I happen to be one of those optimistic people who believe that we live in the Age of Enlightenment, sort of like a second Renaissance. I believe so mostly because I observe my fellow humans looking energetically for answers to the riddle of deep fulfillment and happiness, and scientists rigorously exploring the powerful yet often misused or abused instrument that we all possess, our brain.
Yet, on the other hand, I see a lot of confusion and unhappiness, too. The proliferation of “how to feel good” articles in popular psychology is a sure telltale sign. At the same time, we are told that all we have to do is “follow our bliss”, “find meaning”, or “find our purpose” – but for most people these are empty words, taken out of context, used by a whole industry built on the exploitation of human unhappiness, selling hope in the form of useless products, creating more frustration, confusion and despair instead and turning people into self-help junkies.
Martin Seligman, the researcher, psychologist and founder of the Positive Psychology Movement, does not mince his words when he claims that if we are to find our path to authentic and lasting happiness, we must pursue not only the “pleasant life”, but also the “good life“, we must learn to distinguish between the pleasures and the gratifications and employ both. (Joseph Campbell, by the way, changed his “follow your bliss” to “follow your blisters” towards the end of his life and if anyone studies his biography will realize that attaining his bliss took quite a bit of commitment to researching, investigating, and writing on his part.)
The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components, but they are “raw feels” like thrills, delight, orgasm, kick, buzz, glee, enthusiasm, mirth, hilarity, good cheer, ebullience, amusement, relaxation. The pleasures aren’t “bad” of course, but unfortunately, they have some unpleasant characteristics:
They are not lasting, they fade very rapidly once the external stimulus disappears and usually have a sudden end. When they do, we return to our baseline mood. For example, if we are depressive, we return to our depression.
Frequently repeated indulgence in the same pleasure does not work, due to an inviolable neurological fact of life, called adaptation or habituation. Our neurons are wired to respond to novel events, and do not fire if the events do not provide new information. The more redundant the events, the more they fade into the unnoticed background. Think of the last time you bought a perfume you really liked, how aware you were of its scent the first few times you wore it, how good it made you feel, while after a few weeks you couldn’t even smell it on yourself! (So now, you know why sex with your steady partner is no longer as great as it used to be: it’s not you, it’s your NEURONS that don’t bother to fire anymore…)
“The Hedonic Treadmill” – adaptation to the pleasures that material possessions and even accomplishments bring causes us to take them for granted, so they stop being a source of happiness for us. Increases in income, even wealth and all the material possessions that accompany it can’t make us lastingly happy. Our expectations rise, and our subjective experience of happiness drops. In less than three months, that shiny Porsche you worked so hard to get is just a car. Now, perhaps you need to get your own private jet to feel the same thrill… Even physical attractiveness, or good physical health (resources that objectively should contribute to our happiness and are highly sought after when missing) does not correlate highly at all with happiness or fulfillment.
Finally, and most importantly, most of the pleasures involve primitive pleasure systems of our brain, that are either “seeking” or “passive-receptive” in nature, and require little thinking, excluding our pre-frontal lobes – the “crowning glory of the human brain” that distinguishes us from other mammals and gives us our unique human experience of awareness, free will and choice.
It seems that the pre-frontal lobes have a say in our experience of happiness and fulfillment, and if not given the proper “nourishment” they remain indifferent and untouched by our transient and ephemeral highs, kicks, buzzes and good times. They remain starved and clamor to be used in ways specific only to human beings, needing stimulation that goes far beyond the satisfaction of instincts or appetites.
The gratifications are a higher class of positive emotions, which unlike the pleasures, are not sensations or feelings, but activities we like doing: reading, rock climbing, researching, writing, leadership, painting, craftsmanship, participating in charity activities, etc. Some distinguishing characteristics of the gratifications are:
They require some blisters! To start eschewing easy pleasure and engaging in gratification is hard, because it requires skill and effort. While the pleasures are transient shortcuts to happiness the path of the gratifications is long and often arduous, but much longer-lasting, being an ongoing process rather than a one-time experience. They are obtained by developing our “signature strengths” in the service of six virtues that all cultures, philosophical traditions and religions endorse: *wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence. *
They absorb and engage us fully. They block self-consciousness, self- absorption, preoccupation with our mood or ourselves – that’s why they are considered the best tools against depression. They create flow.
They give us a sense of purpose and authenticity. They involve higher centers of the brain, mainly the pre-frontal lobes. They are unique to the human experience and serve a grand evolutionary purpose by
broadening our lasting intellectual, emotional and social resources in the service of humanity.
So according to the findings of Positive Psychology, the path to authentic and lasting happiness and fulfillment – “eudaimonia” as Aristotle called it – is pursuing the “good life” through the gratifications which produce steady positive feeling-states while also enjoying the simple pleasures, as highlights, bright-colored brushstrokes on the canvas of our lives.
*(How these virtues and strengths are defined by positive psychology scholars in practical and measurable terms will be the topic of future articles.)
Ismini Apostoli is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, practicing in Greece and offering online services throughout the world. She is particularly interested in self- esteem, self-development and self-actualization and helping people uncover their special gifts and talents. You can find out more by visiting http://www.yourempowermenttherapist.com.