull us out. And that something is…. you guessed it. Pleasure.
You see, without finding sources of pleasure, we are only stuck in avoidance, and we have no impetus for the forward momentum needed that would push us towards a life of more meaning. When I work with clients struggling with any form of sexual anxiety, I ask them point blank– what is it about sex that you enjoy? And often, they have no idea. Because when they are in the midst of their anxiety, the anxiety is usually all they see. On one hand, it’s important to learn skills to lessen the power of sexual anxiety, but on the other I have found that, unless the individual can make contact with what feels hedonic, sex just becomes a little less anxiety-provoking, rather than something that person is driven to do from the standpoint of pleasure.
Let’s take a look at a different situation, the example of someone struggling with performance anxiety about public speaking. What are the main reasons that person may be anxious? Well, for one, they may imagine how embarrassing it would be to mess up, how the people in the audience would internally laugh at their mistakes, how their reputation would be ruined, and so on. In other words, they catastrophize. They imagine the worst case outcome. And the more they try to think their way out of it, the worse it becomes. Sure, they may try some breathing and visualization techniques to self-soothe, and those could all help and both have value. But in the end, the individual with fears of public speaking is still stuck on focusing on what’s painful about talking in front of others.
What if we took another tack, this time keeping in mind the importance of making contact with pleasure. What if, in addition to all of the soothing techniques, this person also did some self-reflection about what is pleasurable about making the speech. Maybe there really isn’t anything pleasurable, maybe it’s an unwanted requirement for work. That would make our task of easing the anxiety much harder. But let’s assume this person actually wants to make this talk, maybe they are trying to advance their career or they feel passionate about the subject matter. In that case, if this person were my client, I would want this individual to think about what is it that they particularly enjoy about the subject, what makes them feel passionate about it? I would want the client to describe this to me in as much specific detail as possible, relishing all of the positive aspects that they hope to obtain from making the presentation. I would instruct the client to focus on the subject matter, not the audience; in this way, they are circumventing their natural fear response by focusing more on the aspects that bring them joy, meaning, and yes, pleasure. In other words, I would want them to get in touch with the hedonic aspects of public speaking. And it is the same with sex. Without hedonism, there is no drive. And without being driven to enjoy sex, we are stuck avoiding it.