Why Your Life is Depressing and Why Pickup is Good

In reading Authentic Happiness (Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment) today, I came across a passage by Dr. Martin Seligman that articulated the feelings i have had in the past few months. It also applied to our endeavors in learning pickup.

Dr. Seligman starts out by examining why, in the midst of the wealthiest time period in humanity’s history, human beings are as depressed as ever:

The sheer speed of modern life and our extreme future-mindedness can sneak up on us and impoverish ou rpresent. Alsmot severy tehcnological advance in recent times – from the telephone to the internet, has been about doing more and doing it faster… So invasive is this “virtue” that in even the most innocuous of social conversations, we can catch ourselves not listening well, but instead planning a witty riposte.

Another reason why the free hug campaign is so successful around the world: because we all want to belong:

He then makes a VERY important identification of 2 types of pleasures: one that is instant gratification, and the other, the feeling of “flow” and actually not being aware of one’s emotions during an activity:

In ordinary English, we do not distinguish between the gratifications and the pleasures. Thei is truly a shame, because it uddles together two different classes of the best thingsin life, and it deceives us into thinking they can each be had in the same wa. We casually say that we like caviar, a back rub, or the sound of rain on a tin roof… when I press people about the existence of that underlying positive emotion, I find one underneath the pleasures:L great food ,a backf run, perfrume, or a hot shower all produce the raw feels of pleasure I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. In contast, when I press people about the positive emotion of pleasure we allegedly feel when serving coffee to the homeless, or reading Andrea Barrett, or playing bridge or rock climbing, it is quite elusive…. It is the total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and the flow that the gratifications produce that defines liking these activities – not the presence of pleasure. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent. This distinction is the difference between the good life and the pleasant life.

He then examines the works of his colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

MC: “playing a close game of tennis that stretches one’s ability is enjoyable, as is reading a book that reveals things in a new light, as is having a conversatio nthat leads us to express ideas we didn’t know we had. Closing a contested business deal, or any peice of work well done, is enjoyable. None of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time, but afterward we think back on them and say, “that was fun,” and wish they would happen again.

Pleasure is a powerful source of motivation, but it does not produce change, it is a conversvative force taht makes us want to satisfy existing needs, achieve comfort and relaxation… Enjoyment (gratification) on the other hand is not always pleasant, and it can be utterly stressful at times. A mountain climber may be close to greezing, utterly exhausted, in danger of falling into a bottomless creavasse, yet he wouldnt want to be anywhere else. Sipping a cokctail under a plam tgree at the edge of the turquoise ocean is nice, but it just doesnt compare to the exhilaration he feels on that freezing ridge.

The Lizard Story

One of my teachers, Julian Jaynes, kept an exotic Amazonina lizard as a pet in his laboratory. I nthe first fe weeks after getting the lizard, Julian could not get it to eat. He tried everything, but it was starving right before his eyes. He offered it lettuce, and then mango, and then ground prok from the supermarket. He watted flies and offered them to the lizard. He tried live insects and Chinese takeout. He blended fruit juices. The lizard refujsed everything and was slipping into torpor.

One day Julian brought in a ham sandwich and proffered it. The lizard showed no interest. Going about his daily routine, Julian pickup up the New York Times and began to read. When he finished the first section, he tossed it down on top of the ham sandwich. The lizard took one look at this configuration, crept stealthily across the floor, leapt onto the newspaper, shredded it, and then gobbled up the ham sandwich. The lizard needed to stalk and shred before it would eat. Lizards have evolved to stalk and pounce and shred before they eat. Hunting, it seems, is a lizardly virtue. SO essential was the exercise of this strength to the life of the lizard that its appetite could not be awakened until the strength had been engaged. No shortcut to happiness was available to this lizard. Human beings are immensely more complex than Amazonian lizards, but all our complexity sits on top of an emotional brain that has been shaped for hundreds of millions of years by natural selection….The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to gratification and bypass the exercise of personal strengths and virtues if folly. It leads not just to lizards that starve to death, but to legions of humanity who are depressed in the middle of great wealth and are staving to death spiritually.

Professor Seligman then concludes the chapter, and sets us up for action steps we can take to combat depression:

In contrast to getting in touch with feelings, the defining criterion of gratification is the absence of feeling, loss of self-consciousness, and total engagement. Gratification dispels self-absorption, and the more one has the flow that gratification produces, the less depressed one is. Here, then, is a powerful antidote to the epidemic of depression in youth: strive for more gratifications, while toning down the pursuit of pleasure. The pleasures come easily, and the gratifications (which result fro the exercise of personal strengths) are hard-won. A determination to identify and develop these strengths is therefore the great bugger against depression.

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