The Happiness Formula: Part Four

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This is the fourth part of our look at The Happiness Formula. So far we've looked at S, our biological set point, and C, our life conditions, to see how they contribute to our overall level of happiness. Today we are going to examine the final variable, V, which covers our voluntary activities. Let's see how the things we do can affect our happiness.

Voluntary Activities

When we are talking about voluntary activities in the context of The Happiness Formula, we are referring to the things we choose to do on a day to day basis: eating, reading, visiting, walking, shopping, calling, and, not surprisingly, volunteering, as well as plenty of other activities. Voluntary activities are different from our life conditions in that we have a lot more control over them from one day to the next.

Two Types Of Activities

Today we are going to be looking at two categories of voluntary activities that really boost our happiness:

  • Pleasures: These are the things that give us quick bursts of good feelings. Some examples are eating, sex, listening to good music, massages, pleasing smells, etc.
  • Gratifications: These are activities that engage you completely, allow you to make use of your strengths and abilities, and often cause you to lose track of time. These tend to be different for everyone since everyone has different strengths. Here are some examples that might help illustrate the concept: writing, painting, doing crossword puzzles, volunteering, carpentry, gardening, etc.

Both pleasures and gratifications can improve our happiness, but they do so in different ways.

Pleasures

As I mentioned above, indulging in pleasures can provide us with short periods of elevated happiness, but pleasures won't provide us with long lasting happiness on their own. For example, eating a piece of chocolate will make you feel good as you are eating it, but it will do very little to improve your feelings of well-being after an hour has passed.

Due to the short-lived, often intense, good feelings we get from pleasures, it can be tempting to overindulge. However, the good feelings we get from pleasures can be deadened by excessive indulgence. As you can imagine, eating a couple of chocolates might make you feel good, but eating a couple of pounds of chocolate won't. Restraint is important or else you'll spoil the effects that pleasures offer. For the greatest benefits to happiness, pleasures should be spread out over time, varied, enjoyed and appreciated.

Gratifications

Gratifications are more engaging than pleasures. They require something from us by challenging us, but, in return, they offer longer lasting emotional benefits. Accomplishments are the cornerstones of gratifications and they tend to come from solving problems, learning new things, making something better, fixing something that is broken, creating something, getting things done, etc. These examples can start to sound like work, and they are work in a way, but the gratification comes when these tasks are directly in line with your strengths and abilities.

It's tough to find enjoyment in doing something that we aren't good at. This is mostly because we don't realize much success when we aren't good at something. Similarly, it can be difficult to enjoy a task that is so easy you don't have to think at all to do it. Gratifications come from working on something that is in line with your strengths and skills, but still challenging enough that you feel like you are being pushed. When this happens, we can lose ourselves in an activity, become fully engaged, lose track of time and the work becomes enjoyable. We want to keep doing more. We are in the groove.

Imagine an artist painting a picture. With each brush stroke that results in a pleasing effect there is a small achievement and a resulting sense of satisfaction. Each time this spurs the artist on by motivating and focusing the artist's attention on the task at hand. As the painting unfolds, over the course of several hours or days, there could be hundreds or thousands of these tiny victories leading to an overall enjoyable and satisfying experience. These feelings can linger for hours or days. The same general effect would be true for a carpenter building a house or a gardener tending to flowers and trees. There are lots of examples for just about any activity.

Since gratifications provide lasting feelings of happiness, it's worth investing a little more effort to understand them.

Strengths

The key to being able to pursue gratifications is knowing your strengths. Luckily, there is a test that can help us to figure out what our strengths are. You'll have to register to take the tests. If you do decide to register, the tests you'll want to take (there are lots of them!) are either the Brief Strengths Test (24 questions long) or the longer VIA Signature Strengths Test (240 questions long). Either of these tests will give you a list of your likely strengths. When I took the test, curiosity, love of learning and humour were at the top, which might explain why I've been enjoying researching and writing about new ideas for this site so much!

If you don't want to register to take the tests you can likely come up with a pretty good list of strengths by taking some time to jot down the activities that you like to do. Make a note of the strengths or skills that you employ when doing each of these activities. You'll likely see a few common ones come up over and over again; these are likely your top strengths.

One last note on strengths: Did you know that 'strengths' is the longest English word containing only one vowel? Nine letters long. Only one vowel. Neat!

What We Do Matters

So, what we do matters as far as our happiness goes. This isn't a huge surprise to me but it is interesting to see how different types of activities affect our happiness in different ways. Pleasures give us quick doses of happiness which are short-lived. Gratifications can stretch out over many hours and leave us with good feelings that last for a much longer time.

So, by arranging our daily routines to include some pleasures and some gratifications we can likely end up with a good mix that will promote a happier lifestyle.

In the final part of this series on The Happiness Formula I'll try to wrap things up so we can see how all three of the variables, S, C and V, combine to produce more happiness. Stay tuned!

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