flowing motion

Pleasure, engagement and meaning for a good life

Posted on: January 7, 2010

Is happiness = pleasure?

Gaye Prior kindly commented on my post about poetry and positive psychology.

“Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love. These are more important to me than passing enjoyment and survive even in the face of tragedy, horror, awfulness and loss.”

Do positive psychologists equate happiness with pleasure?

I’ve promised to reply in four parts describing the 4 puzzles of positive psychology.  This is the first part.

Principles of positive psychology

Let’s make the 1st principle of positive psychology the study of the positive (rather than the study of the negative or gaps or deficits.)

The 2nd principle is that well-being or happiness has three parts. As Gaye says “Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love.”

Martin Seligman points out that well-being is made up of

The pleasurable life

The engaged life

The meaningful life

There is a questionnaire on the Penn Uni site that anyone can do. The items on the questionnaire flesh out the concepts.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page and pick “measures 3 routes to happiness” under “life satisfaction questionnaires” (2nd last on the page as I write).

Using the ideas of pleasure, engagement and meaning to enrich your life

Here is the description of the three levels of life provided by the psychologists at Penn Uni.

Higher scores on the Engaging Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life) and the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are) have been shown to lead to greater satisfaction with life. Higher scores on the Pleasant Life (having as many pleasures as possible and having the savoring and mindfulness skills to amplify the pleasures) don’t add to satisfaction. To measure your satisfaction, use the Satisfaction with Life Scale.

Keeping pleasure, engagement and meaning in balance

Few of us have our lives in balance. That is the message for people who live in abundant circumstances.  Seek balance (and stop complaining!).

Seeking pleasure, engagement and meaning in difficult circumstances

For those of who do not live in abundant circumstances, we have serious shortfalls in one area or another and these shortfalls are not under our control.

I am always uneasy about casual interpretations of positive psychology that dismiss reality. Life can be awful.

The point though is what can be done about it?  If something is not under our control, there is little point in railing about it. It it is not under our control then it is not under our control.  Focusing on what is out-of-control just makes us feel helpless.  That was Seligman’s original speciality btw ~ learned helplessness.  Continually focusing on what cannot be done destroys our ability to do anything.

What we can do is work with what we’ve got, and work with whomever will work with us, to leverage whatever we can. We may not be able to change reality but we can do what we can.

Taking control of what little is under our control increases our chances of surviving difficult circumstances

Doing what we can with people who are important to us also seems to increase our chances of survival. Those chances might be minimal, as they were for later psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived an extermination camp. But they improve.

The overriding rule

We must remember that we have to work with what is under our control. That is you, me, the people around us and what works. Those are our tools.

The importance of pleasure

We should also not neglect the pleasurable life. We should respect fine food, the sunset and the rose growing in the garden. Oddly, savoring and mindfulness, though nowhere near the whole story of positive psychology, start a positive spiral.

Gratitude diaries provoke a spiral of well being.  On a really bad day, feel the earth under your feet. Look at that unexciting doorway of brick and mortar as the most magnificent invitation.

The unfairness of engagement

The engaged life is easy for professional people. We work and like to. Engagement is much more problematic for young people who generally only find ‘flow’ in sports and hobbies. One of the reasons that computer games are popular is that they provide the autonomy, social interaction, opportunity to learn, and opportunity to belong to something meaningful that is often not possible in our educational system.

People in low level jobs also have trouble finding flow in jobs which are poorly designed, micro-managed, and in which they are treated with rudeness and contempt. It is common for people in low level jobs to “recraft”. Why is it that security guards in Zimbabwe are more knowledgeable than shop assistants? Why are domestic help loyal? There is an element of Stockholm syndrome, but there is also a natural tendency to create a job that is satisfying to do.

The fragility of meaning

The meaningful level is provided by being part of something larger than ourselves.

I imagine more wars are created by violating this level than by anything more complicated. We are sensitive to exclusion and exclusion ‘crashes’ our psychological structures very quickly indeed (5 to 10 minutes does it.)

