The path to happiness – Part II: What makes you (really) happy?

Read part I of this series: Why bad news is stronger than good news

About a month ago, my financé and I were on holiday in Kwazulu-Natal and I was going to spend a day on my own. I was lying on a backpackers’ deck-chair in the sun, surrounded by lush vegetation and some monkeys playing games in the crowns of palm trees.

One would think I must have been very happy. What could I complain about? I was this privileged, young, healthy person in a beautiful place with time and money on my hands, free to do whatever I wanted to do.

And even though I was totally aware of that, I wasn’t happy on that day. Yes, I felt dissatisfied and my mood was clouded due to some issues out of my control.

Being in a bad mood is something that I can not stand for long, so I knew I had to change it. I thought I should do what I would do with my coaching clients and wrote some constructive thoughts into my notebook.

After that I was still not happy. I realised I was thinking too much. How could I practically uplift myself? I went through all the options I had available. The suggestions to myself included getting a cocktail, lie at the beach, having a good meal, shopping, relax in the jacuzzi, listen to good music, lie down for a nap. Nothing excited me really.

After a while I decided to go to the beach in order to simply enjoy nature and think positive thoughts. After all, I am all about Positive Psychology, right?

And there I was then, looking at the waves with the intention to meditate a bit. I hadn’t even started when I saw one of the guys from our backpackers chatting to an unknown beach beauty. I looked over to his spot which he had deserted, and next to his towel was a set of sandpit tools:  a bucket, a grate, a shovel and a sieve. Instruments I hadn’t seen or touched since pre-school times.

All my lights went on immediately. That was it! I was going to build a sandcastle!

For more than an hour, I made towers, built walls, collected decoration, went up and down fetching sea water, and was passionately immersed in the activity. Some teenagers nearby looked embarrassed for me, but that didn’t bother me at all. I was in flow, and while I was busy, I got all kinds of metathoughts. In short, it made my day and I knew exactly why.

My realisations brought me back to Martin Seligman’s differentiation between pleasures and gratifications:1

In western society we say “eating Sushi makes me happy” just as we say “hiking makes me happy”. This means mixing up two classes of the best things in life and can actually make us unhappy.

Eating Sushi belongs to the first class of delights, which are bodily pleasures. They are directly linked to positive emotions through our senses. The feeling of taking a hot bath, the taste of a good wine on the tongue, watching a movie, listening to music or the first ice cream in summer. Touch, taste, smell, vision and sound can evoke pleasures like comfort, exuberance or ecstasy. These pleasures come easily, need little interpretation, satisfy our biological needs and have an immediate effect.

The problem however is that we cannot build our lives around fleeting and momentary bodily pleasures. Pleasure fades rapidly once the stimulus disappears (for example once we have eaten the pack of chocolate). We also quickly get used to them. Indulging in the same pleasure after a short period of time has much less effect and might even not be pleasurable at all. Try it out by having your favourite meal every day or listening to your favourite song non-stop for 30 minutes. Another problem is that we also often develop cravings or need bigger doses of our favourite pleasures to get the same kick again. In short, nothing is built for the future when we enjoy pleasures, because we consume them and then they are gone.

The second class of things that make us happy are gratifications. Gratifications are activities we enjoy doing, like painting, hiking, singing, teaching, dancing, writing, coding etc. They engage us fully, we become absorbed in them and lose self-consciousness as they produce a special state called “flow”. This state can not be chemically induced nor attained by any short cuts. Think about artists, writers, musicians or any other person being immersed in their favourite activity. While they are busy, they forget about themselves, they are “in it”, become one with what they do.

Gratifications call on our strengths to meet a challenge while we also learn from them. Positive feelings from gratifications are authentic, deeply felt and last longer than those we gain from pleasures. Compare the feeling of having climbed a mountain versus taking the cable cars, or buying something versus making it yourself.  At the same time, gratifications are often hard-won and there is always a risk of failing before we get to enjoy the positive feelings, mostly only after our efforts. 

In simple terms, one can conclude that pleasures are more about short-term consumption and that they usually don’t have long term advantages.  Gratifications require “work” in order to gain the eventual reward, but their advantages usually result in long-term benefits and personal growth. 

In general, there is nothing wrong with enjoying short-term pleasures. I believe the problem is that our capitalist society teaches us the wrong lesson. The general idea portrayed by the media is that if we just have enough money, we will be happy, because then we can afford all the pleasures. We’re shown celebrities as role models for the good life, how they bathe in their money, lie at the beach, drink champagne, party every day and drive a fancy cabriolet. We get conditioned to want that. However, all of those things are pleasures, and while it might be exciting, fun and ego-boosting for the first while, the happiness will not last. That is why lotto millionaires are only ecstatic for a while, and after a few months they are as happy or unhappy with their lives as they were before. It is also why we always crave for more, every wish we grant ourselves, everything we buy and consume just makes us want more and we often can not see that our wants will never end. How often did I fell for the idea in my mind that it is just that one thing that I still need to feel complete? And as we make more money, what we think we need grows bigger. A bigger tv, a better car, a bigger house and then maybe a holiday home we use three weeks a year?

It can be very illuminating to look at those celebrities who have everything and have enjoyed all of life’s pleasures. Their cravings usually don’t stop either and they often become addicted to drugs, sex, new partners, alcohol and the admiration and envy they receive from normal people which prove to them that their life is ideal because so many people want it.

The truth is, when an entire lifetime is taken up by the pursuit of positive feelings gained from pleasures, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found. Authentic and lasting positive emotions come from a place within us, not from outer stimuli.

What are the things that make you really happy?

Read more in Seligman, M. E. P. (2007) Authentic happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston.

Read part I of this series: Why bad news is stronger than good news

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9 Responses to The path to happiness – Part II: What makes you (really) happy?

  1. Anselm says:

    Old debate but great read! It is good to be reminded of these things now and then; So what was the sand castle: pleasure or gratification? I’m very interested in knowing how the sand castle made you happy, it is implied by your article, so I guess I’m asking about what in that moment was fascinating about the sand castle making, the experience or how the “flow” was achieved?

    • masara says:

      Hi Anselm. Thank you for your comment.
      Yes, you are absolutely right. We all know these things somehow, and still, how often do we strive for the wrong things?
      I would say building the sand castle was definitely a gratification for me, even though sometimes the difference between the two classes is not very clear. I love to have great food for example (pleasure), however, best is to have a great conversation with it (gratification).
      What was great about the sand castle experience for me, was that (1) I did not have to think in order to do it (in fact it distracted me from dysfunctional thinking), (2) I could be creative, (3) I felt instant gratification as it is really not too difficult to build a sand castle and (4) it connected me with my inner child/playfulness, a very powerful state we very rarely allow ourselves to immerse in.

  2. I loved this post. So insightful. Thanks for writing!

  3. Zara Alyssa says:

    It is so true that we are immersed in a culture where it seems that we can buy happiness and being conditioned this way means that we often forget that happiness lies in real things, virtues, strengths, doing and connecting (and sushi along the way). Thanks for the article.

    • masara says:

      I so agree. My philosophy is to use the pleasures to celebrate the achievements/experiences gained through gratifications (with Sushi being one of my personal favourites :-P)

  4. Christian says:

    Great article! Gotta think about my (potential) gratifications …

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