Is the pursuit of pleasure blocking your happiness?
So what do you love doing if you have an hour to spare, a day off or a holiday? What do you do that gives you pleasure? I want you to do a quick experiment with me before you read on. Write a list of the top 20 things that you love to do in your time off. No, really, do it now – be it drinking wine with your best friend or building models out of matchsticks, just write it all down.
Once you’ve written your list you can read on. (But don’t cheat!).
Find your Flow
Ok, so far, we’ve got a list of what you do to enjoy yourself. Now let’s discover if that will ultimately make you happy. In the last few years we have seen an explosion of groundbreaking research introducing the scientifically based idea of ‘positive psychology’. The happiness scientists are focusing on what makes us happy versus what how to fix unhappiness.
Making an interesting distinction between pleasure and gratification, Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology movement and author of over twenty booked, such as Learned Optimism and What You Can Change and What You Can’t, suggests that our pursuit of ‘easy pleasures’ over gratifications might hinder our feelings of fulfillment.
“It is often puzzling that we often choose pleasure (and worst, displeasure) over gratification. In the nightly choice between reading a good book and watching a sitcom on television, we often choose the latter – although surveys show again and again that the average mood while watching sit-coms on television is mild depression,” he says.
Seligman espouses that the depression epidemic is the over reliance on short cuts to happiness. “Every wealthy nation creates more and more shortcuts to pleasure: television, drugs, shopping, loveless sex, spectator sports and chocolate to name a few… and such a life sets one up for depression.”
Seligman is not saying that pleasure does not have its place but when we chase only pleasure versus gratification – we can feel empty. Our brain chemistry doesn’t help. Pleasure-seeking involves two ancient regions of the brain – the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens that communicate using the chemical dopamine to form the brain’s reward system. Pleasure seeking triggers the production of dopamine, which keeps you coming back for more – it’s insatiable. And so you are forever left wanting.
So is there an alternative to pleasure seeking?
Seligman suggests that finding a sense of ‘flow’ may help. Flow? Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, who studied thousands of people to discover what makes our lives meaningful and satisfying. From his research he wrote a book called Flow. Flow is what he describes as being involved in an activity which gives us a narrowing of attention, a sense of being absorbed and a feeling of transcendence.
The great news is that any activity can lead to flow – playing a game, listening to music, writing a novel, etc. And, in spite of the huge differences in the activities themselves, those who’ve experienced it – from meditating Koreans to motorcycle gang members, chess players to sculptors to assembly line workers – describe the psychological components of gratification in notably similar ways: Focusing on a task is challenging and requires skill, you have to concentrate, there are clear goals, you get immediate feedback, we have deep effortless involvement, there is a sense of control, your sense of self vanishes, time stops.
What would happen if you decided to focus on ‘flow’ in your life versus pleasure? Make a list of the things that you do that give you a sense of ‘flow’ in your life. What makes time disappear, what challenges you and requires skill? You may know immediately the things that give you that feeling of flow. How often do you spend doing your flow activities? Is your pleasure-seeking in balance with your flow?
And if not, can I make it this month’s challenge? What can you do to get more ‘flow’ in your life? But whatever you do, make sure you enjoy yourself!
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