I often quote the following from the outstanding book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive relaxing times, although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to achieve something worthwhile”
It perfectly captures the modern struggle we all face of living in a body fashioned by evolution in times of scarcity that finds itself in an age of abundance. It’s self-evidently true when we reflect back on our lives, but counter to our intuitions and instincts when we’re making decisions for the near-term future.
The psychological and physiological mechanisms that saw our ancestors through tougher times leave us imperfectly equipped for an age of comfort, abundant food and modern technology combined with an economic structure that sees to it that they, and by extension we, are efficiently exploited.
We are instinctively drawn to pleasure, easy short term hits of gratification, and find it harder and less intuitive to pursue activities that require effort, but that create enjoyment and lasting value.
There is a place for simple pleasures in life but even if we could somehow fill our lives chock full of such experiences it would not create happiness - indeed as I’m fond of rather pretentiously saying ‘pleasure and happiness are probably orthogonal’ (and oh my god am I hoping to be asked to explain what orthogonal means).
However, we would do better to seek challenge, overcome the resistance and our inbuilt inertia and bolster merely pleasurable experiences with those that providing last value - experiences that create enjoyment as opposed to mere pleasure.
To understand the distinction consider 3 dimensions; endeavour, timing and growth.
|When does it feel good||Mainly retrospectively||In the moment|
|Can create growth||Yes||No|
Pleasure provides immediate gratification, requiring little to no endeavour and provides little long term value or benefit. Enjoyment requires us to overcome some sensible degree of challenge, may or may not be gratifying in the moment, and provides a path to increased skills and capabilities for the future.
Experiences need not be wholly one or the other; the very apex of human experience (OK, perhaps only a little personal bias here) is riding a bike up a mountain on the beautiful island of Majorca. There is great sensory pleasure to be obtained from the observation of the surroundings and the blue skies, the sunshine and feeling the warmth of the sun but there is also effort required to push my heavy frame up the incline.
A couple of examples might help delineate; when on holiday it’s the difference between laying on a beach all day versus a challenging day of skiing, or the difference between eating a bar of chocolate and hand-making farfalle with one’s beautiful daughter for dinner.
Pleasure and enjoyment peak at different parts of the endeavour spectrum as you can see below.
(Obviously my graphs are always to scale)
The y-axis shows the positive hedonic impact (ie how good you feel), and the x-axis takes a journey from the triviality to the impossibility of the activity being attempted relative to our current abilities.
Eating a bar of chocolate is easy, and creates pleasure and is positive in the moment. Running your first marathon is hard work, but enjoyable and positive in retrospect. Staring at the wall or taking on the impossible is neither pleasurable or enjoyable.
Or rather, how good does it feel and when? The following chart shows how the positive emotions change over time in response to pleasure and enjoyment.
Pleasurable activities feel great whilst we’re doing them, fade a bit even before we’re done and provide no lasting benefit. If we’re lucky. Our brains are surprisingly good at getting us to do things that are counter-productive, and at odds with our long term goals. In this case, we can feel pretty terrible soon after the initial high has worn off.
Enjoyable activities may or may not create positive emotions during the activity. If the pain of the last few miles of one’s first marathon were caused by illness it would be intolerable. However it’s volitional and bearable and, more importantly, leaves a lasting positive legacy.
You don’t get physically strong by not lifting heavy weights and instead relaxing on the sofa. This extends to all areas of our life; it is only by embracing challenge, and by confronting and overcoming challenges that we get strong.
There’s a nice saying
Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.
We should definitely not lead an ascetic existence deprived of life’s simple pleasures. But neither should be optimise only for comfort, ease, and simple pleasures.
There is gold in endeavour and persistence, in facing challenges, and choosing to do the hard rather than the easy thing. Not always but certainly more than most of our instincts would have us do.