There is a fundamental distinction between pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures are "delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components,” so such as may be derived from food, sex, backrubs, and cool breezes. Gratifications are activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness. Gratifications can lead to flow. Seligman proposes that voluntary activities is largely a matter of arranging your day and your environment to increase both pleasures and gratifications. Pleasures must be spaced to maintain their potency. Eating a quart of ice cream in an afternoon or listening to a new CD ten times in a row are good ways to overdose and deaden yourself to future pleasure. Here's where the rider has an important role to play: Because the elephant has a tendency to overindulge, the rider needs to encourage it to get up and move on to another activity.
Pleasures should be both savored and varied. The French know how to do this: They eat many fatty foods, yet they end up thinner and healthier than Americans, and they derive a great deal more pleasure from their food by eating slowly and paying more attention to the food as they eat it. Because they savor, they ultimately eat less. Americans, in contrast, shovel enormous servings of high-fat and high-carbohydrate food into their mouths while doing other things. The French also vary their pleasure by serving many small courses; Americans are seduced by restaurants that serve large portions. Variety is the spice of life because it is the natural enemy of adaptation. Super-sizing portions, on the other hand, maximizes adaptation. Epicurus, one of the few ancient philosophers to embrace sensual pleasure, endorsed the French way when he said that the wise man "chooses not the greatest quantity of food but the most tasty".
One reason for the widespread philosophical wariness of sensual pleasure is that it gives no lasting benefit. Pleasure feels good in the moment, but sensual memories fade quickly, and the person is no wiser or stronger afterwards. Even worse, pleasure beckons people back for more, away from activities that might be better for them in the long run. But gratifications are different. Gratifications ask more of us; they challenge us and make us extend ourselves. Gratifications often come from accomplishing something, learning something, or improving something. When we enter a state of flow, hard work becomes effortless. We want to keep exerting ourselves, honing our skills, using our strengths. Seligman suggests that the key to finding your own gratifications is to know your own strengths. One of the big accomplishments of positive psychology has been the development of a catalog of strengths. You can find out your strengths by taking an online test at www.authentichappiness.org.
Recently I asked the 350 students in my introductory psychology class to take the strengths test and then, a week later, to engage in four activities over a few days. One of the activities was to indulge the senses, as by taking a break for ice cream in the middle of the afternoon, and then savoring the ice cream. This activity was the most enjoyable at the time; but, like all pleasures, it faded quickly. The other three activities were potential gratifications: Attend a lecture or class that you don't normally go to; perform an act of kindness for a friend who could use some cheering up; and write down the reasons you are grateful to someone and later call or visit that person to express your gratitude. The least enjoyable of the four activities was going to a lecture—except for those whose strengths included curiosity and love of learning. They got a lot more out of it. The big finding was that people experienced longer-lasting improvements in mood from the kindness and gratitude activities than from those in which they indulged themselves. Even though people were most nervous about doing the kindness and gratitude activities, which required them to violate social norms and risk embarrassment, once they actually did the activities they felt better for the rest of the day. Many students even said their good feelings continued on into the next day—which nobody said about eating ice cream. Furthermore, these benefits were most pronounced for those whose strengths included kindness and gratitude.
So voluntary activity is real, and it's not just about detachment. You can increase your happiness if you use your strengths, particularly in the service of strengthening connections—helping friends, expressing gratitude to benefactors. Performing a random act of kindness every day could get tedious, but if you know your strengths and draw up a list of five activities that engage them, you can surely add at least one gratification to every day. Studies that have assigned people to perform a random act of kindness every week, or to count their blessings regularly for several weeks, find small but sustained increases in happiness. So take the initiative! Choose your own gratifying activities, do them regularly (but not to the point of tedium), and raise your overall level of happiness.