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The Pursuit of Pleasure or Happiness?

By Philip Humbert

I recently re-read Martin Seligman's excellent book, "Authentic Happiness" and he makes a wonderful and vital distinction. Would you rather experience pleasure, or happiness?

It's an interesting question because our culture has clearly chosen pleasure. Going back to Sigmund Freud's argument that behavior is guided by our desire to avoid pain and maximize pleasure, modern society has voted for pleasure. Interestingly, Seligman argues that this is ultimately futile, and I would argue that it is ultimately self-defeating.

First, Seligman's argument, as I understand it.

Almost all pleasures are most intense when experienced in moderation. He points out that if we eat chocolates one at a time, our pleasure sky-rockets. But if we eat them one after another, we soon lose our sense of pleasure, and if we are forced to continue eating, we quickly tire of them and may even get sick.

This is true of almost all pleasures. Think of being stuffed with your favorite food, or having to endure a back massage that lasted for days on end. Even sex is exhausting after a certain point.

The point is that while pleasure – good food, good wine, good friends, etc – is a wonderful addition to life, our society has taken the quest for pleasure beyond the point of rapidly diminishing returns. We seek more and more toys, more and more pleasures in a never-ending quest to be entertained, and ultimately these "pleasures" cannot sustain us. The data is clear. The evidence is in: Pleasure for its own sake does not work!

Here's one fascinating specific: When people are measured while watching comedies on television, even while they are laughing, their actual emotional state shows a mild level of depression! Think about that, and it's implications!

Interestingly, however, when we substitute "gratification" or "fulfillment" for pleasure, our sense of happiness actually increases, and the increase remains over the long term!

Seligman defines gratification as the fulfillment of our values or the completion of long-term goals or purposes. He quotes extensive research that people who achieve their long-term goals are far happier than those who primarily pursue pleasure or fun.

Isn't it interesting when science catches up with the wisdom of the ages? From the beginning of time, our religious leaders, poets and seers have advised us to spend our lives on things that will outlast us and to invest ourselves in the fulfillment of our dreams, rather than the pleasures of the moment.

Now, science says they were right!

If you want more joy and long-term happiness, mix small amounts of pleasure (chocolate, roller-coaster rides) with lots of time and effort devoted to your dreams. Too much chocolate ultimately leads to satiation and regret, while dedicated, persistent effort on our most important projects ultimately creates "the good life." The choice is yours. Which would you rather have?

Pursue happiness. It's the ultimate high!

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