Meaning, Pleasure + Mastery.

I had a colleague years ago who used to draw a Venn Diagram with “mastery” in one circle and “pleasure” in the other.  He liked to call it “the twin suns of depression treatment.”  I started to use it in my own practice to help guide clients who were working hard to manage their depressive symptoms.  The idea is that in order to treat depression, you need both pleasure and mastery; focusing on one area too heavily can lead to dissatisfaction and stagnation.

Focusing too heavily on pleasure can cause real problems, as is often the case with substance and alcohol abuse.  But even “healthy” pleasure-seeking can be too much of a good thing.  Maybe you or someone you know spends their days bouncing from one pleasurable activity to the next (for example, a pedicure followed by lunch with a friend, followed by a massage, followed by shopping).  Although this may seem like paradise to some, perpetual pleasure-seeking often leaves individuals feeling disconnected and dissatisfied.

On the other side, too much mastery can be just as detrimental.  Take the classic example of the workaholic, whose over-focus on work causes problems in his or her personal life.  In our individualistic culture in particular, where professional identity so often supersedes other relevant identities (another future blog topic, to be sure), it is easy to become consumed by work and hooked by the reinforcements (money, praise, etc.) gained from our professional competencies.

Again, there is not anything inherently wrong with seeking mastery, just as there is nothing fundamentally wrong with pleasurable pursuits.  The problem is when we focus too heavily on one at the detriment of the other.

So what is the missing “tri” part of the trifecta?  What I have realized over the years is that seeking satisfaction is not a one-and-done type of exercise.  It is a perpetual journey aimed at balancing not only pleasure and mastery, but also …. meaning!

Without meaning, pleasure and mastery fall flat.  And the good news is that meaning can be found almost anywhere.  Some find meaning on the path of spiritual discovery.  Others find meaning in helping others who are struggling.  Meaning can be found in an intimate connection with another person or in the notion that we are all ultimately connected to one another.  Meaning is what makes us feel alive beyond the enjoyment of simple pleasures or the self-efficacy of mastery.

Ultimately, we don’t “achieve” life satisfaction; we constantly work to balance three factors – pleasure, mastery, and meaning – that get us as close to the sweet spot as possible.

Written by: Lydia Hansell, Psy.D. /// The Collective’s Clinical Psychologist



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