What Makes Us Happy?

by Eric Beckman

What makes people happy? It’s a question more on my mind recently as I read through Yale psychologist Paul Bloom’s book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (Norton, 2010). Many of the fascinating ideas presented in the book arise from the psychology movement known as “essentialism.” Basically, essentialism is a trait in which humans seem to view everything and everyone as possessing a fundamental essential nature, and we subconsciously “judge” the merits of everything based on our perceptions of this essential nature. The pleasure centers in our brains light up particularly bright when viewing something that we trust to be genuine and authentic. When we know it’s a real Picasso or Vermeer vs. a reproduction, our pleasure is immensely increased.

The pleasure we derive from things and activities hinges on how we perceive the components. The pleasure of a good wine is impacted by what we know about its price. The pleasure of sex is affected by who we think our sexual partner really is. We tend to find more pleasure in handmade foods over machine-made, even when they look and taste the same.

It turns out that no human pleasure is truly simple. Humans have long spent staggering amounts of their time in leisure activities that they know are not real. From daydreaming to painting in caves, watching a sunset or a crackling fire, watching television, or playing many games. What are we actually gaining from these activities? While the answer seems to be part of who we are, the book got me wondering how I might be better at identifying when and where my own “essential” biases were making it harder for me to make good decisions.

I recommend the book as an entertaining and educational read that will surely ignite a few pleasure centers in your brain as well.

Eric Beckman is President of Barnes & Conti

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