“Well, maybe you don’t, but isn’t being happy what it’s all about?” That was a Greek philosophy called hedonism. It taught that pleasure was really the only thing that was worthwhile, and actually good. A guy by the name of Epicurus taught the same thing. Those Greeks did like to party! You’ve heard religious people talking about repentance; our guy wants to find out if just having fun is a better choice.
Step One: Find something fun and just do it. First reaction: Now that was GOOD. It was fun. It was good for my soul. I forgot about my problems. I felt good about myself. I feel positive and alive. Do we have a problem here? I didn’t think so. This just has to be the best of all possible worlds.
But then the second night of fun. More good feelings. Third, fourth, and fifth nights, and you’re starting to get tired. One week, two weeks—it just doesn’t seem as much fun when you’re doing it all the time. Soon not everybody’s getting along. You start to realize they’re full of attitudes, egotism, paranoia, rationalizations, distortions, arrogance, anger, frustration, pleading, self-deprecation, and fear. You realize that unless you have a bottomless source of money, this doesn’t pay the bills, and it doesn’t fill the stomach. You start thinking this is a bit lame, and you try to find some part of it that gives meaning, either a friendship, or a money-making venture, or something, because just having fun isn’t, well, fun. While you are seeking meaning within the fun, you have proven to yourself that pleasure, by itself doesn’t give meaning. That’s what our writer is stating also. He states his conclusion at the beginning: there is no lasting value in pleasure for the sake of pleasure.
Pleasures are ultimately futile. They don’t bring success or lasting esteem. They don’t give health. They don’t give meaning or satisfaction to life. And yet we allow ourselves to be consumed in the pursuit of happiness, not realizing that the more you hunt, the less you’ll find.
“What does pleasure accomplish?” Our man tried the high life, a connoisseur of fine wines and elegance, along with the good time with friends. Does it work? Paul Westerberg, of the rock band The Replacements said, “If the camaraderie of drink is what it takes to be pals or to have a good time, then your good time is worthless.” Pete Townshend, of The Who, said, “The spiritual search and booze [are] the same thing. I’ve learned that being a drunk actually is a spiritual search, only you’re looking in the wrong place.” Our writer of Ecclesiastes stands back from it all to see what the lifestyle implies, to see what turns out to be a worthwhile way to spend your life, brief as it is.
He pursued other projects to bring him pleasure: building businesses, building houses and public buildings, planting money-making ventures, gardens, parks, dams and reservoirs—great public works projects. He had slaves (employees) by the thousands. He worked to accumulate as much money as possible, amassing wealth that would be the envy of all the world. He invested heavily in the entertainment industry. He did whatever would make him happy, even indulging in wild sexual pleasures. But it didn’t make him happy.
David Geffen, a businessman worth an estimate $900 million, said, “Money can buy you things, but it can’t buy you satisfaction.” Sean Smith, writing for Newsweek, said “Writing about Hollywood is like being a reporter at Disneyland. At first, you can’t believe that you get to spend every day in The Happiest Place on Earth. Everyone wants to ask you about your work. You’re surrounded by princesses, and the sky sparkles with pixie dust. But as the years go on, you learn about the oily machinery that manufactures all that enchantment. You see what Cinderella’s really like when that glass slipper comes off. And then one day you notice that the magic is gone, and all you’re left with is a small, small world.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “I became greater by far than anyone…before me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor.” The activity can give satisfaction, but the result just doesn’t last. It fades and grows dull.
Our writer’s conclusion: It was all ultimately meaningless, like chasing the wind. Nothing of value was gained. He is not claiming that work has no result, for it does accomplish many good things. But it produces a material result (money and power, buildings and businesses), not an inner solution that gives a sense of meaning beyond that material result.
It turns out that pleasure is not really all that it’s cracked up to be, but is just a cover-up that does not resolve the unrest deep in the soul.