personal manifesto: harmonising pleasure, betterness & meaning

In the last three posts I have defined and shared some notes on pleasure, betterness and meaning. The introduction to my manifesto gives some context. For me, pleasure, betterness and meaning are three fundamental drivers in life. They explain most of the motivations behind decisions I make – small and big. In this post I explain how they fit together for me.

Harmonising pleasure, betterness, meaning: patterns not balance

Allowing my life to be dominated by just one of these three drivers is a mistake. The hedonist in me is doomed never to have my thirst quenched (pleasure). Despite the relentless parade of so-called successful people getting to the second half of life and asking “what has it all been for?” the pursuit of personal or professional mastery (betterness) is also tempting. Why am I so slow to learn that becoming the best I can be, ‘reaching my full potential’ is only slightly less hollow a goal than the pursuit of pleasure?

Perhaps the reason I am inclined to make decisions based on pleasure and betterness, is because of the paradox of meaningful living. I find it difficult to get my head around the fact that the deepest satisfaction in life, the highest levels of happiness come when I am focussed on the wellbeing of others.

But it is a mistake for me to then make life solely about meaning and relegate pleasure and betterness as the domain of lesser beings. This is what I have done in the past, in statement, if not in reality. The value of ‘the cause’, or ‘the other’ has at times been so elevated that ‘sensual’ pleasure or ‘selfish’ development, was effectively prohibited in my thinking. In statement only though, because my natural and healthy drive for these, ‘found a way’, even if not acknowledged overtly.

A well-lived life harmonises pleasure, betterness and meaning. The idea of harmony is more useful than balance. Balance implies that one thing needs to be diminished for another to be enlarged. But harmony is about the three drivers co-existing in measures and routines that fit with each other, feed off each other and shape life into an integrated rhythm of pleasure, betterness and meaning.

I am always thinking about how life is going. When I am sufficiently fortunate to answer ‘very good’, I have found that it is because the elements of pleasure, betterness and meaning will all feature. I will have consistently done stuff that was sensually enjoyable, pleasurable experiences have been integrated into my life (pleasure). There will have been a pattern over time that I have made valuable contributions by doing what I am good at, and most likely became better at it, either by deepening or broadening my capacities (betterness). And my life will have been shaped by prioritising what matters to me, there will have been integrity in my life because I have acted in ways that have been consistent with what is important to me (meaning).

The converse is naturally true. If things haven’t gone so well, then it will be because one or more of the key drivers was unsatisfied. There was little in my life that gave me genuine pleasure, I had few opportunities to do the things I am good at, or I ended up busy with activity but didn’t really contribute much in areas I believe matter most.

Time and seasons are important. I can neglect one or more drivers for a season, but if diminished over time, I will have a growing unease with my lot in life. And clearly the three are not mutually exclusive. A meaningful contribution will likely require me to do what I’m good at, and I may well experience sensual pleasure along the way.

Pleasure, betterness and meaning are essentially my design features in a well lived life. I look for patterns not balance. Whatever is going on in life, these are elements that I need to find ways to incorporate.

Questions to understand how the three drivers are harmonised in my life

1. Which drivers are most prominent in my life in this season?

2. Are there patterns over time? Are any of pleasure, betterness and meaning dominant or missing over time?

3. What will I do to better harmonise the three drivers in my life for the coming season?