Why Hedonistic Happiness Will Not Lead to Lasting Fulfillment

DR JOHN DEMARTINI   -   Updated 1 year ago

Dr Demartini explains why hedonistic behavior and seeking a quick fix is likely a symptom of unfulfillment and partly due to not living congruently with your highest values.


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DR JOHN DEMARTINI - Updated 1 year ago

Some of the saddest people I know are addicted to the fantasy that it is possible to be happy all of the time. 

They perceive that it is possible to live a life where there is pleasure without pain, happiness without sadness, and positives without negatives. In other words, a one-sided life.

As the Buddha is believed to have said, the desire for that which is unavailable and the desire to avoid that which is unavoidable, is the source of human suffering.

If you're attempting to live a one-sided life where there's just bliss, pleasure and happiness all the time without any of the challenges that are inevitable in life, you're likely to become even sadder because you're in pursuit of the impossible.

I often use the analogy of a magnet to help illustrate the senseless pursuit of a positive without a negative. 

Imagine, that someone presents you with a magnet, something you likely know from physics comprises both a positive pole and a negative pole. They then offer you a billion dollars to cut the magnet in half and present with just the one-sided positive pole.

Regardless of how many times you try, how many options you try, and how fast you try, if you cut a magnet in half, you will simply end up with two magnets.

In other words, it is a futile exercise because there is no known way to separate a positive pole from a negative pole in order to end up with a one-sided magnet.

The unlikelihood of creating a one-sided magnet is a powerful analogy for how it is similarly futile to create a one-sided individual, one-sided relationship, and a one-sided life.

The question I am often asked is, why do people continue to try to live a one-sided life? Why do they pursue something that's unobtainable, and why do they keep trying to avoid something that's unavoidable? 

The answer is actually quite simple, but it does involve a brief overview of your brain and neurology. 

Your brain has many levels and layers in it. The two main areas I’d like to highlight are:

  1. The amygdala and extended limbic system are responsible for most of your emotional responses. The amygdala is also the pleasure center of the brain, and what drives you to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s also driven by dopamine rewards. When you’re using this part of your brain, you tend to REACT to the world like an animal - instinctively reacting to pain and impulsively seeking the next pleasure or dopamine high.
  2. The medial prefrontal cortex of the forebrain (also referred to as the “executive center”) is the most advanced part of the brain, and it distinguishes human beings from other animal species, as it is able to govern and monitor your more primitive impulses and instincts of survival.

It’s for this reason that the forebrain is often referred to as the THRIVAL center or the evolutionary center, because evolution has shown us that this area of the brain is constantly developing and becoming more enlarged, while also becoming increasingly involved in more and more masterful and executive functions.

However, the majority of people live in a way that develops their amygdala instead of their executive center, which leads to a higher degree of animal survival function.

The more primitive you are in the brain, the more black and white your thinking, and the fewer options available. You’re almost like an animal that sees prey and runs towards it or sees predator and runs away from it. In other words, you’re in rest and digest or fight-or-flight, reactive, survival mode.

Or, to put it another way, you seek that which you perceive as being positive (prey) and avoid that which you perceive to be negative (predator).

But in nature, you're always likely to have prey and predator. 

In fact, it's been shown that maximum growth and development occurs at the border of support and challenge, prey and predator, positive and negative. When these pairs of opposites are balanced, you are most likely to maximize your fulfillment in life. 

Think of it this way: if you were to access prey without the predator, you'd end up being gluttonous and fat instead of fit. 

If you were exposed to predator without prey, you'd be emaciated and starved instead of fit. 

But put the two together and you are likely to have maximum performance and fitness as a result.

In other words, you need a balance of opposites to operate at your peak and continue to grow. 

Your executive center can override and govern your more hedonistic pursuits originating in your amygdala as you seek prey and avoid predator, seek pleasure and try to avoid pain.

The question is, how do you STRENGTHEN and DEVELOP your executive center so it calms down, neutralizes, and brings balance and homeostasis so you no longer feel driven towards quick fixes and hedonistic pursuits?

It begins with your highest value (what’s most important to you)

You, just like every other human being, have a set of priorities, a set of values that you live your life by. This set of values is arranged in a hierarchy – things that are most important to least important to you. This hierarchy of values is unique to you, almost like a fingerprint.

When you live congruently with your highest values and by your highest priority, your blood, glucose, and oxygen goes into your medial prefrontal cortex and activates your executive center, where you are more likely to see both sides simultaneously, and to be more objective, balanced, neutral, resilient and adaptable. 

You will also tend to be able to plan more strategically and execute those plans, become more empowered, and be less likely to be swayed by impulses or instincts or hedonistic behavior. In other words, you have greater levels of self-governance. 

