Photo by Gabriel Silvério on Unsplash

In his book, “Happiness by Design”, Paul Dolan PhD, defines happiness as experiences of pleasure and purpose over time. Examples of pleasurable experiences might be having a drink with your spouse over dinner or watching a comedy on TV. Examples of a purposeful experiences are exercising or helping a friend move.

Pleasure and purpose percentages different for everyone

Different percentages of pleasure and purpose make up our happiness quotient. Overall, some of us put more energy into pleasurable experiences. Others emphasize purposeful experiences. There is no correct combination. We are each unique.

One way to tell if you lean toward pleasure or purpose

If you are curious about whether you are primarily a pleasure seeker or a purpose seeker, Dr. Dolan suggests considering what kind of television shows you watch or what kind of books you read. Are they purely pleasure based or does their viewing/reading serve a purpose?

I thought this was a nice way to look at our decisions during free time. If we are reading or watching purposeful content during free time, we may have a higher percentage of purpose in our overall happiness formula.

I watch mostly pleasure heavy TV shows (The Bachelor, Glow, football games, etc.) with a few documentaries thrown in. My reading is fairly balanced between fiction (pleasure) and non-fiction (purposeful). How do your television and reading habits shake out?

Happiness measured over time

Which brings us to the over time part of Dolan’s happiness definition. Many of us have been sold the idea that we should feel happy most of the time. We believe that happiness is mostly derived from pleasurable experiences. We see mostly smiles and good times on social media.

Happiness requires pleasure and purpose. If we only seek pleasure, after a while pointlessness would creep in. We would miss out on the satisfaction of accomplishing. We need the warm feeling of meaning and purpose to get things done. We need purpose to keep us hanging in there as we work on long-term projects.

Consider the anxiety and unhappiness that many of us feel today. Could it be that the quickness of technology and its instant payoffs of “likes” and google answers, do not support the purpose part of happiness’ definition?

Pleasure is instant

Purpose tends to involve delayed gratification. The discomfort of dedicated studying for years or talking on the phone even, could put the brakes on meaningful goals like obtaining a degree or forming long-term relationships.

We think things like new clothes and popularity bring us happiness, but they don’t. They provide short-term gratification, more pleasure than purpose. Mastering a skill or working at a job that helps others give us the purpose piece that makes happiness more satisfying.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

Coming back to our parenting example. We might have an extremely difficult day of whining and crying with our three-year old daughter (not pleasurable) but when she turns eighteen and we look back over the years of raising her, we know raising her gave our lives meaning and we are content. We have to look at our feelings and experiences over time to determine our true level of joy.

Are you low on pleasure or purpose?

Dr. Dolan suggests boosting the amount of purpose in our lives if we are heavy on pleasure-only experiences. He also recommends boosting our pleasure if we have devoted our lives to mainly purpose. We are happiest when we have a balance between pleasure and purpose that suits us. It will be different from others’ combinations and it will be different day-to-day, for each of us.

Are you heavy on purpose? Pleasure? Where can you add more of pleasure or purpose? What’s one step you can take today to increase your happiness?