Type 1: Ephemeral Pleasures

In this visual metaphor, water is the experience of happiness. The machine converts a kind of experience into ‘water.’  This kind of happiness always has a leak in its tub. One needs to keep filling it in order to stay satiated.

Some examples could be a tasty meal, a ‘frivolous’ book, a party, a movie, getting a nice car, checking things off a to-do list, gambling, watching sports.

Why Pleasure?

So why, you may ask, is this section devoted to “ephemeral pleasures?”
Doesn’t everybody know that trivial pleasures and entertainment don’t make you happy? Doesn’t everyone know that money and stuff doesn’t make you happy?

Most people have this basic knowledge about happiness. You’ve probably heard things like “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” The truth may surprise you. There are a handful of Myths about happiness to explore.

Central in our cultural barrage of values around happiness is that pleasure is number one. In truth, those things alone won’t make you happy.
And, they’re important for your happiness in their own way.
But before we get into the drawbacks of life’s pleasures, let’s talk about what makes them important.

Firstly, pleasure draws out our emotion. Emotion, even this momentary, reactionary sort, is crucially important for decision making.
Tal Ben-Shahar, Harvard professor of positive psychology makes this observation:

“Emotions cause motion; they provide a motive that drives our action. The very language we use suggests an essential truth — that emotion, motion and motivation are intimately linked.”
–from “Happier” pg 35

Immediate delights can drive us toward action, even possibly bringing us to deeper, more meaningful happiness. Consider bodily pleasures: coming straight through our senses, they evoke sensations…sometimes very positive emotions. And these positive responses can be a conduit for experiencing, say, Love or Appreciation.

Euphoria, bliss, thrills, gratification, arousal, stimulation…there is a wide range for how to experience this surface-level of happiness.

Enticing Habits

Another power that immediate sensory happiness holds is habituation. Habits…well, they’re how we work.

“Habits are the way to best bridge what we know we should do and what we actually do.” –Christine Carter, “The Sweet Spot” p.39

If we’re harnessing habits strategically, we are using immediate delights as a tool for lasting fulfillment.
But it is exactly here where this type of happiness has its downfall:

“The pleasures, both bodily and higher, have a uniform and peculiar set of properties that limit their usefulness as sources of lasting happiness. By definition, of course, they are evanescent, and they usually have a sudden end.” –Martin Seligman, “Authentic Happiness” p. 105

Check out our section on Habits and learn how to make them work for you.

Ephemeral pleasures are short-lived. As our metaphorical graphic for this type of happiness reflects, you simply won’t create holistic, lifelong happiness through them. That wouldn’t be such an issue…you probably knew this already.
However, it’s the fact that they habituate easily that has them so easily masquerading as joy. These experiences can turn into vicious cycles, at worst, leading to addiction and  sense of emptiness when they absorb us.
“Having your back scratched satisfies an itch, but quite remarkably it also causes more itching when you stop. This itch grows in urgency for a time, and can be relieved by the next scratch. But that scratch sets up the next itch and the cycle continues. If you grind your teeth and wait, the itch will fade, but the craving for the next relieving scratch usually overcomes your will power. This is how a coughing jag, salted peanuts, smoking, and French vanilla ice cream all work.” –Martin Seligman, “Authentic Happiness” p. 106

Experiencing positive emotions is necessary but not sufficient for happiness.

So then, how do we make the most of this type of happiness? What can we do to ensure that these fleeting experiences are used for the deepest sense of joy, and don’t get the best of us.
Martin Seligman, godfather of the budding field of positive psychology, recommends a few things:
  1. Engage in as many different types of pleasures as you can. We are voracious, habitual consumers of sensory experience. With proper intention and oversight, engaging in varieties of pleasures is a generally positive thing for individual happiness.
  2. Spread them out. Let more time elapse between these types of experience than you normally would. This lowers the risk of habituation and increase capacity for appreciation.
  3. Savor them. Allow yourself to draw out your appreciation for the simple pleasures. When you really let these experiences in, they go deeper, and change the very structure of your brain toward positivity. We have an entire page devoted to this novel, well-researched technique for predisposing oneself toward happiness.
  4. Practice Mindfulness. Visit the Mindfulness portion of this website to learn the how’s and why’s of how this changes our experience.

Lastly, you can work on how you live with the fleeting pleasures of life by visiting the tools corresponding with this type:

When you’ve had your fill of those books, links, and videos, let’s move on to learn about the next type of happiness: