The smile on my six year-old’s face after whooshing through the wind on her fifth spin on the Harry Potter roller coaster pretty much spoke for itself. There seems to be a pretty strong relationship between pleasure and happiness. Our recent family vacation to Orlando was chock-full of fun and pleasurable moments, and without a doubt, I was feeling pretty darned happy throughout the time we spent under that hot Florida sun. But what, precisely, accounted for that happiness, and how did I arrive at it?
For centuries, philosophers have asked the same question—”What is happiness?”—and have distilled the debate down to two basic sources of attainment. My daughter invited me into her world of hedonia, the first, most basic source. Prior to the 4th Century BCE, a hedonistic view of happiness prevailed. Ancient Greeks proposed that happiness could be attained through the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The hedonistic view asserts that happiness is the product of positive affect. For hedonists, it is quite simple: Happiness is that which feels good.
The alternate view of happiness, eudaimonia, also has its roots in classical Hellenic philosophy, specifically Aristotelian ethics. To Aristotle, the habitual pursuit of pleasure and comfort seemed shallow. Instead, he proposed that true well-being was linked to the pursuit of virtue, and offered a view of happiness based in the attainment of excellence, meaning, and the realization of individual purpose and personal potential. Eudaimonia is defined as seeking to develop the best in oneself, and to create a life reflective of one’s personal values.
Numerous studies in positive psychology have looked at the functions of both hedonia and eudaimonia as they relate to overall well-being. In general, the contributions of hedonia have paled in comparison to the far-reaching and long-standing benefits of a eudaimonic approach. Those who aim to develop their best selves, to identify and express their character strengths, and to pursue personal excellence experience greater overall subjective well-being and significant long-term life satisfaction. Hedonic satisfaction proves to be more temporary. There is, in fact, a very low correlation between the attainment of external pleasures and long-term happiness.
Hedonic pursuits get a sort of bad rap in the positive psychology literature. For one, researchers have discovered an adaptation phenomenon known as the hedonic treadmill. This is the tendency of people to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite their positive experiences and acquisitions. Happiness becomes a moving target; soon after we get what we want, we up the ante. We believe that we’ll be happy when we take the vacation, buy that new car, or get the promotion, and we are happy for a short while. Before too long, though, the novelty wears thin, the good feelings damp down, and we set our sights on the next pleasure. Thus, the pursuit of happiness remains constant, but our overall level of satisfaction never changes.
Much like the ancient Greeks of Aristotle’s reproach, the pleasure seeker’s life becomes a sort of superficial one, oriented toward what life has to offer him as opposed to what he has to offer life. Whereas the eudaimonic life is full, the strictly hedonistic life can be an empty one. Furthermore, those who pursue pleasure without seeking purpose and meaning are prone to the perils of excess. In search of lasting happiness, they move from one fleeting positive experience to the next, and are susceptible to all kinds of addictions, from overspending to workaholism to sex addiction to substance abuse.
There is no doubt that true and lasting happiness depends on the attainment of meaningful, value-based, eudaimonically driven lives. My last article on signature strengths, and much of what I’ll discuss in future articles, focuses on living in alignment with our most authentic values on the path to self-actualization. Today, though, I write in praise of pleasure and the function it plays in a well-balanced, happy life.
I just got back from that much-needed vacation, full of roller coasters and character parades. Prior to our trip I was feeling frazzled, burned out, and overworked. While my career supplies me with heaps of meaning, purpose, and eudaimonic fulfillment, it had been quite a while since I’d had a spree of pure, unadulterated fun. With that in mind, I set out on our family vacation in pursuit of pleasure, and pleasure was had. For a week and a half, I rode thrill rides, ate delicious food, drank frozen cocktails at sunset, and lazed by the pool. I hung out in the hot tub, treated myself to a scrub and massage at the spa, and had dessert with every dinner. On the mornings we weren’t rushing out early to beat the lines or have breakfast with Mickey, we luxuriated in the cozy down feather-bed, sipping our coffee and munching on pastries. It was delightful!
