How to put a smile on your face

Do you rush to the pub after a hard week at work? Is slumping in front of the television your idea of fun? Then you need a masterclass in enjoying yourself. Oliver Bennett rediscovers the lost art of hedonism
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No one, runs the gag, went to the grave wishing they'd spent more time in the office. But have we become so embroiled in getting to the top - or just staying afloat - that we wouldn't know what to do with our leisure time if we had any?

No one, runs the gag, went to the grave wishing they'd spent more time in the office. But have we become so embroiled in getting to the top - or just staying afloat - that we wouldn't know what to do with our leisure time if we had any?

Now, into the gloom of presenteeism, long hours and the work-till-you-die culture comes a corrective. Entitled The Hedonism Handbook: Mastering the Lost Arts of Leisure and Pleasure, this manifesto offers career-driven office drones a step-by-step guide to having fun. Have things really got so bad we need to be reminded?

Yes, says its author, Michael Flocker, who describes himself as one of a new breed of "lifestyle guru". Unsurprisingly, Flocker is an American, a New Yorker, whose past glories have included The Metrosexual Guide to Style, the bestselling book that popularised the fad for the new dandy.

"The world is a stressed-out place," says Flocker. "Here in New York, I see people walking around with cellphones and Blackberry organisers, all afraid they're going to miss something. They work 12-hour days, then they work out on treadmills. Their whole rationale goes like this: if I lose 10 pounds, I'll be happy. If I have $100,000 more, I'll be happy. And it doesn't work." The work ethic is out of control, says Flocker, and it's time to drop the lie and start living. Many of us would agree with John Betjeman who, when asked if he regretted anything, supposedly said that he wished he'd slept with more people, and at the end of his book Flocker has a Deathbed Review, with a checklist including items such as "Did you laugh and play in the sun?"

Flocker's book is for fun, but one senses that he is tapping into something deeper, a fact underlined by the glut of books currently available about the importance of getting to grips with life outside of work. The Play Ethic, by the Scottish writer Pat Kane, explores homo ludens, the human at play, while the French title Bonjour Paresse ( Hello Laziness) by Corinne Maier has been a massive French hit with its anti-labour credo: "What you do is pointless. You can be replaced from one day to the next by any cretin sitting next to you. So work as little as possible." There are paeans to the growing Voluntary Simplicity movement, such as In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré, and vital older works such as Leisure: the Basis of Culture, by Josef Pieper, are also being rediscovered.

"I think something's in the air," says Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler magazine and author of How To Be Idle. "It's probably because we are suffering from overwork, and have been driven towards a reassessment of the more important things in life."

The arguments have been going on a long time, says Hodgkinson, from the ancients through to Bertrand Russell, still the highest-profile antagonist of the work ethic. But the examination of pleasure and leisure does seem to have reached a new high-water mark. "The Protestant virtue was to value the deferral of pleasure until such future time as Paradise beckoned," Hodgkinson says. "These days, you can hear the same paradigm expressed in lay terms when ministers talk about working all your life and saving for retirement."

Hodgkinson reckons that the rot set in during the Industrial Revolution. "I hark back to England, pre-1750, as gleaned from EP Thomson and Engels," he says. "I like the idea that each householder had chickens and a loom. OK, it was feudal, but they were all freelance and in charge of their own lives, and, by most accounts, hadn't been afflicted by the Protestant work ethic." Sadly, since then, the puritanical attitude to life and work has reigned. "That's why opposition to it is seen as subversive," adds Hodgkinson. "The embrace of pleasure is a reaction against that ethos."

Hedonism is, of course, the pursuit of pleasure. The Ancient Greek chinstroker Aristippus of Cyrene is said to have come up with the notion that pleasure should be the ultimate purpose in life - not mere instant gratification, but cultural pleasure, love, friendship and contentment - and these ideas were expanded by Epicurus, who emphasised the superiority of social and intellectual pleasures. "Epicurus's idea of pleasure was sitting under a tree talking philosophy," says the philosopher AC Grayling, author of What Is Good?. "The idea was that the mind was the highest attribute, and cultivating it was the ultimate pleasure. In terms of lifestyle, however, he preached moderation. The Epicureans had infrequent parties."

But the philosophy of hedonism, that one should pursue pleasure and avoid pain, is now often seen as selfish excess. And as excess often leads to pain - hangovers, jealousy, even addiction - one could argue that the present interpretation of hedonism isn't worthy of the word. "I prefer it to mean anything that calms you down and engages you with real life, be it swimming, walks or painting," counsels Flocker.

