Perspective: When pleasure-seeking makes you miserable
Is too much pleasure-seeking and immediate gratification leading Americans to more emotional suffering long-term? Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke and others sure think so
In a recent “Hidden Brain” podcast episode, science journalist Shankar Vedantam interviews psychiatrist Anna Lembke, who explains not only the perils of too much pleasure, but also divulges, with disarming honesty, her own addiction journey. It starts innocently with the “Twilight series,” segues into vampire romance novels, and ends up with Lembke, a mother and Stanford Medical School professor, reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” until 3 a.m., gradually losing interest in her family, career and life outside erotic fiction.
Too much pleasure creates problems, according to Lembke, who studies and treats addictive behaviors. Instant gratification in the form of immediate deliveries, phone feeds, entertainment offerings or even fruit always in season contrasts with most of human history in which our ancestors walked miles for a little honey and experienced entertainment rarely.
By pushing the pleasure button so often, according to Lembke, we develop cravings and withdrawals that can lead over time to addiction, malaise and depression. Our brain, in its effort to maintain homeostasis, counterbalances too much pleasure with some pain, paying back instant gratification with discomfort that can include suffering and withdrawals.
Conversely, says Lembke, activities that require initial discomfort and even mild pain, like exercise, learning an instrument and (church-goers will appreciate this) focused prayer and religious practices create a discomfort-first, pleasure-last scenario. The result? Far less painful payback, alongside much more of a sense of contentment and well being.
Doing hard stuff, sacrificing and forgoing pleasure aren’t exactly popular mantras in an age of expressive individualism. But those who study and write about lasting happiness point out that the frustration and pain of deferred gratification for a greater good can lead to a meaningful life, if not always necessarily to shorter-term bliss.
Meaning over happiness
In a 2013 Atlantic article, Emily Esfahani Smith, author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters,” describes a little-known anecdote from the life of psychiatrist Victor Frankl, whose imprisonment in the concentration camps of World War II validated his theoretical ideas about free will. “The last of human freedoms,” Frankl wrote after observing how some prisoners reacted with decency and found meaning in unimaginable suffering, is “to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Even before the camps, however, Frankl chose meaning over happiness when, offered a visa to America, he went to Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral looking for a “hint from heaven” about whether or not to leave his parents behind. The hint came in the form of a marble fragment, retrieved by his father in the debris of a destroyed synagogue, that Frankl discovered when he came home.
“Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother,” it read. And so Frankl stayed, losing most of his family, including a pregnant wife, in the concentration camps. He went on to write what is widely considered one of the world’s most influential books, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” The book, Smith notes in her Atlantic piece, “seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning.”
Interestingly, the greatest living expert on positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, doesn’t put a lot of stock in the pursuit of individual happiness. His research, according to Smith, finds that “people whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness.”
Another piece of research, a famous Harvard study finding that parents are happier eating and watching television than interacting with children, highlights the gap between pleasure and meaning. And yet another study found that experiencing negative events, replete with worry and stress, decreases happiness, but increases meaning.
‘Is that how you spend eternity?’
Maybe a 1993 movie some regard as a spiritually significant film for our age sheds as much light on the meaning vs. happiness conundrum as do the studies. “Groundhog Day” has become a topic of sermons and divinity school conferences through the decades, its themes lauded by Christian, Jewish and Buddhist adherents. The plot takes narcissistic protagonist Phil Conners through the same day repeated ad infinitum.
Phil initially reacts by pursuing pleasure — eating, seducing, driving recklessly, living out fantasies — until despair overtakes him. Grasping for happiness via self-gratification ends in various suicide attempts, all of which find Phil waking up in the same bed to the same alarm-radio song.
Settled into a doleful resignation of throwing cards into a hat, a spiritual awakening occurs when love interest Rita asks, “Is that how you spend eternity?” — and Phil starts doing hard things. By the film’s conclusion, he has, day after day, saved lives, changed flat tires, salvaged an engagement, become a scholar, bought insurance he doesn’t want from a friend he doesn’t like and played jazz piano at a grand finale that becomes his final day in purgatory.
According to one Christian writer, “Groundhog Day shows us we’re stuck with virtue.” But maybe we’re stuck with meaning too. According to that study mentioned earlier, meaning is part and parcel of negative experiences, and according to a lot of storytellers, negative experiences result in epiphanies that bring about meaning.
At the end of Jay McInerney’s ’80’s breakout novel “Bright Lights, Big City,” the nameless protagonist emerges from a pursuit of happiness replete with marriage to a model, a job at a famous literary magazine, witty friends, and copious amounts of Manhattan nightlife. But in the words of the book’s preface, “beyond the frolic and wondrous prospects this young man has, essentially, nothing.”
On the last page, after another all-nighter, the 24-year-old writer ends up gazing with admiration at a man on a loading dock “already at work so that normal people can have fresh bread for their morning tables ... a man who has served his country” and “a man with a family somewhere outside the city.” After trading his Ray-Bans for a roll, McInerney’s hero gags a little as he realizes, “You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.”
The ‘plenty paradox’
Learning everything all over again is hard work, but it might be a better bet than too much pleasure, which according to psychiatrist and recovering erotic-fiction junkie Lembke, author of “Dopamine Nation,” contributes in a significant way to today’s high rates of anxiety and depression.
She had an epiphany of her own when a graduate psychology student asked Lembke what she could give up to improve her life. Responding honestly led to realization, crucial truth telling and recovery.
Lembke calls the relentless pursuit of happiness “the plenty paradox” and advises her patients to try various approaches in overcoming it. Dopamine fasts can spark a refreshment of perspective and better judgment — one highly skeptical cannabis-using patient told Lembke her anxiety was finally resolved after abstaining from pot for a month, a result Lembke often sees in patients willing to sacrifice something regularly offering only short-term relief.
Changing environments and lifestyle to avoid alcohol, gambling, pornography and other cravings, along with avoiding stepping-stone habits that lead to addiction, also helps. Those who actively participate in 12-step programs like Alcoholics (or Narcotics, or Sex) Anonymous are highly successful in regaining their lives. And deciding when and for how long you’ll lapse into mindless scrolling or video games puts a limit on overkill.
But it’s Lembke’s self-described “radical suggestion” that departs from the usual advice: Actively seek out hard things. Mild to moderate doses of healthy pain and discomfort strengthen and upregulate us, so Lembke’s family goes on difficult hikes, rides bikes instead of driving cars and limits screen time considerably.
“It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl wrote, “that thwarts happiness,” a quote Smith notes in her article, along with research showing that grasping for happiness leaves people less happy. The religiously observant who believe in paradoxes like losing your life to find it might have an easier time sacrificing pleasure for difficulty, but even modern psychology seems to be coming around to the title of Smith’s piece: “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”