Armed with a bit of knowledge in positive psychology and neuroscience, I was able to increase the benefits I received from all the sunshine, ice cream, and cuddling by practicing the art of savoring. Savoring is a technique studied and recommended by a number of writers, among them Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, and Fred Bryant, author of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience. The practice, based in mindfulness, is easy to do, and helps us derive the maximum amount of pleasure and joy from our positive experiences.
To savor the moment, follow these steps:
- Proclaim your pleasure: When experiencing something good, let others know it. Be quick to say, “This is a delicious dessert,” or, “What a magnificent sunset!” Sharing positive experiences helps bond and connect us to others, and helps to solidify the value of that experience in our brains.
- Practice mental photography: Take mental snapshots of the good times, as if you were chronicling them for a brain-based photo album. From time to time, in the midst of the fun, stop and look around. Pretend that your eyes are your camera. Pause for a few moments and capture what’s happening, consciously considering precisely what you will want to remember later. I did this while sitting on my lounge chair watching my daughters pursue a tiny snail at the side of the pool. It was almost dusk, and as I remember that moment now, I can see the mental picture of my eldest daughter with her long curls flowing, arm outstretched, to show her sister the tiny mollusk in her palm, the streaks of pink in the sky behind them.
- Be detail-oriented: Allow yourself to become fully absorbed in the pleasurable moments by mindfully focusing on the sensory details of your experiences. This practice maximizes pleasure in the moment and will help with recall so that you can re-experience the moment after it passes. Lucky enough to be poolside with a piña colada in hand? Smell the coconutty fragrance in your cup. Taste the sweet pineapple flavor on your tongue. Notice the cool tingle in your throat as you swallow. Feel the icy wetness on the palm of your hand. See if you can notice nuances of scent, flavor, and sensation that you may have missed had you been focusing elsewhere as you enjoyed your drink. You can practice mindfulness with every experience, just by sharpening your senses and really focusing on the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings of each pleasurable encounter.
- Soak it in: To really take in the good of any experience, allow yourself to soak in the pleasure. Once you have proclaimed your pleasure, taken a mental picture, and mindfully focused on the details of your experience, allow yourself a few moments to bask in the good feelings. Imagine that you are a sponge, just soaking in the delicious feelings of joy and pleasure. Focus on the area around your heart, and really feel the emotions and sensations of happiness. Allow the waves of positive emotion to flow over you, bathing you in the goodness and joy.
- Rinse and repeat: The familiar adage, “All good things must come to an end,” is true. For most of us, vacations are no more than a week or two out of the year. Very few of us can travel and lounge at poolsides indefinitely, and the research on hedonia suggests that a life of pure leisure wouldn’t be that all that fulfilling anyhow. There is no doubt that a life oriented strictly toward the pursuit of pleasure, without a focus on creating meaning and purpose, is not likely to afford long-term overall well-being. But most of us are already living a primarily eudaimonic existence, or at least striving toward personal excellence and achievement. Therefore, the most balanced lives incorporate opportunities for sheer fun, pleasure, and joy.
Just because vacation is over for me doesn’t mean the pleasures are. I’ve been home for two weeks now, and have been making a concerted effort to create little joys every day. The summer is rife with opportunities for hedonistic pleasures—the simplicity of a cup of coffee outside on the deck before the heat takes over, the tart juiciness as you bite into that fresh garden tomato, the quiet cool after a summer rain shower, the glittering evening show of fireflies in the yard, even just watching the kids as they frolic in the neighbor’s sprinklers. There are easy, accessible joys available to all of us, every day, if we notice and name them. Set out every day in a scavenger hunt for small samples in the pursuit of pleasure, and savor each goodness you find. You will find that, even in the midst of your pursuit of excellence and meaning, you can take the necessary time to just enjoy the ride.
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