Many years ago, my wife and I were traveling in Ecuador. One night, we came across a distressed man sitting alone on a curb. He was very drunk and bleeding from an artery in his forehead. He spoke no English, and our Spanish was maxed out by the situation. Eventually, we were able to get pressure on the wound, flag down a vehicle, and get him to a hospital. There was nothing pleasant about the experience – it was pretty uncomfortable the whole time. However, when I think back on that experience, it is definitely a positive memory.
We had a clear purpose – to get this man the medical attention he needed. We were able to take action that served that purpose. If our only goal had been to remain comfortable, then we could have avoided the situation and kept moving. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression – I am no saint – I have avoided discomfort many times at the expense of others.
Perhaps you have an activity in your life that serves no other purpose than bringing you a bit of pleasure. Perhaps you have situations in your life where you act purposefully in the presence of some discomfort you would rather avoid. Both of these are normal aspects of human experience, but the ratio of these two in your life has a huge impact on your wellbeing. This is due to the pleasure-purpose paradox:
If the only purpose of an activity is the pursuit of pleasure, we will experience less pleasure from it over time. Further, the more intensely focused we are on the pursuit of pleasure, the less pleasure we will experience over time. The corollary is that the more intensely we focus on avoiding discomfort, the more discomfort we will experience over time.
So, here’s what I invite you to try for one week. Schedule your week based on your highest priorities. Follow the schedule. Each time you find yourself about to do something that is not on your schedule, ask yourself what the purpose is. If the only outcome is that it will bring you some pleasure, take a pass.
I want to be clear, there is nothing wrong with the experience of pleasure – pleasure is a critical part of a healthy life. But happiness is complicated. It turns out that happiness has more to do with the fulfillment that comes from being purposeful than it does from activities that are merely pleasant. Indeed, wellbeing suffers when we constantly try to maximize pleasure at the expense of purpose, or when we minimize purpose in the pursuit of pleasure.
This is true for two reasons. First, the human brain is not designed to produce the same intensity of pleasure from the same activity over time. The primary chemical in the brain for pleasure is dopamine. Dopamine receptors are designed to shut down when they are repeatedly bombarded. In other words, the first bite of ice cream will always be the most pleasurable, and every bite that follows produces a diminished version of the feeling you received from the first bite.
We are seeing the extreme result of this paradox in the addiction epidemic. We are addicted to alcohol, tobacco, sugar, painkillers, shopping, screens, and a host of other substances and activities. Candy and candy crush are perfect examples of this. Despite the fact that there is no nutritional purpose to refined sugar, the average American consumes more than 175 pounds each year. And what do we have to show for this? Thirty-five percent of us are diabetic or pre-diabetic, with a cost to the economy of about $327 billion annually. And what is the purpose to the game Candy Crush, other than a fleeting bit of pleasure or the avoidance of discomfort such as boredom or restlessness? The annual loss of workplace productivity due to Candy Crush, Facebook, and Snapchat is conservatively estimated to cost $100 billion. When we are done eating a candy bar or playing a mindless video game, all we have is a memory of the pleasure we felt while doing it and the potential cost to our wellbeing.
The second reason for the pleasure-purpose paradox is that discomfort is an inevitable part of the human experience. There is no lasting solution to human discomfort. In fact, the more we try to avoid it, the greater influence it has on our lives. Many of our attempts to avoid normal emotional experiences such as anxiety, stress, fear, sadness, anger, and frustration, eventually lead to more intense versions of the same. I work with many clients who struggle to “get rid” of anxiety. What they discover is that many of their attempts not only create greater anxiety, but also create significant limitations in other areas of their lives. For example, someone who experiences social anxiety may choose to avoid being around other people. This response adds the experience of loneliness to the experience of anxiety.
What about delayed gratification? Good question. If we are involved in an activity for no other reason than the pleasure we think it will bring us in the future, this is also potentially risky. It is helpful to keep in mind that whatever pleasure we think we will get down the road is not likely to last. Ask any top level athlete who thought that the gold medal or world championship would lead to lasting happiness. In fact, the rate of depression among that elite population is quite high. This also goes for people who think that a million dollars will do the trick. Pleasure is fleeting by design – our brains are simply not constructed to make it last. The networks and neurotransmitters in the brain that produce pleasure are quick acting and short-lived.
On the other hand, the pathways and neurotransmitters that produce contentment and fulfillment are more stable and long lasting. Filling our days with purposeful action and meaningful endeavors leads to a more positive overall experience of life. In fact, being able to identify a purpose for your days and your life is strongly associated with overall wellbeing. In modern life, stress and depression are more associated with meaningless work than they are with physically demanding work. One of the most powerful sources of purpose is meaningful connection to others — listening to others, laughing with others, and being of service.
It would be great if every purposeful activity brought us pleasure, but this is just not the case. Filing taxes serves a purpose, and very few people find it fun. While it can be difficult to engage in unpleasant activities that serve a larger purpose for an extended period of time, we are capable of doing this. A great many people care for others in times of suffering, finding it both exhausting and fulfilling. History is filled with inspiring examples of people who have endured incredibly difficult circumstances in order to serve a higher purpose.
Obviously, many activities are both purposeful and pleasurable. Hanging out with friends and family can serve to strengthen relationships and be enjoyable at the same time. This is the idea behind the encouragement to “do what you love.” Finding a job that you enjoy, that provides financial stability, and contributes to the wellbeing of others is a wonderful gift. However, waiting to find the job you love is not the only path in life. Many people discover is that if they engage in a purposeful activity over time, they develop greater skill and appreciation, which leads to greater enjoyment. Passion can be discovered and it can be cultivated.
One huge challenge is that we live in a society that triggers a fair amount of discomfort in the form of fear and anxiety about things outside our control. Twenty-four hour news is a perfect example of this. Then, we are bombarded by advertisements for products that serve the purpose of providing pleasure as an escape from this discomfort. Sugar, shiny cars, alcohol, tobacco, video games, new shoes, pornography, anti-wrinkle creams…the list of things we can buy or do to avoid discomfort or pursue pleasure is a very long one. As a result of this schizophrenic creation of anxiety and promise of relief, we now have the first generation of Americans who will not live as long as their parents. With all the choices we have been offered, our wellbeing is declining.
Some actions, such as picking up a smartphone to check social media for the tenth time in an hour are now part of our conditioning – we do them unconsciously. Each time, we get a tiny, fleeting reward – a little shot of comfort. The only lasting effect of many of these actions is craving for another shot of comfort in the future. And many of these activities come at the expense of purposeful endeavors, such as talking to live human beings, understanding their stories, and offering support.
Other examples of habitual activities include gossip, blame, or complaint. Often the only purposes that are served by these are the avoidance of discomfort or a bit of pleasure as we connect with some people at the expense of others. We can rationalize this behavior beautifully, but when we are alone and quiet, we can feel the residue that comes from it.
Every day we are confronted by moments when the desire for pleasure or the resistance to discomfort tugs us away from the path of purposeful action. These are choice points when mindfulness comes in very handy. We can feel the desire for pleasure or the pull to avoid discomfort. We can bring acceptance and self-compassion to the fact that we are conditioned human beings. We can ask ourselves “what purpose will this serve?” And, if the only purpose is pleasure, then we can experiment with taking a pass just this once. We can be with the feeling and watch it pass. We can smile as we experience the authentic confidence that comes from knowing that you are free to choose where you put your attention and energy. This momentary practice, done repeatedly, can lead to remarkable results over time.