The Pursuit of Pleasure or Happiness?
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
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-
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
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
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
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!
Dr Humbert is a Success Strategist, author and popular speaker. Imagine what's possible! To inquire about having him speak to your group or organization, or to schedule an initial coaching consultation, contact him
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