Seeking Immediate Gratification Often Leads Us Into A Malaise

Table Of Contents

When Pleasure Leads To Happiness—& When It Doesn’t

What I'll Be Covering..

1. Faulty Expectations

Say we squirrel away money each month in preparation for that long-awaited break to Florida. Simple enough right? We expect that our trip will make us happy. But what’s surely more important, and at the same time less transparent, is the actual experience we have while away—the sensations of pleasure and pain we feel as a result. Maybe Florida isn’t all that we thought it would be? Maybe the crowds make us irritable, and the humidity leaves us sweaty and exhausted? Maybe we’d have been better off staying at home.

And herein lies the problem: the expectations that guide our decisions don’t always line up with reality. We expect our date will make us thrilled, but end up bored. We expect our degree will resolve our money problems, but end up indebted and frustrated. We expect that marriage will release us from loneliness, only to find out it’s possible to feel lonely in the company of another.

And while we make our decisions based on these expectations, for what else have we to go on; it’s the experiences themselves, frequently obscured, that actually count. The problem, then, is that beyond vague notions about what we desire, say marriage; or what will make us thrilled, say a promotion; the dynamics that perpetuate happiness are frequently obscured and misunderstood.

For many people today, happiness has become a somewhat rare companion. Researchers point to skyrocketing rates of addiction and unhealthy cultural norms as reasons behind diminishing satisfaction levels. But the continued climb in everything from substance abuse and gambling, to anxiety and depression, suggests something much deeper is at play—maybe we’ve fundamentally misunderstood happiness itself?

Common sense ideas about mental wellbeing tell us it’s connected with pleasure—material wealth and pleasant experiences, for example. But studies show actual levels of happiness declined steadily alongside advances in technology and economic growth.

General Decline In U.S. Happiness 1973—2016
General Decline In U.S. Happiness 1973—2016

Among other things, it’s a significant fact that wealthier societies have higher rates of suicide than less wealthy ones. The suicide rate in the UK for example is 4.7 times higher than that of Syria’s—despite the Levant nation devolving into a war-torn country in recent years. Meanwhile, emotional health in the USA hit a five-decade low in 2020—with the parallel rise in digital media implicated in a doubling of mood disorders among young adults between 2008 and 2017.

A growing proportion are turning towards more spiritual activities as a result: the number of Americans practicing meditation, for example, more than trebled between 2012 and 2018—reaching around 15% of the population in 2020. One popular mindfulness app—Calm—now boasts more than 40 million downloads and over one million paying subscribers.

Still, mind and body cannot be separated into two distinct entities. Happiness remains deeply rooted within the body. To understand what’s going on requires a journey into not only psychology and philosophy, but biology and neuroscience as well.

2. The Drivers Of Motivation—Pleasure & Pain

According to Aristotle, human behaviour operates through a framework of pleasure and pain: we want to maximise feelings of pleasure, he says, and minimise those of pain. The difference, he continues, lies in how we integrate these two imperatives into our world. Different people find pleasure in different things: one finds enjoyment in the mountains; another finds delight in big city thrills.

For Aristotle, then, happiness depends on finding pleasure in the right type of things. “For if a man has the right attitude toward pleasure and pain, he will be good,” he writes, “and if the wrong attitude, he will be bad.”

The happy among us, in other words, find pleasure in things like building relationships and achieving their ambitions—things that are hard but ultimately rewarding. The less happy, on the other hand, seek it in things removed from wider meaning—instant forms of gratification, for example, like alcohol and drug taking.

The important point to note here is that while both groups experience pleasure, only one enjoys this feeling within a wider framework of meaning and satisfaction. “All beasts and all men pursue pleasure,” Aristotle continues in Nicomachean Ethics, “yet not all pursue the same type of pleasure.”

Psychologists, neurologists, and therapists mostly acknowledge this: Human behaviour, they note, is generated, shaped, and perpetuated by the dynamics of pleasure and pain. But while pleasurable impulses come and go in mere moments, happiness generally lasts for much longer than this, and rests upon a wider foundation of meaning and purpose.

The question that we should be asking ourselves is—can we look beyond instant gratification, to discover what will truly make us happy? If can we tap into the underlying forces that drive us; the dynamics that propel us; if we can see past the ideas that misguide us; we might be able to come up with a satisfying answer.

Those who do will find the path to wellbeing much more straightforward. Life, for the most part, is simple and uncomplicated for them. They know what needs to be done and set about doing it.

For the rest of us, however, those treading water, those like me; it’s often dripping with confusion and frustration. We approach our thirties, deep in terra incognita: hoping that maybe someone will come and make everything alright.

