Hedonism and the secret of happiness

Gather any group of gay men and you will soon hear some low, whispered words – The Velvet Rage. The book of that name, by the American psychologist Alan Downs, is a brave attempt to tease out a taboo subject: why the rate of depression and suicide among gay people is four times higher than among their straight siblings. Downs talks about many crucial factors dragging us down, but today I want to look at one in particular. It might seem paradoxical at first, but I think one reason gay men are disproportionately unhappy is because, from the moment as teenagers we first gaze upon the frenetic dancing blur of gay culture, we are encouraged to be relentless pleasure-seekers.

Gay culture is marketed as one long party. Even now, the archetypal gay man, in the collective imagination, is a hedonist. Which of us doesn't have reams of friends who, from the moment they come out, swallow this vision like a cheap amphetamine, and become surfers on a sea of dance-floors and pills and orgies? Who didn't try it themselves, for a time? The lesbian literary critic Susan Sontag thought this was so central to gay life that she argued the essential divide in Western culture was between Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual frivolity.

And hedonism is fun – incredible fun – for a while. Sex and intoxication and dancing are some of the most pure and perfect pleasures available to human beings, and a life without them would be a flavourless gruel. But a life where they are all you have – where they are what gets you out of bed in the late afternoon – soon becomes like a diet where you only eat sugar.

I have never been more depressed than when I tried to be a hedonist. Why? The Austrian psychotherapist Viktor Frankl believed that human beings who dedicated themselves primarily to "the pleasure principle" could only ever have a thin and depleted consciousness. Instead, he wrote, all humans have a fundamental "will to meaning" – a need to be able to tell a story about our lives where we are part of something bigger than our own passing whims. He wrote: "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task… If an architect wants to strengthen an arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together."

This tension exists in all human beings, but for gay people in the twentieth century, it was heightened. When some of your formative experiences are of pain and difference, the pursuit of fuck-you-I'm-dancing pleasure is all the more appealing. You can see this tension in the work of one of my favourite writers, Christopher Isherwood. In his heart, he wanted to be an empty-headed partyboy. But he flocked to Berlin in the early 1930s for the sex and the boys and the music – and instead found the rise of their polar opposite: the Nazi Party. If he carried on mindlessly dancing, he would die.

This defining gay dilemma is distilled into one musical number – Cabaret – adapted from Isherwood's writings about Berlin. Sally Bowles sings one of the great anthems to hedonism ever written: "What good is sitting alone in your room?/ Come hear the music play… Life is a cabaret old chum,/ It's only a cabaret, old chum/ And I like a cabaret." But she sings it in a club in Weimar Germany, where we know that if everybody in that room listens to her – if they dance and forget and delight – they will all be killed by the Nazis swelling outside the door. The song shows us why we want to be hedonists, and why we can't.

A hedonist today doesn't face such an extreme dilemma, for sure. But hedonism has a price just a surely – in drug addiction, in bare-backing, or merely in a nagging and inescapable sense of emptiness. Humans evolved in small hunter-gatherer tribes. Without a sense of the collective – of being part of something, of contributing to the people around us and their needs – we are lost. The saddest people I know are imprisoned inside themselves, instead of pouring out into the world.

It might seem strange, but I have found that one way to be happier is to spend much less time pursuing happiness. Don't look for a personal endorphin buzz. No. Look instead for a cause bigger than yourself – it's not like the world isn't full of them, from helping gay refugees to preventing ecological collapse. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said: "Happiness is a hound-dog in the sun. We're not here to be happy, but to experience great and wonderful things." You want to be happier? Then aim higher than being happy – make yourself useful.

- This article appeared originally in Attitude, Europe's best-selling gay magazine. You can subscribe at www.attitude.co.uk
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Published on June 27, 2011 15:38
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