After all my stressing of the importance of goal pursuit, we need to talk about the “psychological trade-offs associated with the pursuit of achievement and success”, as pointed out by Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener. They write that clearly, there are degrees of stresses involved in pursuing a goal; indeed, that the more invested we are in a goal, the more stressed we can potentially feel.1
Luckily we have an excellent model for considering this quandary, courtesy of a fine and distinguished teacher of positive psychology, Tal Ben-Shahar. His Hamburger model contains the options we have in approaching life and happiness. There are four hamburgers: The first is the junk-food hamburger. It tastes marvellous right now but is detrimental to our future health. This hamburger represents a hedonist approach to life and happiness: The hedonist focuses on the present moment, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure without much thought for future consequences. If it feels good, the hedonist considers it worth pursuing; with his/her immediate gratification providing adequate justification.2
Ben-Shahar’s second hamburger is the tasteless vegetarian burger. This one is undoubtedly good for our long term health but there is no way we will be able to enjoy eating it. This burger stands for the rat race, in which we sacrifice our present enjoyment for working toward envisaged benefits we anticipate reaping in the future. The rat race motto is: No pain, no gain. And so we slave, study, achieve, score, and postpone having a good time for that future day when we have achieved our goals. Then, according to rat race belief, we will be happy.3
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us have some of the hedonist and the rat racer within. Further, some of us will be able to relate to Ben-Shahar’s third hamburger. This one is tasteless and unhealthy. Eating it brings no joy now nor are there any benefits we can anticipate in the future. This hamburger stands for the nihilist, the individual who has given up because of what happened in the past. The nihilist no longer believes that there is a meaning to life and that happiness can be pursued. Perhaps the nihilist had to bear too much in the past, which taught her helplessness, eroding her belief that human beings have any control over the way life proceeds.4
Ben-Shahar’s fourth hamburger is the one most of us want: This one is tasty and healthy and represents happiness. Happiness provides enjoyment in the present as well as leading us toward a fulfilling future. The question that underlies this hamburger is: How can I be happy now as well as in the future? In short, happiness requires that the tasks that make up our journey are enjoyable, and that our destination is meaningful to us.5
Ben-Shahar’s hamburger model may seem simplistic, but I believe it offers a fast-track understanding on how we need to approach life if happiness is important to us. The past, present and future all come into play. As Ben-Shahar points out, the hedonist, believing that happiness is attained through an ongoing series of momentary pleasures, wrongly assumes that effort equals primarily pain.6 A hedonist benefits from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s explanations about how important challenges and strivings toward meaningful and valued experiences are in achieving psychological wellbeing. Doing sweet nothing is nice for a time. But over the long term, human beings thrive on meaningful challenges.7
The rat racer, who lives for the future, needs to be reminded that “happiness is a process, not a place … a way of travelling as much as it is a final destination”, as Diener and Biswas-Diener conclude.8 Ben-Shahar points out that our culture strongly reinforces the rat race belief; teaching us from a young age to chase our next goal and live in perpetual hope of a better future, rather than focus on our present day experience. Our society solely rewards results and arrivals, he writes. Furthermore, when we attain a goal, he argues, we often feel so relieved that we mistake this feeling for happiness, particularly if the journey was arduous. This reinforces the false belief that a future destination can provide us with wellbeing.9
According to Ben-Shahar, the nihilist is victim of a fallacy, too. Based on experiences in the past, the nihilist concludes that there is nothing one can do to achieve happiness. Yet this is a misreading of reality, and the belief simply false, Ben-Shahar points out.10 There is plenty we can do to feel better and more fulfilled – that’s what this whole blog is about! I can understand how one can arrive at the nihilist’s viewpoint; however, in the long term such a pessimistic stance can crucially undermine one’s ability to live life well.
Diener and Biswas-Diener point out that that we are likely to experience some stress in aiming to achieve a goal, yet this trade-off is often worth it.11 Remember Seligman’s ingredients that make up psychological wellbeing: positive emotions, relationships, meaning, engagement and accomplishment. Wellbeing is not just about feeling good.12 “For most people, happiness is not their only goal,” Diener and Biswas-Diener stress.13 Most of us sacrifice short term fun in order to achieve long term goals, go out of our way in our engagement with others, and face challenges when pursuing what is meaningful to us.
As I am sitting here writing this blog, published for free on the world wide net because it seems meaningful for me to make a contribution, I sometimes look out at the trees sparkling in the sunlight. Here I am battling with conflicting research findings, when I could be outside taking a walk. Worse, I could be visiting a friend rather than hanging out here with my computer re-writing sentences for the umpteenth time. Or I could attempt to make an ideal hamburger for lunch! There are two memorable ones in my life: one is the sesame burger from Country Kitchen in Margaret River in the eighties. It was healthy and sensationally yummy, a crispy interior with lots of homemade sauce and salad. The other is a dripping chicken burger featuring spinach from a burger place in North Fremantle. Both so good, and so impossible to eat, because one’s mouth does not have the bite range for such a huge stack, and knife and fork disfigure and destroy the burger architecture. Thus one just picks it up and tries one’s best while the juices flow down one’s cheeks and drip onto one’s lap. So much for my ideal burger: like meaning, fun, and progress, it seems a matter of trying to fit it all in.
© Natalie Lydia Barker 2015