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Too often it feels like an either/or choice: Do the big, important, mission-driven thing, or do the fun, enjoyable, self-indulgent thing.

Choose “purpose,” and you can check something off your good-person list or make meaningful progress toward an important goal. Choose “pleasure,” and the doors of delight — or at least relief — swing open.

There’s satisfaction available in purpose and pleasure, of course, and both can help you tap into your own sense of why life is worth living. But when one is done to excess, or to the exclusion of the other, the result can be profoundly dissatisfying, even destructive.

So in this installment of The Living Experiment, we explore the art of synchronizing purpose and pleasure, of intertwining them, and of creatively balancing them in the ways that work for you.

Two Approaches, One Goal

  • Ancient philosophy and modern psychology present two contrasting — and in our view, interconnected — paths to happiness: hedonism (the pursuit of happiness via sensory pleasures and comforts) and eudaemonism (the pursuit of happiness through efforts to live a virtuous life and become a better person).
  • The art of living well involves continually harmonizing and refining these two aims. But this isn’t something our culture teaches very well. Instead, society glorifies hedonic self-indulgences (junk food, luxury goods, escapist entertainments) while simultaneously framing them as a danger to moral decency.
  • In the absence of any wise and widely accepted philosophy explaining how to live a worthwhile life, most of us struggle to sort it out. Disconnected from what the Japanese call ikigai (loosely translated as “a reason for being”), we suffer from a pernicious case of existential dread. We push too hard, or we settle for what we can get. Either way, we end up feeling like we’re missing out on something. The result: runaway anxiety, depression, and chronic disease.

Cravings and Longings

  • Our dual attractions to pleasure and purpose have their roots in our biological drives for survival, and they serve us in different ways.
  • The cravings we feel for food, sex, comfort, and sleep are programmed into our most basic physiology; they’ve helped us survive and thrive as a species.
  • Our deeper longings — to connect emotionally, to learn and grow, to feel one with a bigger purpose or a higher power — also contribute to our “survival of the fittest” instincts. They enhance our ability to sustain and advance stable social groups, and they can help tame some of our more destructive impulses.

Order and Balance

  • An “all work, no play” approach to life can leave us feeling so drained, damaged, or despondent that we cannot feel, much less respond to, our higher callings.
  • Similarly, when our deepest longings (for social connection, self-expression, and contribution to a greater good) go unmet, it can set up an unquenchable desire for all sorts of “second-best” pleasures, including addictive foods, drugs, and distractions.
  • To find the sweet spot where pleasure and purpose meet, start tuning in to your own instincts with compassionate curiosity rather than judgment and mistrust. Investigate your own appetites.
  • Notice when experiences provide a sense of both pleasure and purpose. Use those as guideposts for creating more of these moments in your daily life.


Dallas suggests: Read up on the Japanese concept of ikigai (a good book to peruse: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles). Reflect on what you love, what the world needs, what you can get paid for, and what you’re actually good at. If you’re a visual person, draw a Venn diagram representing the intersection of these areas, and take time to do some introspection around this.

Pilar suggests: Watch the video “How to Discover Your Purpose in Less Than 5 Seconds” by Brian Johnson. Then complete the suggested exercise. Share what you learn with a friend, document your findings in a journal, or both.

Listen and Learn: Check out this and other episodes of The Living Experiment podcast at Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, and Stitcher.

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