Paul Dolan Ph.D.

Happiness by Design

Are You a Pleasure Machine or a Purpose Engine?

Maximising Your Happiness by Balancing Pleasure and Purpose

Posted Jan 12, 2015

There are two types of happy experiences: those that are pleasurable and those that are purposeful. Are you a "pleasure machine," experiencing more pleasure than purpose? Or are you a "purpose engine," experiencing more purpose than pleasure? What sort of balance would best suit you? 

Last week I wrote about why your experiences are the best guide to whether or not your life is going well and you are happy. Becoming happier is about attending to what actually makes you feel happy, rather than stories and evaluations about what you think should, and then filling your life with activities that make you feel good.

But we need more than one type of experience to be truly happy. Experiences of happiness fall under two broad categories: those that feel pleasurable (e.g. joyful, content, excited) and those that feel purposeful (e.g. worthwhile, meaningful, fulfilling). For example, most people find work to be more purposeful than pleasurable, whereas they find watching television to be more pleasurable than purposeful. Volunteering tends to be high in both pleasure and purpose, as does praying and going to church. We need a mix of both pleasurable and purposeful experiences to be truly happy.

People differ in their relative balance of pleasure and purpose. Pleasure machines feel pleasure more often then purpose, and ‘purpose engines’ feel purpose more often than pleasure. Take a look at the pleasure-purpose swingometer in this article’s image. Where would you place yourself? More to the left - experiencing more pleasure than purpose? Or more to the right - experiencing more purpose than pleasure? Perhaps somewhere in between? Where would you like to be?

Optimizing your happiness is about optimizing your balance of pleasure and purpose. The balance might be different at different times. For example, you might become a pleasure machine during a holiday from work, whilst you’re a purpose engine when back at your desk. You may have been content being a pleasure machine in your 20s, going out with friends often, but become more of a purpose engine as you grew older, perhaps spending more time with family. Interestingly, teens in the US experience less purpose than any other age group.

 Although everyone has their own optimal balance of pleasure and purpose, it is possible to make a general claim about how to best trade them off:  if you have a lot more purpose than you have pleasure, then you should spend more time engaging in pleasure. Likewise, if you have a lot more pleasure than purpose, then you should spend more time engaging in purpose. This claim is based on the law of diminishing marginal returns.

To illustrate, imagine two goods, beer and pizza, and assume you like both. The first beer goes down smoothly, and the first slice of pizza tastes really nice. The next beer is good but not quite as good as the first one, and the next slice of pizza is nice but not as nice as the first. So if you have had four beers, you would probably be willing to give up the fifth beer for a first slice of pizza. If instead you have had four slices of pizza, you would probably be willing to give up the fifth slice for a first beer.

The same logic applies to other goods and aspects of life, and also to pleasure and purpose. If you have a lot of pleasure, you could be happier by trading it for some purpose; likewise, if you have a lot of purpose, you could be happier by trading it for some pleasure. For instance, after the pleasure of a Netflix binge starts to wane, you could be made happier by doing something worthwhile, like helping out a friend, rather than watching another episode.

This pleasure-purpose principle can explain why people do things that might otherwise appear to detract from their happiness. Getting angry from time to time, working long hours, and having children may no longer be such crazy things to do because they tend to bring purpose moreso than pleasure. But they might be bad for your happiness overall if you sacrifice a lot of pleasure for a little more purpose: if your own balance between pleasure and purpose is out of kilter.

Your thoughts? 

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