Fun does seem to have become rather industrialised: harder work than work itself. The average Friday night out or Ibiza club may be awash with booze, drugs and casual sex, but is it really pleasurable? "You get the feeling that they're confusing hedonism with libertinism," says Nicholas Lezard, the author of the soon-to-be-published Fun. "To think that having fun is reliant on being able to pay £15 at the door of a club is a consumer attitude and actually rather miserable."

Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey has done much research into how well-being seems to have dropped as affluence has risen, and believes that the point is to regain a sense of pleasure in daily life. "It's clear that certain aspects of modern society are not necessarily conducive to personal well-being," he says. "I'm suspicious of the pleasure-is-everything idea. The way it is usually proposed is individualistic. And personal gratification misses vital social components." Flocker agrees with him. "Lying on a couch watching television with chips on your belly is numbing rather than pleasurable. Nor am I into working for 51 weeks and then going on a bender. My hedonism is about setting aside a little time each day to cultivate true pleasure."

The growth of the Simplicity movement shows that this credo is gaining ground, with the Slow Food movement leading the way, now followed by a Slow Sex movement. Indeed, the Slow proposition seems to have crossed over: recently, the art critic Robert Hughes spoke of the need for "slow art" that nourished rather than instantly gratified. "We're at the beginning of a counter-reformation against the prevailing culture of speed and worry," says Honoré. "A good first step into the hedonistic world is to turn off your personal electronic equipment," says Flocker. "Pursue calmness."

There's a growing academic tendency to study fun and leisure. In the US is Dr Ed Diener, a leading psychologist in the field of "subjective well-being" at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while, in the UK, Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, has become our own expert on happiness. "We've looked into the overwork spiral and found it's difficult to get out of it," says Oswald. "Many of us feel trapped. It's an issue across social classes and income groups. Surveys show no rise in happiness in the last 30 years. We have to take this seriously."

In June, the issue of "time poverty" was debated at a conference in the US called Take Back Your Time. The debate focused on the downgrading of work and the re-acquisition of simple pleasures. "We were trying to raise the issues of time poverty and overwork in the US," says the national co-ordinator of Take Back Your Time, John de Graaf, who is also the co-author of Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic.

"You have a problem, but in the US, it's terrible," he continues. "We don't have paid family leave, we don't have four-week vacations, and we work overlong hours. It has got a lot worse since 1970, when US working hours were shorter than they are now. Greater expectations have caused us to work harder, in the hope that we can keep up with greater need." De Graaf adds that there is a disturbing correlation between long work hours and junk leisure. "Studies show that working long hours and watching TV are closely linked," he says. "Think about it: when you walk in from work you watch television and reach for convenience foods." Get back into the natural world, he exhorts; spend time with family and friends, eat slow food, de-schedule your kids. "Children in the US only have half the time for fun they had 10 years ago. That's got to be wrong." Get a hobby, he adds. Do some gardening. See your pals and hang out: "Socialising is so important for happiness and health." He would say "get a pet", but the trouble is that, increasingly, people don't have time for them. "We joke that in the US even a dog's life isn't what it used to be."

Which should be enough to convince most British people that taking pleasure is extremely important.


Ten signs you're in too deep

Michael Flocker says that if five or more of the following are true for you, you may be in need of a hedonistic intervention. It is advised you turn off all electronic devices and lie down

1 You no longer remember anyone's phone number because they're all programmed into your mobile

2 You e-mail people who are seated within 20ft of you

3 You make itineraries for your holidays

4 The idea of a full week without internet access fills you with terror

5 You are bored if the television isn't on

6 You have to watch the news every day, just to be sure the world isn't ending

7 You regularly watch sitcoms that you have seen countless times before

8 You are unable to sit still and think in silence

9 Your conversation regularly revolves around the lives of others instead of your own

10 You buy your shoes because they match your iPod

Ten ways to unleash your inner hedonist

Try experimenting with these painfully simple procedures. You will be embarking on the first steps of your higher journey towards a life of unexpected pleasure

1 Find a park bench, sit down and observe life

2 Lie in a hammock and stare at the stars

3 Bob in the ocean

4 Go for a walk without direction

5 Read a book in complete silence

6 Take a nap in the sun

7 Take a bath by candlelight

8 Sleep until you can sleep no more

9 Extend foreplay

10 Watch Swedish cinema

'The Hedonism Handbook: Mastering The Lost Arts of Leisure and Pleasure', by Michael Flocker, is published by The Perseus Books Group, price £7.99