Hedonists have long argued that the path to happiness is the pursuit of pleasure – the more pleasurable activities you participate in, the happier you are likely to be. It seems somewhat self-evident too – pleasure makes you happy, albeit for a limited time, so if you bunch together a number of happy-inducing pleasure activities, you will ultimately be happy. However, evidence suggests the opposite. In a world where pleasure activities such as alcohol, drugs, sugar, sex, pornography, wealth like general populace has never seen before, even social media and smart phones are abound, we seem to be unhappier than ever. In a world of increased privilege, we are increasingly discontent, and that in itself has negative consequences we could never have foreseen. As we become addicted to the pursuit of pleasure, are we actually ruining our chances of genuine happiness? And could we potentially be sending ourselves to an early grave?
The Increase of Pleasure Activities
The strive for pleasure is evident within our culture, and it's becoming easier and easier to grasp at as our lives become less fraught with worries such as war and famine. The average American now consumes 94 grams of sugar per day – almost double the government's recommended limit of 50 grams per day. This has increased from 87 grams per day in 1970. Not only is the availability of this 'feel good food' increasing, the desire for it is sky-rocketing too, suggesting an addictive tendency of this pleasure-seeking habit. It's not just sugar either. Drug use has increased by almost six per cent since 2007 and the use of smart phones has shot up from approximately 62 million people in 2010 to 224 million people in 2017. Pornography, narcotics, social media use, and alcohol intake are all on the rise too. What's more, the average annual household income has increased from $49,354 in 2007 (ranging from $36,338 in Mississippi to $62,369 in New Hampshire) to $57,856 in 2015 (ranging from $40,037 to $75,675), meaning that we can now pursue pleasure quicker and easier than ever before.
Pleasure and Happiness as Mutually Exclusive Concepts
It's not making us any happier though. The prescription of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs, the drugs given to those suffering from depression, increased five times over in their first 15 years and then doubled over the following ten years, and the rate of depression increases by approximately 20% every single year. There was also an increase in deaths from overdoses, alcoholism, and suicides last year, especially of white, middle-aged Americans – those usually considered the most privileged. So is there a link between our overall unhappiness and our unending pursuit of pleasure? It certainly seems so.
Research at the University of Bath has shown that sugar consumption leads to a reaction called glycation in the brain, which is a primary risk factor for dementia and other mental health issues. Likewise, the use of tobacco and alcohol can lead to addiction and ultimately depression and dementia. The addiction to smart phones and social media, along with the sleep deprivation that induces, lead down a similar path. To turn things a little more scientific, pleasure activities and happiness ignite different chemicals in the brain. Whereas the consumption of sugar increases your dopamine levels, it's actually serotonin that we need for happiness. Dopamine is for your rewards and addiction, whereas serotonin is for contentment – and without enough serotonin, you will sink into depression. What's even more poignant is that having too much dopamine will kill your serotonin, and thus too many pleasure activities will ultimately lead to unhappiness. The hedonists, then, are wrong, and pleasure and happiness are far from synonymous.
A Risk of Death
It's even more serious than that though, for it's not just your happiness at risk – it's your life as well. For the year 2015 to 2016, life expectancy dropped for the first time since 1993 in the US, the UK, Germany, and China. The drop in 1993 was due to an HIV crisis, but there was no such epidemic like that this time around. There are theories though. Jiaquan Xi, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics claims that the rise of obesity and the ageing population are to blame. Michael Grosso, medical director at Northwell Health's Huntington Hospital in New York, suggests that "the dramatic upswing in the use of opiate and narcotic use across our country is potentially a big factor in driving a phenomenon like accidental injury". David Weir, at the Institute for Social Research in the University of Michigan warned of the increases in "virtually every cause of death," stating "there's this just across the board phenomenon of not doing very well in the US", and Tom Frieden, director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that "we're seeing the ramifications of the increase in obesity".
We should heed the warning of this overwhelming evidence. While most of us accept, in the back of our minds, that pleasure activities like a sugary diet or alcohol consumption are bad for our physical health, we tend to ignore those warnings in our pursuit of happiness. Perhaps if and when we accept that ultimately, they won't make us happy anyway – or at least, not past the few moments of hedonistic pleasure – then we'll be protecting not only our mental health, but our very lives as well.
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