Why shouldn’t you try to be happy

Paul Bloom is Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and Professor Emeritus at Yale. Author of six books, his writings have appeared in Nature, Science, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Atlantic.

Below Paul shares five key ideas from his new book, The Sweet Spot: the pleasures of suffering and the search for meaning.

1. “He who has a Why living can take almost anything How? ‘Or’ What. “

Many people will tell you that humans are hedonists. We just want to have a good time, we seek pleasure, we avoid pain, and that’s it. Sometimes we choose to suffer, but from this point of view the only reason we do it is to get what we want. We are going to work to earn money for fun. We go to the store to buy food to eat. But at the end of the day, all we really want is fun.

But I don’t think that’s fair, and I hope my book will convince you to take an alternative, which you might call motivational pluralism. It’s a name that sounds awful, but the idea is that we want a lot of things. We should reject the one-word answers to the question “What makes people tick?” This is nicely summed up by economist Tyler Cowen, who writes: “What is good in an individual human life cannot be boiled down to one single value. It is not just about beauty or justice or happiness. Pluralist theories are more plausible. Postulate a variety of relevant values, including human well-being, justice, fairness, beauty, the artistic heights of human achievement, the quality of mercy, and the many different and sometimes even contrasting types of happiness. Life is complicated.”

Now an alternative to pleasure is meaning. This quest for meaning is just as important as the desire to have a good time, to have fun, to be happy. I present a lot of scientific data for this post in my book, but it’s an old idea, that’s why I take inspiration from the writings of Viktor Frankl, especially his book The search for meaning of man.

In the 1930s Frankl, who was a psychiatrist in Austria, found himself in Nazi concentration camps, first in Auschwitz, then in Dachau. Even in the camps, he continued his work. His research topic was depression and suicide, and he studied fellow inmates, wondering what distinguished those who maintained a positive attitude from those who couldn’t stand it and lost motivation, often committing suicide. He concluded that the answer is meaning. Those with the best chance of survival were those whose life had a larger purpose, who had a purpose, a plan or a relationship, a reason for living. Frankl liked to quote Nietzsche: “He who has a Why living can take almost anything How? ‘Or’ What“—A beautiful illustration of the complexity and richness of human motivation.

2. Suffering can increase pleasure.

I started this book because I was interested in a puzzle. Normally we avoid pain, anxiety, stress, and discomfort, but sometimes we seek it out. Think about your own favorite negative experience. Maybe you go to see movies that make you cry, scream, or throw up. You might listen to sad songs. You could bite wounds, eat spicy foods, submerge yourself in hot baths or saunas. Maybe you climb mountains, run marathons, decide to get punched in the face in gyms and dojos. Why would you want to seek out these unpleasant experiences? One of the reasons is what Paul Rosin calls benign masochism. Sometimes the pain can help you escape on your own. Sharp pain can distract you from your daily worries. Sometimes we look for pain to signal to others how hard we are. Sometimes the pain is a source of fluidity and control. CS Lewis points out that if you don’t eat because you don’t have food, there isn’t much to say about it, but if you don’t eat because you are fasting, this could be a demonstration. of control and mastery.

Probably the simplest explanation for benign masochism is that pain and pleasure are closely related. Neuroscientists will tell you that the brain is a machine of difference; the experience is understood in terms of contrast. In gambling studies, losing $ 10 is pretty bad, but if you thought you were losing $ 50, it’s not bad at all. This is actually quite positive.

We play with this contrast to have fun. We seek the pain to maximize the contrast with the experience that comes next. A mouthful of a hot bath might be worth it because of the blissful contentment that comes when the temperature cools. The burn of hot curry can be pleasurable if followed by the shocking relief of a cold beer. It is the contrast theory that explains why we choose to feel pain. It’s like the old joke my dad used to tell me about the guy banging his head against the wall. When asked why he said, “It feels so good when I stop.”

3. Suffering can give us meaning.

Young men sometimes choose to go to war, and although they do not wish to be maimed or killed, they do hope to be faced with challenges, fear and struggle. Some of us choose to have children. We usually have an idea of ​​how difficult it is going to be, but we rarely regret our choices. More generally, the most central projects in our lives involve suffering and sacrifice. If it was easy, what would it be for?

Five facts link suffering and meaning. First, people who say their life is meaningful tend to report more anxiety, worry, and struggle than those who say their life is happy. Second, the countries whose citizens report the most meaning, that is, say they live the most rewarding life, tend to be poor countries where life is relatively difficult, which is different from the happiest countries, which tend to be prosperous and secure. . Third, the jobs that people say are the most meaningful, such as being a medical professional or clergyman, often involve dealing with the pain of others. Fourth, when asked to describe the most significant experiences in our life, we tend to think of extremes; it includes very pleasant events, but also very painful events. Finally, and I think most importantly, we often choose activities that we know will test us, from training for a marathon to raising kids, because we know, on an instinctive level, that these activities are important. As novelist Julian Barnes put it, “It hurts as much as it is worth. “

4. Stress sweetens life.

Psychologists like to talk about paradox of effort. We normally seek to reduce our efforts and try to make things easier for ourselves. But sometimes effort is the secret sauce that makes things better. One of the classic discoveries of psychology is that the more effort you put into something, the more you appreciate it. This is the logic of Benjamin Franklin’s classic advice on how to turn a rival into a friend: ask him to do you a favor. Having worked to help you, they will love you more. Or take the story of Mark Twain when Tom Sawyer had to clear his fence. When Tom’s friends pass by, he pretends to be delighted with the task, and soon his friends end up paying him for the privilege of working on the fence. As Twain says, “Tom Sawyer had discovered a great law of human action, which is that for a man or a boy to covet a thing, it suffices to make that thing hard to attain.”

These are anecdotes and stories, but there is lab support for it. Michael Norton and his colleagues at Harvard Business School performed a series of experiments where they found that people prefer the objects they helped create. They are particularly attached to it, and the more work, the better. They call it the IKEA effect, after the big box store where people assemble their own furniture and seem to like it more.

Another manifestation of the pleasures of effort is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls to flow. You might think that the perfect life is sitting on the couch, watching Netflix, and relaxing. But Csikszentmihalyi found that people actually get tremendous pleasure, satisfaction, and wealth when they are immersed in an activity. You know you’re in the flow when the time goes by, but you don’t notice it. You forget to eat and miss appointments. In order for this to happen, however, the activity must reach a certain ideal point. If it’s too easy, you’ll be bored. If it’s too difficult, you will get anxious. But the power of flow, experienced by great athletes, musicians, writers, and sometimes by all of us, is a fine illustration of the centrality of effort in human satisfaction.

5. Don’t try to be happy.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is doomed to fail; you can ruin being happy by trying too hard. There are studies that examine the extent to which people are motivated to pursue happiness. They might ask people questions such as, “How much do you agree with the statement, ‘Feeling happy is extremely important to me” or “How happy I am at some point says a lot. on the value of my life ”? It turns out that people who agree with these things are more likely to be depressed and lonely. There are several reasons for this. By setting unrealistic expectations, people who seek happiness prepare for failure – or maybe the conscious pursuit of happiness makes you think about your happiness a lot, which keeps you from being happy. It’s like thinking how good you are at kissing is probably keeping you from being a good kisser.

The second part of the problem is that when we are asked what makes us happy, we are usually wrong. It turns out that the pursuit of extrinsic goals i.e. praise and reward goals like looking good and earning money makes you less happy, less fulfilled, and is linked to depression, anxiety and mental illness. Paradoxically enough, if you want to be content with your life, if you want to experience pleasure, joy, and meaning, you may have to try less to achieve these things.

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