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Yaron Brook on ‘The Pleasure Paradox’

Failing to see happiness as a long-term achievement leads us to blame “overabundance” for our culture’s problems.

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One would think that Westerners who enjoy increasingly better health, education, technology, and incomes would naturally lead happier lives. Yet, numerous surveys point to a bleaker reality where depression and anxiety increasingly afflict many. Some intellectuals wonder if too much prosperity and comfort are responsible for these psychological outcomes. Is the solution to balance the “addictive” pleasures that our culture offers with a degree of pain and struggle?

Yaron Brook recently confronted these questions on a panel titled “The Pleasure Paradox,” hosted by the Institute of Arts and Ideas (IAI), along with philosopher Patricia Churchland, psychiatrist Anna Lembke, and moderator Robert Kuhn.

“We do live in a society today where people are too focused on the short-term, instant gratification, and achieving some superficial aim,” argues Brook, chairman of ARI’s board of directors and host of the Yaron Brook Show. But, he argues, it’s a mistake to single out the availability of gratification as the cause of modern despair. The real challenge of our culture is not in limiting or restricting the lure of abundance, but in understanding that true human happiness is a conceptual, sophisticated pursuit that consists in the life-long achievement of values.

According to Brook, people don’t suffer from an excess of pleasure; instead, they lack a long-term perspective on their values and lives that leaves them empty and without direction. But he adds, if it’s an error to locate today’s depression in the abundance of pleasure, it’s equally wrong to think that one should seek pain and suffering as a way of coping with life. As he explains, struggle has a place in life insofar as it’s part of the process of pursuing one’s values. But as an experience, it’s good “only to learn from it to avoid it in the future.” Pain as such doesn’t have an intrinsic value: “life is about the pursuit of joy,” not enduring suffering for the sake of suffering.

Brook covers other topics, such as:

  • The cultural shifts that have undermined the American ideal of personal responsibility;
  • Why “overabundance” as such is never a problem;
  • Whether modern society has deprived us of autonomy;
  • Why modelling China’s video game restrictions is a horrible idea.

IAI subscribers can view a recording of the full panel here.


If you value the ideas presented here, please become an ARI Member today.

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Ricardo Pinto

Ricardo Pinto, BA in philosophy, is a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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