Today I had a very enriching discussion with a good friend of mine, Penny Leach. We talked about culture, social molds, addiction and happiness. The central theme behind my comments was the conundrum of pleasure-seeking vs happiness-seeking.
I am convinced that everyone seeks to be happy, but we all have trouble discerning between pleasure and happiness.
Pleasure is more attractive because it is instant and produces intense feelings. It is not a bad thing, and life would be rather dreary without the pleasures of the 5 senses. Happiness, however, is different in some very important aspects:
|Is best obtained through selfish means
||Is only obtained through selfless means
|Cannot be shared
||Can be shared
|Does not accumulate over time
||Builds up over time
There are other distinctions that are more difficult to put into words. There is no doubt that our experience of pleasure can contribute to our happiness, just as our enjoyment of good food can contribute to our health. However, when the means become the end, when the search for pleasure becomes more important than our search for happiness, we are bound to be frustrated. We binge on pleasure until we realise we have only satisfied our taste buds without nourishing the soul.
Happiness is something we plan for in the long term. We make sacrifices for it. We even experience discomfort and pain for it. Strangely, pain and happiness are not opposites. Our attitude during trials and other negative experiences determines whether or not we are digging up a deep capacity for happiness, or digging ourselves in a ditch of self-pity and bitterness.
On the other hand if we do all in our power to avoid challenges, seeking instead for pleasure and positive experiences, we miss out on mind-changing experiences that would deepen our character and increase our capacity for happiness.
This is where we come to comfort zones.
Human nature is full of paradox and dualism. We seek for familiarity and build up habits, stereotypes, schemas, even relationships in order to get that “homely” feeling. At the same time, we crave change, improvement, progression. It is natural for us, as for water, to follow the easiest course possible. This is because change is uncomfortable.
You can experience this uncomfortable effect with a simple experiment. Simply do something for a few hours that you have never done before and that involves thinking differently than before. This could mean learning to play chess, sudoku or something else that requires mental concentration and organisation. I can guarantee that, after the initial excitement of learning something new, your brain will eventually start to “hurt” because you’ve just stepped out of a comfort zone. When you go to sleep that night, you’re likely to sleep poorly while your brain reorganises neural pathways to make room for your new ways of looking at things.
You can also experience this with habits and stereotypes. Changing a habit is difficult and annoyingly frustrating. Discovering that your stereotype of a typical French man is completely false is also uncomfortable, and you will automatically resist evidence against your pre-conceived ideas.
When you discover that something in your life is not contributing to your happiness, but is instead hampering it, you are put in a difficult situation. In any case you will pass through an uncomfortable time. You can either (restlessly) sleep on it a few nights until you’ve forgotten why you came to that conclusion, or you can decide to change. The main difference is that, with the first choice, you won’t just be back where you started, you’ll be even further back. It will take much longer next time to realise that your behaviour or way of thinking is detrimental to you or to others.
If, however, you decide to change, you will go through a period of intense discomfort. That period may be very short, or it can take a long time, but it is always just a period, and it will eventually end if you persist. The end result is that you will have changed through your own choice and efforts, not as a by-product of your environment. Even if your “new you” isn’t necessarily “better” by other people’s standards, you have learned to change yourself.
Happiness comes to people who control how they change, are changing constantly, and help others do the same.