The pilot episode of FOX’s critically acclaimed show The Last Man on Earth features Will Forte as Phil Miller, the only person (or so he thinks) to survive a deadly virus in 2022. Understandably, Phil’s depressed. Unshaven and unkempt, he bemoans his fate until, in a spurt of enthusiasm, he embarks on a hedonistic lifestyle: He moves into a mansion, lounges in and drinks from a margarita-filled pool, regularly indulges in porn and self-pleasuring, creates exciting destructive experiences and opens $10,000 bottles of wine with dinner. Hedonic pleasure seeking, however, leaves Phil less than happy. Beneath it runs a deep river of loneliness. Phil resorts to drawing faces on objects (baseballs, basketballs, cue balls) to fill the human void. Attaining pleasure, Phil learns, doesn’t bring happiness. Even if you’re the last man on earth, hedonism falls short in delivering bliss.
Originating in Greek culture and entering the English lexicon in the 19th century, hedonism refers to the philosophy that man’s most important pursuit is the pursuit of pleasure. Suggesting pleasure and pain as the only two components that matter in describing what motivates or is good for us, hedonism implies that man’s ultimate goal should be to amplify pleasure and diminish pain. Such a quest, however, can easily devolve into a constant pursuit of material objects and sensual experiences that leads straight into a central flaw of hedonism: the Pleasure Paradox. This is the idea that pleasure can only be indirectly acquired. And it’s more likely to be acquired when we stop actively seeking it.
Although hedonism doesn’t offer a balanced approach to living, we can learn a lot about wiring ourselves for happiness by exploring how to escape the Pleasure Paradox. According to Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the answer might lie in who you interact with rather than what material objects and experiences you acquire. In a survey of more than 1,000 women, Kahneman and his research team discovered that the biggest influence on happiness was not income, employment or marital status. What most affected these women’s level of happiness were the people with whom they shared time. This makes sense in light of “emotional contagion”: humans’ hardwired process of being affected by interactions with others.
Our brains automatically scan the environment, delivering sensory details to various brain structures that then activate body circuitry to appropriately respond with the desire to move closer to or farther away from an object. Because specific parts of the brain (especially the brain stem) are designed to read facial expressions and body language, we easily and involuntarily attune to the emotions of others; without even trying, we can “catch” emotions the way we catch a cold. (If you’ve ever spent time with someone who’s depressed—and then noticed that you start to feel down, too—then you have a perfect frame of reference for understanding the concept of emotional contagion.) The benefit of your natural emotional contagion process derives from how easy it is for you to be positively affected by spending time around uplifting people.
As humans we are social beings, a fact of our collective personality that dates back to our species’ earliest survival mechanism and the tribe-oriented perspective. A positive, animated presence (as opposed to, say, an inanimate yacht) can evoke and elevate a sense of happy connection to which we continually respond because of the exchange of emotional tender. This, in turn, activates healthy neural and other body circuits, a process that decreases loneliness, thereby increasing physical and mental health.
No matter how many things (including margarita-filled pools) we have, if we don’t have anyone to meaningfully share the experience of those things, then we fall short of reaching our happiness potential. The objects we acquire can’t smile, elevate a mood with a cheerful tone or sustain happiness with a joke, compassion, empathy or encouragement. Only another emotional being can jump-start our emotional circuitry to the degree and level that emotional contagion offers, which makes human interaction—more than any other experience—uniquely capable of assuaging our happiness hunger.
The value of human connection, of course, is not a new concept. Like hedonism, it’s a philosophy that’s been around for many years. But it doesn’t take a new concept to rewire how we live. Sometimes, creating extraordinary change is about finding a new way to apply an old concept. In this case, perhaps, creating a hedonic focus on the pursuit of happiness-producing personal relationships: identifying (and spending more time with) those people whose emotions we enjoy catching, and intentionally collaborating to foster each other’s ability to reach ever-greater heights of pleasure.