This visual metaphor represents our first Element of Well-Being. They are the simple pleasures that bring hedonic well-being. Ephemeral Pleasures are a wonderful part of living, and there is nothing necessarily bad about them (more on that later.)
Some examples may be a tasty meal, a good cup of coffee, a ‘frivolous’ book, a party, a movie, getting a nice car, checking things off a to-do list, gambling, watching sports.
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.
“My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.” – Thornton Wilder
Ephemeral Pleasures can be more than meets the eye. On this page, we’re going to examine the origins, contexts, benefits, and limits of pleasure. Considering the concepts and doing the exercises here will equip you with more intentionality and awareness around this element of Well-Being, helping you get the most out of pleasurable experiences.
The Origins of Pleasure
Pleasure is a necessity of life. Yes, it has a role in our overall psychological well-being, and, importantly, it literally keeps us alive.
In many ways, the experience of ephemeral pleasures stems from our historical upbringing. This lens on our motivations can be quite revealing. WHY do we enjoy eating tasty food? Is it just a coincidence that so many of the experiences we enjoy are directly connected with our survival and procreation?
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, incentivizes us to seek the things that sustain us. Led in part by that feeling, we are led to eat, drink, sleep, feel comfortable, socialize with our groups, etc.
In one (somewhat disturbing) experiment, scientists genetically manipulated mice so that they couldn’t produce dopamine on their own. It was a death sentence. Why? The mice would starve to death. When offered food, they would sit there, uninterested, completely nonplussed by its presence. Pleasure, the bridge to nourishment, was not there, giving them no drive to eat.¹
Life without dopamine (pleasure) is difficult to sustain.
Pleasure evolved to motivate us to maintain homeostasis so that we may reproduce (which pleasure also evolved to motivate). And it began to do so early in our evolutionary history. The hypothalamus and other related structures—making up the pleasure centers of the brain—were some of the earliest parts of the brain to evolve.²
“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.” – Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier
Exercise: List Your Pleasures
Before diving deep into ephemeral pleasures and their role in well-being, take a moment to acquaint yourself with your own pleasures. Use this printout to list some things that bring you this first Element of Well-Being.
A Force to Be Reckoned With
Beyond the one-off events that we seek, Element 1 is about affect. In psychology, ‘affect’ (pronounced ‘af-fekt’) is essentially your emotions and moods: your basic sense of feeling.
And part of the human experience is facing this in every waking moment. Our affect (our mood) is always ebbing and flowing, and we’re biologically driven to affect it positively at every turn.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio calls these ‘primordial feelings,’ stating that they ‘’occur spontaneously and continuously whenever one is awake…[and] reflect the current state of the body.’ Though our specific emotions, like sadness or elation, may come and go like the weather, there is never a time when we’re without a core affect. Like our body temperature, we are always experiencing a primal feeling on a spectrum between agony and ecstasy.⁷
This first Well-Being Element is essentially the experience of positive affect. It’s what we refer to as ‘Hedonic Happiness.’ We spin the wheel with our experience of objects (buying things, playing with things, etc), with entertainment (Movies, ‘fun’ activities like video games, etc.), or with sensory pleasures (food, drinks, pleasant smells, unattached sex, etc.).
Not only is our affect—and our need to elevate it—a deeply powerful underlying force in everyday life, but it is also fertile ground for habituation.
“Habits are the way to best bridge what we know we should do and what we actually do.” –Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot
Our section on habits explores the topic in detail: why we need them, how they develop, and how we can change them.
Even though ephemeral pleasures are short-lived, they can form into habits easily, taking our time, energy, and focus. Without meaning accompanying these pleasures, we can be left feeling empty.
“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
We live in an age of incredible material wealth.
When you eat a cheeseburger, you are indulging in a modern marvel of industry, global commerce, and cultural collaboration. All for a small sum.
The almost endless choices we can make with our money and time—the food we eat, the things we buy, the books we read—all compete for our attention. The many ideological subsets that tell us what is good, fun, healthy, ‘cool,’ and more are inherited from our relationships, communities, and wider cultures.
And we can see these ideologies competing outwardly in the world. Companies bid for our attention, appealing to our inner needs and sense of identity, and they tell us what we ‘should’ value and do with our time. Consider this steaming pile of…ideological value assertions:
So much of the human world is now saturated with the ideological elements of ‘consumer culture.’ And among the many, high-level cultural values entering our collective psyche are:
- Stuff is good. You need more of it.
- Money is a measure of your success and value as a person.
- Entertainment is the best. Movies, shows, books, and ‘fun’ are what to do with your spare time.
- Sex sex sex. It’s everywhere, it’s about you and your body.
