Desire: Hedonism Or Happiness?

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I’m drinking a cup of Oolong Chardonnay tea from Vintage Tea Works (while anxiously awaiting a new package of Bourbon Chai) and I get an email from my friend, Danielle LaPorte.

You may’ve seen my recent conversation with Danielle over on Good Life Project®. The response was pretty stunning. All for Danielle, as always, I was just the middle-aged dude asking questions.

There’s this sense of radiance that follows her, no, check that, that precedes her in a room, that’s a bit intoxicating. You just want to be around her. I’ve been told by more than one person that they want to “be” her.


So, when D launches her new online home today, along with her massive The Desire Map “experience,” I boogie over to check it out. Immersive is one word. So many others come to mind. The concept of The Desire Map intrigues me. In part because I’ve been focusing a lot more on the core question it asks:

How do you want to feel?

What if you lead your life not by asking what your purpose is, or what you want to build or contribute to the world, but how you want to feel along the way? It’s an interesting prompt. And one that, in an odd synchronicity, I’ve been asking myself a lot lately.

One of the words that keeps returning to me when I answer that question in the context of my work is…

Lit up!

Yes, there are others, but that’s become a significant barometer. I can’t break the term down or give it to you in a more science-y way. Nor do I really want to. It just is what it is. I don’t feel the need to explain to anyone else what I mean by it, because it’s not about anyone else. It’s a little bit like how the Supreme Court commented on pornography when asked to define it. You just know it when you see it. Or in this case, when you feel it. And you can sense it in others too.

That phrase—lit up—more or less drops from the sky last Friday night. I’m headed to an off-Broadway show at the New Victory Theater. The New Vic is an amazing place, btw. A tiny, ancient venue where “family-friendly” acts put on 1-hour jams.

Walking over, I’m spinning about what I’ve been working on lately and what’s on my calendar for 2014. I’m wondering how each of the pieces of the puzzle for each project make me feel. And I realize…

I serve myself and others best when I’m doing things that light me up.

Over the last four months, I’ve been building a new team that allows me the space to do more and more of that. Friggin’ amazing. But doing more of it also makes it more apparent and, in some ways, more painful when I’m NOT doing the things that make me feel lit up. Doing the things that dampen the flame hurt more.

It’s similar to what happens when you start eating clean. Then one night you go out with friends to a restaurant where there ain’t a clean thing on the menu, say “screw it” and just order the full-on death-ray mashup. When that was your day-to-day you didn’t feel it so much. But when you’re eating clean, it wreaks havoc on your system.

So, all of this is swirling around my head with some level of zen violence as we navigate the sea of humanity that is Times Square during the holidays. #StopLookingUPWhenYouWalkPEOPLE!!!

We are going to see a show called Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, an incredible menagerie of tap dancers, a crazy cool funk band that was anything but a backup act and a mind-blowing beat boxer named Aaron “Heatbox” Heaton.

Here’s a recent video of Aaron doing his thing, btw:

What I notice about the entire crew, from the second the first person in the crew hits the stage is…

They are lit up!

Each person is just straight-up alive. Lit up. You want to be around them. You want to do whatever it is they do to make them feel that way. You want to BE them.

Except for one.

One person is dialing it in. Funny thing is, in any other context, you’d probably look at that one person and say, “yeah, wow, really talented, great job.” But on stage, surrounded by so many others who are on fire, the contrast is striking. It’s not a skill thing, it’s an energy thing. I’m not passing judgment, sometimes people just have bad days. I had one once. #OkayMaybeTwice. But the difference is paplable.

Which brings me back to Danielle. And her concept of building your actions around the way you want to feel. I’m fascinated by the concept. But something else comes noodling into my noggin.


Pleasure for the sake of pleasure. I’ve studied a fair bit of positive psychology over the last five years and there’s a strong distinction in the literature between pleasure and happiness.

Pleasure, it’s said is that short term emotional and often chemical hit that makes us “feel” a certain way in a certain moment. That’s not a bad thing, say the researchers, but it doesn’t get you to long-term happy. Because you habituate to the hits and you need more and more and more experiences to keep creating the same feeling. There’s a word for it, even—the “hedonic treadmill.” Hedonism meets science, addiction and adaptation.