3. Opponent Process Theory

In 1974, a psychologist named Richard Solomon published a landmark paper in Psychological Review, called Opponent Process Theory. In it, he questioned some of the basic ideas we hold about pleasure and pain. Opponent Process Theory describes how—due to our biological dynamics—the initial reaction we have to something, say pain, is generally followed by its antipode, say pleasure. The kicker, Solomon said, was that pain is foundational to the types of pleasures that generally lead to happiness.

Say, for example, I run as fast as possible for 5 minutes straight—an action that brings about considerable stress and discomfort. By minute five, I can barely keep going: my legs ache and my lungs heave. The pain, however, prompts a barrage of painkilling neurotransmitters to be released into my bloodstream. Compounds like beta-peptides, and opioids, collectively known as endorphins; which bind to opioid receptors inside my brain and act to cushion me from all that unpleasantness.

High Intensity Exercise Prompts A Barrage Of Painkilling Neurotransmitters To Be Released Into The Bloodstream
High Intensity Exercise Prompts Painkilling Neurotransmitters To Be Released Into The Bloodstream

These endorphins, however, do more than simply inhibit pain. They contain powerful mood boosting properties that improve cognitive function. In fact, they’re often referred to as “feel-good” chemicals, because of their ability to bring about a sense of bliss and well-being.

Endorphins aren’t alone either: endocannabinoids, like anandamide, bind to cannabinoid receptors inside the brain after exercise, and engender a warm, fuzzy feeling; similar to that brought about by marijuana; which binds to the same receptors. It’s the reason why, as I catch my breath, sensations of pain and discomfort begin to fade; replaced by those of pleasure and relief.

And this applies to many different things: from the relief experienced after finishing an intensive studying session; to the physical pleasure gained from vigorous exercise. Like Opponent Process Theory suggests, the primary reaction, the initial stress in these situations, paves the way for a secondary emotional experience in the opposite direction.

4. Opponent Processes In Practice

And the thing is, playing with Opponent Processes in this way helps us establish more positive all-round lifestyle strategies. Rather than drinking, we lift weights. Rather than watching TV, we chat up members of the opposite sex. We choose to do things that force us to put in some initial effort—rather than chasing simple pleasure alone. By doing so, we shift our emotional state into more positive territory—pursuing pleasure within a wider context of meaning and purpose.

In fact, it goes beyond this, because the principles discussed here can also be applied to help us combat stress and mental anguish. Think about the last time you went through a breakup for instance. You may have been tempted to hit the bottle—and chase that initial high (wrong move!) Or you might have put your trainers on and hit the pavements instead, using the endorphin rush generated through doing so to counteract any feelings of despair and hopelessness.

The key idea is simple. By choosing to embrace difficult situations, whether it be taking up exercise, speaking in front of a crowd, or saying ‘hi’ to that nice-looking girl in the bar, we trigger neurochemical mechanisms inside our bodies that, not only alleviate pain, but boost mental wellbeing.

5. How Opponent Processes Make Us Misrable: The Negative Side Of The Multiplier Effect

The second principle behind Opponent Process Theory—the multiplier effect—describes how the relationship we have with pleasure and pain changes over time. And this is where things begin to get interesting.

Let’s take instant gratification as an example. Opting for pleasurable activities—things like eating chocolate or drinking beer—releases a stack of neurotransmitters into the bloodstream that, to begin with, make us feel good.

So far, then, so familiar. But the multiplier effect predicts that, following continued indulgence, the initial reaction, in this case the pleasure, gradually diminishes, whereas the secondary reaction, in this case the pain, actually strengthens.

"He took a breath from the hookah and a liquid grin spread across his face, as a jolt of subline of pleasure punched into his system. Isn’t there a delicious freeson to be had in violating the morays of what most would call civilised? In revelling in that which others call debouched? We have all broken our most treasured oath, so what does one more violation matter? Or ten more? Drink. Seal your pact with the Dark Prince."

—Graham McNeil | Angel Exterminatus

From drinking wine to lying on the beach; from eating chocolate to relaxing in the hot tub: we can all agree that instant pleasure feels great—at first. But, taken to excess, these feelings morph into something else entirely. We feel bloated. We feel hungover. We feel flat. More than anything we feel regretful. Ok, so what’s the reasoning behind all this?

Well to be honest it’s all a bit of a hot mess so I will simplify a bit here. The problems start when we consider how long it takes for pleasure-provoked neurotransmitters to be broken down inside the nerve cell. While endorphins and endocannabinoids get reabsorbed back into the blood stream almost immediately, immediate gratification neurotransmitters tend to be much more resistant to enzymes located inside our neurons. They stick around, wedged into our nerve receptors, reactivating them over and over again.

“If you choose pleasure, know that he has behind him one who will deal you tribulation and repentance.”

