Dossier: Celebrating and enjoyment

“You can’t enjoy a lettuce leaf by itself!”

Philosopher Markus Huppenbauer believes it’s important to enjoy what you eat! But that’s not really possible if you’re tirelessly counting calories.

Text: Ruth Jahn; photo: Filipa Peixeiro

Mr Huppenbauer, is pleasure an important part of life?

It’s tremendously important! Those who enjoy life are generally happier. Pleasure involves being present in the moment, being at one with life, even if there is a lot of misery and gloom around us.

Are we enjoying life more today than in the past?

I’m hesitant to say yes to this question. Today, we have the opportunity to live our lives to the full. Pleasure is more openly available now, whereas in the past it tended to be restricted to the rich. But today we are subject to the restrictions of time. Even in kindergarten we are pushed to our limits, we eat quickly, we’re driven by consumerism. Does that sound like pleasure to you?

Do we have to relearn how to enjoy ourselves – when eating, for example?

Definitely. We don’t come into the world as gourmets. Biologically speaking, we’re simple creatures: If there’s sugar, fat or protein in front of you – eat it! But that’s not pleasure. Pleasure is associated with refinement. I’m not talking about a table setting with five different types of cutlery and three glasses. We have to think about what we’re eating, be aware of food culture and cultural traditions, dine with leisure and together with other people. This takes a certain amount of dedication. We have to ignore the hustle and bustle around us. If you come to the table with worries, you won’t be able to enjoy yourself.

We don’t just eat what we enjoy, but we think constantly about our health, the environment, animal welfare, and so on. Does that get in the way of real pleasure?

Enjoyment and morality are both part of life. We want to enjoy ourselves but also want to act responsibly. This can be contradictory: I enjoy eating steak, but I know that animal husbandry contributes to global warming. I enjoy drinking wine, but I know that it can damage my liver. In this case you’ve got to weigh up the pros and cons for yourself.

Doctors also say that it’s important to enjoy food and eat with other people, partly because we tend to eat less this way.

Enjoy your food, then you’ll eat less and eat healthily – that’s OK. But pleasure itself also plays a role! And doctors sometimes forget that. Wine and steak can have negative consequences. If I drink too much alcohol, eat unhealthily and get too little exercise then I put myself at risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But pleasure can also have a positive impact on our quality of life. So, I’m in favour of pleasure in moderation.

Healthy eating is in vogue today. We count calories, make sure we get the right vitamins, don’t eat certain foods.

Many people are fixated on eating the supposedly correct diet. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, we think less about life after death today and are living for the here and now. And so we focus on what we have: our bodies. Secondly, I can make a difference with a diet while perhaps feeling powerless about other problems. I can lose weight, improve my blood values, reduce the fat in my body. If you’re thin, you’re showing that you are in control. Meanwhile, some influencers give the impression that if you simply want something hard enough, you’ll get it! But that’s an illusion. You can’t turn a bulldog into a whippet.

What happens if we always look at our meals so critically?

Some people get carried away and take things too far. So, you have to ask yourself: am I tormenting myself unnecessarily or is it really beneficial to my health? Relax! You need to relax to be able to enjoy yourself. You can’t enjoy a lettuce leaf by itself! It takes a little salt, pepper, lemon juice and a good olive oil.

“Relax! You need to relax to be able to enjoy yourself.”
Markus Huppenbauer

Mr Huppenbauer, are you a man of pleasure?

Only partly. My life is too much influenced and disciplined by my work. I watch my weight. But pleasure plays a very important role in my life. I like to cook and eat. And I also love ballroom dancing.

What is our biggest misconception when it comes to pleasure?

The biggest mistake we make is equating pleasure with expensive luxuries. For me, for example, my greatest– and simplest – pleasure is eating a plate of spaghetti with a delicious home-made tomato sauce washed down by a glass of good wine. Anyone who only wants to eat expensive food is often more concerned with their status than with the food itself. The second mistake is hectic and greed. And this category includes your mobile phone.

What do you mean by that?

Mobile phones don’t belong on a table where people are eating! The mobile phone is a pleasure killer. Just by lying on the table, the phone distracts us from enjoyment and our sense of community. We’re not fully in the moment. I also don’t think much about the trend of continually taking photos of what you eat and posting them online. This robs us of pleasurable moments! When I take a photo of my plate, I look with my eyes through the screen of the mobile phone, automatically distancing myself from the pleasurable smells and tastes. In my thoughts, I’m with those we aren’t actually present who I want to show that I’m enjoying myself. At this moment, however, the opposite is actually happening: I take myself away from the pleasure.

Mr Huppenbauer, you are a philosopher by trade. What’s the general philosophical take on pleasure?

Very few philosophers have focused on pleasure. And if they have, then like Plato, they have advised us to indulge in enjoyment only in a very disciplined manner. Christian tradition, too, is largely characterised by asceticism. An ascetic lives and trains for an overriding goal, be it eternal life, running a marathon or trimming down from 100 kg to 80 kg with a diet. An ascetic cannot experience enjoyment, because he isn’t interested in the moment, but in his goal. One exception amongst the ancient thinkers was Epicurus, who developed a philosophy of sensual pleasure around 300 years before Christ. But for him, too, it was a question of moderation, along the lines of: real pleasures are those that you don’t regret.  

“An ascetic cannot experience enjoyment, because he isn’t interested in the moment, but in his goal.”
Markus Huppenbauer

Aren’t intoxication and ecstasy related to pleasure?

Pleasure involves a certain amount of self-control and discipline. You let yourself go, but you don’t give up on yourself. Quite apart from that, going too far doesn’t go down well in Switzerland. And the government is keen to contain the negative consequences of intoxication and ecstasy, excess and craziness. Of course, there are exceptions, such as the Fasnacht carnival. But otherwise we don’t look kindly on intoxication and ecstasy, because they disturb our otherwise effective and efficient coexistence. Other cultures have a different take on this.

Some people only enjoy pleasure when it’s forbidden.

This may be true of young people at a certain stage of their life. But if we cross certain boundaries and endanger ourselves, for example by taking drugs, it’s not just exciting and adventurous, it also involves a certain amount of fear. And that’s not pleasure.

A final question: If enjoyment is only one part of having a good life, what else do we need?

Three things: first, we need social relationships, being together with friends and doing things with our partner, children, grandchildren, work colleagues, and so on. Second, a good life involves activities that you enjoy doing, such as dancing, cooking, eating, talking, gardening, making music, doing meaningful work. Many people feel a sense of well-being when they do something with their hands. Third, we need the opportunity to control our own lives. A good life is one that we lead according to our own ideas, in a community in which we can play at least a part – also politically – in shaping.

Markus Huppenbauer (61) is a philosopher and ethicist. He heads up the Center for Religion, Economy and Politics at the University of Zurich. His work focuses on, among other things, how we make decisions and what ethical living means. He lives with his wife in Baden.