But, still, I wonder if that’s really true. Or if it’s more morality seeping into psychology.

Sure, we habituate to things that induce pleasure, and if those things also come with a destructive or disempowering edge, like drugs and alcohol, that can be a bad thing. But, what if they don’t?

And, what about the fact that we also habituate to pretty much everything over time…including people?

So, is it always a bad thing to build your actions around the people, activities and things that make you feel the way you want to feel, now? Can that feeling be sustained indefinitely by doing more and more of those things? Can that, in fact, deliver a sustained positive outcome for you and those around you without negative impact? And if so, what’s the difference between that and happiness?

If making music or art or connecting with people I adore gives me that instant hedonic dopamine hit that makes me feel lit up and makes me want to do more and more, is that not okay? Is that not happiness? Can it not lead to meaning?

I’m fortunate to have access to some of the great minds in positive psychology, so I’ll be exploring this with them.

But one other thing intrigued me about Danielle’s new Desire Map experience. In the trailer for it, she says:

The journey has to feel the way you want the destination to feel.

My knee-jerk reaction is to reject this.

Again, I default to science. I pull out the research on flow and greatness. We are, according to famed cognitive sicentist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi goal-striving machines. We are happiest when we are striving toward something. Mastery. The research from K. Anders Ericsson builds on this, sharing to become world-class great at anything requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.”

Now here’s the thing about deliberate practice. It’s not fun. And if it is, it’s likely you’re not doing it right. This is the painstakingly fierce repetition, honing, refining, technical practice that even those who love what they do find brutally hard. They love to feel the way they feel when they’re the best in the world. But the deliberate practice it takes to get there, no, that doesn’t feel the same.

So, I’m fighting against Danielle’s statement. But then, I realize, we’re not actually arguing.

Because she’s not talking about the experience of working to become the best in the world. She’s simply talking about what it takes to feel what you want to feel when you want to feel it. That, not mastery, is her end game.

Good. Connected. Embraced. Engaged. Loved. Lit up. Whatever YOUR desired basket of feelings includes. At every step along the way. Even if you never become “technically” great or reach what others might call mastery.

Again, my head is spinning.

What if I just build my actions around my ability to feel lit up, connected, engaged, grateful, loved, vital as often as possible? What if that’s one of the core pieces I align my actions with? What might that look like? What would I do more of? What would I hand off to others to do? How would it affect the way I experience my life? And how would that affect the way others experience me and, in turn, themselves?

I already know much of the answer, because it’s been what I’ve been working on doing more and more. Sometimes reality seeps in. Sometimes I still need to do the things I hate doing. The things that don’t let me feel the way I want to feel. I don’t entirely buy the fact that if the ride doesn’t feel the way you want to feel at every step along the journey, there’s something wrong.

Especially as a maker, a creator, an entrepreneur. There are times you need to do what you’re least called to do until your endeavor is far enough along to generate the cash, resources, story, energy needed to pay people to do the things that light them up, but empty you out.

I’m increasingly aware of the fact that my wall of suck is someone else’s chariot of fire.

Part of my job, then, as a creator and a leader in the quest for happiness, meaning and joy, is to find the team that fits the puzzle pieces together in a way that allows all tasks to be done, while all players get to play.

Curious, what do YOU think?

(photo credit: Catherine Just)

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36 responses

36 responses to “Desire: Hedonism Or Happiness?”

  1. carmen says:

    The only way to know if something feels right is to know when something feels wrong. I wish I had the wisdom to know how to make the entire journey feel right.

    For so long I thought suffering had to be a part of the equation…that you had to earn the good feelings.

    Still learning the difference between the gratifying pain of achievement verses the choice to suffer.

    I think a big part of life is learning how to end your own suffering and to get to a point where short-term pain brings you everything you’re meant to have, therefore making it meaningful.

    I like Danielle. Like you, she makes me think hard.

  2. Lorena says:

    Thanks Jonathan for sharing your thoughts. I love Danielle’s work and have gone thorugh her Desire Map process. What I was left with was that I actually really like what I’m up to in my life but I felt less clear about where I am going as often what is standing between me and the feeling I want to have is just labeling that I’m feeling that way. One of my core desired feelings to to feel strong. Often all I need to do is ask myself, do you feel strong? and I can authentically answer yes. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts (and Danielle’s) as we process through all this. These are questions worth asking and ideas worth exploring, which I my favorite aspect of your work. It is a good life.