—Leonardo da Vinci

Gradually, this begins to damage the neuron. For a start, the lag in reabsorption prompts receptor sites along the cell surface to migrate inwards—via a series of complex chemical reactions—reducing the overall sensitivity of the neuron. Beyond this, however, the continued blockage of receptor sites also impedes future neurotransmitter binding activity. Both these things combine to elevate the threshold at which our minds are able to register pleasure.

Seeking Immediate Gratification Overloads Nerve Cell Pleasure Receptors
Seeking Immediate Gratification Leads Nerve Cells To Keep Reactivating—Overloading Pleasure Receptors In The Process

We become more and more desensitised, in other words, to anything that isn’t overtly psychologically stimulating. Eventually, in the wake of all this indulgence, these neurological changes become permanent, and, in some cases, even get passed down to the next generation via epigenetic changes to the DNA!

Knowing this, what do most of us do? Of course, we opt for the immediate pleasure—and we indulge in more and more of it to make up the difference. More chocolate. More alcohol. More screen time. Sorry to tell you this, but we’re being stupid! This type of behaviour, when taken to excess, compounds the neural desensitisation process I just described: raising the threshold yet further at which we get to experience pleasure.

Too often, then, our decisions are swayed by more immediate considerations. It might be spending way too much time on our phones, binging on fast food, or watching Netflix on repeat; but we as a society have steadily moved towards the darker side of Opponent Processes. The plentiful pleasures at our disposal have, to put it simply, pushed us into a general sense of malaise.

6. How Opponent Processes Make Us Happy: The Positive Side Of The Multiplier Effect

All this lies in sharp contrast to those who focus their efforts on the other side of Opponent Processes—on things that require struggle and discomfort. In these instances, the multiplier effect predicts that the initial reaction, in this case the pain, gradually diminishes; whereas the secondary reaction, in this case the pleasure, actually strengthens.

Say, for instance, I ran around the park every Wednesday and Saturday for four weeks straight. The incremental boost to my fitness causes the upfront pain—the initial shock of pushing my body into homeostatic imbalance—to diminish. Makes sense, right?

My enjoyment on the other hand—the opposing pleasure—gets stronger. And this is where, from a neurobiological perspective, things get really interesting. Experienced runners generally get to feel the euphoric sensation, and parallel reduction in anxiety, known as ‘the runners high.’ Many beginners, however, are left waiting for it: it’s a psychological benefit that takes time to establish.

The secret, again, lies in the chemical structure of endorphins and endocannabinoids. First of all, as mentioned before, the enzymes in our cell receptors break these types of neurotransmitters down almost immediately, negating the problem of neural desensitisation.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, researchers explain that repeated exposure to endorphins and endocannabinoids leads to a proliferation in the number of opioid receptors inside the cell membrane—ameliorating the brain’s capacity to extract pleasure from these types of situations.

Opting For Difficult Activities Causes The Number Of Opioid Receptors Along The Cell Membrane To Multiply
Opting For Difficult Activities Causes The Number Of Opioid Receptors Along The Cell Membrane To Multiply

To begin with, these changes happen within the neurons themselves—with the brain adding more pleasure receptors along each cell’s surface. But repeated exposure also stimulates greater levels of connectivity between these neurons, via something called synaptic plasticity, essentially tying them together into enhanced pleasure processing brain circuits.

Taken together, these changes give us an increased ability to extract pleasure from difficult situations! The gradual onset of the runners high—a state of mind similar to that brought about by painkilling drugs—is a perfect example of this effect in action. Indeed, it’s one of the main reasons why exercise has been found to be just as effective in treating depression as pharmaceutical intervention.

7. The Journey Towards Long-Term Satisfaction

In common sense terms, then, what the multiplier effect is actually telling us is that we cultivate a healthier relationship with pleasure and pain via the simple act of repetition. The more time we spend on ostensibly difficult activities, the more enjoyable we’ll begin to find them.

By focusing our efforts on the primary reaction; by choosing unpleasant activities that give rise to pleasurable after-effects, we pave the way for a more permanent sense of satisfaction. We learn how to use painful events to become happier, and more fulfilled people in general.

“I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated,” says Lester Burnham—the middle-aged suburbanite played by Kevin Spacey in the movie American Beauty. He’s symbolic of modern man. We think if we get the girlfriend, if we get the promotion, if we make enough money, we’ll be happy. Many of us actually attain these things. But in the end, are we?

We chase pleasure, but fail to understand how quickly that feeling breaks down without a wider framework of purpose and direction. Moreover, the very pursuit, in the end, wears us down. “But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back,” Burnham adds. And he’s right.

"I have gazed into the secret heart of the universe and know that all existence is a struggle between opposites. Light and darkness. Heat and cold. And of course, pleasure and pain."