These ideologies and more combine to put Ephemeral Pleasures at the forefront of our cultural values. In turn, Element 1 well-being plays a highly inflated role in our collective conception of a well-lived life.
You may already have modern materialism on your radar. Many people may agree that mass media, social media, and pop culture present a superficial model of ‘happiness.’ But seeing this in our everyday lives is only a fraction of the battle.
How do we see past all the noise and prioritize Element 1 well-being appropriately?
How do we make the most of Ephemeral Pleasures, amplifying its best—and minimizing the worst—parts about it?
Assess Your Materialism
You can use the materialism scale to analyze your own levels of materialism. Check it out:
How to Optimize Pleasure
There is a lot that could be said about how to best harness Ephemeral Pleasures for a well-lived life. Let’s start with some quick tips in terms of Money. We have a whole section on Money and how it relates to living well.
This helpful collection of tips comes from famous researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Daniel Gilbert’s meta-analysis “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right:”8
You can also boost your range of pleasure by seeking variety, even variety within a single pleasure, like exploring different kinds of chocolate.
Martin Seligman, godfather of the budding field of Positive Psychology, makes a few recommendations for optimizing pleasure in his book Authentic Happiness:
- 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.
- Spread them out. Let more time elapse between these sorts of experiences than you normally would. This lowers the risk of habituation and increases capacity for appreciation.
- Practice Mindfulness. Visit the Mindfulness portion of this website to learn the how’s and why’s of how this changes our experience.
- 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.
Practice: Savor Everyday Experiences
As humans, one of our greatest strengths can also be a bane: Adaptivity.
With shocking frequency and speed, we attune to our circumstances and forget about that deep sense of gratitude and pleasure we once felt for our favorite daily things.
This exercise is simple: on one sheet of paper, make a list of some of your favorite, simple, pleasurable experiences that happen to you regularly. Aim for things that happen once daily to once weekly..
Some examples may be:
- My favorite breakfast
- That feeling when I’ve brushed my teeth and I breathe in minty air through my mouth.
- When I have 3 green lights in a row while returning home from work.
You can use this printout to make your list:
Once you’ve filled out your list, hang it on your fridge, or keep it somewhere close where you’ll see it frequently.
Think of this list as a reminder of targeted meditations. When you find yourself having one of these experiences, lean into it. Notice everything you can, savoring the positivity of the experience, practicing gratitude along the way.
As you feel the sense of pleasure from this experience, make space for it in time and in your thoughts. Spend a bit longer than you normally would, letting the enjoyment of the moment envelop you. You may even want to close your eyes, take a few breaths, and think, “I cherish when this experience is happening.”
A highly effective way to habituate things is to embed reminders into your physical routine. For example, you can hang this exercise on your fridge so you see it every day. You could even put a sticker that says ‘Savor’ on your favorite mug, reminding you to enjoy each sip from that mug to the fullest. What other creative ways can you engineer positive habits into your physical life?
Follow Your Gut
When the outcome we seek is an emotional or ‘hedonic’ one, it can be better to follow your gut feeling, rather than overthinking.
Of course, being mindful is always a good plan. We don’t want to be strung along—in our search for pleasure—into forming bad habits like addiction or destructive pleasure. But a certain level of impulsivity and instinct can be a good thing.
We see evidence in favor of this in the famous poster experiment: participants who chose a poster based on gut feeling were happier than those who chose based on reasoning and deliberation.9
Scaffold and Sprinkle
As you learn about the 4 Elements of Well-Being and observe them in your everyday life, you’ll see that experiences are rarely only 1 of the 4 at a time. Rather, we experience ‘happy’ moments in ever-shifting combinations of the Elements. Though seeing the distinctions among the 4 is very helpful, there is often an interplay between them.
This brings up one of the strongest ways to utilize this first Element:
Ephemeral Pleasures are most powerful as a scaffold or a sprinkle to meaningful experiences.
We’ll look in-depth at meaningful experiences later (it’s Element #4). For now, what do we mean by ‘scaffold and sprinkle?’ Let’s look at a couple of examples.
To scaffold is to support something. Element 1 as a scaffold means it supports ANOTHER element of well-being.
Going to see an entertaining movie in a theater is classic Element 1.
But I’m going to see it with my friends. We’ve been talking about this movie for months, and we’ll finally convene together, sharing in the experience. Sure, we all like the movie, but in a grander sense, it’s about the time that we share as friends.
You can sprinkle pleasurable experiences into already meaningful ones. Like glitter or garnish, consider elements of fun or surprise that can add to the flavor.