  3. Jessa Slade says:

    If you want to create, you just need to find some pleasure in the pain 🙂

  4. pascale says:

    do you think it’s too late for me to be your and danielle’s love child? both of you challenge, delight and inspire me on a regular basis. thank you

    • KC says:

      This comment was bold, and AMAZING. Hahaha. I thought about making a similar request but you just ran with it. 🙂

  5. cassia says:

    Interesting conversation and I say, call it what you will, hedonism, happiness, whatever… I just want to feel the way I want to feel. Great read!

  6. Lisa Sharp says:

    I’ve been wandering around my house today feeling at loose ends, starting things and not getting much accomplished. I stop to check my email and this little beauty is sitting there, waiting for me. I read it and think, “Huh, I want to feel in my body. I want to feel grounded. The way I can do that is to stop thinking about what I should do and just do it.” So today, what that means to me is to experience the hedonism (it’s not, it’s just that I rage against the idea of taking time to be still) and practice some yoga. So simple, but so profound for me. Brings tears to my eyes, actually. It’s the most important question we can ask ourselves: how do I want to feel. Elegant in it’s simplicity, beautiful in it’s depth. Love you and Danielle.


  7. Lori says:

    for myself, i just throw out the idea of a destination. it’s all journey.

  8. Kim Upright says:

    When playing in a semi-pro Band (not my main gig), rehearsing can most times light me up even though it is just part of the 10k hours of the practice. The interesting thing is there gets to be a second level of energy that comes from doing the exact same thing but in front of a live audience. Of course there are allot of mundane tasks surrounding the execution of said practice, many of which cannot get delegated (not-a-rock-star) but those fade into the ether when you are immersed in the flow. Then someone gives you money 🙂

  9. When I read about feeling “lit up” and the way that you want to design your life, I immediately think of Dr. Howard Thurman’s great quote: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And don’t we want to feel alive all the time? If we don’t feel that way the 99% of the time we’re working toward something, then it’s “I’ll be happy when” syndrome. Sure, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies, but why can’t we take pleasure out of the deliberate practice part? Why can’t we love work? Brilliantly. Fiercely. Like complete hedonists. Isn’t that what “flow” is all about? And life for that matter? Thanks, Jonathan! I always enjoy reading your thoughts!

  10. Love this!
    I am stealing this to use in my life!
    As a Shamanic Practitioner, ARTIST, Alternative Healing Practitioner, and speaker, I find so many things I don’t understand how to do ( like all that internet marketing)
    and brings me only frustration and feelings of “stuck”.
    Rather be doing the things that let me feel love and joy!
    Where is that special team you talk about?

  11. Wow, Jonathan. There is just so much here! Both in Danielle’s baseline assumption that we should focus on what we want to be *feeling* and in the way you’re riffing off that, asking such deep questions.

    I’ve studied up on the hedonic treadmill myself, and I’m personally inclined to Stoicism—a philosophy that’s not at all what most people think it’s about. (A great introduction is William Irvine’s “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.”)

    I believe in the research you cite. But yeah, I also think that in our culture there’s a certain bred-in-the-bone Puritan type of ethic that also leads us to believe that if it doesn’t hurt, at least a little bit, it can’t possibly be good for us.

    So hard to reconcile the two. For me, it comes down to maintaining self-awareness—or trying the best I can. 🙂

    I think it’s similar to the Supreme Court’s pornography statement—if you’re staying more or less in tune with yourself, you just *know* whether you’re doing something that’s healthy and right for you or not. You sense it intuitively. But it takes practice—and scary levels of self-honesty. I know I’m not always up for that level of challenge myself.

    But I really like the way you’re using “lit up” as your new personal touchstone. That’s a feeling worth striving for, whether or not it includes a focus on mastery or just basic garden-variety contentment.

    Thanks so much for this thought-provoker!

    ::walks away thinking deeply::

  12. KC says:

    There’s a certain level of intoxication that comes with being “lit up” by your work.

    It makes it damn near impossible to settle for anything less.

