Last week, we focused on the ‘three happy lives’, as set out by Martin Seligman. One of the key messages was that while there is nothing inherently wrong or negative in the pursuit of pleasure, any ‘happiness strategy’ that relies exclusively on pursuing pleasure is doomed to come up short of the mark, and perhaps by some distance.
There are several reasons for this, not least of which being the need to recognise that there is more to happiness and well-being than simply accumulating pleasures, piling one upon the other. There is also the need, as Seligman highlights, to recognise the roles that meaning, purpose, and flow can play in the process – with the latter three perhaps more compatible with the idea of achieving contentment, as opposed to ‘merely’ being happy.
This distinction is worth noting, as it leads us towards an important point. It is possible that we steer ourselves down the wrong path when we self-consciously pursue or seek out happiness, imagining it to be an ideal state and somehow the solution to all our woes. Consider the number of times you have heard a friend talk about how they want to be happy… as opposed to how often you have heard someone speak in terms of wanting to be content. More likely you have heard the former said far more than the latter. Yet, if we consider what each word implies, they refer to different things, and one of them, upon closer inspection, might seem more desirable and durable than the other. Happiness is an emotion, it’s something we feel, and it’s wonderful. But as an emotion, it can be fleeting, inherently temporary in nature. Contentment, on the other hand, relates to a state. It might not feel like happiness as such, but there is an ease associated with contentment that points towards a life being well led, someone comfortable with where they find themselves and how they got there. Crucially, a state, by its very nature, is durable. It’s not necessarily permanent, but it is built on solid foundations. A state will be stable in a way that an emotion – however desirable and pleasing – will not be.
This points to some of the limitations we alluded to briefly last week, as it relates to the Pleasant Life, the first of Seligman’s three happy lives, and it is on this that we will focus for the rest of this entry.
It can be somewhat jarring in 2016 to even think that the firmly established link in our minds between pleasure and happiness may not be quite as firm as we imagine. Aside from anything else, in the developed world we find ourselves assailed with advertising images every day that seek to reinforce the idea. There is no deep dark conspiracy afoot here (this isn’t that type of blog!). Advertising executives don’t meet in dark rooms and offer evil, villainous laughter as they devise their next ploy to steer humanity down a pleasure-filled cul-de-sac, parting us from our money as we go. No, more correctly, the advertising industry understands what works. They know that humans on a certain level crave pleasure and that we associate pleasure with happiness, i.e., we like things that make us feel good, and feeling good makes us feel happy. So, rather than suggest they somehow have created this situation, the worst you can accuse the advertising industry of is of recognising this tendency and trying to sell their products accordingly.
How many times have you thought: “If only I could have that, then I’d be happy”. And then you got that thing, whatever it was. And then you were happy… but only for a while.
This tendency, which most of us will be familiar with, highlights one the key downsides to a happiness strategy defined by the pursuit of pleasure. Humans are very adaptable, more so than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. In simple terms, this means we tend to adjust over time to changed circumstances, whether they be positive or negative. This tendency towards adaptation is crucial, as it helps to explain why something that makes us extremely happy in the here and now may lose its ability to do so over time. The example Seligman used in the Ted Talk referred to last week was chocolate – the first taste may be amazing, but a few scoops later it has lost at least some of its appeal. Basically, we get used to it. Up to a point, we become immune to its impact.
This process of adaptation to feelings, e.g., pleasure or anguish, has been highlighted in numerous pieces of research over the years, but perhaps one of the most instructive studies for the purposes of the current conversation was conducted in the late 1970s in the United States. Philip Brickman and colleagues looked at self-reported happiness levels among big lottery winners, seriously injured accident victims, and a control group who had not experienced an extreme high or low.
They sought to look at how contrast and habituation impacted on happiness over time. Among their findings were that simple, everyday pleasures lost their lustre for the big lottery winners. This was attributed to the peak experience of winning the lottery proving so powerful that the feelings associated with the everyday pleasures paled by comparison, whereas prior to winning the lottery no such comparison existed.
They also found that the experience of winning the lottery did not necessarily boost happiness in a permanent way. Instead, through a process of habituation, winners tended to become accustomed to their new situation, it became the ‘new normal’. Perhaps some were happier overall, but it tended to be marginal. This is of particular interest, as it speaks directly to our topic. If most of us were to be asked if we wanted to win the lottery, we would presumably answer in the affirmative. Enough Irish people buy lottery tickets each week to suggest that this is the case. Presumably we do so with the expectation that winning the lottery would transform our lives and make us much happier. It is important to remember that every individual is different and research of this nature points to trends (as opposed to guarantees), but what we can take from this study and others like it is that our expectations for what is going to make us happier may not necessarily be accurate and if we experience a pleasure/hedonic-based boost, by its very nature, it will tend to be relatively short-lasting.
There is much more that can be written about this general area, and we will return to it next week.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.