The Power of Pleasures and the Growth of Gratitude

Just this past week, June 25, 2019 to be precise, The Atlantic magazine ran an article entitled “The Yale Happiness Class, Distilled,” by Joe Pinsker. In it he reports that this year’s Aspen Institute hosted Laurie Santos, the Yale psychology professor who developed and teaches the class “Psychology and the Good Life,” to present an hour-long “crash course” to summarize her course’s main points –  the biases against human happiness – and to offer ways to counteract them.

The first ‘glitch” (her word) in experiencing pleasure deals with “how the brain acclimates to things it’s repeatedly exposed to.” This is true of really good stuff, it seems, as well as to annoying things like subway noise or the crying baby upstairs. One category of this acclimation is called “hedonistic adaptation,” or getting used to something that is awesome but that seems less awesome over time. This explains, at least to me, why so many people spend so much time strolling the mall or shopping online – the thrill of today’s purchase fades pretty quickly and needs to be replaced with…the thrill of the next purchase. (Americans seem to be terrifyingly good at this at the moment.)

Santos’s prescription for this problem is to “buy experiences, not things.” One anticipates the trip, for example, enjoys it while it lasts, and then revels in the memories for longer than… the joy of owning a new car might last, to use her example. A second prescription is to be consciously grateful for what one already has, through an actual journal – my friend H in HH was telling me about this recently – or just through a brief reflection, either upon rising or going to sleep.

The second happiness glitch, according to Santos, is how our minds focus on comparisons rather than absolutes. She uses the example of Olympic medalists and how the bronze winners invariably are happier than the silver winners, because the silvers are #2 when they would like to be #1, and the bronzers are #3 when then could otherwise…not even be anywhere near the podium. We apparently always take a bead on where we are, and …quickly look to where it could be better.

And there’s an app for that- which is to imagine living without something that we are currently holding up for inspection – “What if I didn’t have air conditioning?,” one might ask, on a scorchingly hot Sunday afternoon. One could try to be without it for a night or two and then appreciate it all more when it’s back. Alternatively, one could do a thought experiment and think of what it would be like…if this particular friend were not in our life, if we hadn’t adopted this particular cat, if we hadn’t chosen this apartment. More personally at the moment, if we didn’t have the freedom to turn down a teaching contract in Japan this summer…to enjoy the balcony in Berlin.

So where am I going with all this, you might ask…and rightly so. What I immediately thought when reading this article is just how amazingly….Berlin continues to be a source of pleasure for me, and how I am trying to constantly be mindful of those joys large and small and to develop my own sense of gratitude. I owe a great deal in this specific regard to my dear friend J, who rarely speaks about anything without quickly adding how happy she is about this or that. She currently spending the summer on her enchanted isle in Maine, and so happy I am that she is there, enjoying the coastal vistas and keeping a warm lap for our shared (and now mostly her) cat.

I thought I would, therefore, share some snippets of my life over the past few months to give you a sense of the small pleasures that populate my days and keep me mindful, grateful, and with a fairly high step count on my iPhone.

Here’s a view of Museum Island (on the right), the Berliner Fernsehturm sticking up into the clouds and the River Spree on a clear spring day:

On the other side of town, walking along the Ku’damm the other day, I saw a very talented sand artist. I’m always a sucker for a lifelike but very immobile crocodile sculpture:

But besides art and culture (very broadly defined, that culture sometimes), one of the things I love about Berlin is that politics and current events are never far from anyone’s view. Here’s a recent election placard that carries a profoundly simple message….and FWIW, a reason that it’s no wonder the Greens did so well:

“Europe. The best idea that Europe had. Come, we’re building the new Europe!”

…and this delightful concert poster that carries its own deep hope that people can triumph over politics. I’m planning to be there:

Day to day, the best for me is that humor is everywhere….the Germans may often be considered gruff, direct, and unfriendly, but in my experience, Berliners are always ready with a wink and a chuckle:

But mostly I delight in the vibrant life of the city, the constant cavalcade of activities and events, a truly moveable feast that always takes me by surprise. Here’s a group of dancers from Sri Lanka in the lead-up to the Carnival of Cultures parade a few weeks back….However, I do believe that guy on the far right might be an outlier…

…and this great ad from the subway…which is, actually, a reminder from the municipal sanitation authorities to pick up after yourself and stow your trash appropriately…even when the blessed event is a wedding…

…so I leave you with this final message….that I find pleasure here every day in ways large and small and that I am constantly reminded that this chapter of my life is a totally unexpected miracle for which I will always, always try to be very grateful. (Except, of course, for those days when I really do have to run to the mall for a new pair of shoes and some really overpriced cosmetics…)

Bye bye for now…

This entry was posted in Berlin, Germany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Power of Pleasures and the Growth of Gratitude

  1. janetstebbins6149 says:


  2. I LOVE THIS! Haven’t had time to respond but will soon. xoxo

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