    I feel honkin’ Nuclear Reactor-level #LIT when I’m out speaking, or creating a presence in a live environment. The balance is that there’s so much time spent in the creation cave developing the next wave of content.

    There are moments when I’m alone and reviewing the content in production and I want to throw round-house kicks at the sky…. hahaha. However, my personal “magic” really happens when I’m reflecting my energy off other people.

    Awesome props for Danielle’s new amazing site…. and HOLY BISCUITS…. Aaron the Beatboxer. Watched the whole thing.



  13. Love this Captain Fields! I am sure about two things: My soul is here for it’s own joy and I don’t need to suffer in order to find joy.

  14. I think we’ve been trained to believe that we need to suffer in order to learn and/or grow. I can learn & grow through joyful experiences. Of course I’m challenging the buddhist teaching of samsara, however there is more than one road to Source, and we choose which roads we take. I’m taking the “Joy” train! And by the way, what the heck is “zen violence?” LOL…

  15. I think you’re spot on there, Jonathan. And I’d like to expand on something you said. You mentioned deliberate practice and said it does not feel the way you want to feel. Actually, I find deliberate practice to be somewhat of a drug, because it causes you to feel the way the end result will feel.

    I’ve done deliberate practice in dancing, guitar, and my authenticity freedom work. All of them are activities that I love for the way they make me feel: alive. aware. one with love.

    And for all of these activities, I find that the deliberate practice, while difficult and slightly painful as I’m doing it, becomes a drug. I can’t not do it. I will practice my guitar until my fingers bleed, repeat the same dance move until my legs can’t take it anymore, and be self-aware to the point that time is slowing down.

    And, every time I stop, I want more. Because that moment when I master the dance step, when I get that chord to sound just right every time, and when I am able to catch a self-defeating mechanism jumping into my mind and release it – that gives me exactly that feeling of being alive, lit up – like you describe it. And I can’t feel that feeling if I don’t practice.

    Flow happens at every stage of the game, but I find that it becomes exponentially better the more I engage in deliberate practice – it’s like it just comes from deeper within my soul. My writing is clearer, my songs more beautiful, my dancing more expressive.

    There’s more to it than just feelings, but we can’t ignore them – they play their part in the big game of our life, and it’s a very important part. I love Danielle’s work! You had an amazing interview with her. And I love your thoughts on this. Thank you for sharing!

  16. Very thought provoking Jonathon. My first thoughts are entirely moral, though Romanticism not Hedonism. When we make feelings the focus of our being, the locus of our evaluation of living well, we had better be aware off the potential for downside that can come from imposing an aesthetic model on reality, from trying to make our lives obey the rules of art.
    As Isaiah Berlin wrote, the Romantics seriously disrupt the idea that there is a stable nature of things that we just have to accept, which is a good thing. Though it usually came hand in hand with the insane idea of an untrammelled will. It’s the untrammelled bit that can insidiously become the focus if we put feeling at the centre of our idea of the good life.
    Not to mention the dangers of only engaging with people in our life on an instrumental basis, primarily to trigger the feelings we desire.
    Aristotle might have included love in his idea of a good life but no-one could deny he had quite the intellectual apparatus to ensure it didn’t become the central goal.

  17. Tracy says:

    I absolutely love this blog post! It truly expresses what I am doing as I go forward with this phase of my life. I decided to pursue a new career (e.g. new way to play) that would be fun. I chose specialites that would make me feel “lit up.” I will now be adopting new terminology as I love the word hedonism. It evokes such naughtiness and it is wonderful that I can monetize my hedonistic existence!

  18. Jennifer Herrera says:

    Thank you for this. I was so thrilled for Danielle and had intentions of listening to her video this morning and the day got away. I just sat down and got lost in her new site. She’s Rad – as are you!! And, it was that same sentence about the journey and the destination that got me. Right now I am seeking/charting a path that I have been dreaming of for years and I am struggling, dreading the journey – not always, but in general I see myself not doing the work or getting in my own way. So I ask myself is this journey charting a destination I really am seeking? Or am I splintered down too many paths, creating competing intentions and dividing my energy?! When Danielle challenged that we can also enjoy the ride I felt freedom come alive inside me. And I also know there is work to be done that I will need to do until I have created the way for that work to be more and more curated to that which I most love to do. Your work, your story, and your sharing is an inspirational reminder that it can be done, it must be done and it will be done, if I choose. My intention is to ensure I am choosing what I really desire and not what I think I need to do to someday get to what I desire.

