People in the West have probably never had more freedom to pursue pleasure than they do today. Alcohol is relatively cheap, prosecution for the use of recreational drugs is rare and sexual activity with any number of partners of any type is permitted in those places where it is not actively encouraged. Is the pursuit of pleasure, however, synonymous with the pursuit of happiness?
The answer to that is probably ‘no’. Pleasure is chiefly a sensual experience and humans are not purely sensual creatures. We can identify needs for our emotional and intellectual selves which sense-fulfilment do not meet. Ancient philosophers and theologians identified a hierarchy of function with intellect followed by emotion followed by sensuality as being the proper order of needs to be met (where spirit and intellect are considered under a single category.) Even if we go along with modern distrust for hierarchy then we must concede equality which means that two thirds of our energies should be directed toward emotion and intellect and only one third to pleasure.
Looking at the kind of lifestyles promoted for and to Western youth we do not see such equality, still less the ancient hierarchy. Hedonism, pleasure seeking and incessant activity, normally accompanied by noise, is the route map shown to our young people as the path to happiness. Stillness, silence, solitude, stability and patience are ways of being which are considered boring and unproductive of pleasure and therefore bypassed or ignored completely.
In this context the Marshmallow Experiment is interesting. Children as young as four were sat down in front of a marshmallow and told that they could eat it but if they restrained themselves for fifteen minutes they would get two marshmallows. As you might expect only a minority held out for the reward, a quarter of an hour is an eternity for a four year old. Follow-up studies done a decade or so later showed that the children who had exercised self-control were almost without exception more successful than their peers in most measures of life outcome and attainment.
This would suggest that self-control and self-discipline are necessary components of happiness. Why? Because the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure is unbalanced. It ignores the needs of the two-thirds of ourselves which are not sense dependant to the same extent as pleasure. The pursuit of happiness can produce pleasure as a beneficent side-effect but the pursuit of pleasure cannot produce happiness. When it comes to children and young people though we cannot as a society leave self-control and self-discipline to chance unless we abandon our sense of responsibility. These things require to be learnt which means that they have to be taught since it is a wholly exceptional person who comes to these things spontaneously.
It is fashionable to react with horror to the idea of imposing strong external restraints on young people. It leads to talk of oppression and patriarchy. And, of course, young people themselves chafe under restraint and often seek to rebel or to subvert it. Nonetheless if we wish people to develop their capacity to be happy and to make others happy then they require to be made to learn the happiness that comes from subduing the sensual third so that they can explore the emotional and intellectual two thirds. It is oppressive to be indulgent, it is liberating to encourage emotional honesty and intellectual expansion.