—Graham McNeil | The Reflection Cracked

Talk to anyone pursuing a challenging discipline, whether it’s practicing a sport, learning to play a musical instrument, or training in a martial art; and you’ll find that what seemed hard at the beginning ends up laying the foundation for enjoyment and satisfaction in later life. Those who develop skills over the course of many years tend to find deep and abiding pleasure in their craft: they’re equipped to ground the ephemeral qualities of delight and pleasure into a lasting framework of meaning and purpose.

Taking Time Out To Practice Your Craft
Taking Time Out To Practice Your Craft

The same thing applies to many pursuits: ranging from studying to learning a musical instrument. The self-development author George Leonard reflects on this in his book Mastery: The Keys to Long-term Success & Fulfilment. “To practice regularly,” he writes, “might at first seem onerous. But the day eventually comes when practicing becomes a treasured part of your life. You settle into it as if into your favourite easy chair, unaware of time and the turbulence of the world.”

These concepts form the cornerstone to an altogether more fluid, less rigid, life strategy. One that sets us up on a different path to happiness, perhaps not so obvious; but altogether more reliable. The fundamental principles behind this strategy are simple: pleasure gained through delayed gratification will compound and blossom over time; whereas the pleasure gained from more immediate pursuits will fade and turn rotten.

It’s a paradigm shift: To see dedication and hard work, not as something to be avoided, but as ways to achieve deep-rooted satisfaction. To master your goals, your relationships, and perhaps somewhat counterintuitively; see the difficulties you encounter as harbingers of future wellbeing.

8. The Problem Of Laziness

But there’s a problem here—one that’s psychological rather than physiological in nature. Too often we find something, either laziness or addiction, stops us from reaching that destination. You see we’d rather not have to endure that initial upset in the first place. It’s a mindset that doesn’t serve us well in the long run.

Common interpretations of happiness are the reason why. They centre upon fixed notions: like the perfect picture frame house, the marriage that will last for the rest of our lives, the job that will keep for life. They suggest to us that, once we reach a certain point in time—say we buy our own house or lock down someone of the opposite sex—we can simply relax. 

But again, this is wrong. Happiness is not a destination—it’s a journey in itself: a state of mind perpetuated by antagonism, by an ability to oscillate between the polarities of pleasure and pain. Indeed, this long-held misconception is the reason why so many people languish in discontent; surrounded by the things they once thought would make them happy: they misunderstand the fundamental dynamics that propogate happiness. 

9. Opponent Processes & Life Trajectories

My twenty-three-year-old self could have told you from personal experience that a lifestyle of indulgence doesn’t bode well for the future. Those who follow this path, who focus on chasing happiness directly, as opposed to indirectly, often miss out on what they’re looking for. They may well achieve their short-term goals: The weekend away. The phone that vibrates with the latest notification. The carrousel of internet dating partners. But, despite these modern-day distractions, they ultimately find themselves beset by discontent. That initial kick is always eclipsed by the pain. They should be looking elsewhere.

Seeking Immediate Gratification Often Leads Us Into A Malaise
Seeking Immediate Gratification Often Leads Us Into A Malaise

Lottery winners offer a great insight into the risks attached to such hedonism. “So many wind up unhappy or broke,” says Don McNay, a financial consultant to lottery winners. “People have terrible things happen. “They commit suicide. They run though their money. They go through divorce or die.”

Take Jack Whittaker. He was a successful businessman who won $315 million in West Virginia, in 2002. “What I really enjoyed the most was … watching my granddaughter, Brandi, enjoy it,” he gushed to reporters. But with his generosity came unforeseen consequences. Brandi’s weekly $2,000 allowance propelled her into a downwards hedonistic spiral, and within four years he had lost her to a drug overdose. “When she said, ‘Pawpaw, all I care about is drugs,’ it broke my heart,” he lamented. “You know, my wife said she wished she had torn that ticket up. Well, I wish that too. I don’t like the hard heart I’ve got; I don’t like what I’ve become.”

The truth is that nowadays many of us fritter our time away on an ever-changing array of quick wins: on thrills and relationships that promise the earth, but end in disappointment and heartache. Having failed to grasp the initial struggle, we find it harder and harder to muster up the required motivation to change course, let alone the patience to see the thing through.

Those who stick with more challenging pursuits, however, who embrace effort and struggle, land upon a different set of contingencies. They spend time and effort cultivating traits that allow them to thrive at the front end of Opponent Processes—qualities like patience, discipline, and mental fortitude.

Like savvy investors, these people end up reaping the long-term dividends: feelings of visceral delight—arising from the flow state—become rooted within a wider context of meaning and purpose. From there, they gradually mature into the foundations of a true and reliable happiness. And that’s to say nothing of the indirect benefits, ranging from things like physical fitness, and knowledge acquisition; to loving relationships, and career progression.

The takeaway? Make commitments. Take action. For those who do, the juice is always worth the squeeze: because the destination these people travel towards is one of lasting satisfaction. And the hope of this article, is that maybe you can join them.

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