  19. Jessica says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    The term ambivalence springs to mind, one of my favourite words – meaning two seemingly contradictory emotions experienced together, it comes from psychoanalysis and is used to describe that love-hate dichotomy. You have already coined it in your GLF Living Creed, ‘Easy is not always right,’ in which you echo Mipham Rinpoche, ‘Good… isn’t always easy.’ I always think that childbirth is the perfect metaphor for life, you live how you birth and birth how you live, the sensations of childbirth are intense and challenging and mind-blowing, but it is also by relaxing into and meeting its intensity that you experience what it is like to live through and to embrace the pain. There may fear and dread associated with giving birth to your creative ideas and making them real, but that needs to be recognised in relation to the ultimate empowerment that comes with bringing something into being. By focusing on the feeling, by focusing on doing what lights you up while you are in the process, you can be mindful of the less comfortable feelings along the way and know that it is your vision and fortitude that will allow everything to be part of the whole. So, there’s the ambivalence; the uncomfortable has space to be alongside those more ‘hedonistic’ igniting moments. Knowing that you are able to meet the challenge fully, however it shows up, brings a sense of wonder. Yes, it’s important to delegate, and to ‘ritualise the mundane to make room for the brilliant’ but after the ecstasy there will always be the laundry. There’s no need for them to do battle, why not welcome them both along for the ride?

  20. Andrea says:

    Lit up. I love that expression.

    I have been debating that recently, and it seems for a long while I have been serious / methodical about the journey, hardly enjoying it. As if, that justifies the enjoyment I’m to have later.
    Now I realise, it’s about celebrating every step of the way because that’s the way I want to feel at the end. 🙂

  21. Sarah says:

    I agree with what Danielle says about the journey feeling good, because I have been on both sides of the fence around this:
    1. Years ago I wrote my first fiction novel. I hated every darn step of the process, but I did it because of the end-goal. The process I used was to commit fully, writing as many hours as I could a day (in between my day job), my butt glued to the chair, and I’d write even when I didn’t feel like it. I read writing handbooks to learn the ‘proper technique’ and ‘how to come up with a plot’. I re-wrote and edited even though it bored me. Because I thought that’s what you had to do. It dragged out over two years. Sure I got the end product, but I was miserable as hell getting there.
    Ffwd to now: I’ve written twenty short stories and two novellas in the past 6 mths. I write when I FEEL like it (i.e inspired), I never write for more than an hour/hour half a day (and often have many many days off in between writing), and I share my work with an amazing community who want my short stories and chapters as I write them, rather than wait for it all to be finished and tidy and one big end product. Apart from spotting type-o’s, I don’t edit. Writing is now a pleasure, it’s on my own terms, and I do it my way, so it feels great. And my writing is tonnes better now, as it’s freer and more creative.
    2. I do a couple of forms of street dance (waacking and popping), which both need practice and dedication to get good at. But I love them so much, and am so happy when I’m dancing, that I don’t feel like i’m ‘suffering’ or that the repetition is ‘brutally hard’ because I’m having fun, with wonderful people, and enjoy the process. I like learning new moves, and even repeating the old ones because I’m still dancing. I think of surfers who get in the water and just play, and the more they play the better they get, not because they’re necessarily striving towards mastery, just purely because they’re enjoying themselves and subsequently they become masters. That’s how I feel people progress in street dance too.

    I don’t think you need to suffer to get good at something. I think you need to being enjoying yourself to get good at it!

  22. Fraser says:

    Very interesting idea; being able to control how you feel throughout the journey on route to a destination. From my experience if the journey is worth making creatively, in business, for the good of your health or otherwise, it’s usually better than the destination. A destination is a moment in time, a journey is about living, and life’s worth living, in my opinion, need to experience the low’s in order to appreciate the highs.


  23. As an entrepreneur whose business is still new (less than 2 years old), I tend to agree with JD’s point that you will spend more than a few hours working on stuff that doesn’t make you feel the way you want to feel but at the end of almost every day, I find myself feeling good about the progress and the work as a whole. So, not every task will make you feel good but the sum of its parts certainly will. Thanks for a great article!