I went on a ‘friendiversary’ dinner with my best friend. It was a meaningful time, full of love. And, something that cemented the memory for us was how delicious the food was. That dessert! It was a literal cherry on top of a perfect, romantic evening.
- A warm and cozy day of Hygge with the family can be leveled up with hot chocolate and a fire.
- Birthday parties can be a memorable time. Theming decorations with someone’s favorite color can sprinkle more pleasure AND meaning into their experience.
“When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” – Viktor Frankl
Frankl nailed a hard truth that many of us know but never consider. But pleasure doesn’t have to be only a distraction.
We can create meaning in lieu of seeking pleasure: “I really just want to veg out and watch a movie” is a pleasurable experience which, when shared and fondly remembered with a friend, offers so much more. This is Element 1 as a scaffold.
And if we think of meaningful activities as the ‘cake’ of ‘happy’ experiences, pleasures can be the sprinkles on top: lighting incense before your spouse arrives home, or sneaking candy for your sibling into a family meeting.
Try This: Scaffold and Sprinkle
Scaffold – Think of 3 people with whom you enjoy sharing meaningful experiences. They may be long-time partners, or newly forming friendships. Write them down.
Now, for each person, write down a novel ‘fun’ experience you can use to foster shared connection, discovery, service, or expression. Some examples may be inviting them to attend a workshop together, or reading them their favorite children’s book.
Sprinkle – Think of 3 meaningful experiences you regularly have, or are going to have soon; especially ones shared with a friend or loved one. Write them down.
Now, for each experience, write down a ‘sprinkling’ of Element 1 that you can add to the experience. Some examples may be adding a massage to your bedtime ritual, or preparing a tasty dessert for your next meal with friends.
The Limits and Risks of Element #1
With a little bit of observation in your day-to-day life, one can see the overreach of Ephemeral Pleasures.
It is so vital to be aware and intentional about the allure of pleasure. In this age of mass consumerism, advertising, and material abundance, Element 1 Well-Being is championed, often implicitly, as the be-all and end-all for success and satisfaction. But these ideologies essentially amount to empty promises at the cultural level.
“Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.” – George Carlin
“When you are joyful and happy at the mental level, physical pain doesn’t matter very much. But if there is no joy or happiness at the mental level, too much worrying, too much fear, then even physical comforts and pleasure will not soothe your mental discomfort.” – the Dalai Lama
To use our earlier metaphors of scaffolding and sprinkling, a life of only fun and pleasure is like building scaffolds and collecting sprinkles. But what are we scaffolding for? What are we putting the sprinkles on?
As mentioned before, we are adaptable. Much to our benefit and much to our chagrin, we learn to live with what we have, eventually expecting more or different things to satisfy whatever it is we seek. This pattern is known as ‘Hedonic Adaptation,’ and it plays a classic role in addiction.10 11
“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”
Recall once more: the Hedonic Treadmill
So one of our greatest strengths as a species also presents a drastic weakness in sustaining satisfaction: our capacity to adapt. What makes us happy one day may not make us happy the next. This is a key reason why we have to be careful with the belief that some things make us ‘happy.’
“All things in moderation” is another way of saying, “Don’t get too much of what you want too early, because you’ll too soon not have enough.”
This aspect of ephemeral pleasures is a key part of what can make them so fickle: they are truly temporary.
Happiness (meaning pleasure but not JOY), can also ensnare us in a life of comfort and security. This is so common and such a hindrance to living well, that we have a detailed section on it here:
“Money and girls is like a black hole, I feel like there is never enough.”
“A lot of these things I recognize, but I still keep **** doing them. I realize that chasing money and girls is not what makes you happy, but I still do it.”
These quotes—from our section on Money— are by Dan Bilzerian, an Instagram personality who regales the world with displays of his wealth and pleasure.
For a deeper look at the Hedonic Treadmill idea, and how it (as with all things) isn’t quite that simple, check out Diener, E., (2000) Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the adaptation Theory of Well-Being.12
Addiction and Habit
With every action we take fostering or breaking habits, it is no wonder that Element 1, hedonic happiness, can so easily get out of hand. The line between fun pastimes and addiction can be thin and veiled in complexity.
