The Epicurean Problem with YOLO: Short Term vs. Long Term Happiness

Short term vs. long term happiness. Image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/

You’re 16 years old, your hormones are raging, and you’re finally making out with that hot girl from 4th period, hoping to push things to the next level. The last thing on your mind is the possible long-term consequences of that next level. Instead of pausing to think about sexually transmitted infections or the responsibilities of parenthood, all you can focus on is what comes next. Right now is all that seems to matter.

Or, the way it’s being expressed lately: YOLO – you only live once.

One of the problems that always gets brought up in discussions I find myself having about happiness is that there are different types of happiness that essentially compete with one another. There are immediate, short, and intense moments of happiness that conflict with actually becoming happy over the long-term of our life. Two of the most common examples I’ve heard are using drugs and having unprotected sex when one is neither emotionally nor financially prepared to have children. Think sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

On the surface, this seems like a difficult dilemma: if our life is only made up of individual moments, then how could we possibly be happier in the long run by choosing to avoid those things that make us happy in a particular moment? Consider this old Chinese proverb:

If you want happiness for an hour — take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day — go fishing.

If you want happiness for a month — get married.

If you want happiness for a year — inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime — help someone else.

And this is where Hedonism typically enters the conversation, though as you’ll read, it is often misunderstood. Hedonism makes the argument that pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically good, meaning it is good in and of itself, and pain the only intrinsic bad. This line of thought frequently gets brought out to justify the things I’m calling short term happiness. Think of the pop philosophy movements that have spring up around this idea of pursuing immediately gratifying pleasure:

  • YOLO – you only live once
  • Life is short
  • “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”― Hunter S. Thompson

So what’s the problem?

Epicureanism is a particular form of hedonism. Epicurus focused on the absence of pain as being even more important than the presence of pleasure. Rather than maximizing pleasure, we are better off minimizing pain. Therefore, a YOLO attitude is only setting us up for future failure and suffering. The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll may bring us immediate pleasure, but they open up the possibility of even more pain down the road – not a trade Epicurus would be willing to make.

Consider the following recent example:

This tweet was sent by rapper Ervin McKinness only minutes before he ran a red light, skidded out of control, and crashed his car, killing himself and four others. This momentary pleasure led directly to the pain of death and also ruled out all possible future pleasure for McKinness.

When we’re talking about happiness then, we have to figure out where that balance between short term and long term happiness really lies. Luckily for us, in working out the details of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham formulated a way for us to do just this very thing with a system he called Hedonistic Calculus!

  1. Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
  2. Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
  3. Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?
  4. Propinquity or remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?
  5. Fecundity: The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.
  6. Purity: The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.
  7. Extent: How many people will be affected?

– Taken from Wikipedia.

After making calculations based on these factors, we can quickly determine if any action is worth taking. On one hand, this would be incredibly time consuming – can you imagine trying to make these calculations while you’re kissing that girl from 4th period? The other, and perhaps even larger problem, is that it is very difficult to predict the probabilities of many of these factors for our actions. As a precise normative ethical system – a system that professes to be able to tell us exactly what we should or should not do, this system probably comes up short.

But in reality, I think that we probably do attempt to make these kinds of calculations in our decision making process.

Of course, for the 16 year old, the intensity of the pleasure will probably be at the forefront of his mind, and outweigh all of the other negatives, which may not even make it to the level of calculation.

Then again, if we had introduced that 16 year old boy to philosophy during his time in school, maybe he would be more likely to be thinking about things like duration, purity, and extent – at least of the philosophic variety…

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