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Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Conflict Between Pleasure and Happiness

Does "easy" make you happy?

How would you like to lose weight and get in fantastic shape with little to no effort at all?!  Right!  Seems ridiculous doesn’t it?  Yet we see and hear ads like this every day.  We are correct in thinking that “with little to no effort” doesn’t exist. So why would an advertiser want to appeal to you on that level?

Let me draw your attention to this (it might make your fat loss efforts more successful): 

Beyond the obvious challenges of everyday life, when it comes to endeavors that require a sustained effort or delayed gratification-like getting in shape and/or losing fat, we seek the path of least resistance. This is because it is our (human) nature to do so (though I would argue that taking the “easy” road is more aligned with our animal nature than anything human.)  Any way you look at it, at our most basic level, we are not oriented toward seeking happiness but toward seeking pleasure. And guess what? The human need for pleasure is insatiable! This is a critical distinction and it plays a big role in understanding the reason why so many of us struggle with commitment and dedication to a goal. Doing so is not only, not easy, it’s downright uncomfortable.  Especially if you’re serious about a high-level of fitness.

We can debate the hierarchy of the animal kingdom in terms of who (or what) was “given” consciousness (and all that implies.) But, biologically speaking, human beings are animals.  I would be treading some dangerous waters by getting into it any deeper than that so suffice it to say, that we share our basic human needs for: food, water, shelter, sleep and reproduction with the animals. These needs are so powerful that the majority of mammalian species anyway, spend their lives pursuing little else. 
But once these needs have been met, the human animal still seeks to increase his share of . the basic human needs. Why?  Because it gives us pleasure. Gluttony it turns out; is hard-wired.  The pleasure fix is temporary so we return to it again and again.

Happiness is much less fleeting and I would argue, more satisfying.  It requires a little bit of discipline, is more mature, and well, it's just altogether more reasonable. So while inhaling that pizza or cheesecake will give you those 5 minutes of pleasure (and you'll convince yourself that it was worth it), having just 3 polite bites of cheesecake and calling it quits will give you happiness. I don't know about you but I'd rather have months of days that rate a "6" or a "7" than 2 days at a "10" followed by a 2, followed by an 8, followed by two 3s and a 1.  I'd rather ditch the peaks and valleys in favor of a no-drama but yet an interesting, satisfying and happy life. 

Don't get me wrong; pure pleasure does have its place, but keep in mind, satisfying a basic human need will provide only a few moments of pleasure. Sometimes, this can have lasting, unintended consequences (if you know what I mean.) When compared to being fulfilled and satisfied on an emotional level, happiness has a much longer arc. Emotions, experience, the socialization process and logic teach us that we're better off seeking happiness over pleasure, making that feeling last if not at the initial intensity, then in a somewhat “diluted,” but still satisfying version of the feeling. It’s more like constructive living vs. flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and they're in conflict inside you all the time. It takes an emotionally mature and often a very focused individual to rise above their own animal instincts. Don't beat yourself up about it if you're not "perfect," overcoming your nature can be harder than you might think.

One might consider happiness, then, to be a reflection of self-worth.  If you love yourself, you’ll want to reward yourself with a more mature, enduring and meaningful reflection of that love. Yet, how much can you love yourself if you're not taking care of your body the way you at least, take care of your car?  Self-esteem is built on overcoming struggle, hard-work and achievement and is part of the basis for happiness.. Pleasure is not really "built." 

Yes, it can be a battle. If choosing happiness over indulging in a moment of pleasure were easy, obesity would be a lot less common and the birth rate in this country would drop. But food and sex aren’t the only vices, we're always looking for a quick fix to satisfy our need for other “guilty” pleasures; just ask Harvey Levin and TMZ.
It would sound like a shallow, Hollywood version of life if it wasn't so real and...instinctual. We live in a sound-bite oriented, 15-minutes-of-fame society; and it's getting worse!  Society seems to promote pleasure at the expense of happiness and the evidence is all around us.  We used to teach delaying gratification. Not anymore! 

Be that as it may, human beings are complicated. On the bright side, our appetite for the right here, right now, is often tempered with the desire to really excel at something which simply...takes time to master. In a cruel twist of fate, we are hard-wired to want it all and want it now yet at the same time, we value excellence.  Maybe that's why we're always pushing achievement-if you're not moving forward, you are moving backward. 
Fighting our nature is what really makes us human (and strong.)  The proof is in the fact that happiness does not prevail without strength. Before you say anything about how useless it is to fight your nature, let me ask you this: when was the last time you pulled down your pants in the middle of the street because you felt the urge to urinate at precisely that moment? Probably never; you waited until you found a bathroom. The animals really can’t compete with us here-we got this one.


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  1. Why is it that the older I get I find it more and more difficult to feel that euphoric high (runner's high)during an intense cardio routine? Is it age? Is it the type of exercise? My current fittness level? Time of day that I am working out? Your insight would be most helpful!

  2. Thank you so much for the question.

    I know it's not fun NOT to receive a concrete answer all honesty, there can be several factors at play here.

    First, some people just don't ever feel that feeling. It could be that they just aren't working hard enough or long enough for it to kick in-and that point is different for everyone. But since you have experienced it in the past, then there are probably other things going on.

    Remember that the body will attenuate (get used to) most any type of stress put on it and although it is a positive stress, exercise IS a stress as far as your physiology is concerned. If you've been running or engaging in other forms of intense exercise for years, you may have reached the point where the body doesn't hit that pain threshold the way it used to. Typically, when you do hit that pain threshold, the body releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine and dopamine which take the pain away and make you feel that wonderful, painless, happy feeling. These "chemical messengers" are the body's natural forms of morphine. If you have been engaging in the same physical activities at the same intensity for years, your body may have stopped being "overcome" at a level that it used to succumb to. This is more a function of experience than age.

    If your body is continually stressed emotionally, and/or physically, it may not respond the same way it used to (or it might adapt by responding in ways you'd rather it didn't.) Lack of sleep (regardless of what time you work out), poor diet, and overtraining are all considered physical stressors which the body experiences as a fight or flight situation-that it must react to. Secreting stress hormones in response to these stresses over and over again can result in "negative" adaptations to everything from immune function to weight gain, to exercise response-especially, if you are not getting enough recovery from exercise.

    Lastly, you are right in that a huge contributor to your stress response is the type of exercise you do. You say you are doing "an intense cardio routine." If that routine involves a lot of long duration moderate intensity cardio,several times per week, then you are likely raising stress hormones like cortisol which will keep you from losing body fat (because cortisol helps STORE fat) and depending on just how often this in happening, you could be putting a lot of strain on your body in other ways that can lead to other undesirable changes (i.e.a loss of menstruation.)

    I would suggest cutting back on the type of cardio you are current doing and see what happens. Experiment with much shorter bouts of cardio at a much higher intensity. There is a lot of benefit to this type of training (also known as a specific type of interval training called "burst" training.) Stay tuned to my blog for more details about burst training.

    In the meantime, the link below is to an interesting article on runner's high that I read some months ago. You might find it interesting.

    I hope this has been helpful.