Redirect by Timothy D. Wilson and the Pleasure Paradox

According to modern “scientific” psychology people are happier when they don’t over-think why they are happy. Timothy D. Wilson explains why this is true in his new book: Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Apparently if we try to understand the events that make us happy we will “rob these events of the pleasure they bring us” (p. 60). Wilson calls this the pleasure of uncertainty.

In order to demonstrate the connection between mystery and pleasure a study was performed where a researcher approached a student sitting alone in a library and gave them a card with some money attached to it. The researcher said: “Have a nice day,” and walked away. Given the point of the experiment, to demonstrate that mystery leads to greater happiness, the card with the dollar on it was intentionally ambiguous, in its explanation: “The Smile Society, a Student/Community Secular Alliance,” and “We Like to Promote Random Acts of Kindness.” If a small amount of uncertainty makes us happy, then students who received the money should be happier for at least a short while after the gift. When another researcher approached the student a little while later and asked them to fill out a short survey, it was no surprise that they were in a good mood; at least a better mood than people in a control group who hadn’t received a gift.

There was also a second group which received the gift as well, but with slightly less mystery. In this group, the students received the same information, but now it was framed with questions which made the whole experience a lot less mysterious. Now the card read: “Who are we?” which was answered with “The Smile Society, a Student/Community Secular Alliance.” This was matched with the question: “Why do we do this?”, which stated: “We Like to Promote Random Acts of Kindness.” The theory was that students in this group would forget the incident rather quickly and return their thoughts to their studying. Of course, if this is true it would cause them to dwell less on the surprise and thereby reduce the amount of pleasure they experienced from the event. As suspected, people in the question-and-answer group reported a less positive mood when approached by the second researcher than people who got the card with the statements but not the framing questions.

“In short, there seems to be a pleasure paradox: people want to understand the good things in life so that they can experience them again, but by so doing they reduce the pleasure they get from these events” (p. 61). C. S. Lewis also was aware that over-analyzing why we feel happy, for the purpose of repeating the experience is akin to a blasphemous encore. In his Space Trilogy, the main character Ransom enters an Eden-like planet that has been untainted by sin. There he finds a fruit that he enjoys beyond all earthly pleasures. Although the fruit satisfied his hunger, Ransom’s immediate thought was to eat a second fruit; however, he was stunned by the realization that on earth: “he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of desire.”

Wilson’s book emphasizes further that those who make it a discipline to keep a gratitude journal are not necessarily happier than those who don’t bother. To prove this, you can ask yourself whether you would prefer to spend time writing about all the ways you might not have ended up with your spouse, or instead write about how you and your partner got together in the first place. Most people prefer to dwell on the positive side of their history, but this is backwards for improving happiness. Such research indicates that if you are struggling to feel joy, it is not helpful to “count your blessings”; instead, what is helpful is to imagine an alternate life where the most important people or things in your life might not be present. This brings a level of mystery back into them, making you feel special and lucky for having them all over again.

The apostle Paul said that he had “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Having written this from prison, his statement seems shocking, or even super-Stoical. But for Paul, the secret of contentment comes not from one’s circumstances, but from an awareness of the sovereignty of God and a confidence in the sufficiency of Christ to provide our needs. Even in prison, this leaves the paradox of pleasure intact, giving us license to thank God for the good things in life, taking away the need to over-think them (Romans 8:28).

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