  24. MJ says:

    Good reminder to me, someone still finding my way out of never feeling lit up (because I’m still paying the bills by practicing law) to getting towards something that will light me up…there is no shame in not hurting in the service of “sucking it up” and fulfilling someone else’s agenda.

  25. Del H says:

    Thanks Jonathan. So often my conclusion these days is ‘yes and the reverse is also true’.
    I agree with your conclusions. So yes, how we feel now is a good barometer but we also need to push through ‘not so great’ feelings that come up when what we want in the future requires an uncomfortable action now.
    Life is a paradox – and infinitely fascinating isn’t it?

  26. Jen Vertanen says:

    Not a whole to add because like others – I strive to make it feel good but it doesn’t always and sometimes that’s ok too. It’s called living; more of the good and less of the bad.

    Why I’m *really* commenting is I must know where you’re getting bourbon chai?? And as a red wine and tea enthusiast – thank you for turning me onto Vintage Tea Works!

  27. Jonathan, my friend; and new friends here,

    Dude, I had to read your post three times to wind my brain around it. So good. This made me stop to think about mastery more and what it means to me personally. Conclusion: I’m all for it. I love the parts of my life that I’ve become masterful in (very few), and still I return to “how I feel” being my focus, not the mastery. And you said as much in this piece, and much more poetically than I just did here.

    And this: “What if I just build my actions around my ability to feel lit up, connected, engaged, grateful, loved, vital as often as possible? What if that’s one of the core pieces I align my actions with?” Buh-bam. ALIGNMENT. That’s what I’m on my soap box about. Thanks for putting it that way. (You should write more, brother.)

    Deepest bow.
    Love — and thank you everyone for the beautiful thinking.
    I’m honoured and inspired. xo

  28. Linzi Wilson says:

    Such a thought provoking article. I remember reading something from Danielle’s epic Firestarter Sessions. It was the question ‘What if it were easy ?’. I remember that question stopped me in my tracks. It made me realise that I’d been conditioned to think that entrepreneurship was supposed to be hard. That I was ‘more’ of an entrepreneur if I sacrificed everything for my goals.

    I’ve learnt to re-frame the slightly sucky stuff so it aligns with my values. For instance, if I have to do a whole bunch of filing & admin (which would never normally make me feel any of my core desired feelings) then I shift the thinking around it from ‘bah I’ve got to spend the next hour looking at zillions of documents & figuring out where to put it all’ to ‘create space for new ideas & creativity to rush in to my business’. It’s a simple one, but it seems to work from me.

  29. Ariel says:

    I recently watched Michael Bungay Stanier’s Great Work MBA series and I agree with your last point – the trick is finding the people that want to do work that is great for them, and allowing yourself time to do the work that is great for you. I by no means have mastered this yet, yet it resonates with me a ton. As your GLP creed states, ritualizing the mundane (ie good or not so good work) also seems to help. What if we look at every single thing we “do” as a opportunity to practice ritual. It is not easy, but it is possible. Reframing it is everything. Then the journey does start to feel like the destination.

  30. Marti says:

    Dude, what a mind-bender today for me. You. Danielle. All of it.

    I’m reinventing myself, and the timing for this discussion, as most of The Good Life Project, couldn’t come at a better time.

    I’ve made some life-bending decisions based on what I think feels good. So, hedonism scares me. I’m not sure I trust it. But I’m really liking the concept of planning based on what you want to feel for your life. That feels super authentic.

  31. Kandace Simmons says:

    Feeling = yin | Doing (Mastery) = yang
    Birthing = yin | Building = yang
    Sophia = yin | Logos = yang
    It’s both/and not either/or.

  32. […] Desire: Hedonism or Happiness? from Jonathan Fields, in which he […]

  33. Samantha Odegbaro says:

    Great piece of writing. When you are doing what you are passionate about, your energy lights not only yourself but those around you & it becomes a powerful vortex into which others get drawn.

    Anthony Robbins says that time is really just an emotion because this is how we experience it. If that is the case, would be interesting to re-figure hours, days & months into bands of emotions.

    We teach children the concept of time as opposed to the concept of emotion – would be interesting to see how they would shape their lives differently if taught differently.