Research by Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson explores this interesting landscape of human evolution and behavior. They assert that we tend to overestimate the quality and length of the emotions we will feel in response to future events. We overestimate the amount to which getting what we want will benefit our well-being. Put another way:
Gilbert and Wilson also did a study to highlight ‘miswanting,’ the rift between WANTING an experience and actually ENJOYING one. It turns out, these are two entirely different processes, involving different neurotransmitters. This dissonance is why we often want and decide to do things only to end up not liking them.14
Daniel Gilbert points out yet another trouble to maintaining hedonic happiness: once we have something, we lose the ability to know what it’s like NOT to have it. He calls this process ‘experience stretching.’ (Gilbert, D., (2006) Stumbling on Happiness)
“Sometimes something that makes you happy also makes you unhappy, like smoking cigarettes, having one more cupcake, staying up until 8 a.m. to watch The Godfather for the fifth time, and — surely one of the most popular happy/unhappy activities — shopping. Many people get a big kick out of buying things, but once they’re home, cash register happiness changes to remorse and guilt.” – Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
**Daniel Gilbert has a number of fantastic video lectures and talks worth checking out.
Practice – 5 Minutes of Enjoyment
This is a simple habit to grow: harness 5 minutes of every day to build a practice of intentional enjoyment. Ideally, it will become a tradition that you have with yourself. Every day, ALLOW yourself, encourage yourself, and celebrate yourself embarking on this tradition.
Upon waking, think about your schedule for the day and choose a 5-minute period to devote to your own enjoyment completely. Basking in a sense of rapture and pleasure, this is a humble gift that you give yourself every day, to lift up your mental health and well-being.
You can bask in satisfaction as you walk outside in the sun. Or maybe today’s 5 minutes is enjoying your favorite latte with a sense of complete devotion.
Make these moments about the experience, not about the material items involved.
Over the long term, you will find yourself more able to lean into the positivity of these experiences, and you’ll anticipate and savor this little tradition with a sense of ownership and pride.
- Element 1 of Well-Being is Ephemeral Pleasures.
- We always seek to maximize our positive affect (mood), and satisfaction—aka, hedonic happiness. Often, we find this in Element 1 experiences.
- These pleasurable experiences are not inherently meaningful, and are often materialistic or consumer-oriented, so they are often over-sold as the key to a ‘happy’ life.
- Over-seeking these experiences can lead to addiction and feelings of emptiness.
- Element 1 experiences are most effective and fulfilling when used as vehicles for meaningful experiences (scaffolding) and/or enhancing already meaningful experiences (sprinkling).
- One great way to equip pleasure for deeper meaning is savoring, which can help train one’s mindfulness and gratitude.
We’ll learn more about meaningful experiences ahead, as they’re our 4th Element of Well-Being and we’ll check out some other important Elements, like Flow!
- Szczypka, Mark & Rainey, Mark & Kim, Douglas & Alaynick, William & Marck, Brett & Matsumoto, Alvin & Palmiter, Richard. (1999). Feeding behavior in dopamine-deficient mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 96. 12138-43. 10.1073/pnas.96.21.12138.
- Koelsch, S., Jacobs, A. M., Menninghaus, W., Liebal, K., Klann-Delius, G., von Scheve, C., & Gebauer, G. (2015). The quartet theory of human emotions: An integrative and neurofunctional model. Physics of life reviews, 13, 1–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.plrev.2015.03.001
- Dosen, Annemarie & Ostwald, Michael. (2013). Prospect and refuge theory: Constructing a critical definition for architecture and design. International Journal of Design in Society. 6. 9-23. 10.18848/2325-1328/CGP/v06i01/38559.
- van Praag H, Kempermann G, Gage FH. Neural consequences of environmental enrichment. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2000;1(3):191-198. doi:10.1038/35044558
- Montgomery, C., (2013) Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.
- Rainisio, Nicola. (2015). Positive Change in Environment: Aesthetics, Environmental Flowability and Well-Being. 10.2478/9783110410242.6.
- Russell JA. Core affect and the psychological construction of emotion. Psychol Rev. 2003;110(1):145-172. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.110.1.145
- Dunn, E. W., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2011). If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 21(2), 115–125. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2011.02.002
- Wilson, Timothy & Lisle, Douglas & Schooler, Jonathan & Hodges, Sara & Klaaren, Kristen & Lafleur, Suzanne. (1993). Introspecting about Reasons can Reduce Post-Choice Satisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 19. 331-339. 10.1177/0146167293193010.
- Perez-Truglia, Ricardo, On the Causes and Consequences of Hedonic Adaptation (May 1, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1448375 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1448375
- Koob GF. Drug addiction: the yin and yang of hedonic homeostasis. Neuron. 1996;16(5):893-896. doi:10.1016/s0896-6273(00)80109-9
- Diener E, Lucas RE, Scollon CN. Beyond the hedonic treadmill: revising the adaptation theory of well-being. Am Psychol. 2006;61(4):305-314. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.61.4.305
- Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(3), 131–134. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00355.x
- Gilbert, Daniel & Wilson, Timothy. (2012). Miswanting: Some problems in the forecasting of future affective states.