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People tend to be happier when they understand the difference between gratification and pleasure.
Professor Matin Seligman, at the University of Pennsylvania, made this observation when teaching an undergraduate class exploring whether happiness can be taught. He noticed that those who sought gratification were more likely to make choices that nurtured happiness.
Pleasures are tied to physical sensations that we can describe (e.g., warmth, a buzz, tingling). These sensations need to be savored since the emotional satisfaction quickly evaporates when the pleasurable experience ends, or the newness wears off.
When we participate in gratifying pursuits we feel something afterward, but that something is hard to define. You might say gratification is a potpourri of fulfillment, goodness, expansiveness, and a dash of joy—although some things are better left undefined.
Whatever your description of gratification, it is a feeling that sustains and strengthens us long after the activity that inspired it has ended.
Activities that are gratifying fully engage our attention; we often lose track of time. We are typically unaware of how we feel until we stop what we are doing and think about the experience. Then, realizing our gratification, we might spontaneously smile for no reason anyone else can see.
Seligman believes humans confuse pleasure and gratification because we use the word “like” when speaking of either quality. For instance, we say, “I like drinking iced tea with lemon on a hot day.” Yet, we also say, “I like volunteering at the animal shelter.” We use the word "like" as if pleasure and gratification are the same thing.
Because of this confusion, many people have come to expect gratification from pleasurable activities, and pleasure from gratifying activities, which is not possible. They are two different experiences.
When people seek gratification from a pleasure such as going out for pizza, they will feel let down when the experience ends. If a person needs pleasure from a gratifying experience such as stocking food bank shelves, they may choose not to participate in activities that will fulfill and sustain them in the long-term.
However, sometimes pleasure and gratification come together. Drinking a glass of wine, for instance, is a pleasure. Enjoying wine while having an intimate conversation with a friend can add the element of gratification.
There is nothing wrong with pleasure, but if Seligman is correct, increasing our happiness requires us to engage in gratifying activities.
He points out that gratification occurs when someone exercises their virtues, talents, and strengths in an activity. By serving something beyond our self with our strengths we create meaningful, happier lives.
Photo credit: Daniel Thornton
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