When we are victims of exclusion, we can create a temporary protective buffer with savoring, mindfulness and gratitude diaries. Some people use the pleasure principle badly, of course, and take to overeating and drink, both of which have their place in celebration but are ill-advised compensation for lack of  belonging. A walk or smelling a rose allow us to avoid adding a punished body to a battered soul.

Exclusion is devastating.

I hasten to add, that we shouldn’t be too judgemental about people who ‘get it wrong’ because exclusion is devastating.

There is a saying

“when someone in authority like a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, it is like looking in a mirror and not being able to see your face.”

I imagine this is why migrant who “walk both sides of the street” settle better than those who try to assimilate.

Buffering oneself from the impact of exclusion

The antidotes to institutional exclusion (that go beyond a painful social slight) are to develop empathy with others, to show solidarity, and to work on healthy political structures.

We all know the do-gooder who ‘helps’ others. I mean travel the same road as others. Suffer the same risks and share the same glory.

Solidarity is a long road but it is the best road. Mindfulness matters again but not the mindfulness of concrete pleasures. This time we want mindfulness towards the dynamism of the universe.

Simple techniques like closing one’s eyes and listening for the furthest sound can break the cycle of intense stress. Paolo Coelho’s post of today tells us to look expectantly for the magic moments that arrive unannounced and are gone in a twinkle. When we think there is only one microsecond of possibility a day, we pay attention.  Even David Whyte’s line of “everybody is waiting for you” suggests to us that we need to reach out.

In teaching, we often use Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese to show that we are part of any situation in which we find ourselves and by showing compassion to ourselves (as opposed to self-pity and indulgence), we help to feel in touch with the movement of the universe. I’ll add the poem at the bottom.

Three levels of a good life

In summary, Gaye identified the three levels of a good life:

  • pleasure ~ respect for beauty and comfort
  • engagement ~ enjoyment of work
  • meaning ~ belonging to something bigger than ourselves

With this layout, pleasure seems as if it is the lower level. It is a level that is easily abused but so to is over-identification with achievement or subordinating ourselves to readily to others.

All three are part of the good life. When life is in a mess, try doing an audit of what is going well in each area. Sometimes the map that follows is surprising.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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5 Responses to "Pleasure, engagement and meaning for a good life"

Good morning Jo. As ever you say a great deal in compact form. Thank you, and for keeping it in lay language for the accountant.
I think I shall print this off in order to be able to read it and contemplate the points you make.

Thank you, Jo!

Your style of storytelling is making reading you one of life’s pleasures. The contemplating of the beautiful sunset or savouring the perfect look, smell and then taste of one’s favourite dish.

I like the simplicity that indicates decades of practice, caring about the reader and the professionalism in what you are writing about. The small decisions what and how you discuss a subject are what make the result so enjoyable.

I just managed to start my wife reading Seligman’s Authentic Happiness. Two years back, when I was enjoying the book, she agreed to do the VIA24 signature strength test and read the one chapter about positive parenting. When in a trusting relationship it takes a full year to get from thought to fuller action, imagine the effort needed of changing the field of psychology from looking what is wrong with us to helping us live in our strengths.

Your discussions about positive psychology are raising awareness and interest in managing one’s happiness easier for hundreds.

Would you be willing to share your 5 signature strengths with us, your readers 🙂 ?

Sincerely yours,
Baldur

Hi Baldur, your enthusiasm is what I need on a lazy Saturday when inside is too warm and outside is too cold (we are a fragile lot over here in UK! – its only around zero.)

My signature strengths change with the season. I don’t think they are personality traits though some people treat them as such.

They change with the themes that taking up headroom at the time.

I’ve also found that in various cultures we are seen quite differently.

Another way of looking at it is that strengths are our contact with others (not my idea Professor Ralphy Stacey of Hertfordshire.)

And our relationships with others change. Thanks for your email btw. It was very kind and helped me too. I had to write a CV like profile and did the exercise first. That helps a lot.

Cheers
Jo

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[…] conversations can lead to what Martin Seligman and the positive psychologists call “the engaged life” and “the meaningful life” and then more “authentic […]

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