Most of us want to maximize pleasure and minimize pain 24/7 don’t we? We want to maximize whatever makes us happy and minimize whatever makes us upset or sad. Many of us spend our lives working very hard to avoid all uncomfortable feelings. Yet, we can relish and enjoy our joys, pleasures, and moments of happiness so much more when we have had experiences of great sorrow and upset. We know that this is true but it is an insight that too often is a bitter pill to swallow.
In my research lab here at Santa Clara University we have studied college students who went off on challenging immersion trips during their school breaks to poor and often oppressed locations in El Salvador, Mexico, and elsewhere. We compared students who went on these immersion trips to those who did not and found that not only did those who participated in these trips score higher on compassion for others after they returned (and after a several month follow-up period) but they also reported less stress and more happiness over time. We believe that the students who could experience and be in solidarity with those who struggle in poverty could appreciate their lives more and were less stressed by so many "first world" problems.
I have a patient in my clinical practice who escaped from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon back in the mid 1970’s at the end of the USA-Vietnam War. He is always very cheerful and happy with a big smile on his face even when dealing with very challenging life events and troubles that would make most people upset and depressed. He copes remarkably well. He says that every day in the USA is a lot
better than his life of poverty and war in Vietnam as well as the many years he spent in refugee camps in Malaysia trying to make arrangements to find a new home here in the USA. He appreciates the joys in life by comparing them to his previous experience of such struggle.
One final example… many years ago my wife and I went to a well known ice cream shop with her brother. There were many wonderful flavors to select. Yet he ordered vanilla and chocolate ice cream. My wife was surprised by his selection since she didn’t think he liked vanilla very much and there were so many great flavors available to try. When she questioned him about his choice he said that he didn’t like vanilla that much but that it made the chocolate taste so much more like chocolate in comparison and thus was well worth it. You need some vanilla to appreciate the chocolate!
In order to embrace the joys of life and to maximize happiness we really can’t be afraid of feeling bad. I know this is easier said than done but bad feelings are just part of life and they help us to better appreciate the good that we experience. It is the vanilla that makes us appreciate the chocolate all that much more!
So, what do you think?
Please check out my web site at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante. Copyright 2013 by Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP