Take the Pizza Test

By Chris Thurber

The tastiest mouthful of any pizza is the first bite of the first slice. You’re hungry. You’ve been anticipating that mouthwatering goodness for an hour or more. Your taste buds are eager and alive. All this perfect pre-pizza preparation transforms ordinary melted mozzarella and pedestrian pepperoni into a sumptuous symphony of gustatory glory.

O.K., it’s not exactly the 4 th of July in your mouth, but that first bite of a well-made pizza is pretty tasty. What’s wrong with a little hyperbole when you’re talking about happiness, right? Nothing, really, except that pleasures are short-lived. And they have a satiety point. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Therein lies the value in distinguishing between what positive psychologists call “pleasures” and “gratifications.”

As we all know, the yumminess quotient for pizza (a pleasure) begins to diminish after that first slice. You may help yourself to another couple slices, but if someone forced you to keep eating, even the hungriest among us would eventually experience eating pizza as aversive. Indeed, if you were forced to woof down several large pizzas, you’d eventually throw it all up. There’s an image we could all do without. But it’s a powerful reminder of the limits to pleasure.

Gratifications, on the other hand, never turn the corner from enjoyable to excruciating. If you hold the door open for someone who is carrying an armload of books, your act of kindness feels good. If another person needs a hand a few minutes later, your unselfish assistance feels just as good. At no point would you say—to that 10 th person who needed help—“I’m sorry. I’ve done so many acts of kindness today that I feel nauseated. I’m literally sick of helping.” Holding the door for someone is therefore quite different from eating pizza. There is no satiety point for gratifications, such as unselfish behavior.

What do we do now, armed with a new understanding between pleasure and gratification? According to research, both make contributions to happiness. But because gratifications have no satiety point, they make more reliable contributions to our well-being and the well-being of others than do pleasures. No surprise there. What might surprise you is what research suggests is the most powerful form of gratification: Tapping into one of your signature strengths in service to others .

Here are the 24 character strengths that exist across cultures:

Curiosity              Love of Learning              Critical Thinking

Ingenuity            Social Intelligence           Perspective

Bravery                Diligence                               Honesty

Kindness             Loving / Be Loved              Enthusiasm

Citizenship         Fairness                                Leadership

Self-control        Prudence                              Humility

Hope                     Gratitude                             Forgiveness

Spirituality        Playfulness                          Appreciation of Beauty

Take a minute to scan this list and discover which two or three character strengths jump out as most characteristic of you. Then ask yourself, What are some things I do each week to exercise this strength? And an even more powerful query, How do I use this character strength in service to others? For example, you might say that bravery is a character strength and that when you teach your lifeguarding class, you model bravery and encourage bravery in others.

Lost in our consumer culture is the recipe for authentic happiness. That’s nothing new, of course. Socrates said, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have." More recently, Henry David Thoreau said, “It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.” And in a prescient statement about the evanescence of pleasures, Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Possessions are usually diminished by possession.”

To most youth leaders—especially camp professionals—these aphorisms are intuitive. We enjoy living simply, in nature, as much as possible. But few youth leaders know the way out of the materialism maze. Now you do. It’s free and it feels good. (How many things can you say that about?)

This weekend, spend some time with the list of character strengths above and do a little soul-searching to answer the question about the precise ways you tap into your particular strengths in service to others. It’s not only a recipe for authentic happiness, but also a path toward global social advancement. And if you enjoy munching on a slice of pizza while you contemplate saving the world, you’ve passed the test.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training .