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Day 26/06/2014

{ The Good Life vs. the Pleasant Life } Building Psychological Capital By Investing In Experiences That Produce Flow …*

{ The Good Life vs. the Pleasant Life } Building Psychological Capital By Investing In Experiences That Produce Flow ...* | rethinked.org

Last week, I wrote about the different types of happiness in the present: the pleasures and the gratifications and dove into various ways to enhance and amplify the pleasure in one’s life. Today, let’s focus on the gratifications, specifically on how they differ from the pleasures. The distinction is important as it frames the difference between the ‘Good Life” and the “Pleasant Life”–a life of growth and authenticity versus a life of ephemeral pleasures.

PSYCHOLOGICAL COMPONENTS OF THE GRATIFICATIONS

While the pleasures are about the surging of positive emotions, the gratifications are characterized by a complete lack of emotion– a full immersion in the moment and lack of self-consciousness. As I mentioned in my post last week, what Seligman calls the gratifications is, essentially, interchangeable with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s concept of flow

From Csikszentmihalyi’s research, we know that the experience of the gratifications/flow is characterized by the following components:

  • The task is challenging and requires skill
  • We concentrate
  • There are clear goals
  • We get immediate feedback
  • We have deep, effortless involvement
  • There is a sense of control
  • Our sense of self vanishes
  • Time stops (116)

PLEASURES AS CONSUMPTION, GRATIFICATIONS AS GROWTH – A THEORY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL CAPITAL

Seligman makes a fascinating analogy with the field of economics, suggesting that in the same way that we can accrue economic capital – “resources that are withdrawn from consumption and invested in the future for higher anticipated returns,” we may be endowed with a capacity for accruing psychological capital. And the way in which we build this psychological capital is through pursuing the gratifications.

When we engage in pleasures, we are perhaps just consuming. The smell of perfume, the taste of raspberries, and the sensuality of a scalp rub are all high momentary delights, but they do not build anything for the future. They are not investments, nothing is accumulated. In contrast, when we are engaged (absorbed in flow), perhaps we are investing, building psychological capital for our future. Perhaps flow is the state that marks psychological growth. Absorption, the loss of consciousness, and the stopping of time may be evolution’s way of telling us that we are stocking up psychological resources for the future. In this analogy, pleasure marks the achievement of biological satiation, whereas gratification marks the achievement of psychological growth. (117)

I find this idea of psychological capital growing from engaging with activities that produce flow rather intuitive, but Seligman backs it up with research:

Flow is a frequent experience for some people, but this state visits many others only rarely if at all. In one of Mike’s [ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ] studies, he tracked 250 high-flow and 250 low-flow teenagers. The low-flow teenagers are “mall” kids; they hang out at malls and they watch television a lot. The high-flow kids have hobbies, they engage in sports, and they spend a lot of time on homework. On every measure of psychological well-being (including self-esteem and engagement) save one, the high-flow teenagers did better. The exception is important: the high-flow kids think their low-flow peers are having more fun, and say they would rather be at the mall doing all those “fun” things or watching television. But while all the engagement they have is not perceived as enjoyable, it pays off later in life. The high-flow kids are the ones who make it to college, who have deeper social ties, and whose later lives are more successful. This all fits Mike’s theory that flow is the state that builds psychological capital that can be drawn on in years to come. (117)

THE IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD QUESTION: ASKING “WHAT IS THE GOOD LIFE?” RATHER THAN “HOW CAN I BE HAPPY?” 

To summarize, we now know that there are two very different qualities of happiness in the present: the pleasures and the gratifications. Further, we know that the former produces evanescent positive emotion while the latter builds up our psychological capital. Back-rubs and pumpkin pie are wonderful and should be savored, but if we want to grow our psychological reserves we need to be seeking out and creating experiences for ourselves that produce flow. Yet, so many of us routinely choose the pleasures over the gratifications–spending our evenings mindlessly flipping through the channels instead of writing a story, painting a portrait or otherwise engaging in activities that require the activation of our strengths. This is a question of motivation, the pleasures are cheap and easily accessible while the gratifications require effort and hold the possibility of failure and stress:

To start the process of eschewing easy pleasure and engaging in more gratification is hard. The gratifications produce flow, but they require skill and effort; even more deterring is the fact that because they meet challenges, they offer the possibility of failing. Playing three sets of tennis, or participating in a clever conversation, or reading Richard Russo takes work—at least to start. The pleasures do not: watching a sitcom, masturbating and inhaling perfume are not challenging. Eating a buttered bagel or viewing televised football on Monday night requires no effort and little skill, and there is no possibility of failure.  (119)

But if we want a full life, a life of growth and directed change, we must be willing to endure and, in fact, seek out the challenges that produce flow:

Such people [those seeking the pleasures exclusively] ask, “How can I be happy?” This is the wrong question, because without the distinction between pleasure and gratification it leads all too easily to a total reliance on shortcuts, to a life of snatching up as many easy pleasures as possible. I am not against the pleasures; indeed, this entire chapter has set out advice on how to increase pleasures (as well as the entire panoply of positive emotions) in your life. I detailed the strategies under your voluntary control that are likely to move your level of positive emotion into the upper part of your set range of happiness: gratitude, forgiveness, and escaping the tyranny of determinism to increase positive emotions about the past; learning hope and optimism through disputing to increase positive emotions about the future; and breaking habituation, savoring, and mindfulness to increase the pleasures of the present. (120)

When an entire life is taken up in the pursuit of the positive emotions, however, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found. The right question is the one Aristotle posed two thousand and five hundred years ago: “What is the good life?” My main purpose in marking the gratifications off from the pleasures is to ask this great question anew, then provide a fresh and scientifically grounded answer. My answer is tied up in the identification and the use of your signature strengths. (121)

We’ll examine the signature strengths next Tuesday–what they are, how to identify them and how to build them up.

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Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

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