WASHINGTON, April 1, 2012 - Winning mega millions in the lottery touches on the subject of happiness. Or does it? It might be more accurate to say that it touches on the ease of obtaining pleasure. Mega money buys us pleasurable goods and experiences, and there is nothing wrong with that. The only catch is, pleasure disappears like cotton candy on the tongue, and does not of itself create a meaningful life.
University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman discovered that people make happier choices when they understand the difference between feelings of pleasure and a feeling of gratification. He observed this while teaching a class to undergraduates about whether happiness could be taught.
Pleasure vs. gratification
Pleasures are associated with a physical sensation that can be described. Pleasurable goods and activities require savoring because the emotional high they provide evaporates not long after the experience, or newness ends. A new car only smells new a few weeks, and we all know how long an orgasm lasts.
Gratification is different. When involved in gratifying activities, we feel “something” afterward that is difficult to name. It might be described as a one-pot stew of goodness, warmth, a bit of joy, and expansiveness, but some things are better off without definition. Gratification sticks to the ribs, builds muscle, and keeps us full longer.
Gratifying activities absorb our attention. We become so immersed time disappears. While fully engaged, there is usually an absence of feeling, until we stop and come up for air. Then, we realize “That really felt good!” Gratification can cause people to fall asleep with a dopey grin on their face.
It’s like we confuse ourselves
According to Seligman, humans are or have become poor at distinguishing gratification from pleasure. We use the word “like” to indicate either one. For example, we say, “I like a cold beer on a hot day.” We also say, “I like volunteering at the hospital.” A cold beer is a pleasure and volunteering is gratifying, yet we talk about them the same way, as if the same type of feeling comes with both.
Many people expect pleasure out of gratifying activities and gratification from pleasure when they are two different experiences.
It is not always a pleasure sitting down to write, but having written anyway is gratifying. Cleaning the house is not pleasurable for many of us, but people can be gratified by maintaining a clean, comfortable home. Drinking wine is a pleasure, but drinking wine while dining with a good friend is gratifying.
In Seligman’s experience, gratification happens when a person exercises their strengths, virtues, and talents in an activity. He doesn’t mention passion or interest, but those qualities seem to fit as well. When our top strengths are used to serve something bigger than ourself, then we enter the realm of living a meaningful life. Research backs this up.
There is evidence that people who experience an increase in wealth do notice an increase in happiness if they use their additional resources to purchase “inconspicuous goods.” Examples of that are one parent leaving their job to be home with the kids, or a person using the extra money for college tuition. Here, again, seeking gratification is related to happiness.
Not to knock pleasure
Gratification may be the meat of happiness, but pleasure has to be the au jus. It is gratifying to write this article, but I’m happy to be sipping a good cup of coffee as well. A life of gratification and meaning topped with sprinkles of pleasure (or gobs of whipped cream if you prefer) seems to invite happiness.
People in the U.S. spent 1.5 billion dollars for a chance to win last Friday’s mega million drawing. Even those of us who didn’t buy a ticket had the pleasure of imagining what we would do with all that dough. The winnings may or may not bring happiness to the lottery winners, but it would be highly gratifying to know you created a happy life after winning a truckload of green.
Even people who have depression or bipolar depression do better when they engage in gratifying activities. However, that may not relieve symptoms enough to bring back enjoyment of life. Learn more at Healthline.com.
Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004) Can Happiness Be Taught?. Daedalus. 133/2, 80+.
Frank, Robert H. (2004) How Not to Buy Happiness. Daedalus. 133/2, 69+.
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