“I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it.” – Rita Mae Brown
We all want to be happy, but doing only what is easy and fun all the time can lead to financial ruin, social isolation, and psychological depression. Most of us also want to have something to show for our lives besides designer shoes and vacation photos. I have been thinking a lot recently about “having it all” on the grand scale – a life filled with both purpose and pleasure – and how to strike the right balance to achieve good health and abundant happiness.
Last fall, Stanford University invited top scholars from the fields of design, marketing, psychology, psychiatry, and sociology to discuss “The New Science of Happiness.” Every one of the experts described happiness as both enjoying and finding meaning in what you are doing. That hardly seems noteworthy. Since the roundtable last fall, however, I have had several related epiphanies about happiness – specifically, about the appropriate mix of pleasure and purpose.
First, “pleasure” and “purpose” as I am using them here are different sides of the same coin of “happiness,” but both are important to living a joyful life. (Note, the father of “positive psychology,” Martin Seligman, identified three components to happiness – positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. I am combining the second two for the sake of simplicity.) Everything we do is motivated by the expectation of good feelings that we believe will come from our action. Some feelings are those of temporary euphoria or self-gratification, like when your favorite baseball team wins a game or you treat yourself to a morning donut; these pleasures bolster hedonic well-being. By contrast, volunteering at a hospital or as a child advocate could be heart-breaking, but may contribute to eudaimonic well-being, or one’s sense of purpose.
Last year, a team of scientists from the University of North Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) examined the biological effect of activities that foster pleasure versus those that feel purposeful. The Report found a biological basis for the need to balance pleasure and purpose. Both forms of well-being (hedonic and eudaimonic) are associated with improved physical and mental health; however, test subjects who were happy but had little meaning in their lives showed genetic patterns associated with chronic stress while those who reported finding purpose in how they spend their time exhibited a less stressful genetic profile. In other words, among people who claimed to be happy overall, those who obtained happiness from both pleasure and purpose derived more physical and psychological benefit from those good feelings than those whose general well-being was derived from primarily one or the other.
Second, it is extremely rare to find complete enjoyment and fulfilment in one thing, particularly a job. We Millenials (Generation Ys) grew up being told to “follow our passion” and “be all that we can be.” At the same time as we were encouraged to aim high, we were constantly praised for our many talents and accomplishments. We believe that we can, and should, make a difference in the world. Unlike our parents, mostly from the Baby Boomer Generation, we want more than a paycheck from our jobs – we want to be challenged and appreciated, and we believe we have a right to enjoy our work.
Personally, I always assumed I would have meaningful work that I enjoy. And of course, many people do. However, that still does not guarantee happiness. The reality is that even the most rewarding job comes with one or more downsides – office politics, long hours, a harsh boss, stress, health hazards, long commute, annoying co-workers/clients, etc. And jobs change. A promotion can mean more stress, new leadership can create turf wars, or downsizing may prompt a search for a new job. The right balance between purpose and pleasure is much larger than a day job, and must encompass family, hobbies, friends, faith, fitness, etc.
Third, it is possible to derive pleasure from purpose and vice versa. I used to believe that some people were more driven than others; in other words, that certain people value purpose over pleasure so are willing to dedicate themselves to a goal even when that means sacrificing relationships or their own health. That may be true, but I also think some individuals derive more pleasure from doing meaningful work so need less from outside their jobs to make them happy. That used to be me. Now, I am more like the many people who find both their purpose and pleasure outside their job.
When I first moved to D.C. after grad school, I worked long hours on Capitol Hill for a barely livable wage, but I was so excited by the powerful people I was meeting and the important work I was doing, I didn’t mind missing family vacations or only getting six hours of sleep at night. I derived pleasure from the purpose of my efforts and was genuinely happy.
Today, I cannot fathom working fourteen-hour days for any cause. Rather, working a less-than-world-changing position that allows me to be with my son for almost half of his waking hours and vacation 6+ weeks per year makes me very happy. I find meaning in my time with my family at this formative phase. My purpose is to support my husband and nurture my son; my job is just a small way that I do that.
Finally, there are small adjustments we can make to strike the appropriate purpose/pleasure balance at a given period in our lives. Planning a vacation can bring pleasure for weeks in advance of a trip, even if other demands require a purpose-focus right until travel day. Volunteer work can bring purpose to a mostly pleasure-filled lifestyle.
During my pregnancy and early motherhood, I indulged in the pleasure of those experiences, but a few months ago I began to sense a lack of purpose. Now that my son is one and my husband has become an expert at juggling school and fatherhood, I am ready to do something meaningful outside my family, so I am taking on a new pro bono project. Once my son is in school, I may transition to a job that challenges me more and helps me contribute to my community. Or maybe I will become a full-time mom and find purpose in participating in the PTA and/or doing volunteer legal aid work. Only time will tell …
The last component of the purpose/pleasure balance, it seems to me, is perspective. Even when the scales are completely tipped in one direction, it is important to remember that the only constant is change, and that we each have the power to readjust our personal balance as needed. As Roald Dahl articulately put it, “a little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”
And that’s the end of my philosophizing for this week!