However, if you're doing something that's low on your values, the unfulfilment from doing lower priority actions results in your blood, glucose, and oxygen going into your amygdala. When it does and when it brings your amygdala online, that’s when you tend to have a prey and predator mentality, to be more impulsive or instinctual, and to react emotionally before you think. 

It’s also when you tend to be more vulnerable to hedonism.

When you're living in your executive center in the forebrain and you're living by priority, you tend to have long-term vision and you start thinking of your immortality quotient. 

  1. What do you would love to contribute to the planet? 
  2. What is the difference you’d love to make? 
  3. What legacy do you would love to leave? 
  4. What is your unique purpose in life? 

I like to think of it as when you live by your highest values, you tend to move towards philanthropy. When you live by your lower values, you likely move towards debauchery. And debauchery includes overeating and consuming, over drinking, over partying, over-consuming, over buying, over shopping, and anything that provides a quick dopamine fix. In doing so, you tend to minimize yourself and have feelings of low self-worth.

The average individual that buys their first house tends to have plenty of open space and closet space. However, the majority tend to accumulate so much stuff over the years that they can’t park their car in the garage because it is full of stuff, and end up watching decluttering programs because their closets are bursting at the seams. And it’s all depreciating in value, yet they buy even more stuff they can’t afford and continue living from paycheck to paycheck instead of getting ahead financially. 

The lack of a long-term vision and deferring gratification is the cost of hedonism. And it’s a massive cost in the long-term.

Almost every area of your life is empowered by deferred gratification. While immediate gratification costs, deferred gratification and long-term vision pays.

Financially, if you use immediate gratification, keep buying consumables that depreciate and never have investments and accumulate compound interest, you're likely to be a slave to money all your life. Living paycheck to paycheck is a classic symptom of hedonism.

In relationships, after the initial dopamine fixation wears off, you may find yourself looking for that fix outside of your marriage with a new partner. A few months later, you may be looking for yet another partner to get that quick fix.

This is one of the key reasons why, in one of my 2-day online seminars known as the Breakthrough Experience, I help people identify their unique highest values. 

After 5 decades of research into human values and behavior, I am certain that aligning your life with your highest values and filling your day with the most important highest priority, most meaningful and inspiring spontaneous things that you love doing, you:

1.    Activate your executive center, 

2.    Have self-governance, 

3.    Move towards self-mastery, 

4.    Feel more authentic. 

5.    Become more objective and less emotional, and 

6.    Are more sustainable fair exchange oriented. 

However, if you're not living by priority, if you fill your day with low-priority activities, and feel overwhelmed doing something you don't love doing, you're likely to activate your amygdala, look for immediate gratification, and pursue that which is unobtainable while trying to avoid that which is unavoidable. 

That’s survival mode, and survival mode and hedonism are highly unlikely to lead to lasting fulfillment.

Your life doesn't have to be an emergency situation where you are constantly in fight-or-flight mode, reacting emotionally to the world on the outside, and looking for ways to find a quick fix.

Lasting fulfillment comes from living congruently with your highest values, knowing your highest priorities and filling your days with them, and living a life of design instead of duty. 

Lasting fulfillment comes from having a crystal clear vision of your mission and purpose and life – something that you are spontaneously inspired from within to do and can’t wait to get up each morning and do.

I would love to help you at my next Breakthrough Experience seminar, two days with me that can transform your life from the inside out so you develop lasting fulfillment and let go of the hedonistic quick fixes that are holding you back.

To sum up

You have 2 levels of brain function, the higher advanced parts of the brain that deal with thriving, and the lower subcortical areas of the brain that are involved in surviving.

The thriving area is primarily the prefrontal cortex or forebrain, also referred to as the executive center.

The survival center, which is a subcortical lower level of the brain, is the limbic system and includes the amygdala.

You are likely to fluctuate between these two throughout your life.

When you are doing something low on your values, you often experience survival responses in the form of an impulse towards prey or an instinct away from predator. These are survival and not thrival responses that can be effective in an emergency when you’re about to be chased by a predator, but not a wise way to live your life if you have a value on mastering your life.

That's one of the purposes of the Breakthrough Experience, to help you master your life, to help you go from survival to thrival, to help you go from the amygdala to the executive function, to help you not let impulses, instincts and things on the outside run your life, but to let voice and the vision on the inside run your life. 

Hedonistic pursuits are costly. Instead, it is wise to live by design and not duty, by high priority instead of low priority, and to live by the executive function and not the amygdala.

In this way, you can live as an angelic human being instead of an animal surviving in the fields trying to avoid predators and seeking prey all day long. 


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