In times of economic trouble, many people find themselves having to cut into their pleasures.
The financial pinch could mean switching from single malt to blended scotch, from risotto to Uncle Ben’s, from filet mignon to Hamburger Helper. Nights out at the opera or the movie theater might need to be spaced out a bit or eliminated altogether for a while. More drastic reductions might be required as well: smaller living quarters, less privacy, trading in the car for a transit pass, and so on.
In short, many of the pleasures to which people have become accustomed may have suddenly become too expensive in the wake of the recent financial crisis and ongoing economic malaise. So we need to ask: “What can I do to preserve my happiness level if my income level has fallen or some burdensome debts have come due? How can I get out from under without feeling overwhelmed?”
Let me be clear from the start that despite what the title of this article might suggest, this is not a screed against pleasure. Far from being a bad thing, pleasure is nature’s way of telling me I’m on the right track, whereas pain is nature’s way of telling me a course adjustment might be required. Pleasure contributes to happiness, and therefore, ceteris paribus, it is a good thing, and I should want more, not less, of it in my life.
The first thing to do, then, if belt-tightening requires that I forego some of the pricier pleasures to which I have become accustomed, is to replace them with cheaper ones. Nights out with friends can become nights in with friends, maybe learning to play bridge at long last or restarting that old book club that has been languishing for too long. Delicious meals at home, free ballet in the park, borrowing DVDs from the library—there is no shortage of ways to keep pleasure in my life even if my pocketbook is thinner than it once was.
But if pleasure is, on balance, a good thing, it is decidedly not the only thing. It does contribute to happiness, yes, but even more so than the positive stimulation of the senses, happiness requires the positive stimulation of the spirit, for lack of a better term.
In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman mentions a few ways we can amplify the pleasures in our lives, but the real heart of his theory concerns what he calls the gratifications. Unlike the pleasures, which by definition involve positive emotion, the gratifications are not primarily about emotion at all. Rather, gratifications engage us in challenging tasks that require skill and concentration and provide us with a sense of control. They are satisfying rather than being, strictly speaking, pleasant.
Eating a fine meal is a pleasure; preparing a fine meal is a gratification. Looking at a beautiful mountain is a pleasure; climbing that mountain is a gratification. Watching television, which normally requires little of us, can be a pleasure; reading a thought-provoking book, which does require skill and concentration, is a gratification.
Living a full, flourishing life does take more work than just pursuing pleasure. But don’t the rewards make it well worth the effort?
Importantly, the pleasures are easy. They may or may not be expensive in monetary terms, but they are relatively cheap in terms of the psychic energy they require, which is why we tend to overindulge in pleasures to the detriment of other aspects of life. The gratifications, on the other hand, rely on the development of strengths and virtues. Why not just pursue pleasures, then, if they are the low-hanging fruit on the happiness tree? Because a life full of pleasures but devoid of gratifications is a recipe for misery. As Seligman puts it, The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to happiness . . . leads to legions of people who in the middle of great wealth are starving spiritually. Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die.
I don’t know about you, but I do not want to fidget until I die. I have felt, at times, the emptiness of too many pleasures and too little satisfaction. Pleasure is good, but it is not enough, and it can crowd out the more fulfilling gratifications.
On a personal note, one of my deepest gratifications is writing. Writing is a source of profound happiness for me, but it is not really accurate to say that it gives me pleasure. Staring at a computer screen for hours on end can actually give me eye strain or make my head ache, and sitting for long periods of time is quite literally a pain in the butt. There are times when it can be mentally frustrating as well, when it just doesn’t flow, perhaps because I haven’t done enough background research.
But precisely because it is not easy, I get a strong sense of satisfaction from writing that I cannot get from simple sensory stimulation. Writing demands of me strengths and virtues like intelligence, creativity, productiveness, and diligence, and as such affords me with great satisfaction when I do it well.
Other areas of life that are not strictly speaking pleasurable—or not pleasurable at all—can be sources of satisfaction as well. Working out can be exhausting when I’m out of shape, paying the bills is less fun than shopping, and flossing is the last thing I feel like doing before bed, but I do get a sense of satisfaction when my pushups are done, my debts have been serviced, and my teeth are clean. Through the exercise of virtues like self-control and prudence (not the sexiest of virtues, to be sure), I feel satisfied because I am acting in my own long-term interests. I am acting, in short, like an adult.
Seligman also cautions, though, against expending too much energy trying to correct all of our shortcomings. If self-control and prudence are not one’s strong suits, they may require a little bolstering, but there is more to be gained from focusing on, say, creativity or benevolence or leadership. In other words, specialize in what Seligman calls your signature strengths, and rely on the division of labor as much as possible to fill in the gaps.
It can be easy to forget during prolonged good times what, exactly, material well-being is founded on: the virtue of productiveness, which is itself intertwined with other major virtues like rationality, honesty, and integrity. An economic downturn, while not to be desired for its own sake, can be like a splash of cold water the morning after a party. Shocked awake from drowsy dreams, we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that life is a process of self-generated action to acquire values that sustain us and allow us to flourish over the full span of our lives. The psychological benefit of satisfaction, from this point of view, is a reflection of the deeper truth that we must work for our values, be they material, social, or spiritual.
Pursuing gratifications instead of merely chasing pleasures will therefore not just cushion the pain of hard economic times; it will also help turn things around in a concrete way. By cultivating virtue and building on your strengths, you will have more to offer the world as a trader exchanging value for value. You will have more to offer in the market and you will have more to offer in the home and among your friends. And being more authentically happy, you will be more attractive to others, and more likely to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with them.
Living a full, flourishing life does take more work than just pursuing pleasure. But don’t the rewards that accrue to an authentically happy person make it well worth the effort?
Brad Doucet is the editor of the English language version of Le Quebecois Libre. His band, St. Urbain, has produced a CD called "Who's Minding the Store." You can listen to audio clips of it and purchase it at cdbaby.com.